Ukraine, one of Europe’s largest and most populous countries, rich in both history and geography, remains for many something of a ‘mystery wrapped in an enigma’. As someone who happens to be Ukrainian by birth, I am often (much too often) mistaken for a person of uncertain identity at best and in the worst and most frequent scenarios, for a ‘Russian’ in all but name.
‘So, as a Ukrainian, you must be thrilled with Russia’s World Cup progress?’ I was asked the other day by one British colleague, to whom I had to explain patiently that supporting (even if only in soccer) a country which has annexed a chunk of my native land and is also conducting a proxy war against it would be unusual at best, masochistic at worst.
As for good books about Ukraine available in the UK, there are probably more on offer than about say, Kiribati, yet considerably fewer than those on Estonia. It is mildly ironic therefore that Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland, one of the best works on Ukraine’s highly peculiar geography, history and modernity I’ve ever come across, has been translated from German. Its original title, Decisions in Kiev: Ukrainian Lectures (as used in the author’s native Germany) has been changed in translation to correspond to yet another common stereotype of Ukraine as that of a ‘borderland’ – a view so widespread in the UK that three out of five books which pop up after a random Amazon search for ‘Ukraine’ have the words ‘border’ or ‘borderland’ in their titles.
Yes, the word Ukraina did mean ‘the land at the edge’ (often interpreted as ‘province’) in the old Russian, but the excessive focus on the country’s borders inevitably means that most of the above-mentioned books focus not so much on Ukraine, as on the complicated and often tempestuous relations with her big brother neighbour – Russia.
That is, of course, a very important issue which Schlögel, a renowned German writer and historian, does not ignore. Yet what makes his book different is that he looks at the county from within, helping the reader discover the country’s geographical regions and its provincial cities: Dnepropetrovsk, Lviv, Chernowitz, Yalta – all but unknown in the West.
Those cities include my native town of Kharkiv, which used to be Ukraine’s capital between 1919 and 1934, and has now found itself close to the frontline on the heavily fortified Russian border (you can’t entirely avoid borders when talking about modern Ukraine). The description of Kharkiv and its formerly overcrowded railway terminal, now semi-deserted due to the cancellation of all train routes to and from Russia, are to me among the most poignant parts of this thoroughly researched and beautifully written book.
As Schlögel himself points out repeatedly, the struggle for Ukraine’s future is not going to end any time soon. Books such as this inspire hope that the struggle is not in vain and that Ukraine will eventually emerge as a fully fledged European state – not just ‘a country at the edge’.
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