Deconstructing the Conventional and Simplistic Take on Ukraine

To travel through Ukraine is to journey through hundreds of years of history, the remnants of divergent diasporas, forced famines, Nazi and Communist atrocities, and not an insignificant number of now-defunct empires.

In his new book “In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine,” (Deckle Edge, Oct 2016) former Balkan War correspondent Tim Judah tours a modern Ukraine where history keeps returning with a vengeance. After Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and launched an armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Mr. Judah began reporting from the country, bringing his considerable expertise and critical eye to the only active conflict on the European continent. Writing in 2014 when the war between Ukraine and Russia was at its hottest, his series of vignettes from across Europe’s largest country beautifully tell the story of a country that has finally embarked on a journey of self-discovery after 25 years of independence.

Judah’s book highlights the unfolding human drama in a conflict that is too often spoken of only in terms of the clash between Russia and the United States.

In all of the talk of renewed tensions between Russia and the West, the ordinary people who make up the Ukrainian polity and are most immediately in Mr. Putin’s crosshairs are often forgotten. Seldom mentioned are Ukraine’s 1.7 million internally displaced persons, the economic hardships of simple pensioners, and the agony felt by families ripped apart by propaganda or national loyalties. In Wartime brings those people to life, highlighting how the scars of Ukraine’s painful history, along with those wounds that continue to suppurate, complicate their daily struggle against their country’s enemies, both internal and external.

Yet, Putin’s Russia is only a bit player in Mr. Judah’s narration, the latest in the array of hurdles that the country has had to navigate this century. He travels through Stalin’s purges, the Holocaust, World War II’s forced population exchanges, and the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy, showing how this past influences the people and the fighting that continues in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Judah’s stories methodically deconstruct the simplistic media narrative that dominates today’s reporting on Ukraine and allows the reader to appreciate Ukraine for the large, multi-ethnic, and complicated country that it is. The book is a timely contribution to understanding the forces at play in Ukraine today and a worthy tribute to the people who struggle with them.

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