Wild hearts: the Brontës built a mythology around the Yorkshire landscape. Photo: Michael Turek/Gallery Stock.
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The A-Z of northern fiction

From the bonny beck to the kitchen sink and Heathcliff to the angry young men, Frances Wilson explores the personality of writing from the north of England, while Philip Maughan asks how the land lies today.

In Writing Home, Alan Bennett describes having speech difficulties. He grew up to be fluent in two voices. There was “speaking properly”, like in the matinees at the Grand Theatre on a Saturday afternoon, and there was “being yourself”, which was how he was expected to speak at home in Leeds, where his father was a butcher. “Speaking properly” was metropolitan and they did it down south; “being yourself” was provincial, like it was up north. As a fledgling dramatist, what was he to do? Should he write about the middleclass life he knew from books or the life in a dull, northern town in the 1950s that was “largely unwritten about”?

The children in the stories Bennett read as a boy all “spoke properly”. They called their parents Mummy and Daddy and lived in a “down south” equipped with thatched cottages, millstreams, picnics on red-and-white chequered tablecloths, owls in hollow trees and sticklebacks in buckets. Leeds could provide none of these things, not even hollow trees, so his only option if he wanted life to be more like literature was to try replacing “Mam” with “Mummy”. This was discouraged by his father as a sign of social pretension and of not “being himself”.

My experience of childhood reading was the opposite of Bennett’s. My compass always faced north. As someone of no fixed abode whose family perched during my most impressionable years in the West Midlands, I didn’t have a book in my bedroom that didn’t take me up the M1. The north had personality – it almost seemed to be a person – whereas the south, slumbering beneath me, was only a place. The south was literature’s finishing school but the north undid etiquette; it was where people stopped talking properly and became themselves. It was in the north that the spoiled Mary Lennox found her secret garden in the tangled grounds of Misselthwaite Manor and turned from nasty to nice; the north was where E Nesbit’s “railway children” – Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter – sent their love to their father on the 9.15 train to London and where John, Susan, Titty and Roger camped on their Lake District isle in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Dracula landed in Whitby, Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White was set in Cumberland and West Riding provided Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and Catherine Earnshaw.

I would have loved then to have known the Newcastle of David Almond’s Skellig, where Michael befriends a Blakean angel in the garage. To me, the north was a place of courage and transformation while the south was about storing what you already had (sticklebacks in buckets).

Northern tales often contained two voices. In Wuthering Heights, some characters spoke “properly” while others, such as the servant Joseph, were so brazenly themselves that they seemed not to mind whether we understood them or not. Joseph’s vernacular was his badge of belonging: “T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld,” he would scowl. “Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.” Like the poet and playwright Tony Harrison, Joseph subjected everything, as Alan Bennett put it, “to one defiant Leeds voice”. When Mary Lennox speaks, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, her words fall dead on the page but the language of her servant Martha soars into flight. The moor, Martha explains, is “none bare. It’s covered wi’ growin’ things as smells sweet.”

I identify the north of my childhood reading with the heritage north catered for by the refurbished Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth and the dinky reconstruction of Wordsworth’s cottage in Grasmere. There was, I later learned, a less Laura Ashley experience of northern writing. A new school of writers emerged in the social transformation of postwar Britain and the kitchen sink replaced the bonny beck. Bennett’s “largely unwritten-about” world became the subject of the northern “lad lit” of John Braine, raised in an Irish-Catholic enclave of lower middle-class Bradford; Stan Barstow, a coal miner’s son from the outskirts of Wakefield; and the Leeds-born Keith Waterhouse.

“We had the temerity to think we could write,” said Barstow, “but [with] no teachers and no models.” Heathcliff and Rochester had morphed into the daydreaming William Fisher in Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1959), the upwardly mobile Joe Lampton in Braine’s Room at the Top (1957), Vic Brown in Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960) and the angry young Frank Machin, who leaves the pit to play league rugby in David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960).

The other England: (from top left) Thomas De Quincey,
John Braine, Charlotte Brontë and Alan Bennett
Photos: Bridgeman, Rex, Getty

 

The West Riding of Waterhouse, Braine and Barstow is isolated and landlocked, caught, as David Storey puts it, between “two deep and narrow valleys on the eastern slope of the Pennines”. Its “obsessively puritan” inhabitants operate on a “very simple morality: that work is good and that indolence is not so much deplorable or unfortunate as evil”. In Storey’s Wakefield mining community, the maxim is further simplified: physical work is good and mental work is evil.

In the opening pages of Room at the Top, Braine’s first novel, we read: “I came to Warley on a wet September morning with the sky the grey of Guiseley sandstone.” Warley is the name Braine gives to Bradford; Guiseley is a small town in the suburbs of north-west Leeds. We note the weather; the writing is spare. In an interview with J B Priestley – another Bradford man – Braine described his home town as dominated “more than any other in England . . . by a success ethos”, an ethos that is at the heart of his fiction. Joe Lampton comes to Warley from Dufton with the aim of earning £1,000 a year. He secures a desk job, joins the amateur dramatic society and gets the girls.

“It is hard now to convey,” Stan Barstow once said, “the importance of Room at the Top for a generation of writers from the north of England.” Braine’s novel allowed Barstow, Storey and Waterhouse “to hoe their own row”, to write about the world they knew “from the inside”.

In Billy Liar, William Fisher, working for the local undertaker and living with his parents in a small Yorkshire town, fantasises about life as a comedy writer in London. In Barstow’s A Kind of Loving, Vic Brown’s dreams end when he gets his girlfriend pregnant and, because there is a housing shortage, the couple move in with her mother.

What readers responded to in these novels (and in the films that they all became) was the primitive sexuality of the men. D H Lawrence, the last provincial writer to have risen to the top, had cleared the path in this respect. Working-class men, especially those with northern accents, were represented as more masculine than their middle-class counterparts who “spoke properly”. Working- class characters in books had, in the past, been described solely in terms of social economy, while middle-class characters were endowed with psychological depth. William Fisher and Vic Brown were given complex moral interiors; Billy constructed his own reality, while for all his banter about sex, it is love that Vic is looking for.

The 1960s was the decade of angry young men, lecherous young men, chancers, Jack the Lad figures and blokes. Gone were the effete, over-educated southerners such as Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, who had dominated the pre-war literary scene. So macho was the atmosphere that women such as Winifred Holtby, who had helped to shape the landscape, might be forgotten. Snootily described by Virginia Woolf as a Yorkshire farmer’s daughter who learned to read while feeding the pigs, Holtby was a socialist feminist who lectured for the League of Nations.

Her novel South Riding, later adapted for television by Stan Barstow (South Riding is a fictionalisation of Holtby’s native East Riding), was published in 1936, a year after her early death. A state-of-the-nation romance, the plot might be described as Jane Eyre uncovers local government corruption. Sarah Burton, an idealistic young headmistress, takes over a school in Kiplington (an amalgam of Hornsey and Withernsea) and gets involved in council politics; her nemesis, the conservative Robert Carne, proprietor of the dessicated Maythorpe Hall, eventually wins her heart.

Holtby was well aware that the accessibility of her writing was out of sync with the ethos of the Bloomsbury set. In her critical study of Virginia Woolf (which was published in 1932) – the first such book on Woolf to appear – Holtby weighed up the benefits of modernist and traditional fiction and found herself preferring literary democracy over elitism, the values of the north over those of the south.

If we follow a female line, Holtby is succeeded by Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge and Jeanette Winterson, who are rooted, respectively, in Yorkshire, Liverpool and Lancashire. She is preceded by the Knutsfordraised Elizabeth Gaskell, whose North and South (1855) appeared at around the same period as Dickens’s Hard Times. Both Gaskell and Dickens set their stories in Manchester, which Dickens called Coketown and Gaskell called Milton. While Dickens wrote from the position of a Londoner, Mrs Gaskell, who now lived in the great Cottonopolis, understood, as Charlotte Brontë said, “the genius of the north”.

A tale of two Englands, North and South describes the transformation of Margaret Hale from stuck-up southerner to informed observer of the Industrial Revolution. Her family moves from the tranquil Helstone, a place of thatched cottages and owls in hollow trees, to the smog-ridden Milton, a place of dust and tuberculosis. Their arrival coincides with a series of strikes at the local mill. Sympathising with the impoverished workers, Margaret clashes with the factory owner, the wrong but romantic John Thornton. By the close of the novel, she has learned to love not only the cotton mills but Thornton, too.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), written as a homage to her friend after her death, fuelled the myth of the elemental northern writer. The book begins in wailing wind, with a description of the Leeds and Bradford railway running through “a deep valley of the Aire”; Gaskell arrives in Haworth on a “dull, drizzly, Indian-inky day”.

The Brontë family is described as carved out of the landscape – as Ted Hughes, raised on the Pennine moorland would also seem – and Charlotte’s story is told as though she were a character from one of her novels. Yet the Brontës had already constructed their own mythology.

In a letter to Wordsworth, Branwell Brontë had said that he, like the poet, lived in “wild seclusion”, with only rocks and stones and trees for company. Haworth Parsonage was on the edge of the moor but it was not secluded; there was a village attached. Four miles away was Keighley, which, as Gaskell points out, with its “great worsted factories” and “rows of workmen’s houses”, could “hardly be called ‘country’”.

Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey in the
1959 adaptation of "Room at the Top"
Photo: Rex/Courtesy of Everett Collection

The Brontës’ model of the Romantic life came from the biographical sketches of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy by Thomas De Quincey, a Mancunian – a scandalous series of articles written for Blackwood’s Magazine in 1837. Today, Wordsworth is largely presented as the asexual spokesman of leech-gatherers and idiot boys but De Quincey described the poet, who was bourgeois to his marrow, as barely civilised and semi-incestuous. With his teeth bared and his eyes flashing, Wordsworth was fuelled by “animal appetites”. Dorothy, who her brother would kiss on the mouth, was also “beyond any person I have known in this world . . . the creature of impulse”.

Emily Brontë, who read Blackwood’s Magazine, surely based her tale of barely civilised and semi-incestuous siblings on this account of the Wordsworths. When I read Wuthering Heights, I am reminded of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journals, in which she describes the two and half years that she lived alone with her brother in Dove Cottage, before he married and was transformed from a wild, Heathcliff- like figure to a gentleman resembling the priggish Edgar Linton. The nature of Dorothy’s love for William, which is hard for us to understand, is replicated in Cathy’s well-known des cription of her love for Heathcliff. Less a pleasure than a necessity, it is like “the eternal rocks beneath”.

“We are all, at heart, Wordsworthians,” writes J B Priestley of his fellow northerners in English Journey (1934). He has reached the point of his tour at which he is heading home. The hills have become “solidly black, their edges very sharp against the last faint silver of the day”; they are beginning to take on “that Wordsworthian quality which belongs to the north”.

Native northerners, Priestley writes, “have to make an effort to appreciate a poet like Shelley, with his rather gassy enthusiasm and his bright Italian colouring; but we have Wordsworth in our very legs”. (Wordsworth’s legs, according to De Quincey, were not his best feature; short and stocky, they were suited only for contemplating nature. It was a pity that he did not have a spare pair for “evening dress parties”.)

It is one of the peculiarities of the Lake District that, apart from its effect on Wordsworth, the sublimity of the landscape stems the flow of creativity. Wordsworth’s aim in the Lyrical Ballads was to write in “the very language of men” (he rhymed “water” with “matter”) but the writers who followed him to Grasmere found themselves tongue-tied.

Wordsworth country quickly became, as Michael Neve has put it, a country called Wordsworth: he is the only poet able to grow in its soil. The poet in Coleridge died when he moved from the coombs of the Quantocks to the crags of the lakes. De Quincey, Wordsworth’s first fan, lived in Dove Cottage for over 20 years but – like Ted Hughes – did his best writing down south.

De Quincey set his store by poetry but produced not a line of his own verse; his autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, mentions the country called Wordsworth – now his own turf – only from a safe distance.

The young De Quincey, who has run away from Manchester Grammar School, finds himself homeless and hungry on Oxford Street in London, a copy of Lyrical Ballads in his pocket. It is Wordsworth he wants to meet and Words worth’s rural idyll that he wants to inhabit. Like Branwell Brontë, he has written to the poet to prove his Romantic credentials. It is a cold night and he looks “up every avenue in succession which pierces through the heart of Marylebone to the fields and the woods; for that, said I, travelling with my eyes up the long vistas which lay part in light and part in shade, ‘That is the road to the north, and therefore to [Wordsworth], and if I had the wings of a dove, that way I would fly for comfort.’”

This was Thomas De Quincey’s version of writing home.

***

Martin Amis v The Provinces

By Philip Maughan

The Arctic Monkeys knew what they were doing when they chose the title for their debut album. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, a line from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, perfectly captures the brooding, self-defeating energies that power northern fiction.

Billy Fisher, the protagonist in Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel Billy Liar, dreams of a life as a writer in London. But when the opportunity to begin a new life in the south presents itself, he opts not to get on the train. Likewise, Sillitoe’s lonely long-distance runner Colin Smith is a highly cognisant thief, who, at the point when he is about to win a competition and delight his borstal masters, stops running. The barrier to “success” is not his incapacity, or want of personal volition. It is the realisation that he is competing in someone else’s race.

In 1957, John Braine, the author of Room at the Top, wrote an affectionate yet satirical essay entitled “Portrait of a Provincial Intellectual” for the NS. The narrator mocks his own pretensions (freshly ground coffee, no more tea) and the local scene (“the Little Theatre and the Arts Group”) and ends with a familiar refrain: “The next time the London job was offered, he wouldn’t say no.”

Eighteen years later, Martin Amis scorned Braine’s sole literary triumph: “One wonders what sort of shape the late-1950s imagination must have been in to get itself captured by such a modest and unsophisticated book,” he wrote. All sympathy for the thwarted outsider had drained away, partly due to Braine’s shift to the political right and partly due to Amis’s snotty metropolitanism. He recently told an audience at the RSA: “England is a one-city nation. I get the horrors when I go to provincial England. The sort of trundling, pottering English – I can’t be doing with that.”

The genius of the angry young men was to build vivid fictions from the soiled matter of everyday life. They expanded the boundaries of British fiction. Today’s northern writers – Sarah Hall, David Peace, Jon McGregor, Sunjeev Sahota – concern themselves with epic themes: nature, violence, landscape, multiculturalism. They are among the most inventive stylists in contemporary fiction and draw no end of blood from trundling, pottering life.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

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How Vladimir Putin lost Ukraine

Putin’s war cost Russia its centuries-long shared identity with its neighbour. Now, Kyiv risks betraying the spirit of the Maidan revolution.

When the Russian inquest finally comes, the answer will be clear. It was President Vladimir Putin who lost Ukraine – after a millennium of shared east Slav identity. When the Ukrainian inquest into who lost the ­Euromaidan’s “Revolution of Dignity” finally comes, the answer, on the present evidence, will also be clear. It was an elite core of politicians and oligarchs who first worked a miracle in fighting Russia’s military Goliath to a stalemate – only to revert to kleptocratic business as usual when the acute threat eased.

Ukrainians’ consolidation of a distinct national identity after centuries of being regarded as a fuzzy subset of the dominant Russians – and after a quarter-century of independence – began in February 2014. It sounds banal to say that when one nation attacks a neighbour, especially if the two have regarded each other as brothers for a thousand years, the victims feel aggrieved and pull together against the attacker. But this is what happened when Putin launched his undeclared war on Ukraine, sent hooded “little green men” to take over Crimea’s regional parliament by intimidation, and then annexed the peninsula. The mutation of this early tactical success into strategic failure is best traced by reviewing the players and the dynamics as Ukraine held off Russia and crystallised its singular new identity.

On the Russian side only one actor matters: Putin. When the old Soviet Union split apart in 1991, its kleptocracy was replicated in its two biggest east Slav successor states. By 2015 Russia ranked a joint 119th out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Ukraine was 130th. A Wild East capitalism prevailed, in which emergent oligarchs carved up the state’s wealth through murky privatisation deals. But there was one main political difference between the two countries. Putin quickly restored the primacy of politicians over Russian tycoons after he became president. In Ukraine, oligarchs were able to use their new wealth to dominate politics.

When Putin suddenly broke out from Europe’s seven-decade peace order in February 2014, Western policymakers asked the diminished number of Kremlinologists in their midst why he was acting this way. Some, such as Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate at Harvard’s Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a military analyst, pointed to fear as the Russian president’s root instinct. Putin has shown little interest in economics; he has not worried about looming inflation or capital flight, or Russia’s distorting reliance on oil and gas revenues. What he was afraid of, it seemed, was unchecked democratic contagion: as transmitted from Poles in the 1980s to restive East Germans and then Czechs in 1989, to Ukrainians in the mid-2000s, and even on to Muscovites in 2011/12 before Putin managed to stop their street protests.

This analysis is plausible. In 1989, as a young officer of the Soviet Committee for State Security, Putin was serving with the KGB’s Dresden outpost. He saw the Berlin Wall fall – overnight, under the press of East Berliners who mistakenly thought it had been officially opened. He later faulted the then Soviet Communist Party chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, for failing to intervene militarily when the wall crumbled, or when protesters stormed the Stasi headquarters across the street from his office to halt the incineration of incriminating files by East Germany’s adjunct of the KGB. He watched Moscow’s 20 top divisions, which encircled Berlin for half a century after the glorious Soviet victory over Hitler in 1945, retreat ingloriously a thousand miles to the east.

Putin further witnessed the swift break­away of Moscow’s external empire, in the stampede of the freed central Europeans, from Estonia to Romania, to join the European Union and Nato, and the 1991 break-up of Moscow’s internal Soviet empire. He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And as late as 2008 – 17 years after more than 92 per cent of Ukrainian citizens, including the 21 per cent ethnic Russian minority, had voted for independence – he told President George W Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.”

***

Most agonising of all, in his first term as Russia’s president in the 21st century, Putin had to listen to American triumphalism about the series of pro-democracy “colour revolutions” in the streets of ex-communist Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. For him, as a career secret policeman, these revolutions represented no broad social yearning for “dignity”, as the Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa first phrased it. Rather, it was an inexplicable victory by American CIA manipulations – in what was Moscow’s own sphere of influence, by right – over the manipulations of Russia’s FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB.

The uprising that aroused the most angst in the Kremlin was the Orange Revolution on Kyiv’s main square, or maidan, where protesters demanded and won a repeat of the 2004 election after blatant vote-rigging in favour of the then prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian heir apparent to the Ukrainian presidency. It was bad enough for Moscow when the west Slavs in Poland and Czechoslovakia instantly ditched their Slavic identity for a European one in the 1990s: Poland uprooted systemic corruption, built robust democratic and judicial institutions, and went from having a poverty rate that matched Ukraine’s to a per capita GDP three times the size of its neighbour’s today. It was devastating when the Little Russians, too, began to do so, rejecting Yanukovych and Russia’s network of control in the rerun of the vote in 2004.

In the event, Putin need not have worried. The Orange Revolution self-destructed in the fratricide between its two top leaders, who forfeited leadership to Yanukovych in the reasonably fair 2010 election.

On the Ukrainian side of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, four figures stand out. The two chief rivals are the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko (worth $979m, and number six on Novoye Vremya magazine’s 2015 list of the richest Ukrainians), and the then governor of Dnipropet­rovsk in central Ukraine, Ihor Kolomoyskyi (number two on the list, at $1.9bn).

Poroshenko was a second-tier oligarch who had served briefly as foreign minister in the Orange Revolution government and as minister for trade and economic development under Yanukovych in 2012. He helped fund the pro-Europe, anti-corruption protest against Yanukovych’s authoritarian rule from the movement’s spontaneous inception in November 2013, and his TV news outlet Channel 5 gave full coverage to the three-month agora and its estimated one million participants.

After Yanukovych finally sent his special police to suppress the protest by killing dozens of the demonstrators in late February, the Ukrainian president’s own Party of Regions deserted him. He absconded to Russia overnight with an estimated personal fortune of $12bn, amassed in four years in office. Parliament, by a majority that suddenly included the Party of Regions, appointed an interim president and government and set presidential elections for May 2014. The “Chocolate King”, as Poroshenko was nicknamed for his confectionery empire, was duly elected president of the new Ukraine with a 54 per cent majority.

Kolomoyskyi, who also holds Israeli and Cypriot citizenship, was called back to Ukraine from his Swiss residence by the improvised government just as Russia was annexing Crimea. He was appointed governor of his own regional stronghold of Dnipropetrovsk with a mandate to mount a defence against the Russia-stoked secession brewing in neighbouring eastern Ukraine. Kolomoyskyi was famed for his hostile takeovers of rival banks as well as oil, media and other firms. He quickly raised and underwrote several militias among the 40 to 50 volunteer battalions that sprang up to fight against westward spread of the start-up separatist Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) People’s Republics. These battalions were instrumental in holding the line against separatist/Russian forces and giving the Ukrainian state time to rebuild the army that Yanukovych had bled of its budget.

Two oligarchs who did not cast their lot in with post-Euromaidan Ukraine were Rinat Akhmetov (at $4.5bn still the richest Ukrainian, even after losing more than half of his wealth over the past year) and Dmytro Firtash, whose net worth has fallen to $1bn. Both had been leading supporters of Yanukovych and his party, and since his departure they have hedged their bets between Kyiv and Moscow. Their recent losses have resulted partly from a redistribution of their wealth to other oligarchs.

Akhmetov, the son of a coal miner who rose to become the “godfather” of the Donetsk clan – and the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk football club – has his coal and iron base in the war-ravaged Don Basin (Donbas) and relies on Moscow’s goodwill there. Firtash, who under President Yanukovych controlled the lucrative distribution of Russian gas through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe, is also dependent on Russia. In spring 2014, he asked the Russian oligarch Vasily Anisimov to pay a record Austrian bail of €125m ($141m) in cash to get him out of jail. Under the bail terms, Firtash is barred from leaving Austria as he awaits the final legal decision on a US extradition request on charges of international bribery. Yet from Vienna he still wields his political clout, funds several Ukrainian parties across the political spectrum and, it is widely reported, brokered a division of power between Poroshenko and Vitaly Klitschko in the run-up to the May 2014 presidential election, in which Klitschko stood down as a candidate. (The former world heavyweight boxing champion is now mayor of Kyiv.)

***

Putin no doubt saw his annexation of Crimea – and his follow-on campaign to reconquer Catherine the Great’s “Novorossiya”, comprising the eastern 40 per cent of today’s Ukraine – as compensation for the abrupt downfall of his acolyte Yanukovych, and thus the end of Russia’s rightful suzerainty over all of Ukraine. Europeans, Americans and Ukrainians, on the contrary, saw the first formal takeover of a neighbour’s land in Europe since the Second World War as Putin’s return to a 19th-century concept of “might makes right”, as well as a violation of international law and treaties Moscow had signed to respect Ukrainian borders.

The West was cautious in reacting. It baulked at getting sucked into another intervention in a theatre of complicated logistics and little geopolitical interest. It knew as well as Putin did that Moscow enjoys escalation dominance in its home region by virtue of geography, its claim to a vital interest in Ukraine that the West lacks, and the Russian president’s willpower in a world of European peace and US exhaustion. It had no desire to put Putin’s repeated brandishing of his nuclear weapons to the test over a second-order confrontation. The West therefore responded by imposing financial rather than military sanctions, which Putin prematurely scorned as a pinprick.

In addition, Putin misread Ukraine’s military resilience. Easy success in Crimea – and strong domestic approval of his boasts that he was restoring Russia’s greatness in the world – emboldened him to probe further in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s ragtag army had put up no resistance in Crimea, for three reasons. First, years of embezzlement of defence budgets had left it with only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers and with two-decade-old weapons. Second, it was subverted by the many Ukrainian officers who were loyal to Moscow rather than Kyiv. Finally, there was Ukrainians’ sheer disbelief – despite Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s – that Russians would actually shoot at their proclaimed younger brothers.

Putin expected an equally cost-free operation in the Donbas. He seemed to believe his own propaganda that disgruntled Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine were Russians manqués and would rush to rebel against Kyiv, if only the charge were led by a few Russian commandos. Eastern Ukraine was, after all, the part of the country in which identity was most blurred; easterners paid little attention to differences between Ukrainians and Russians in everyday life, and most had cousins in both Russia and western Ukraine. In a way, the region was the ideal test of Putin’s construct of a unifying goal to fill the vacuum left after futurist communist ideology evaporated. The campaign was first presented as Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union, but that was dropped once it became clear that Ukraine would not be a part of it. Thereafter it was repackaged as gathering in fellow ethnics left outside the “Russian world” by the Soviet collapse, and then as retaking the tsarist Novorossiya.

At first, the Russian-backed secessionists took quick control over roughly two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or provinces. Putin, however, overestimated the warrior zeal of the easterners and the usual gripes of any province about the meagre payouts it gets from central government. In the early days, the local people warmed to the promises of higher pensions made by the separatists. And grandmothers visibly enjoyed acting as civilian shields by surrounding local administration buildings that were occupied by separatists and preventing Ukrainian soldiers from reclaiming the offices. But as the novelty wore off and the hardship of war increased, Moscow and the secessionists it sponsored increasingly had to rely on a motley band of mercenaries and Donbas criminal gangs that did well in firefights only when they were assisted by Russian “volunteers” and armed with the heavy weapons the Russians were shuttling across the border.

In purely military terms, Putin probably could have escalated in the spring of 2014 from the kind of limited, disguised and therefore deniable warfare that the West calls “hybrid”, replacing the hooded “little green men” with regular Russian soldiers in marked uniforms in an all-out invasion of the Novorossiya oblasts. That was certainly the Russian president’s threat in massing 80,000 troops on the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine and exercising them on high alert.

As late as September 2014 Putin boasted to President Poroshenko that if he so desired, “Russian troops could be in Kyiv within two days – and also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest.” But he did not invade when Ukraine’s provisional government was still shaky – and still reeling under the Russian show of force.

Three reasons for Putin’s decision not to order an invasion in spring 2014 might be inferred. The first was a tactical reduction of his bellicosity at a time when the European Union was still debating financial sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. The second was the weakness of the novice Ukrainian government, which could foreseeably have collapsed and left Kyiv with a political vacuum the Russians could fill without firing a shot. The third was perhaps a premonition in the Russian army that it was being overstretched and that an occupation of its neighbour, given Ukraine’s strong military tradition, might turn into a quagmire of messy guerrilla warfare.

Putin’s military threats to Ukraine were counterproductive and stoked Ukrainian anger. In May 2014 a Pew survey found that 77 per cent of Ukrainians, including 70 per cent of those living in eastern Ukraine outside the Donbas war zone, thought that their country should remain united instead of breaking up. And in early July, even before the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 civilian jet by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from insurgent territory, Pew reported that 60 per cent of Ukrainians had a general negative view of Russia. It was a sharp reversal from 2011, when 84 per cent of Ukrainians had viewed Russia positively.

The Euromaidan spirit drew in ever more Ukrainians who had been politically passive. Volunteers flocked to enlist in the army, in the revived National Guard and in the private militias raised and paid for by Kolomoyskyi and other oligarchs. Civilian volunteers cooked and delivered food to recruits. Techies designed and built their own surveillance drones from scratch to observe border areas that Ukraine no longer controlled.

Ukrainian veterans who had once formed the backbone of the Soviet army’s rough equivalent of Western non-commissioned officers, together with local Afgantsy – veterans of the Soviet army’s doomed expedition in Afghanistan in the 1980s – gave the rookies accelerated basic training. Weapons factories in Ukraine that had once supplied the Soviet army managed to repair 20-year-old tanks and build new ones even as the battles raged. And morale was vastly better on the side of Ukrainian defenders against a threat to their very existence than it was among opportunistic rebel mercenaries and criminal gangs. By mid-August 2014, Ukrainian troops had recaptured most of the rebel territory and reduced the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to two small pockets.

That was too much for Putin. At the end of August, he signalled his red line in the sand: he would not let his proxies be defeated. He sent elite airborne troops into the Donbas to mount a counteroffensive alongside separatist/Russian ground forces armed with Russian heavy weapons. Within days, they broke the Ukrainian siege and restored the secessionists’ control of about half of the territory that the DPR and LPR had ruled at their height.

President Poroshenko understood the message and immediately proposed a truce, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, brokered the Minsk ceasefire of 5 September. The shaky agreement at least reduced the scale of violence for five months, until the separatist/Russian forces made a fresh effort to break through strengthened Ukrainian lines in January and February of 2015 – and failed. A further shaky “Minsk-2” truce followed. But on 1 September 2015 the heavy guns abruptly fell silent and, for the most part, remained silent. For the first time in a year, overjoyed babushkas in the separatist Donbas enclave could walk across the front lines to reach Ukrainian-held towns seven kilometres away and buy salo (pork rind), butter and eggs at far cheaper prices. They returned to tell journalists that their greatest wish was simply for the fighting to stop.

***

At the end of September Putin opened a front in Syria, and reportedly redeployed some special forces from Ukraine to the new battlefield. Ukraine dropped off Russian TV bulletins. The war there had
caused 8,000 deaths and forced 2.4 million people from their homes. It was clear that Putin was belatedly acknowledging that the war also had strategic costs for Russia.

He had first lost all of Ukraine, with the exception of Crimea, to the Euromaidan that he despised. He had failed to salvage Novorossiya for Russia. He had failed, too, to maintain the shelled and charred Donbas region in any form he wanted to annex or subsidise – and keeping it as a zone of frozen conflict for future mischief-making wasn’t much of a consolation prize. He had provoked the West into resuscitating Nato and imposing sanctions that damaged the Russian economy. He had alarmed Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into distancing themselves somewhat from Moscow.

Moreover, the Russian war in Ukraine raised the spectre of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that killed 15,000 Soviet soldiers in the 1980s and gave birth to the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which tries to ferret out facts about their dead sons. Last May, after many inquiries by the committee about Russian casualties in Ukraine, the Duma passed legislation banning the spread of information about Russian casualties across the border. In this context, it seemed unlikely that Putin would risk incurring a rise in Russian deaths by resuming heavy fighting in Ukraine.

This appraisal, however, takes the pressure off the Ukrainian oligarchs to grow beyond the robber-baron stage and become patriotic philanthropists. On the present evidence, they no longer sense much urgency with regard to implementing reform legislation, installing the rule of law, building democratic institutions and rooting out kleptocracy as opposed to exploiting it.

Putin has surely lost Ukraine. The Ukrainian oligarchs have not yet surely lost their own country. But how ironic it will be if he manages to melt their urgency into complacency by easing the pressure on Ukraine, thus paving the way for that final loss of the Revolution of Dignity. It would give the last laugh to Georgy Arbatov, the Kremlin’s leading Americanist who prophesied as the Cold War ended: “We are going to do to you the worst thing we possibly could – we are going to take your enemy away.”

Elizabeth Pond is based in Berlin and is the author of several books about Germany, Europe and the Balkans. They include “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification” (Brookings Institution)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war