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By Christopher Thornton


The Montréal Review, January 2019


The Window (1912) by Alexei Korin (Donetsk Regional Art Museum)


Institutskaya Street, linking the Kreshchatik metro station to the Kiev Maidan, or central square, has become a cordon of memorials.  Impromptu at first, they have acquired the appearance of permanence.  Black-and-white headshots of both men and women, many young but some middle-aged, line the street.  All are housed in small stone shrines and many are adorned with flowers left by still mourning relatives, close friends, and other well-wishers.  Others hang on trees decorated with plastic bouquets whose colors have long faded.  The tools of a people’s resistance—home-made gas masks, car tires, metal shields, and orange construction helmets, signifying the Orange Revolution of 2004, are piled in makeshift memorials.  There is an atmosphere of religious devotion along Institutskaya, but the homage is solely political.  The memorial honors the protestors killed in the 2010 demonstrations that ultimately led to the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych, long seen as a stooge of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and an obstacle to further democratization and Ukraine’s westward tilt.

All that is now in the past.  Another conflict has gripped Ukraine, as the country is held hostage by a war that is not really a war, at least in the conventional sense.  It could be called a ghost war, fought by unidentifiable combatants, and the motives and endgame evade definition.  They have been lost in the murky world of geopolitics.

 To better understand the mess that has become eastern Ukraine we must backtrack, first to 2004.  A presidential election that pitted western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko again pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich gave the victory to Yanukovich, despite exit polls that handed the election to Yushchenko by an 11 percent margin. Thousands of protestors filled Kiev’s Maidan from November 2004 to February 2005.  The Orange Revolution had begun.  A rerun of the election was ordered by Ukraine’s Supreme Court, and this time Yushchenko was clearly declared the winner, by 8 percent of the vote.

Ukraine’s political problems were not over.  In the 2010 presidential election Yanukovich defeated Yushchenko, despite widespread claims of voting irregularities and election fraud.  Protestors again filled Kiev’s Maidan, though this time the outcome was more deadly.  Over 100 men and women lost their lives, now memorialized along Institutskaya.  Four years later protests again erupted, and this time they forced Yanukovich from power.  Moscow’s “Man in Ukraine” had been toppled.  But then, to paraphrase Hans Christian Andersen, the curious became curiouser.  Days after Yanukovich fled Ukraine for Moscow, “soldiers” wearing army fatigues without insignias appeared on the Crimean Peninsula, “little green men,” as referred to by the international media.  In March 2014, a hastily thrown together referendum, deplored by international monitoring agencies, passed the Crimea back to Russian control.   

Russia’s argument that historically the Crimea is and always has been Russian territory is worth a hearing.  In December 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet authorized the transfer of the Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in a move later claimed as unconstitutional because only 13 of the 27 members—one short of a quorum—were on hand to vote.  Nevertheless, the transfer was approved.  Despite the controversy surrounding the move, it stuck.  As recently as 1997 a treaty designating Ukraine’s borders, signed by Russia and Ukraine, place the Crimea within Ukraine.

Still, the reasons for the transfer remain as murky as the current conflict.  Nina Krushchevna, daughter of Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, has claimed that her father always had a soft spot for Ukraine and wanted to give the territory back to the republic in honor of the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, under which the Ukrainian Cossacks formally aligned themselves with the Russian tsars.  There is also an argument based on supra-nationalism.  Since the Crimea was also home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, with Ukraine ruling over the Crimea the two republics would be forever “bound at the foot.”  What is clear is that the transfer quickly resulted in a large influx of Russian migrants.  One million ethnic Russians moved to the Crimea, replacing the Tatars who had been expelled to central Asia only 10 years earlier.  Another fact, not to be overlooked, is that in 1954 the two republics were part of the same nation, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union could not have been envisioned beyond the most distant of horizons. 

Nevertheless, what was done was done, and so what was done in 2014 could in Russian eyes be seen an “historical correction.”  Following the referendum, Simferopol was designated the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the annexation of the peninsula, or its return to Russian sovereignty, appeared complete.  

Russian designs on Ukrainian territory were far from over.  In August, convoys of military vehicles—armored personal carriers, jeeps, tanks, and trucks painted nondescript white—rolled across the border with the assistance of Russian loyalists in Ukraine.  Three months later, tanks and heavy weapons continued to flow across the border, fighting erupted between the Ukrainian military and this ghost army, made up of Russian sympathizers and—according to the line from Moscow—Russian volunteers.  The now “independent republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk were turned into war zones.

Since then the war in Ukraine has become combat without identifiable combatants, and the Ukrainian forces have been left to battle a ghost army.  For the separatist forces in the Ukraine’s east it is a rebel conflict.  Media pundits call it a proxy war between Russia and an amorphous “West.”  Xenophobic elements in Russia, along with pro-Russian elements in Ukraine, refer to it as a struggle for independence.  The only undisputed fact is that tanks and military trucks have rolled through Lugansk and Donetsk without identifying insignias, a violation of international law, and “local defense forces,” “rebel brigades,” and “volunteers,” in Kremlin-speak, have appeared wearing green combat fatigues and carrying weapons they claim to have purchased at army surplus stores. 

 Call it a war, call it a rebellion, whatever is going on in eastern Ukraine represents another form of warfare in which not only the participants but the motives and endgame defy definition.  And for that reason concepts like higher purpose, national sovereignty, and cultural identity, along with many others that have justified warfare have been revealed for what they are, distant abstractions, alien to the horror that warfare brings.

I was in Ukraine two years ago and wanted to return to see what had changed since the heady days of Orange Revolution euphoria, when crowds filled the Maidan demanding the ouster of Yanukovich.  Some were obvious: the rolls of toilet paper bearing the likeness of Vladimir Putin on sale at card tables outside metro stations; soldiers in combat fatigues strolling the streets; recruiting posters for the Ukrainian army hanging in St. Andrew’s, St. Michael’s, and other churches that stand as monuments to Ukraine’s religious history. 

Other signs of the war were less apparent.  Souvenir stands always did a brisk business peddling delicately embroidered peasant shirts, usually reserved for national holidays, but now Ukrainians were wearing them as casual attire, pulled out of closets for weekend jaunts in the nation’s capital, and they had even become the uniform of café waitresses.  Teenage girls pranced through city parks donning garlands of plastic flowers. It was not clear how to read of these symbols of Ukraine’s rural heritage.  Were they a call to nationalism, a plea for the innocence of another time, or a bit of both?  It was hard to say.  They, too, had lost their meaning, or the statement they intended to make had been lost in the ambiguity of the moment.

Despite this appearance of national unity, the war frayed the national fabric.

“This isn’t a country anymore,” Larisa told me one afternoon at an Italian restaurant near the Zoloti Vorota, or Golden Gate, a recreation of the southern entrance to the city along its medieval walls.  The setting itself was a looming metaphor.  The walls had been built in the 11th century by Yaroslav the Wise, leader of the Kieven Rus’, to protect the city from hostile incursions at a time when bands of Slavic tribes still roamed the surrounding plains. 

Larisa was from Donetsk but a full-blooded Ukrainian.  Nevertheless, the war had taken a toll on both human patience and national spirit.

“This country doesn’t do anything for its people,” she said.  “It stops the aid trucks because they think they are carrying weapons.  Everything we had came from the other side of the border.  At least Putin has done something for us.”

It wasn’t hard to imagine that Putin’s motives for sending aid to eastern Ukraine weren’t purely tactical—to whip up Russian support not being the least of them—but it would have been useless to point this out.  Larisa was fed up with the war, and like Ukraine itself, her life was in limbo.  She worked for a company that manufactured window trimmings, but as the war wore on business dried up, and so she had come to Kiev to stay with her daughter until tensions eased.  But weeks had dragged into months, leaving her marooned in her daughter’s one-bedroom apartment.

“It became impossible to live there,” she went on.  “The bombs were falling every day.  It begins to drive you crazy.  Everything had closed, the shops hardly had anything.”

I asked about local sentiment and the toll that the war had taken.

“When it started the people were split about evenly, and there were Ukrainians who were pro-Russia, and Russians who were pro-Ukraine.  Now almost everyone is pro-Russia.  I can’t even talk to my relatives on the other side of the border, and the Russians there don’t talk to their relatives here.”

Among Ukraine’s youth the war had also short-circuited aspirations, truncated career planes.  Larisa’s daughter has a degree from a British university and was working in the marketing department of a cosmetics firm for $300 a month.  Her rent was $500.  How did she get by?  “Her father helps her out,” Larisa explained.  Her daughter had received a job offer from a company in Slovenia, and Larisa was encouraging her to leave.

“I would leave too,” she said, “if I could find a job somewhere else.” 

But for the time being she was headed west, to Baden-Baden, Germany, to celebrate her birthday away from the strife and uncertainty of Ukraine.

This view was very different from what I had heard from Elena, a friend from Dnipropetrovsk, or Dnipro, as the city is now known. Dnipro is also east of Kiev, about halfway between the capital and the occupied provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk.  The suffix -petrovsk has been removed from the city’s name because it signified Russian heritage, a sign of how far west antipathy to Russia had spread.  Dnipro’s move had been part of a decades-long trend.  De-russification throughout Ukraine had been under way ever since independence, on August 24, 1991.  The eastern city of Kharkov became Kharkiv, Lvov became Lviv, and streets and squares throughout the country were renamed to honor Ukrainian national figures. 

“There were no problems before the war,” Larisa said.  “Most Ukrainians and Russians didn’t even know who was who.  Then the Russians invaded.  Putin kept saying he had to protect the Russian minority in eastern Ukraine.  From what?  Nobody knew.”

A step back in time may add some clarity to today’s crisis.  During the communist era Soviet citizens moved around what was then a single country for the same reasons that most people relocate—jobs, family relationships, educational opportunities, military assignments.  The monolithic Soviet Union was a grab bag of cultures and ethnicities.  But there was a single unifier—the Soviet state, which dominated everyone’s lives, for better or worse.  Russians moved to the Republic of Ukraine, Ukrainians moved to Russian republic.  Katrina, another Russian friend of mine, is an example of what may have been called “internal migration.”  She was born in Bologoye, about halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, but moved to Tashkent as a child because her father was a general in the Soviet army.  Now she has a Uzbek passport and is officially a Uzbek citizen, though she identifies herself as Russian. 

On my previous trip to Ukraine, in 2015, I had traveled west, far west, to Lviv, formerly Lwow, or Lvov, depending on variations in Latin spelling.  Under the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was also briefly called Lemberg.  However it is named or spelled, Lviv has played the role of geopolitical football for centuries, primarily between Ukraine and neighboring Poland, though the Habsburgs in Vienna had a turn at control.

For several hundred years Lviv had been a Polish city, with a Polish majority and a Polish culture, but soon after the Nazi invasion of September 1939 it found itself on the other side of the Soviet border.  As part of their grand bargain to control Europe, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had settled on dividing Poland between them.  Shortly after the Nazi invasion, with the Polish state under occupation, a referendum was held to determine Lviv’s fate.  The residents faced a Hobson’s choice—align themselves with the German invaders or the communist superpower to the east.  The east seemed the safest choice, but much like the hastily organized 2014 vote in the Crimea, the poll in Lviv was also widely regarded as illegitimate.  Legitimate or not, it redrew the border of Poland and the Soviet Union—and Ukraine in particular.

The takeover of the Donbas, as the region of eastern Ukraine is known, was only the most recent episode in a series of land swaps and transfers of sovereignty that have taken place for the last thousand years. 

For much of the interwar period Lviv, prior to World War II, Lviv had been the capital of the West Ukrainian People's Republic.  An uprising of the Ukrainian minority briefly handed the city back to Ukraine.  But under the terms of the Peace of Riga, the city was passed back to Poland and became a regional capital under Polish administration.

Poland and Ukraine were not the only contestants for control of Lviv.  In 1772, the Habsburgs annexed Lviv and continued to rule the city throughout the 19th century.  Before the Habsburgs appeared, Lviv had already been a longstanding prize in the battles of regional powers.  In the 17th and 18th centuries the city was besieged by the Swedes, Romanians, Cossacks from Ukraine, and the armies of the Ottoman Empire.  In the 14th century, Lviv became an important hub for goods moving between the Baltic and Black seas, and the trade became the foundation of its eventual wealth.  At the height of the medieval era it was held, off and on, by the crowns of Poland, Hungary, and Grand Duchy of Lithuania.  Instability had been written into Lviv’s history from its very beginning.  In 1256, only five years after the city was founded, it was invaded by the Tatars from central Asia.  Near the end of the 10th century, Ukraine and a newly forming, upstart Polish state fought for its control, a battle finally won by Volodymyr the Great, leader of the Kievan Rus’.  Few things may be clear about the present conflict in Ukraine, but it cannot be doubted that borders in these far-flung eastern European states have been constantly challenged and in constant flux.  Warring tribes, armies under an array of flags, super-nationalist Cossacks, and “little green men” have tugged at the fringes of the territory as long as there has been a strategic interest in doing so.

Whether or not this long and fractious history bears any weight on the present state of affairs, it was clear that the further west one traveled in Ukraine anti-Russian sentiment only deepened.  In the middle of the Lviv’s square boasting a monolithic statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet and 19th-century literary icon, a military tent had been set up to recruit Ukrainian youth for the armed forces.  To reinforce the extent of the threat further east, a military vehicle, riddled with bullets, its mirrors broken and windows shattered, was parked under the intimidating shadow of Taras Shevchenko.  On the terraces of outdoor pubs, Ukrainian soldiers, on leave from the war in the east, nibbled on sausages doused with spicy mustard and sipped beer from plastic cups.

But that was then.  This time I ventured eastward, not as far as the shooting galleries of Donetsk or Lugansk, whose borders are now controlled by Russian forces, but to Zaporozhye, a regional capital on the Dnieper River southeast of Kiev.  Russian, not Ukrainian, is the common language, though the population is a mix of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.  The region is most well known as the base of the Zaporizhian Cossacks, the ragtag collection of mercenaries, many of them runaway serfs, who defended the territory from foreign invasion between the 15th and 19th centuries.  They also mastered the art of political gamesmanship, allying themselves, as well as fighting, the Russians, Ottomans, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  The Cossacks excelled in marksmanship and horsemanship, skills much prized on the battlefield, and became such a formidable fighting force that they hired themselves out to defend neighboring feudal lords.  An outdoor museum on Khortitsa Island, in the middle of the Dnieper, honors the Cossack legacy.  The Cossacks had established a fortress here in 1552, and today on summer afternoons would-be Cossacks recreate the military expertise of their ancestors in scripted performances.  As the audience bears witness, slurping sodas and licking ice cream cones, the Cossacks shoot arrows at straw-packed targets, engage in hand-to-hand combat with bared swords, and dodge arrows riding horseback.  The show, part entertainment, part history lesson, carries deeper resonance with its audience, who are left to wonder—how would the Cossacks have fared against the ‘little green men” from the east? 

One night in Zaporozhye I had dinner with Tatyana, another Ukrainian friend and an ethnic Russian, at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant on Khortitsa Island.  Her multi-ethnic background is reflective of many of today’s “Russians.”  She is also part Tajik but was born in Siberia and moved to Zaporozhye with her parents when she was four.  Russian may be her first language, but her loyalties are indisputably Ukrainian.

“We don’t know what Putin wants,” she told me, “to bring back the Soviet Union?  To recreate imperial Russia?  We have no idea, but whatever it is it will come at the expense of Ukraine.”

Her anti-Russian sensibilities transcended the present crisis.  One of her favorite writers is Nikolai Gogol—Ukrainian, not Russian, she was quick to point out—but Russia claims him as one of its own, she was also quick to point out.  “They steal everything from us, our heritage, our culture, now our land.”

I thought it would be interesting to visit to the Crimean Peninsula— to assess the state of tension, to take the local temperature, to see what had changed, or hadn’t, since the phony plebiscite that had handed the peninsula back to Russian rule.  I asked Tatyana if she might come along as an interpreter.  Her reply was clear and unequivocal, unlike the war that is not really a war: “I will never step foot in the Crimea until it is back in Ukrainian hands”

War has many casualties.  Truth may be the first, but its cousins, clarity and objectivity soon follow, and this is no more true than in today’s conflict in eastern Ukraine.  Winston Churchill described Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  He had no idea he was describing not only the Soviet Union but the conflicts of a post-Soviet world.


Christopher Thornton teaches in the writing program at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  For 5 years he was a correspondent for the U.S. State Department’s International Information Programs, writing articles on Arab/Muslim life in the U.S. and the U.S.’s role in the Gulf region.  Before relocating to the UAE, he taught for 12 years in writing programs at MIT and Emerson College, in the Boston area, the American University in Cairo, and the European Institute for International Communication, in Maastricht, the Netherlands.  In 2019 a book-length travel narrative he wrote about traveling in Iran will be published by Potomac Books, the commercial arm of the University of Nebraska Press.


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