Agnieszka Holland's film Mr Jones (2019) tells the story of how a young journalist tried to break the Soviet news embargo on the Holodomor, a famine engineered by the Stalin regime to wipe out the population of Ukraine in 1932-3. The scale of civilian carnage in the current Russian invasion has sparked renewed awareness of this previous genocidal campaign.
After witnessing the horrors on an illicit journey into the worst-affected regions, Gareth Jones returns to London, where he is introduced to the debut author George Orwell. "Speak the truth," Orwell counsels sternly. Yet it transpires that Orwell has no more appetite for the realities of the situation than the editors who reject the story: it conflicts too radically with the political narrative to which he has committed himself.
Now that we have multiple reporters on the ground, we no longer have to depend on the witness of a lone truth-teller to know what is happening, but the conflict of interpretations is rife. Pundits widely trusted for their political wisdom are proving no more reliable than the young Orwell because, like him, they are too wedded to ready-made perspectives, and too far removed from the actualities.
If you want genuine insights rather than empty grand-standing, go to those who have made long-term study of the evolving political situation between Russia and Ukraine, who know the languages and understand the cultural contexts. And it's necessary to read books, not just opinion pieces.
Given publishers' timelines, we have yet to see books addressing the situation since the February 24 invasion, though many authors are offering updates of existing books and all the authors mentioned here have an online presence, participating in forums and lectures, and responding on twitter to unfolding events.
In Ukraine and Russia: from civilised divorce to uncivil war (Cambridge University Press, 2019), Paul D'Anieri combines a historical and social science approach to map the evolving geopolitical landscape in the aftermath of the cold war. He emphasises the need to understand historic factors, and addresses the encroaching influences of NATO, the European Union and the United States on a conflict whose recurring flashpoints lead to resurgence of wider cold-war tensions.
D'Anieri specialises in lucid strategic analysis, identifying the stress-lines without participating in them, an approach he has continued to take in on-line commentary. With the massive civic destruction and continuing atrocities of the Russian onslaught, his even-handed detachment may seem too clinical to some readers, but he provides a helpful overview of the geopolitical chess-game without the generic NATO-blaming popular in some quarters.
Serhy Yekelchyk's Ukraine: What everyone needs to know (Oxford University Press, revised edition, 2020) is structured as a sequence of key questions, making for useful quick reference on the various historical aspects of the conflict. As someone who grew up in Kyiv, Yekelchyk offers a warmer and more involved perspective than d'Anieri, conveying a sense of what is at stake for the Ukrainian people.
The 2022 invasion is a war of repercussions. It's impossible to understand Ukrainian resistance without some knowledge of the Orange Revolution of 2004, the Maidan Square uprising of 2014 and subsequent Russian annexation of the Crimea.
The history becomes more contentious as it becomes more recent, and more heavily invested with propaganda.
What has been the nature of US "support" for Ukraine in the past two decades? What moves did Zelensky make in negotiations with Russia? Those keen to accuse Ukraine of failing to reach a compromise might be surprised to learn that early in his presidency he provoked widespread protests for "recklessly accepting Putin's demands" and failing to insist on the withdrawal of troops in the occupied areas as a precondition for granting autonomy.
The people are a determining influence, as they have proved time and again. Yale historian Timothy Snyder, fluent in Russian and Ukrainian, embraces the people's story and turns up the heat in his analysis of Putin's role in the conflict. Snyder sees in the dynamics of totalitarianism from the citizen's perspective, in his books The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (Tim Duggan Books, 2019), and On Tyranny (Crown Publishing, 2017).
The latter has recently been issued as an updated audio-book with eight hours of new content on Ukraine. This is yet to be published in Australia, though Snyder's responses to the ongoing horrors are expressed in numerous public talks and forums online. In stern dissent from commentary that portrays the Ukrainian people as pawns on the geopolitical chessboard, he sees them as the front-line in a global contest over the survival of democracy itself.
"Ukrainians understand that the object of this war is to wipe them out as a people," he said in a recent discussion forum. The grounds for this conviction are laid out extensively in his books, where in counterpoint to D'Anieri's strategic analysis, he explores the ideological and psychological determinants of Russian military aggression.
Putin's thinking, Snyder argues, is influenced by a cocktail of archaic nationalism and fascist ideology. His principle guide on the darkening road to unfreedom is Ivan Ilyin, who emerged as a counter-revolutionary after World War I, advocating violent methods in a determination to restore the nation to an ancient and eternal course of destiny.
A revival of Ilyin's ideas began in the 1990s, and from 2006, Putin began citing them in annual presidential addresses, directing his adviser Vladislav Surkov to find ways of disseminating them in new media. In a post-Cold War interpretation of Ilyin's vision, the unity of Russia and Ukraine becomes paramount; the 2014 Maidan uprising in Kyiv was the epicentre of an earthquake on a fault-line that continues to threaten.
If this perspective sounds esoteric, and therefore somehow irrelevant and improbable, history may serve to remind us of how often those who have exercised tyrannical power in the modern era have done so with a sense of predestination and mythic license.
Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen takes a similarly grim, equally cogent view of the determinations behind Putin's latest invasion in The Future is History; how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia (Riverhead Books, 2017). Gessen was present at the 2014 protests on the Maidan Square and crossed the barrier to talk to Russian troops, sitting with them far into the night, waiting for a moment when they would express unguarded thoughts.
The missiles may be far away, but a click on social media can pitch you into the propaganda wars. "How can one win an information war when the most dangerous part could be the idea of the information war itself?" asks Ukrainian-born social analyst Peter Pomerantsev in This is Not Propaganda (Faber, 2019). Pomerantsev has spent years studying focus groups in Russia and Ukraine, seeking insights into how people on opposite sides of the information divide form opinions. "We think the way to learn the truth is to look for something hidden," says Gessen. "The way is just to listen." The writers mentioned here continue to advocate the importance of listening, first and foremost, to reporters who are on the ground, close enough to hear the bombs.
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