Thoughts about “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine” by Anna Reid

I have recently finished reading Anna Reid’s book “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine” and want to share my thoughts about this book with you. I also want to encourage you to read it yourself.

I thought to publish this blog post today on 24 August is particularly appropriate for two reasons: It is six months after Russia invaded Ukraine and today is День Незалежності України (Ukraine’s Independence Day).

I. Background

1. After 24 February, the day on which Russia invaded Ukraine, I was asking myself what I know about Ukraine and its history. The answer to this question was, not enough. I had planned to go on a singing holiday to Odesa in June 2020. Because of Covid-19 this holiday did not take place. It was postponed to the following year. But also in 2021 we could not go because of Covid-19. When I was writing my blog post about Paul Celan’s Paris last November, I was wondering whether we would be able to visit Odesa in 2022 and whether I could combine a trip to Odesa with a visit to Chernivtsi (former Czernowitz), the city in which Paul Celan was born in 1920 and which he left in 1945 to go first to Bukarest, then to Vienna and finally to Paris.

We will not be able to visit Odesa or any other Ukrainian city this year because of the war.

2. After I had booked my trip to Odesa in 2020, I was thinking about suitable books to read before and while I would be there. However, I had primarily books in mind with a connection to the city Odesa and not so much books about Ukraine. On my preliminary list were Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, and Joseph Roth’s Reisen in die Ukraine und nach Russland (Journeys in the Ukraine and to Russia”) which he wrote in the 1920s, therefore nothing about the modern country Ukraine. After 24 February I decided that I want to know more about this country which is fighting so bravely and resiliently against a much larger hostile and brutal neighbour. I was looking for books about Ukraine and also for novels and poems by (modern) Ukrainian writers. One of the books I bought and read was Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine” by Anna Reid.

I finished this book recently and I think it is absolutely fascinating.

3. Let me start with a few words about the author. Anna Reid is an English historian, journalist and author who focuses on Eastern Europe. She was the Kyiv correspondent for the Economist and the Daily Telegraph from 1993 to 1995. From 2003 to 2007 she worked for the British think-tank Policy Exchange. She wrote several books on Eastern European history. In addition to Borderland, she published among others a book on the history of Siberia and one on the siege of Leningrad.

4. Her book Borderland. A Journey Through the History of Ukraine has two parts. The first part consists of ten chapters and was written in the mid 1990s when she lived in Ukraine. She tells in the first part the history of Ukraine, but each chapter takes one city or region as a starting point. She speaks about the people she met and the history of the place, but then also about a specific chapter in the history of the country. I think that this link between a specific place and a specific chapter in history works generally really well. I was only dissatisfied with one specific chapter (Chapter 5 about Chernivitsi), but that has probably more to do with me than with her. I will say a few more words about it later. The second part of the book which consists of four chapters was completed in 2015 and covers the history from the mid 1990s until 2015, including the so-called Orange Revolution, Maidan movement, the “annexation” or “temporary occupation” of Crimea and the war in the Donbas.

5. I spoke with a friend about the book and he said it is “a little bit dated”. I do not agree with that at all. I think the fact that Anna Reid wrote the majority of it in mid 1990s makes it for me particularly fascinating. There are so many themes and topics she mentions which are today as relevant as ever and the book is evidence that many of them are not new, but the West generally was not interested enough in the country and the issues to pay attention earlier.

II. Overview and thoughts on Borderland

1. I want to share in this chapter my thoughts about the book and give an overview over its contents. I will also quote passages which I find particularly striking if one reads them now six months after Russia invaded Ukraine and I will sometimes refer to current parallels.

I thought it would be helpful to include a map of Ukraine. I marked all cities for which there is a specific chapter in the book with a blue box around the name. Please note that there is one chapter (chapter 6) about Matussiv and Lukovytsya. These are both smaller towns in the oblast (region) Cherkasy. They are not marked on the map, therefore I decided to mark the city of Cherkasy instead.

I will try to use in this blog post for all places the transliteration of the Ukrainian names. Only if I include a direct quote, I use whatever name is included in the quote.

2. The first chapter of the book is called “The New Jerusalem: Kiev”. Anna Reid goes back in this chapter to the beginning of Ukraine and the beginning of Kyiv and the “Kievan Rus” more than 1000 years ago. Kyiv became a trading centre of the Scandinavians in 830. Santa Sofia Cathedral in Kyiv was built in 1037 by Prince Yaroslav to celebrate his father Volodymyr’s conversation to Christianity.

Throughout history Russia has liked to call the Ukrainians “Little Russians”. This is also currently significant, because for Putin Ukraine is not an independent country. He does not see the Ukrainian language and culture as something distinct, but rather as something which is basically the same as “Russia”. This is not a novel idea, but one which goes back centuries. Putin follows in a way the old Soviet line which saw a “single monolithic ‘ancient Rus’ nationality, from which Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians all descended.” Anna Reid points out that Ukraine (“the Kievan state”) and Russia (“Muscovy”) were always distinct and “the Kievan state” is the much older part. She compares it with the English and French discussions over Charlemagne and adds pointedly:

“Russia, in other words, is not Ukraine’s ‘elder brother’, but the other way round. Rather than calling Ukrainians ‘Little Russians’, perhaps Russians should be calling themselves ‘Little Ukrainians’.”

She continues to tell the history of Kyiv and mentions that from the late fourteenth century until the mid seventeenth century nearly the whole territory of present-day Ukraine was ruled from Cracow, Poland. These centuries in Ukraine’s history are a reason for the great debate whether Ukraine belongs to Europe, like Poland or is closer aligned to Russia. This is an ongoing issue, but judging from the current war and all the years through independence of Ukraine, it is clear that Ukraine wants to solve this issue in favour of Europe. Most recently this can be seen in the strong wish and application to join the European Union a few days after the beginning of the full scale war and the rejoicing when the European Union decided to give Ukraine candidate status on 23 June 2022.

3. The second chapter is called “Poles and Cossacks: Kamyanets Podilsky”. It continues to look into the relationship between Ukraine and Poland and their 500 years of shared “common history, first under the Polish king, then under the Russian tsar”. Anna Reid explains that this history was not without difficulties.

However, I am sure that this common history is also one of the reason for the strong support of Poland for Ukraine. BBC reported at the end of April that more than 11 million people were displaced because of the war. United Nations says that 5.5 million Ukrainian refugees are in neighbouring countries (as of 1 May) and Poland has accepted more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees and also strongly supports Ukraine on the military side.

Anna Reid comments in this chapter on the Ukrainian National anthem.

“‘Ukraine is not dead yet’ is the less-than-inspiring opening line of the present-day Ukrainian national anthem.”

I was quite surprised about this comment. As many of you, I have heard the Ukrainian national anthem in the meantime so often (and actually also sung along more than once), sung and played by orchestras around the world, but also as a sign of defiance, for example by Ukrainians in Berdyansk while it was occupied by Russian troops or by MPs of the Ukrainian Rada who continue to meet during this war to do their work in a democratic parliament. When I read the English translation of the text the first time, I was really struck by it, because I thought there could hardly be a text better suited to the current situation. I also realised that the reason why this text fits so well, is because the current situation of an attack by a neighbour and a challenge to Ukrainian freedom and cultural identity is not really new.

Anna Reid also changes her mind about the anthem, because it has been sung so often since independence as an anthem which unites the Ukrainians and which is a clear sign of their wish to be free and independent. She writes in the last chapter of the book:

“The opening line of the national anthem – ‘Ukraine is not dead yet’ – no longer prompts a snigger. Sung, as it was on the Maidan, by hundreds of thousands of people – Ukrainian and Russian-speaking; Uniate and Orthodox; Jewish and Muslim; of every age and class, bareheaded in the snow – it brings tears to the eyes.”

I am sure many of you can rather relate to this description of the Ukrainian national anthem.

4. The third chapter of the book is called “The Russian Sea: Donetsk and Odessa”. Anna Reid speaks in this chapter about the difficult relationship with Donetsk and the influence this region always has had on the general political situation in Ukraine.

“To stay independent, Ukraine has to keep its Russian-speaking east sweet.”

She describes also the influence of the Russian rule on Ukraine. A particular focus of the chapter is Ivan Mazepa (1639–1709) and the role he played between the Russian Tsar and the Swedish king. She touches in this chapter on the huge importance of the city Odesa, a city which has long been a multi-ethnic city and played often a role in literature. Many topics which are mentioned in this chapter are also relevant in the current war. She quotes the retired physicist Yuriy, an ethnic Russian, whom she met. He complains about every sign of Ukrainianism or Ukrainian Nationalism and describes it as follows:

“It’s not renaissance, it’s Nazification!”

That is the same argument Putin uses to justify his invasion into Ukraine and it fits with the impression one gets if one listens to excerpts from Russian state TV which equates all signs of Ukrainian culture, state and language with “Neo-Nazis”. It is worth remembering that this quote from Anna Reid is from the middle of 1990s long before any Azov regiments.

Another topic which Anna Reid describes in this chapter is the forced Russification of Ukraine. She mentions that in 1876 the Edit of Ems banned all imports and publications of Ukrainian books and newspapers, the teaching of Ukrainian, plays in Ukrainian and generally the language as such. Not much seem to have changed. Just a few months ago, the newspapers reported that the Russians confiscated Ukrainian books and school books and destroyed and burned them in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Chernihiv and Sumy regions, the areas which are or were (temporary) occupied by the Russian army.

5. The fourth chapter of the book is dedicated to “The Books of Genesis: Lviv”. It tells the story of Lviv, a city close to the Polish border which belonged for a long time to the Austro-Hungarian empire and was the capital of the “Kingdom of Galicia”. Anna Reid speaks in this chapter about the question of an “Ukrainian” identity and how this idea developed over time. She mentions the first two significant writers who produced literature in Ukrainian: Ivan Kotlyarevsky (1769-1838) with his ballad Eneida (published in 1798) and Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) the man who “contributed more than any other single individual to the creation of a Ukrainian sense of national identity”. She gives quite a detailed overview over Taras Shevchenko’s life. He became in 1846 a member of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius which had the utopian plan to abolish serfdom and monarchy and form a democratic federation lead by Ukraine. He wrote in particular poetry in Ukrainian language and Nicolas I secret police saw in Shevchenko a criminal:

“Shevchenko has acquired among his friends … the reputation of a brilliant Ukrainian writer, and so his poems are doubly harmful and dangerous. His favourite poems could be disseminated in Ukraine, inducing thoughts about the alleged happy times of the hetman era, the exigency of a return to those times, and the possibility of Ukraine’s existence as a separate state.”

Anna Reid describes which important role the Ukrainian language plays in the Ukrainian’s sense of national identity and speaks about the relationship to Russian. Very often Ukrainian was regarded as a language of peasants as opposed to Russian as a language of culture. This perceptions has changed. With the war the question of language became even more of an issues and there are reports that many Russian speaking Ukrainians decide to switch to Ukrainian, because they do not want to speak the “enemy language” anymore. There is also a huge surge of foreigners who have decided to learn Ukrainian since the beginning of the war.

6. The fifth chapter “A Meaningless Fragment: Chernivtsi” is about the city Chernivtsi, previously Czernowitz, which is close to the border of Romania and about the region Bukovyna. I said at the beginning that I thought that this chapter was not that convincing in the link between the city and the specific part of history it is focussing on.

The main historic focus of the chapter is the time between the First World War and the Second World War. These were very turbulent and violent times. Anna Reid says that between 1914 and 1921 about 1.5 million people were killed in Ukraine and the Ukrainians made two attempts to gain independence after the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. The first one was in 1917 in Kyiv. The socialist Semyon Petlyra declared the Ukrainian People’s Republic as independent in March 1917.

“People of Ukraine! By your efforts, by your will, by your word, a Free Ukrainian People’s Republic has been created on Ukrainian soil. The ancient dream of your ancestors – fighters for the freedom and rights of workers – has been fulfilled … From this day forth, the Ukrainian People’s Republic becomes independent, subject to no one, A Free Sovereign State.”

However the Ukrainian parliament “Rada” survived less than one year. In Lviv there was a second attempt of independence in 1918, but also this was short lived. The country suffered from the ongoing Ukrainian-Soviet war between 1917 and 1921. Anna Reid explains why Ukraine did not reach independence after the First World War when so many other countries succeeded. In particular the uncertainty what should happen to Galicia meant that no part of Ukraine was given independence and in the end Ukraine was split in four, with parts been given to Poland, parts to Romania, parts to Czechoslovakia and central and eastern Ukraine to Russia.

I think my main criticism is that the chapter includes so little about the specific history of Chernivitsi and its importance for literature and that the period of history she describes does not really have a specific link with Chernivtisi and the Bukovyna. Anna Reid mentions that Western Ukraine produced four great writers: Gregor von Rezzori, Paul Celan, Joseph Roth and Bruno Schulz and adds that both Rezzori and Celan grew up in Czernowitz, but she does not give much detail about the city and the literary scene. From the perspective of German literature Paul Celan is certainly not the only writer worth mentioning for the Bukovyna during this time, even so he is the most famous and most important one. There were in particular Rose Ausländer, Alfred Margul-Sperber, Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger and many others. I mentioned that my criticism has more to do with me than with the book. I wrote a blog post about Paul Celan in November last year and as mentioned there, I have been interested in him and read about him and therefore also about Czernowitz since my school days, therefore for more than 30 years. I assume every chapter about this city in a general book about Ukraine would be too short for me.

7. The sixth chapter is called “The Great Hunger: Matussiv and Lukovytsya” and focusses on the horrible time of the Holodomor, the man-made famine from 1932-3 that killed millions of Ukrainians. This chapter is in particular interesting, because it shows that this war is not the first time that Russia tried to use famine as a means to achieve a political goal.

Anna Reid points out that the famine in 1932-3 was not the consequence of a natural disaster.

“The most convincing explanation for the famine is that it was a deliberate, genocidal attack on rural Ukraine. The groups that the Bolsheviks most hated and feared, and had had most difficulty subduing during the Civil War, were the peasants and the non-Russian nationalities”.

Farms in Ukraine were in the 1920s primarily independently owned. The collectivisation which had began throughout Russia, was not very popular in Ukraine. When Stalin ordered collectivisations, the order was met with harsh resistance. In the mid-1920 Russia tried another approach and gave some room for Ukrainian culture, literature, newspapers and language. Even party officials were meant to take lessons in Ukrainian and the language was meant to be used in all government business. The hope was that this would make communism more popular with the Ukrainians, because it would feel less as something ordered from Moscow.

With the first of Stalin purges this period of – limited – openness to Ukrainian language and identity came to an end. In July 1929 5,000 members of a fictitious underground organisation were arrested. This was only the beginning of arrests, deportations and repression. In the following year, 30,000 were detained and there was a show trial against 45 Ukrainian writers, scholars, lawyers and priests at the Kharkiv Opera House. Anna Reids explains that there were overlapping stages of terror which included: food requisitioning, dekulakisation and mass starvation. Initially, the target of “dekulakisation” were richer peasants, so-called “kulaks”, but with time everyone who was against the food requisitioning was called a “kulak” and was arrested and deported to labour camps in Siberia or Central Asia. Many villages were left half empty. Peasants who were not deported, fled the countryside. In the spring 1932 starvation had began, but Stalin still ordered that the requisition of food should continue. Only in March 1933 the grain collection was halted. By that time a fifth of the entire rural population, about 5 million people, had died.

What I found astonishing and shocking was that information about this disaster was suppressed. Not only was it not mentioned in the local papers in the Soviet Union, but also the West did not take any notice. Even writers and journalists who visited the Soviet Union and in particular Ukraine, overlooked the famine or were not interested in it, this includes so imminent writers as George Bernard Shaw, Lion Feuchtwanger and André Gide. Anna Reid says that these writers had often made up their minds before they visited the Soviet Union. I find this particularly disturbing with someone like Lion Feuchtwanger who was in his books so perceptive for what would happen in Germany. This applies in particular in his “Waiting Room Trilogy”, mainly in Erfolg (Success), 1930 and Geschwister Oppermann (The Oppermanns), 1933. I find it difficult to accept that he was so blind for the atrocities of the Soviet Union, but I assume given the political situation in Germany in the 1930s and as a socialist he did not want to see the crimes committed by the Soviet Union. I am wondering whether there is not also a parallel there that some on the left today are so used to criticise the US and the West generally that they do not want their views to be challenged and see the war crimes currently committed by the Russian Federation.

If you want to know more about the Holodomor than this chapter offers, I can highly recommend the book Red Famine. Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum which I am currently reading and which is excellent.

8. The seventh Chapter is called “The Vanished Nation: Ivano-Frankivsk” and speaks about the history of the Jewish population of Ukraine and generally about the time of the Second World War.

Ivano-Frankivsk is a city in Western Ukraine. In 1941 over 60 percent of its population were Jewish and the city had 55 synagogues. Anna Reid says that the ghetto opened three months after the German invasion in September 1941 and closed early in 1943, “when there was no one left to kill”. A mass grave is the only trace left in the city and the inscriptions does not even mention that the 100,000 victims who were killed at that specific place were Jews. The inscription just says (or at least did so in the mid 1990s) “German Fascist invaders shot over 100,000 Soviet citizens and prisoners of war”. The same could be seen in other memorials, including the one in Babiy Yar near Kyiv where in September 1941 33,771 Jews were killed within two days. Only after the independence of Ukraine a memorial was erected which specifically mentioned that the victims were Jews.

Anna Reid explains that the history of Jews in Ukraine goes back to the Greek colonies at the Black Sea coast which had Jewish traders. Large numbers of Jews arrived from 1569 onwards when the Union of Lublin allowed Poles and Jews to migrate into Ukraine, which was part of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. At beginning of the Second World War Ukraine’s Jewish population was about 3 million people (roughly 8% of the population). The relationship between the Ukrainians and the Jews was not always easy. As in other countries it was affected by anti-Jewish violence and pogroms. Only in the short time of Ukrainian independence the situation was better. The parliament declared in 1918 the “national-personal autonomy” for Jews. There was also a special ministry for Jewish affairs and the banknotes were printed in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish.

Anna Reid highlights that the war affected Ukraine much more than other countries and lead to the death of about 5.3 million of the population of Ukraine (about one in six of the entire population), 2.5 million of these who were killed during the war were Jews. She mentions that most of the Ukrainian men fought in the Red Army, some fought with the Germans and some fought as part of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, both against the Russians and the Germans. She also mentions the infamous Stepan Bandera who explicitly declared “war on the Ukrainian Jewry”.

Initially some Ukrainians welcomed the German army and saw them as a deliverance from Stalinism. However, this changed quickly. The Nazis saw Slavs as “Untermenschen” (sub-humans) and therefore deserving of not even basic care. This was evident in the treatment of the prisoners of war through the Germans who were either killed or beaten and starved and the introduction of forced labour for civilians. According to Anna Reid Germany deported between spring of 1942 and summer 1944 2.1 million Ukrainians (out of 2.8 million Soviet civilians altogether) as so-called Ostarbeiter (East workers) to the German Reich.

Anna Reid also asks the question whether there is still anti-semitism in Ukraine. She mentions that there is no political party (in the mid 1990s) who uses anti-semitic rhetoric (apart from the insignificant UNA). She also highlights that independent Ukraine changed the inscriptions in memorials like Babiy Jar to clarify that the victims were Jews.

In the last years even more happened in this area. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (US) in 2018 showed that only 5% of Ukrainians would not like to have Jews as their fellow citizens. This number was the lowest in the survey and was much lower than in other Eastern European countries. Probably everyone knows that Volodymyr Zelenskyy comes from a Jewish family and was elected in 2019 with 73% of the votes as President of Ukraine. In 2021 the parliament passed a law banning anti-semitism and the Ukrainian government supported to fund “a memorial complex at Babyn Yar”.

9. The eighth Chapter is called “The Wart on Russia’s Nose: Crimea”. Anna Reid speaks in the chapter about the history of Crimean Tatars and the relationship of Crimea and Russia.

Crimea belonged to the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic since 1954 when Khrushchev handed it over to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Pereiaslav Agreement. After the independence of Ukraine the majority in Crimea voted in favour of joining Ukraine, but according to Anna Reid this was on a “low turnout and by a margin of only 4 per cent.” Also after independence the relationship between Crimea and the central government in Kyiv remained difficult and Crimea often voted for pro-Russian governments.

Also the Russian side seemed to find it difficult to accept that Crimea is Ukrainian and she warns that

“there is no guarantee that Russia will be sensible for ever. Many politicians would like to take a more aggressive line on Crimea …”

She adds that the Russian parliament had twice condemned the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine and passed in 1993 a resolution declaring Sevastopol as Russian territory.

Anna Reid also gives a lot of background about the history of Crimea and the earlier inhabitants of the island, the Crimean Tartars. They were Muslims, spoke a Turkic language and arrived on Crimea in thirteenth century. They had their own state, the Crimean Khanate, from 1441 to 1783 when Russian annexed the peninsula. The consequence of the annexation was that a not insignificant part of the population emigrated to Turkey. After the Crimean War (1854-5) Tartars were driven from their farms on the south coast and again many left. At the same time Slav settlers came to Crimea. According to Anna Reid the population of Crimean Tartars were in 1897 down to a third of the population and by 1921 down to a quarter. During the 1920s and 1930s they had a similar fate as the Ukrainians, including a brief period in which Tatar-language books were printed and schools, libraries, museums and theatres opened. This came to an end and the collectivisation lead to the deportation of 30,000 – 40,000 Tartar “kulaks”. In 1944 Stalin decided that he wanted to deport the whole Crimean Tartar population from Crimea. They had to settle in Central Asia and Siberia. A large percentage of Tartars died during a short time in the new settlements. An official statistic mentions that 5 per cent of the Tartars died on the way and 19 per cent within the first five years. The Tatars themselves say that 46 per cent died on the journey or within one year of their arrival. Those who survived were not allowed to return to the Crimea. Only in 1989 they were finally allowed to do so. They represented then only about 10 per cent of the population of Crimea.

10. The ninth Chapter “The Empire Explodes: Chernobyl” is about the catastrophe in Chernobyl in 1986 and the last days of the Soviet Union. The description of the disaster in Chernobyl shows how careless the Soviet Union dealt with a nuclear catastrophe and with human life. Anna Reid summarises it as follows:

“A saga of technical incompetence and irresponsibility, of bureaucratic sloth, mendacity and plain contempt for human life, that Chernobyl affair epitomised everything that was wrong with the Soviet Union.”

After Chernobyl exploded on Friday 26 April 1986, the officials decided to keep what happened quiet and no one was informed about the risk for life because of this event. Even after Sweden noticed abnormal radiation levels on Monday, Russia still denied that there is any problem. Only on 6 May the people in Kyiv were warned that they should not eat green vegetables or drink milk and stay inside, but there was still no transparency of what had happened and the Western media who reported about the accident were accused of spreading “malicious mountains of lies”. Russia sent groups of conscripts to Chernobyl to clear away highly radioactive rubble inside the reactor core.

“The boys involved dubbed themselves ‘bio-robots’, perfectly summing up the Soviet regime’s attitude towards its citizenry”.

Anna Reid also mentions that “better-off reservists could avoid being sent to Chernobyl altogether by paying bribes.”. Therefore it seems not much has changed. Also in the current war, conscripts are sent to fight in the war in Ukraine, even so it is against the law of the Russian Federation, and better-off potential conscripts in particular from the European parts of Russia know ways to avoid conscription altogether. It also seems that Russia is still careless in relation to nuclear power plants. Chernobyl was seized at the beginning of the invasion (and occupied until the end of March). Russian soldiers dug trenches in the most contaminated part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, either oblivious or ignorant of the risks. Russian troops currently occupy Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and use it to store their weapons and as an army base. According to the Ukrainians the Russians are shelling the power plant and blame Ukraine for it.

11. The final chapter in the first part is chapter 10 which is called “Europe or Little Russia? Ukrainia” and it deals with the Independence of Ukraine and the first years thereafter. Anna Reid points out that Ukraine had to do “state-building” (creation of the institutions of a state) and “nation-building” (creation of a “workable idea what it meant to be a Ukrainian”) at the same time. Even so there has been often throughout the history an urge to focus on the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture, there were initially difficulties to define a national identity.

“All Ukrainians could come up with was the Rada debacle of 1918, the violent, failed heritage of the Cossacks, and even further back, the mist, disputed splendours of Kievan Rus. Split between rival powers for centuries, talking about history at all only emphasised disunity”.

Anna Reid describes in the chapter the difficulties of the first years of independence with high inflation, violence and corruption (even so much less than in Russia). She also speaks about the plus side with a secure democracy and fair elections and hopes for a better future for the country.

She mentions that one problem for this future is the geographic position of Ukraine and quotes the Ukrainian-American political scientist and historian Szporluk: 

“Russians have still not accepted, deep in their hearts, that Ukraine is a legitimate phenomenon … Whether your name is Zhirinovsky, Yavlinsky or Gaidar, somewhere in your mind you think that Ukraine is fake, a phoney”.

If you follow Julia Davis on Twitter and watch the excerpts she shares from Russian TV talk shows, you have the impression this is still the case on Russian TV.

I thought is quite chilling to read about what could potentially happen between Russia and Ukraine:

“Nobody expects tanks to roll into Kiev as they did into Grozny, but Russia could stir up secessionism among ethnic Russians in Crimea and the Donbass, as it did in Moldova, Georgia and Tadzhikistan.”

As we now know, Russia first did the second from 2014 onwards and then at the beginning of the war tried the first.

12. Chapter 11 is the first chapter of part two of the book which was written in 2015. It is called “The Rise and Fall of the Orange Revolution”. She describes in the chapter the developments from the mid 1990s until the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004. People took the streets after Yushchenko whose campaign colour was orange lost in the elections in autumn 2004. There were allegations of fraud and vote rigging. Opposition observers were attacked at polling stations and Donetsk and Luhansk showed an alleged voter’s turnout of 96 per cent (Donetsk) and 90 per cent (Luhansk). The Monday after the election, the opposition called for a rally in Kyiv and 200,000 – 300,000 followed. Anna Reid sees in the protests

“an expression not just of party political allegiance, but of frustration with dreadful government and insult at being taken for fools”.

For me two things stood out in this chapter. At the beginning of the chapter Anna Reid speaks about a meeting with Ukrainian friends in London and her bewilderment how they spoke about funding the Ukrainian army through private donations.

“You can donate to the army through Facebook – there are several sites. Or you can help like us, directly. It’s nothing unusual. All our friends are doing the same”.

The Ukrainian army now is much equipped than in 2014, but the support of the Ukrainian people for their army and also the urge to donate and raise funds to help the army is incredibly strong. One remarkable example is the crowdfunding which was initiated by the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation at the end of June. They collected enough money to buy three Turkish drones Bayraktar. The Baykar company decided to give three drones for free and the donated money was used to buy a satellite which will be used by the Ukrainian army.

Towards the end of the chapter Anna Reid writes about Yanukovich’s estate in Mezhihoriya, just outside of Kyiv which had a size of 140 ha (350 acres) and included “yacht pier, an equestrian club, a shooting range, a tennis court and other recreational facilities”. After Yanukovich fled the country in 2014, the estate was turned into a museum. Anna Reid describes the grounds and some of the contents. She mentions that there was a whole room full of Yanukovich portraits – “in beaten metal, dried beans, tapestry, porcelain and amber.” When I read this I thought what a stark difference this is to Zelenskyy. It is probably difficult to appreciated that at the moment, because since the beginning of the war and because of the strong presence of Zelenskyy in the media and in particular on social media his picture is everywhere. However when he gave his inauguration speech in 2019, he specifically asked people not to have a portrait of him in their offices:

“[W]e need people in power who will serve the people. This is why I really do not want my pictures in your offices, for the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”

Since the beginning of the war, he received numerous prices and awards. In his acceptance speeches, he regularly said that they should really be for the Ukrainian people and not for him and that he accepts them on their behalf. When asked in an interview with the CNN reporter Matthew Chance at the beginning of March whether he is “iconic”, he smiled and answered that not he is iconic, but that Ukraine is iconic and the Ukrainian people.

13. The twelfth Chapter has the title “The Maidan” and gives an account of the Euromaidan protests which started in Kyiv on the Maidan, the central square.

The protests started as a reaction to a trade agreement. The Ukrainian president Yanukovich tried initially to strengthen the links between Ukraine and the West and suggested that Ukraine should join NATO and enter into an association agreement with the European Union as a first step towards EU membership. The public opinion was split about NATO, but clearly in favour of an EU membership. Putin was not happy about the progress in the negotiations of the association agreement.

“Threatening a wider trade war, [Putin] slapped restrictions on Ukrainian food exports, holding up hundreds of Ukrainian trucks and goods wagons at the Russian border.”

A week before the planned signing of the Association Agreement, on 21 November 2013, Yanukovich gave in and announced that the agreement with the EU would not be signed for “national security reasons”. He also took up the negotiations for a closer economic relationship with Russia.

The people in Kyiv and then in Ukraine generally were deeply disappointed and started to use social media, in particular Facebook to encourage each other to join demonstrations on the Maidan in Kyiv. First only a few students followed the appeal but within three days around 100,000 turned up on the Maidan and it did not stop there. Anna Reid explains that the growth into a mass movement happened because of the violent handling of the protests through the government.

“Though the protests grew substantially over the next few days …, what turned them into a mass movement was the government’s clumsy use of violence. At 4 a.m. on Saturday the 30th the police moved in with riot sticks, diving into tents full of dozing young people and indiscriminately beating them up. … The brutality of the attack mobilised people who had previously only grumbled from the sidelines.“

The demonstrations were quickly not anymore limited to Kyiv. Other cities followed and even Donetsk saw “mini-Maidan” protests with a few hundred demonstrators. The protests continued through December and so called “Automaidan” protests were organised by car owners who drove i.a. to Mezhihoriya, Yanukovich’s estate. Yanukovich reacted with repressive measures and a “dictatorship law” which restricted the rights to demonstrate and made car conveys of more than five cars illegal.

On 19 January the police used water cannons and on 22 January the first people were killed, when the police beat to death two demonstrators. On 20 February the police used snipers from the roofs of several public buildings and shot in the group of protesters.

“Amazingly, the protesters continued to press forward, relying on sheer force of numbers to overwhelm the better armed opposition. …Initial estimates for the day’s dead were 70 killed and 166 missing. According to the Ministry of Health, 405 were hospitalised, with burns, gunshot wounds, head injuries and broken bones. Over the next weeks the death toll rose, as information came in about the missing and the most seriously injured died. A martyred ‘Heavenly Hundred’ become 103.”

Anna Reid says that the slaughter ultimately destroyed Yanukovich. He lost the support of his party and the parliament voted to sack him. There were emergency talks with Western foreign ministers and a Putin representative and it seemed that a deal was reached. However, Yanukovich decided to flee the country early on 22 February.

If you want to more about the Maidan movement and their background, I recommend you Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine DiariesDispatches from Kiev. Andrey Kurkov is a well known Ukrainian writer who writes in Russian. He lived during the Maidan protests in Kyiv. The Ukraine Diaries are excerpts of his diaries from 21 November 2013 until 24 April 2014. It is absolutely fascinating to read, if you want to get a sense what happened during these days.

14. The penultimate chapter is called “Putin Strikes Back”. It speaks about the aftermath of the Maidan movement and Putin’s reactions to these developments. Anna Reid gives some background information on Putin and also mentions his appetite for “Russian nationalism”. She quotes him there when he said already in 2008 to Bush:

“Do you understand, George, Ukraine isn’t even a state!”

She says that Putin hated the Maidan and the Russians claimed repeatedly that

“[they] were the work of European intelligence agencies and CIA, all part of a grand plan to trap and claw the peaceable Russian bear”.

After the flight of Yanukovich, Putin invaded Crimea with 35,000 unbadged Russian troops who took over police stations, airports and the roads between Crimea and Ukraine mainland. The Ukrainian troops were outnumbered and surrendered. Many activists who protested were arrested, including the filmmaker Oleh Sentsov. Russia took full control in about one months and staged on 16 March a pseudo-referendum on the “reunion of Crimea with the Russian Federation”. The result was a ridiculous 97 per cent in favour on a turn out of 83 per cent. At the ceremony of the signing of the “Accession Treaty” Putin made a long speech about the history of Russia and of Crimea and also mentioned the Maidan which he called

“a ‘coup’, using ‘terror, violence, murder and pogroms’, carried out by ‘neo-Nazis, nationalists and anti-Semites'”.

You can see that not much has changed in Putin’s opinion about Ukraine.

In Kyiv a new interim government was formed by the three largest parties until the next elections. Putin used the instability for his next action, an “insurrection in the Russian-speaking industrial east”, the Donbas. This time, there were initially no Russian troops, but Yanukovich previous party, the “Party of the Regions” staged protests which mirrored the Maidan protests, but asked for a reunion with Russia and autonomy within Ukraine. In some areas these protests did not find any echo, like in Kharkiv. In other areas they were more successful and police and army cooperated with the armed locals. Anna Reid said that even so the protest found a greater echo in the Donbas, the majority of the population disapproved the armed seizure of public buildings and did not want to join Russia. On 11 May there was a “referendum” in the Donbas and the voters agreed to be “self-supporting”. Anna Reid mentions that this can either mean “independent” or “autonomous” depending on context. In May the insurrection in the Donbas turned into a war and Ukraine sent his army in the area who fought against the separatist forces which were backed by Russia. Anna Reid gives quite a lot of details of the situation in different cities in the East and South.

On 25 May 2014 there were new presidential elections in Ukraine and Petro Poroshenko, “an oligarch best known for his ownership of the large confectionary company” won. Five years later he would loose the presidential elections against Zelenskyy.

15. The final chapter of the books is called “What Next?”. Anna Reid says that the answer to this questions depends on three different groups: Putin and Russia, the West and of course the Ukrainians themselves. She first looks at Putin’s role in answering this question and gives some inside in the situation in Crimea and in the Donbas at the time when the book was written in 2015. Then she moves to the West.

“The West too is having to decide how much it cares about Ukraine.”

For a long time it seemed that the West did not care much about Ukraine. She highlights the dependence of the European Union from Russian gas and the reliance on trade and investment from Russia. Also in 2015 countries of the European Union provided Ukraine with money to help the economy, but they did not deliver weapons and Poroshenko, even so grateful for the humanitarian aid, mentioned that Ukraine could not “win the war with blankets”.

“Probably the best that Ukraine can hope from Europe – unless the situation changes radically – is that it toughens existing sanctions. Even this may be asking too much, the expectations in the corporate world being of a quick return to business as usual.”

The situation has certainly changed radically with the full scale invasion of Russia in Ukraine six months ago and with Zelenskyy’s ability to capture and move hearts and minds of the West. This time the USA, Europe and other Western countries are much more supportive to Ukraine and also deliver weapons, but the discussions about the type of weapons which could be delivered to Ukraine is ongoing. Anna Reid highlights that even if the West is only interested in their own security, standing with Ukraine is right thing to do.

Finally she speaks about the choices and decisions the Ukrainians have to take and describes different possible scenarios and also gives details where she sees as positive developments in Ukraine.

III. Conclusion

Well done, if you made it to the conclusion of my blog post. As so often it is quite long. I hope that you agree with me and find the book as fascinating as I did and get it and read it and forgive me that I wanted to share so much of it in this post.

I want to close this post with two quotes. Paul Celan received in 1958 the literary award of the city Bremen. He spoke at the beginning of his acceptance speech of the region where he came from and mentions that it is probably unknown to most of the audience. He then calls it a region which was “der Geschichtslosigkeit anheimgefallen” (roughly “fallen out of history” or closer to the German “fallen victim to a historylessness”). He was obviously speaking about Czernowitz and Bukovyna and not about Ukraine. Nevertheless, I had to think of this quote recently and I was wondering whether this did not also happen for many in the West with Ukraine, because they did not pay attention to the country before the full scale invasion and that for them, or maybe I should say for us, the country was in a sense “fallen out of history”. Anna Reid’s book and other books like hers show how much there is to know about the history of Ukraine and I hope this book will find also now, so many years after it was initially published, new readers.

My final words are again a quote from the book and so I end the post in the same way as she closed the first part of the book and the second part

“with the hope that Ukrainians were set for a happier future, and the observations that ‘after thousand years of one of the bloodiest histories in the world, they surely deserve it’. It is truer than ever.”


4 thoughts on “Thoughts about “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine” by Anna Reid

  1. I made it to the conclusion and I can say it was worth it. The post is absolutely absorbing, especially if you would like to learn something about Ukraine and its history as well as the ongoing events. Thank you for writing and sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

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