Looking for Ukraine

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Zacharie Scheurer/NurPhoto/Corbis
An effigy of the Kiev authorities hanging above a barricade, Sloviansk, eastern Ukraine, May 11, 2014

Sloviansk—Every now and then I can hear distant explosions and bursts of gunfire. But most of the time, here in the center of Sloviansk, which since early April has become eastern Ukraine’s separatist stronghold, everything is quiet. Since the small town is chopped up by barricades and many businesses and factories have closed down, there is not much going on, so that when the wind blows you can hear it shimmer the leaves of the silver birches that line the streets. If you were looking for war here, it would be hard to find.

Ice creams are still getting through the checkpoints around town and there is a steady stream of people buying them. As I chose a chocolate bear, Irina, aged fifty, who sells them, told me that she liked being here among people, because the worst thing in this situation was being at home, alone and anxious.

When we come to look back on the Ukrainian conflict, it will be hard, if it moves from its current low-level state to a full-blown war, to say that such-and-such a date marked its beginning. Was it the day that some forty people died, many after being trapped in a building that then caught fire in Odessa? Was it the day that seven people or was it more than twenty or perhaps more than one hundred died in Mariupol, another Black Sea town? For people here the numbers they believe depend on whether they follow the Russian or Ukrainian press and, since both are lying and distorting slivers of truth, it is not surprising that people are being dragged down into a vortex of war.

But while it will be hard to agree on a date, it is already easy to say what is happening in people’s heads. Six months ago everyone here just went about their normal business. They were worried about the things that everyone worries about, and here especially: low salaries, scraping by, collecting money for all the bribes one has to pay, and so on. And then something snapped. The rotting ship of the Ukrainian state sprung a leak and everything began to go down. In people’s heads a new reality has gradually begun to take shape and, in this way, everyone is being prepared for war.

1.

This hit me on May 9. Across the countries of the former Soviet Union this is Victory Day, the day when the dead of World War II are remembered and elderly men and women, dressed in their uniforms and bedecked with medals, are honored. In Sloviansk the ceremonies began in front of the Lenin statue in the town square. The old men and one woman stood in a line while those antigovernment leaders who seized power here on April 12 stepped…


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