Tag Archives: Euromaidan

Book Review: Diane Chandler, “The Road to Donetsk”

I was recently contacted by Blackbird Digital Books to read and review a new digitally published novel, Diane Chandler’s The Road to Donetsk. I received a free digital copy of the book and no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Photo from Google Images

In May 1994, fresh-faced 26-year-old Vanessa arrives in newly independent Ukraine from Manchester, England for her first international aid stint. From Kyiv (Chandler spells it Kiev, the Russian transliteration) Vanessa will oversee the implementation of a £3 billion program to help set up job centers and training to battle rising unemployment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One of the first non-Ukrainians that Vanessa meets in Kyiv is Dan, an American working for USAID in Ukraine. Before Vanessa is properly introduced, we find ourselves in a propellor plane with her and Dan, on a last-minute trip to Donetsk for a coal mine tour. (Donetsk and its people, we quickly sense, will become a central part of the novel’s narrative.) Vanessa is immediately attracted to Dan’s relaxed American charm, and it does not take long before a romance develops. However, for the first third of the book the romance feels forced and awkwardly dropped into the otherwise fascinating and insightful commentary on Ukraine in its early days of independence.

Chandler vividly and accurately depicts Ukraine in its many guises: simple, sparkling yet laborious village life alongside grim and grimy underpaid miners; expat communities in Kyiv; vast steppe and birch forests; crumbling balconies and garish curtains; complex people who are hard to get to know. Chandler knows her stuff, having managed aid programs in Ukraine around the time she sets the novel. Vanessa’s story at times reads like Chandler’s memoir, so accurately and sensitively does the author portray Ukraine.

Vanessa begins her time in Ukraine as a stereotypical self-professed altruist; she feels a need to “help improve” the lives of the Ukrainians and yet shies away from learning from the people, about the people. Dan emerges as her mentor as well as her lover, feeding her astute commentary such as:

…it’s the way it is here. They expect you to come up with the answers. They always come prepared with their set piece, they toss a problem in the air and then they sit back wanting you to fix it for them. [..] Look, in the Soviet Union, you didn’t speak out, you didn’t offer solutions… (69)

Myriad cultural differences lie under the surface, differences so ingrained into each culture that Vanessa needs all the help she can get to begin to understand them. A surly Ukrainian colleague on the aid program staff helps dispel Vanessa’s naivety:

But do you really expect that we should welcome you here as missionaries? To show us the right ways? If so then you are misled. Because we are more clever than you. Have you any idea of the intelligence we needed simply to survive under communist regime? (355)

This could not be a more timely book, highlighting Ukraine’s precarious position between Russia and Western Europe that has been the case for much of history. This position is particularly relevant since the Euromaidan demonstrations starting in 2013 that have led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. In the context of the novel, a Ukrainian tells Vanessa at one point that Ukraine stands “at the crossroads between East and West, we are the prize which you and Russia fight over. It is like a tug of war” (354). How times have not changed.

As Vanessa struggles with her position as a western aid facilitator in a complicated country, her romance with Dan also develops its own complexities. The novel’s romantic elements start to feel less forced as Vanessa’s attraction to Dan develops a balance between Dan as a more experienced mentor in the aid world and Vanessa’s fresh, somewhat naive take on it. Recalling that this story is told as an older Vanessa’s memories, we start to sense that something may happen to doom the relationship. Will Ukraine get in the way?

Overall, Chandler’s novel is insightful and enjoyable to read. There are some inconsistencies, such as when Ukraine’s Independence Day is stated as August 25th (it is actually the 24th). I  also found some of the British slang stilted: Vanessa sits “keening silently”; why not just “weeping”? Despite these rough patches, The Road to Donetsk improves greatly after the first third and illuminates important and timely aspects of the aid world.

My reading experience was further enhanced by having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I often identified with Vanessa’s feelings and observations about the Ukrainian people and their lives. For example, I never did discover the answer to this conundrum:

…the young for the most part attractive and svelte, while the older peasant women had become almost tubular with age, their skin gnarled. At what point did this transformation happen? I wondered… (150)

Discussion of how Vanessa’s aid program impacts the country and people at the grassroots level also struck a chord with me, as this is what the Peace Corps aims to do in sending out volunteers to communities around a country. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) strive to “walk alongside” the people to foster cross-cultural connections and transfer skills. I remember having similar feelings to Vanessa upon reading this passage near the end of the novel:

That we expect a programme to bring about a lasting and yet so radical change in three short years is unfathomable for me – although I did genuinely expect this back then. […] All those people who came into contact with our programme took with them skills and experience into the local economy, into their future… (383)

Many PCVs begin their service with expectations like Vanessa’s; however, we soon learn that despite all the grants we write and trainings we lead, implementing something sustainable in a country with such a different history, culture, and mindset can be nearly impossible. But the people who do come into contact with a PCV or other aid program take away skills and experience, along with memories, into their futures. The exchange is mutual and it changes us for the better.

———

The Road to Donetsk has been named a Finalist for this year’s People’s Book Prize. You can purchase Diane Chandler’s novel from Amazon UK and Waterstones. Many thanks to Blackbird Digital Books for the opportunity to read and review this fascinating novel.

 

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Ukrainian Perspectives on Ukraine

Rather than posting another set of articles about the ongoing situation in Ukraine (get caught up here and here; read some of my fellow Ukraine RPCV’s thoughts here and here), I thought it would be interesting to get some perspective from Ukrainians whom I worked with during my time in the Peace Corps: former pupils, colleagues, English-clubbers, and friends. Many are in Sniatyn and the southwest, far from the main protests, but some are in Kyiv, closer to the action. Here is what they say, in chronological order (I have made some small edits for clarity):

My pupil O.V., who is at university in Poland, wrote on 1 December [right at the beginning of the protests]: “I think that is awful, the situation in Ukraine is not so good. Many people go to the Independent square and try to protect our country. Our president don’t want to go to the EU. In my opinion it’ll be better for Ukraine to sign the agreement with the EU. Polish people support us, they dissagree with Yanukovych. I suppose that the situation will be better.”

Another pupil, I.L., who has finished school, wrote on 4 December: “I think it is good and bad, like 2 in 1. Because we have police Berkut who beates people [a lot]. I heard about it []. I disapointed so much. It is not good for us! One young girl has died. It is so sad 😦
But I think Ukraine will be in EU!”

My friend and pupil, K.K., now an 11th-former, wrote on 4 February: “Actually, the situation in Ukraine is quite tragic. I don’t know if you’ve heard but lots of people faced the violence of the police and are injured, tortured and some of them are even dead because of this. Definitely, it’s all the authority’s fault. People in Sniatyn are worried very much, of course.”

An English-clubber, D.R., from Sniatyn but now working in Kherson (on the NW coast of the Black Sea), wrote on 7 February“Concerning the situation in the country – it is very stressful. The views about federalization of the country became very common in all regions… Three weeks ago it was still a peaceful protest. But then it grew into the violent confrontation (which is currently stalled). In most, people on the east and south think that all protest actions are finance[ed] by the U.S. The media say differently, so people have different views. The truth is that [the] government actions [are] causing this conflict… Maybe it does not sound good, but euromaidan is the confrontation between the educated independent part of society and [the] part, for which there would be a better life in the Soviet Union… The only thing that unites people, is the wish about peaceful quick ending..”

An English-clubber, Y.S., now at university in Kyiv, wrote on 5 March:

I am okay after that extremely dangerous events on Maidan,though I know a couple of guys who were brave and a litle bit mad and they have been wounded(for example,a grenade [burst] near the shoulder).Of course,they have fought on the [front] barricades…
I should say that last 3 months were completely special for me as well as for the Ukrainian people.Firstly I came there on…22 [] December and had been staying till January.At that time it was my everyday life. Then on the second day of Euromaidan nobody would have thought about SUCH consequences…As you know,peaceful demonstations have [evolved] a lot during all this time.Frankly speaking,my friend and I could easily [have been] present at Maidan on the night of 30 December(when the students were beaten by Berkut).Fortunately,we took the taxi at 2 a.m. and went home…they were pursuing the students on that night to beat [them] more and more…
Now Kyiv is [safe].People at Maidan are grieved,but they feel great support from all Kyiv. Grief unites people.It is extremely valuable experience for our nation which didn’t want to stand bandit regime anymore. But we have a problem with Eastern and Southern regions. Well,Putin consolidated the Ukrainians as well as Yanukovich did(all the people are against war),but still there are those who want[] to separate. You know,Russian TV has terrible influence on Crimean people…

A friend (and fellow runner) R.T., who lives and works in Kyiv, wrote on 6 March:

It is important to know people understand what is really going on in Ukraine.

These days in Kiev it is pretty calm. It used to be quite difficult during last 3 months and especially during the days when they killed people.

I was on Maydan during protests bringing food. When they were shooting people I helped with medicines in hospital.

Now Ukraine is bleeding but Russia invaded Ukraine with plans to seize Crimea peninsula[]…my nationality is Russian I was born there and spent my childhood, but I love Ukraine, Ukrainian language and people here. When I talk to my relatives from Russia I can’t believe they tell bad things about Ukrainian revolution and Maydan. For some reason Russian TV channels deliver false information about what is going on in Ukraine. Sad to know that, I am ashamed for my motherland.

The revolution has finally happened. We have won. 94 people were killed during protests and clashes with “police”. Too big price…can you imagine people were killed in the very center on Maydan. Minister of internal affairs (chief guy of police) says there was another power who killed people. Investigation is still in progress but they are going to publish results. We will see.

My friend N.K., who owns a shop but travels regularly to Odessa for business, wrote on 7 March: “…from last week [to] today all of us [talk] about war only.It’s very hard.I am afraid to go to Odessa.[Those] people don’t understand why the western part of Ukraine [want] to Europe.”

My pupil, V.R., now at university in Kyiv, wrote on 9 March: “In our University and campus everything was ok, Some of my groupmate’s went to the maidan a few times during the demonstrations, but they wasn’t there when the main attacks was. Atmosphere was hard in some areas was dangerous to go out. Also shops became empty very fast, because roads to Kyiv were closed. Many of Our students decided to start patroling our Campus to protect those who stayed here. But everything was quiet here. I don’t even worried about my safety because I knew that we will protect each other. Only yesterday I have been on the Maidan and Institutska street. My mother and I tried to find the place where our family friend died. It was terrible to see all this people, all this flowers, I felt myself guilty because I haven’t been there, but from the other hand my parents couldn’t live if something happened with me there. Now we have a new problem it’s the Crimea and I hope that Europe and The US wouldn’t let Russia to get it. As one of my teacher’s said at this moment we can do only one thing studying. It will help us to overcome this threat with over intelligence, so that’s what”

It’s amazing to read these different perspectives, from young people studying at school and university to those in the workforce, in Sniatyn, Kyiv, and elsewhere. I hope, along with them, that things are resolved soon.

Unrest Continues in Ukraine

At the end of November, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of signing an Association Agreement with the EU. Pro-EU protestors took to the streets in Kyiv and around the country. (Read my post about the early days of protest here.) Two months later, protests are still going on and have become increasingly violent, especially in the wake of Yanukovych signing in laws that “severely curtail media rights and regulations on public gatherings,” which Sweden’s foreign minister called “the most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament for decades.” This article has a clear explanation of the legislation, and this poster has begun circulating on the Internet:

New articles, essays, and editorials are appearing every day as the world keeps a close eye on the rising tensions in Ukraine. Ukrainians are taking to the streets and occupying government buildings in other — mostly western Ukrainian — cities (including Chernivtsi and Ivano-Frankivs’k, the two cities between which I lived during my time in the Peace Corps). Last week, two people were killed during protests in Kyiv. Here are a few particularly good write-ups on the current situation:

At this stage, however, the United States and Europe need to do more than hand out treats. They must make clear their opposition to violence, as the State Department did on Wednesday when it urged everyone to calm down, faulted the government for not engaging in serious dialogue and for approving anti-democratic laws, and criticized the extreme-right group Pravy Sektor for aggression.

Now that blood has been shed, there is a real risk that the clashes could spread beyond central Kiev, rendering a peaceful solution less viable. But the West must also make abundantly clear to Mr. Yanukovich and his lieutenants that they will pay a price if they try to use the talks simply to gain time, or if they order a bloody crackdown.

If you want to read beyond what’s above, I’ve posted lots of good articles and editorials on my Google+ page. Please keep Ukraine and her people in your thoughts.

Unrest in Ukraine

The protests started when Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president, announced at the last minute that he wouldn’t sign an association agreement with the EU. There had been build-up to the Vilnius summit for months, and things looked positive for Ukraine’s signing the agreement, which would have granted Ukraine free trade with the EU and done other good political things — until Yanukovych abruptly backpedaled. He claimed that pressure from Russia (i.e., Putin) was too strong and he was afraid that signing the agreement would piss Putin off. Yet as I see it, Ukraine would benefit much more from free trade with the EU, and from the agreement’s implication of moving Ukraine closer toward integration with western Europe.

Apparently many Ukrainians shared my thoughts, because they took to the streets in Kyiv and around the country to protest Yanukovych’s backing down from signing the agreement. At the end of last week, the peaceful protests turned violent when riot police showed up in the middle of the night and started beating protestors. That only made people come out in greater numbers. More than ten days later, the protests are still going on; hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are out in the streets. Protests are still going on in Ukraine and elsewhere — even London.

Media is playing a big role in aiding the protests; tons of stuff is being blasted out via Facebook and online news platforms. The main marker being used for the protest movement is Євромайдан (“Euromaidan”), to represent people gathering in “maidans,” or squares — most largely in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) — to protest in favor of moving closer to Europe.

It’s thrilling to watch the Ukrainian people fight so hard for democracy and freedom that being associated more closely with the EU would represent. Part of me wishes I were there to join in — living and working in western Ukraine for two years during my Peace Corps service definitely turned me into a big supporter of the country and its people. Sniatyn even had their own pro-EU gathering a couple of days ago, which I would’ve loved to attend. I am rooting so hard for the Ukrainians, following the news closely, and hoping that things turn out well.

That’s a very basic summary, but there is a lot of history behind the current movement — most notably the 2004 Orange Revolution, but also going further back to Soviet and pre-Soviet times. If you want to read more about what’s been going on and why, check out some of the articles below; I’ve tried to pull out the most interesting bits, but many of them are worth reading in full.

  • For some backgroundThe New York Times ran a clear, succinct opinion piece near the beginning of the protests, called “Ukraine on the Brink.” I recommend reading that first to understand where all of this comes from in Ukraine’s history. Business Insider‘s “Why 1 Million Ukrainians are Protesting” also gives a relatively non-biased overview, complete with media, of the protests and the history behind them. Forbes published another great overview, “Why Ukraine Matters” (for a lot of reasons!), in neat sections.
  • “Ukraine’s Battle for Europe” focuses on the younger generation of Ukrainians leading the protests and how mass media has aided the movement. The writer of the piece, Oleh Kotsyuba, puts it well:

The protesters have at times called for resignations, impeachments and new elections. But what’s most striking is their association of Europe with a set of values that results in absence of corruption, a strong social safety net, an inclusive health-care system, fair wages, a stable currency and a responsible government that delivers reliable services and treats citizens with respect. For them, these were even more valuable than the tangible benefits of joining the E.U., like the right to work in other European countries and the prospect of big European investments in Ukraine.

What the European Union and other Western nations can do is to start looking into ways to make an “association agreement” with Ukraine less threatening to Russia. It’s worth exploring, for instance, whether Russia itself could be brought more closely into the European fold. Another possibility is to see how freer trade with Europe could be made compatible with Ukraine’s eastern trade ties. Once Ukraine is ready to start looking around, it should not again have to face a brutal either-or choice that Mr. Putin seems determined to impose.

Six months ago, a dozen Ukrainians would have been unlikely to rally for the pro-EU agreement. What changed? Certainly, Friday’s crackdown provided a spark.

For that, Yanukovich may have no one to blame but himself. The president’s own propaganda machine spent months touting the benefits of the EU agreement, raising the hopes of millions of Ukrainians who want to see their country as part of a European, not Russian, frontier. Whether Yanukovich intended to sign the accords or was negotiating with Putin all along is irrelevant now. Dashing the hopes of millions of people is a dangerous game.

[…] When fear of a strongman begins to melt, so does his power. Seeing hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Kiev may have emboldened members of the country’s elite to begin to move against the president. Ukraine’s rapacious [oligarchs] may—for the first time—have found common ground with their increasingly impoverished compatriots in getting rid of a tyrant.

  • Here’s an interesting angle: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Kyiv Patriarchate, traditionally tied quite closely to the government, is actually supporting the pro-EU protestors. Read about it in “Kiev Protestors See Potent Ally Under a Spire.”
  • Masha Gessen, one of my favorite opinion writers for The New York Times who also happens to be Russian, wrote “A Whiter Shade of Envy” about how the Russian intelligentsia are amazed at — and admire — what the Ukrainians are doing and (hopefully) accomplishing. Gessen’s essays are always worth reading.
  • In “Amid Unrest, Ukrainian President Defends Choice on Accords,” you can read about the lame excuses (lies?) that Yanukovych made up about why he didn’t sign the EU association agreement.
  • “Crackdown in Kiev: Battle for Ukraine” in The Economist focuses on the violence that broke out last weekend, initiated by special riot police at the cowardly hours of early morning.
  • For fear of seeming totally biased in favor of Ukraine (which I am, but still), there was an op-ed published this week in the New York Times taking a more pro-Russia — or at least anti-EU — stance in terms of Ukraine’s position. The author or “How the E.U. Pushed Ukraine East” does make some interesting points about how Russia isn’t totally to blame in Yanukovych’s failure to sign the EU association agreement. Worth a read, if you’re interested in another perspective. Though I don’t agree with all of it, I do see the value of the claim that “Instead of adopting a strategy that would have allowed Ukraine to capitalize on its close cultural, religious and economic ties with Russia, and which could have also served to build deeper ties between Western Europe and Russia, from the outset European negotiators went out of their way to turn Union association into a loyalty test.” 

Things are happening fast and there are tons of news updates every day — way too many for me to follow them all, but I’m trying to stay as up-to-date as I can. Hopefully my overview will give you a better sense of what’s happening and spark your interest to pay more attention to Ukraine, now and in the future.