The following is a previously unpublished excerpt from my forthcoming book, Where the West Ends.
“The forced collectivization of agriculture decreed by the Soviet master and his party likely cost the lives of more people than perished in all countries as a result of the First World War.” - Michael Marrus
“They had gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and taken away everything edible; they had shot or exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the world to a melancholy desert.” - Malcolm Muggeridge
I bought a map of Eastern Europe in an old Oregon bookstore that’s as big as a couch when unfolded. The most heavily trafficked roads appear as fat red lines on the paper. Almost all lead directly to Moscow. Even as late as the year 2012, the nerve center of the former Soviet Empire looks on my map like a world-devouring octopus capturing less important capitals in its tentacles.
On a cold night in late October I pointed at a thin red line on that map leading across the former Soviet frontier into Ukraine from a remote corner of Poland.
“Hardly anyone will be on this road,” I said to my old friend Sean LaFreniere. He had just met up with me in Romania so we could hit the road again. “We shouldn’t have to wait long at the border.”
That logic seemed sound at the time, but I’m here to tell you: never, ever, choose less-traveled roads in countries that used to be part of Russia. Driving from even the most backward country in the European Union into the remote provinces of Ukraine is like falling off the edge of civilization into a land that was all but destroyed.
Sean and I hadn’t learned that yet, though, and we wanted a scenic route. European road trips aren’t like road trips in the American West where we live. Outside our major metropolitan areas, huge empty spaces and wide open roads are the norm. Most of Europe is crowded and neither of us wanted to sit in the car for hours in line at the border.
We had no idea what we were in for, but a Polish border guard warned us after stamping our passports.
“It is very strange over there,” he said. “And nobody speaks English.”
Screwing up in the strange parts of the world is never fun and is usually miserable, but you learn things by doing it. You see things that governments and ministries of tourism wished you would not. Ukraine is so strange that you can even see these things in the dark. We actually saw more of Ukraine’s strangeness because we showed up in the dark.
I don’t remember what time we crossed the frontier. Eight o’clock in the evening? Anyway, it was dark. When I say it was dark, I mean it was dark. The back roads of Western Ukraine are as black at night as the most remote parts of the American West where no humans live in any direction.
Yet Western Ukraine is not empty.
And, oh God, the roads. I don’t care where you’ve been. You almost certainly have never seen anything like them.
The second worst road I’ve ever driven on was in Central America in the mid-1990s. It’s only a fraction as bad as the road Sean and I took into Ukraine. This one would have been no worse off had it been deliberately shredded to ribbons by air strikes. The damage was so thorough that the surface could not possibly have been repaved or repaired even once since the Stalinist era.
I white-knuckled it behind the wheel while Sean cringed in the passenger seat. I did not dare drive faster than five miles an hour. Even at that speed I had to weave all over the place to avoid the worst of the gaping holes, some of which were as wide as mattresses and deep enough to swallow TV sets.
I saw no cars, no street lights, not even a single light from a house. Ukraine looked depopulated. My maps said there were villages all over the place, but where were they? Did we just drive into an episode of Life After People?
“This is exactly like Russia,” Sean said. “Exactly.”
He had visited Russia two years earlier and will never forget the vast darkness at night on the train between Moscow and St. Petersburg. “We’re in Russia!” he said.
Then the ghost figures appeared.
They walked on the side of the road in wine-darkness. They did not carry flashlights. They seemed, like us, to be out in the middle of nowhere. It was then that I realized we had entered a town. In the periphery of my headlight beams I could faintly make out a few unlit houses shrouded in shadow away from the road, which was as broken and crumbling as ever. I still hadn’t seen any other cars on the road, nor did I see any parked on the side. I don’t know if the roads were so bad because nobody drove or if nobody drove because the roads were so bad.
“They should put up a sign on the border,” Sean said, “saying That was Europe. You like that? Now prepare for something completely different.”
We were on our way to Chernobyl, or at least we thought we were. City Journal assigned me to go there and write about the spooky ghost city of Pripyat that, along with the surrounding area in the so-called Exclusion Zone, was struck by a local apocalypse in 1986. The Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear reactor number four exploded and showered Pripyat, where 50,000 people lived, and the countryside around it with a storm of deadly radiation. Only thirty-one people were dead in the immediate aftermath, but the World Health Organization thinks the long-term effects of radiation poisoning will eventually kill another 4,000. More than 350,000 people in Ukraine and nearby Belarus have been permanently displaced. The fire still burns today beneath the crumbling concrete sarcophagus that caps the reactor.
No one should wander around there alone. The Ukrainian military won’t let you in anyway if you don’t have a guide and a permit. Some of Pripyat’s buildings are still lethally radioactive, and there’s no way to tell them apart from the relatively “safe” ones without sophisticated instruments. The scrap yard, where fire-fighting equipment was abandoned long ago, is spectacularly dangerous. Even mutant animals are rumored to be running around.
Sean and I didn’t yet know it, but the Chernobyl administration was about to cancel our permit and refuse to allow anyone entry. They didn’t say why, but I assume it was because the zone suddenly became more dangerous than usual. We would not get to go, but going there was our plan and we didn’t yet know we would be re-routed. For a while there, we weren’t sure we’d get anywhere in Ukraine, let alone hundreds of miles away to Chernobyl.
First we had to get to Lviv, the “capital” of Western Ukraine and the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism. That first stop alone was almost a hundred miles away. The road was so shattered I was barely able to drive any faster than I could walk. And we were lost. We couldn’t even figure out how to get to Sambir, a small town that was hardly even inside Ukraine at all.
Sambir was spelled Самбір in Ukrainian and only one sign pointed the way. The Cyrillic letters in that particular name resembled the Latin letters well enough that I could figure it out. Then we came to a four-way junction. Road signs pointed to various towns in every direction, but none said Самбір. And none of the towns the signs did point to appeared on my map—or, if they were on my map, I didn’t know how to transliterate their names into Cyrillic. Which way we were supposed to be going?
“Let’s go back,” Sean said, “and ask one of those people on the side of the road.”
I drove back the way we came until I saw two ghostly figures shambling along in the headlights. I pulled over and rolled down the window.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you speak English?” I doubted they did, but this was a way of preparing them for the fact that they weren’t going to hear any Ukrainian or Russian from me.
The two stopped walking and stared. A young man, perhaps 20 years old, held his young girlfriend’s hand. He stared at me with wide eyes and slowly stepped between me and his girl as if I were a threat.
“We’re trying to get to Sambir,” I said and paused. “Sambir,” I said it again in case he understood nothing else but might at least know I needed directions and that he could point the way there. He looked at me and didn’t say anything.
“Sean,” I said. “Hand me that map.”
Sean handed over the map. I pointed at it. “Sambir.” I said. “Which way to Sambir?”
The young man took several of cautious steps back. His girlfriend, terrified, moved behind him and peaked over his shoulder. They backed up another five feet or so, then walked away without saying anything.
“Well, that’s just great,” I said. We were the first foreigners they’d ever seen? Just a few miles from the Polish frontier?
“Go back and take the road that goes to the left,” Sean said. “I’m pretty sure it’s that one.”
“How can you be pretty sure that it’s that one?” I said. I had no idea where we were and wanted someone who lived there to tell us.
“It just feels right,” he said. “If we see any more people, we can stop and ask.”
I was in no mood to argue, and his guess was as good as mine, so we drove back to the four-way intersection and took a left. And we found ourselves in a forest.
“This doesn’t look right at all,” I said.
“How do you know what it’s supposed to look like?” he said.
“I don’t,” I said. “It just looks like we’re going into the middle of nowhere.”
“Everywhere we’ve been is in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
Perhaps he was right. Suddenly the road improved slightly. I could increase our speed, so I did, but then BANG. I ran us into a sink-sized hole in the ground at twenty miles an hour. The car shuddered as though a land mine had blown off a wheel.
Sean had rented this car on his credit card. “Oh my God,” he said. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”
“It’s okay,” I said, though I didn’t for one second believe it. “There’s still air in the tire.”
“Not for long,” he said and put his face in his hands.
I drove onward again, slower this time. We passed a dark house. Somebody lived out there in the forest.
“There are some people up ahead,” Sean said. “Pull over and ask them where the hell we are.”
I pulled the car over next to the two figures. Like the others, they looked ghost-like in the headlights. Like the others, they shuffled along as though they were wandering toward no place in particular for lack of anything better to do in a village at night without light.
This time we encountered not two scared teenagers, but an elderly man and his wife.
They looked startled as though they couldn’t believe someone was out and about in a car.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you speak English?” I was certain they didn’t.
The woman flinched and the man said, “eh?”
“We’re trying to get to Lviv,” I said. Then I pointed at the map. “Lviv.”
Not knowing better, I pronounced it “Luh-viv.”
They had no idea what I was talking about.
“Luh-viv,” I said again, and pointed at the map.
“Eh?” the woman said. “El-veev?”
“Da,” I said, Russian for yes. Many ethnic Russians live in Eastern Ukraine and even ethnic Ukrainians in the west can speak Russian though they’d rather not. The bits of Russian that Sean and I knew were useful wherever we happened to be.
“Da,” I said. “El-veev.”
She pointed in the direction we were heading. “Poland,” she said.
“Unbelievable,” I said. We were on our way back to Poland?
“Argh!” Sean said.
“We’ve been driving around for hours,” I said, “and we haven’t gone anywhere.”
So we turned back. I drove five miles an hour. I weaved around giant holes in the road, but still ran into five or six small ones per second. I had no idea where we were or where we were going. The night was almost half over and we had made zero progress. All we had done so far was damage the car and burn half the gas in the tank.
We eventually came to another small town even though we saw no more signs to even Sambir, let alone Lviv or Kiev. This time a few buildings were lit. One was a gas station. Incredibly, it was open.
I pulled in. Sean and I got out. We both inspected the banged-up wheel. It looked okay and apparently was not leaking air. We were lucky.
A man emerged from the office and asked us—I assume—if we needed gas.
“Do you speak English?” I said and chuckled. I knew he wouldn’t.
Of course he didn’t. A gas station attendant in rural Ukraine is no more likely to speak English than a gas station attendant in rural Kansas is likely to be fluent in Russian. Unlike the others we’d spoken to, though, he didn’t seem surprised or alarmed that the wrong language came out of our mouths.
He filled the tank. I pointed at the map and said “Sambir.” He gave us complicated directions that neither Sean nor I could make sense of. All we could really glean from him was which direction to start with.
I heard children giggling behind the gas station office. A young boy and a young girl, each no older than five, peeked their heads around the corner. They pointed at us and laughed as though we wore clown suits and squeaky shoes. Sean and I were the evening’s entertainment. We spoke an alien language and that made us freaks.
“Good grief,” I said. “Are we going to have to put up with this all week?”
I can only imagine how the locals would have reacted if we were black.
We drove in the dark on hideous roads for another hour. The gas station attendant told us we were supposed to turn left at some point, but we had no idea where.
“I hope it’s not like this everywhere,” Sean said.
“If it’s like this everywhere,” I said, “we won’t even get to Lviv, let alone Kiev and Chernobyl.”
“Turn left here,” Sean said when we came to a road that looked promising for no apparent reason.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
I turned left. After a few minutes we came to a rusting dinosaur of a factory. It was dark and abandoned and clearly had been for decades. After we passed it, the road somehow managed to get worse. I had to slow down to three miles an hour to prevent the car from breaking apart. We’d need an off-road vehicle to keep going.
“This can’t be the way to Lviv,” I said. “No one can drive on this road.”
So we turned back. And eventually we found the town of Sambir. We found it by sheer chance, but we found it. There were a few cars here and there, and some street lights, too. There wasn’t much to it, but it was the closest thing we had yet seen to civilization in Ukraine. And we finally knew where we were on the map.
We had been in Ukraine for four hours and had barely made twenty miles of progress. Lviv was sixty more miles away.
I saw a sign on the side of the road pointing to Львів.
“That must be Lviv,” I said. “I guess their в is our v. And the letter i is the same. I can tell by the way they spelled Sambir on the other signs.” Over the next couple of days, Sean and I would eventually figure out and memorize the entire Cyrillic alphabet this way.
The road did improve after we left Sambir and headed toward Lviv.
“We need food,” I said, though I wondered if that would be possible in a countryside that hardly even had light.
“Look for a sign that says pectopah,” Sean said.
“A sign that says what?” I said.
“Pectopah,” he said. “That’s Russian for restaurant. That’s not how they say it, but that’s what it looks like when they spell it.”
A few moments later we saw a well-lit building on the side of the road that looked like a restaurant. A sign read “Ресторан.”
“There we go,” Sean said.
“It even looks open,” I said.
And it was.
We stepped inside. The place was half full and a few people were still grimly eating.
“Do we wait to be seated or just grab a table?” I said. I had no idea how to behave in this country. Rural Ukraine doesn’t have any handles. We were on the European continent, but we sure weren’t in the West any more.
“Let’s just sit,” Sean said.
So we sat. A waitress stormed over and rudely slapped menus on the table without even looking at us. She couldn’t have made it more clear that she was offended by our existence than if she had thrown them.
The menus were incomprehensible. They were thick as pamphlets and had no English translations or Latin letters. I couldn’t even differentiate between the main course section and the beer list.
“How are we supposed to order?” I said. I wouldn’t mind randomly pointing and just eating whatever she brought, but I might end up pointing at a dessert or even “water” for all I knew.
A large group of people sat at a long table in the back.
“Maybe someone over there speaks English,” Sean said. There were about ten of them. The odds weren’t too bad.
He walked over.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Do any of you speak English?”
“Yes?” a young woman said a bit carefully.
“Thank God” Sean said. “I hate to bother you, but can you help us order some food?”
“I’m from Poland,” she said, “and don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian. We’re all from Poland.”
“But,” she added and gestured toward an older man at the head of the table, “he speaks some Ukrainian.”
“Yes,” the man said. “I can help you.”
I stood up and walked to the table.
“Thank you so much,” Sean said.
“Hello,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Of course,” the man said. “Should I translate the menu for you?”
I chuckled. That would take at least twenty minutes. The menu was huge. “No, no,” I said. “Just please tell the waitress we want some chicken or something. We’re not picky, we just can’t tell her anything.”
So he ordered us chicken.
“Do you want vodka?” he said.
“Yes!” Sean said.
“It’s after midnight,” I said, “and we still have to drive. But damn do I need a drink. So I’ll have a shot.”
“What brings you to Ukraine?” the Polish woman said.
“We’re on our way to Chernobyl,” I said.
She gasped and took a step back.
“Are you crazy?” she said. “I’m not sure I want to know you guys.”
She must have been half-kidding, but I could tell she wasn’t entirely. What was the big deal? Tourists go to Chernobyl now all the time. And I’ve been to far more dangerous places.
“He’s a journalist,” Sean said. “And we’re both photographers.”
I was annoyed that she found our mission repulsive, but tried my best to keep that to myself.
“Thanks for your help,” I said. “We really appreciate it.”
“Well,” she said. “Enjoy your trip to…Chernobyl.”
Back on the road to Lviv, Ukraine still looked depopulated. The road was vaguely okay now, but the small towns and villages in the countryside could hardly have been darker had they been hit by an EMP.
The country clearly hadn’t recovered from the ravages of the 20th century. Communism was bad in Yugoslavia and even worse in Romania, but the poor souls ruled directly by the Soviet government really got hammered, and few so terribly as the Ukrainians.
The Stalinist-imposed Holodomor—Ukrainian for “hunger plague”—lasted from 1932 to 1933 and killed more people than the Nazi Holocaust. It was a deliberately induced famine meant to put down once and for all the weak yet nevertheless extant Ukrainian nationalism.
“In the actions here recorded,” Robert Conquest wrote in his gut-wrenching book, Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, “about 20 human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in this book.” It was, as Wasyl Hryshko wrote, “the first instance of a peacetime genocide in history.”
The great Arthur Koestler witnessed it. He describes, in The God That Failed, “hordes of families in rags begging at the railway stations, the women lifting up to the compartment windows their starving brats, which, with drumstick limbs, big cadaverous heads and puffed bellies, looked like embryos out of alcohol bottles.”
“In one hut there would be something like a war,” Ukrainian-born Soviet dissident Vasily Grossman wrote in his novel, Forever Flowing. “Everyone would keep close watch over everyone else. People would take crumbs from each other. The wife turned against the husband and the husband against the wife. The mother hated the children. And in some other hut love would be inviolable to the very last. I knew one woman with four children. She would tell them fairy stories and legends so that they would forget their hunger. Her own tongue could hardly move, but she would take them into her arms even though she had hardly any strength to lift her arms when they were empty. Love lived on within her. And people noticed that where there was hate people died off more swiftly. Yet love, for that matter, saved no one. The whole village perished, one and all. No life remained in it.”
Ukrainian-born Soviet trade official Victor Kravchenko could finally stand it no more, and so he defected. “Anger lashed my mind as I drove back to the village,” he wrote in his memoir, I Chose Freedom. “Butter sent abroad in the midst of the famine! In London, Berlin, Paris I could see ... people eating butter stamped with a Soviet trade mark. Driving through the fields, I did not hear the lovely Ukrainian songs so dear to my heart. These people have forgotten how to sing! I could only hear the groans of the dying, and the lip-smacking of the fat foreigners enjoying our butter.”
Sean slept in the passenger seat while I drove in a mental fog. I had long been exhausted by the late hour, the stress from being lost on shattered roads, and our near-complete inability to navigate with poor signage in absolute darkness. I drove on autopilot, barely even aware of what was happening, but I snapped back to consciousness when I found myself suddenly bathed in light inside a European-looking city.
I say it was European-looking, but that was really only partially true. The architecture was European, but something was terribly wrong with this place.
The space between each cobblestone on the streets was enormous. Our rental car’s tires made a hell of a racket, as though we were driving on washboard or tank treads. The streets had hardly been more maintained than those in the back country. They rolled like roads in Alaska that are forced upward every winter by frost heaves.
“Where are we now?” Sean said as he awoke, motion-sick, from the rolling of the car and the clattering of the tires.
“Somewhere in Lviv, I guess.”
Then I realized what else was wrong with the city. It had no economy. We were driving through at three o’clock in the morning, so I didn’t expect to see open restaurants or stores, but I hardly saw any that were even closed. Storefronts scarcely existed and I saw no humans at all. There were no cars on the street and hardly any parked. Lviv looked like a European city emptied of people, or like an alternate universe where none of Europe’s post-war progress had taken place. It must have looked similar the day World War II ended.
Before crossing into Ukraine, Sean and I drove north and spent a night in the spectacular Polish city of Krakow, which includes the largest still-existing medieval square in the world. Poland seems to have recovered from totalitarianism better than any other post-communist country I had seen. I can’t vouch for what Warsaw is like as I have never been there, but much of Krakow looks like it never had a communist government or a command economy. Hungary, too, seems to have mostly recovered. At least that’s how its capital Budapest looks. So much of Ukraine, though, is still haunted and ruined.
I found a hotel and pulled up in front. Parking was easy. None of the other available spaces were taken.
Sean and I dragged our sorry and exhausted selves up to our room. It wouldn’t be too much longer before the sun came up even though the previous day’s sun had only just set when we first reached the border. After driving literally all night, we had only covered a hundred miles.
“Whoa,” Sean said when he pulled open the curtains. “Look at what’s outside our window.”
Good grief, I thought. What now?
We had hardly seen any human beings, automobiles or signs of life or civilization since entering the country. We hadn’t seen a damn thing yet that was normal. I had no idea what to expect out that window. A gigantic bomb crater hardly would have surprised me. What I saw instead were statues of angels at eye level atop the roof across the street. In the sunlight they must have been beautiful, but in the dark they looked like imps with sinister wings.