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  1. The Weekend Report
23 March 2024

Kyiv’s recurring grief

Travelling through Ukraine, it’s clear that the country cannot escape its past.

By Maurice Glasman

When I arrived in Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelensky had just sacked his top general, Valery Zaluzhny. He said that the team “needed renewal”. Zaluzhny is a hugely popular figure in Ukraine and was making statements such as that the war was “very difficult”. I had arranged to talk to him, as commander-in-chief, but I doubted he would speak now he was removed from that position. My friends in Kyiv told me he would be the new ambassador to London. We would find each other.

As it happened, Vladimir Putin had a golden week. He started with the Tucker Carlson interview (20 million hits on YouTube), followed it up with capturing Avdiivka, a strategic town near Donetsk, then gave a stream-of-consciousness interview in which he declared his preference for Joe Biden over Donald Trump. “He is a nice old man. It’s true he hits his head occasionally and forgets where he is, but we should not criticise him for this.” Putin finished off by killing Alexei Navalny in a prison somewhere close to the Arctic Circle. 

Getting to Kyiv was not easy. The flight to Krakow, Poland, is fine but then there was a six-hour drive to the border where it is quickest to cross by foot. On the other side, another driver waited to take me to Lviv, known as Lemberg in my family, and also Lvov in Soviet times. The road to Lviv was full of craters. Lorries limped along it in endless convoys. Ukraine is blockaded on the Black Sea, particularly Odesa, through which virtually all its imports used to flow.

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Lviv, I was told, was a “perfect Polish city” and was part of Poland for 500 years until the Habsburg’s took control in the 1700s. It went back to Poland between the two world wars but the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact made it a part of the Soviet Union in 1939. It is the birthplace of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian national hero, of whom it could be said that he hated Poles, Russians and Jews with equal ferocity. The glorification of Bandera adds fuel to Putin’s claim that he wants Ukraine “denazified”.

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Lviv did not feel Polish to me, more German. Smooth stone buildings with Jerusalem stone at the base. It seemed to be entirely cobbled, with yellow and black trams trundling along. It is the most Western of Ukraine’s cities and I did not see a soldier. Walking around at night you would not know there was a war. On Bandera Street, two young saxophonists riffed on “Careless Whisper” in the spirit of Wayne Marsh and Lee Konitz playing “Topsy”. It was an odd thought to have but I mused on the charisma of George Michael and his performance of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, where he reduced Elton John to Reg Dwight. And then I thought of Putin and Zelensky. McDonald’s Golden Arches dominated the skyscape. The curfew falls at midnight, but until then Lviv was alive with ice cream, leather trousers and mobile phones. And then there was silence. Sitting on a balcony overlooking a dark silent city leads to all kind of thoughts.

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I left Lviv for Kyiv on a vivid morning when the sun hung high over the huge flat lands of Galicia. Ukraine is a huge country. Who lives here? There were barely any houses to see through the thin rows of pine trees that lined the road; trees and lorries and then the golden glint of a church dome glimpsed through a car park. I passed through Dubno and Rovne, and Brodi, where the writer Joseph Roth was born in 1894. It was 80 per cent Jewish then, but there are no Jews here now. Its Great Synagogue is a ruin. Jews lived here for hundreds of years but there is barely a trace of their lives left.

After the Second World War there was “demographic transfer” on a large scale. The Jews were exterminated but the Poles were expelled from their homes across what is now western Ukraine but had been Poland for far longer. The Germans were expelled from everywhere. My Ukrainian driver, Artem, is a Baptist, claiming spiritual lineage to the Mennonites who settled in the region.

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Before I left I had tea with Katja Hoyer, whose book on East Germany, Beyond the Wall, is excellent. Her family fled from what is now Poland to East Germany. Ethnic cleansing was real. The Soviet Union turned what was the most pluralist place in Europe into ethnically homogeneous nation states. There are no Poles and Germans in this place anymore. Maybe I was just tired from the long journey, but my heart was touched by a great compassion for the expelled Germans, at the end of the Second World War, carrying 500 years of family history in little bundles on their backs, never to return. What was happening to me?

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When Putin’s army crossed the Ukrainian border two years ago to claim “historic Russian lands”, he restarted a process that had been frozen for 80 years. While I was in Kyiv, a leader of the German hard-right party Alternative for Germany remarked casually that “if you think about it Berlin is in the middle of Germany”, referring to the loss of German land in the east to Poland after the war. Warsaw buzzed in frenzy, but we barely noticed. Hungary covets large swathes of Romania as well as Ukraine. Many people in Kyiv told me that Poland was waiting to seize lost territory in the old region of Volhynia.

This war is only the beginning of stirrings that are incomprehensible to those who thought that globalisation had silenced the voices of the dead.

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We live in the shadow of the events of 1948. The ancient Arab communities of Palestine as well as the ancient Jewish communities of the Arab world were expelled. India and Pakistan swapped millions of Hindus and Muslims. The area I was driving through is known as the blood lands, but the only colour missing was red. There were small settlements with corrugated iron roofs, a string of garages with superb food while huge trucks trundled down crumbling roads in the drizzle.

As we approached Kyiv, there was a fog. It reminded me of waiting for the bus to school in the 1970s, when I could barely make out its number or colour. I could only see the trees, which stood like skeletal spectres at the side of the road. Thin tall trees. The eternal witness to recurring grief.

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And then there are shadows. The two shadows that cast Kyiv into subdued menace are those of Putin and Trump. When I first went to Kyiv, just after the invasion began two years ago, the presence of Russian soldiers in the city was vivid. Back then, everyone thought that Putin would fall, that Russia was weak. I heard nothing of that now. Putin is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, but the immutable force of Russian immunity remains. Stalin died in his bed, mourned by millions. All those sanctions and court orders and yet there Putin was telling the world that he preferred Joe Biden to Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. 

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In 2017 the Russian parliament, the Duma, effectively decriminalised domestic violence: it was reduced to an “administrative misdemeanour”, the equivalent of a parking ticket. So it is with the “special military operation”, which is not a war but a domestic dispute. For Putin, Ukraine has desecrated a covenantal bond and treated Russia with contempt. Only Russia truly loves Ukraine, which has become supine in its colonial subordination to alien people. Ukraine was occupied through the centuries, by Swedes and Poles, by Ottomans and Germans, but they never achieved a sovereign state. They had their church, which they shared with Russia, and their script and their language. For Russia, the conquest of what is now Ukraine by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century was a liberation of their kin, and they called it New Russia. But it was also a reclamation of their ancient homeland, their birthright. The Orthodox Church was secure from Catholic and Muslim threat, and their natural union had been consummated. Russia loved Ukraine, Kyiv is the “mother of Russian cities”, and Odesa a marvel of their shared Russian homeland. And yet, she walked away and didn’t look back.

[See also: The West underestimated Russia]

The shape of the punishment beating emerged when I visited Irpin. It’s a small town, north-west of Kyiv. Think Borehamwood or Pinner in relation to London. The Russian forces occupied it in the early days of the war. It’s barely a town, more a sprawling suburban settlement. In the centre is a Soviet-era Palace of Culture. It was built around a theatre, with ornate carvings and a magnificent entrance arch. Milton Keynes and Harlow cannot boast such municipal splendour. On either side of the columns was a statue, one for the male and one for the female proletarians. The man looked like Norman Wisdom, quite short with a flat cap and heavy shoes. The woman was more of a fertility goddess with a baby perched on her shoulder as she pointed to a glorious future. That was all that was standing of the palace.

Its roof was bombed in and the theatre reduced to rubble. Norman Wisdom had his leg and arm shot off. The metal skeleton of a grand piano sat on the rubble-strewn floor of the ruined theatre, surrounded by shattered bricks and dust. The ceiling was blackened but the floor was covered in a heavy white dust. Twisted metal hung suspended. The immaculately carved bannisters of the staircase bore witness to broken glass and fragments of stone. What struck me is that it was a building lavished with love, a monument to the eternal friendship between the two peoples. And then Russia smashed it up and burned it down. The same with the Khrushchev-era council flats. Blackened and singed. They seemed to be taking back all their gifts. Destroying all the benefits of their marriage.

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That is the heart of Putin’s thesis. Ukraine can only flourish in friendship with Russia. And it was beginning to dawn. In this case there is no restraining order.

And then there is Donald Trump. He won’t meet anyone from the Ukrainian government. He says that he can do a deal in a day. Ukraine is a post-Soviet society. One of its core features is the notion that the US is a coherent powerful actor with technological marvels and consistent purpose. They see Biden shaking hands with shadows and put their head in their hands. The strategic power of the US turned out to be another Soviet lie.

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One day I met Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine from 2014-19. He is a chocolate billionaire who owns the brand Roshen. Our chocolate Quaker philanthropists, the Cadburys and Rowntrees, left endowments for the ages to confront poverty and conflict. Poroshenko said he underwrites 92 regiments in the Ukrainian army. Their banners lined the walls of his huge office – skulls, guns and death metal insignia. He strode around a vast near-empty complex. I met his staff, the head of the youth wing and of foreign relations, and all I felt was the impotence of defeat.

It was Poroshenko who made the Western turn after the Maidan revolt in 2014, when the then president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. Poroshenko ran on the slogan of “army, language and faith”. Ukraine is majority Russian speaking but you could not use it in schools or the media. He pushed for the establishment of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is loyal to the patriarch of Constantinople, breaking the link with Moscow established since the capture of Istanbul by the Turks in the 15th century. He signed the Minsk accords to stem Russian encroachment in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and began the process of joining Nato. “When I became president,” he told me, “18 per cent of Ukrainians supported joining Nato, now it is 92 per cent.” He denounced the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Ukraine renounced its nuclear weapons: “If we had them there would be no war.” In 2019 he was defeated overwhelmingly by a TV comedian called Volodymyr Zelensky, the star of the hit series Servant of the People, after which he named his party.

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Zelensky was elected as a peace candidate. A Russian speaker from central Ukraine who would stop the war in Donbas and deal with corruption. He put Poroshenko on trial for treason and took away his TV channel. There is no place for Petro Poroshenko in the new Ukraine. While I was there, he was stopped on the border from leaving the country to attend the Munich Security Conference. Barred from foreign travel, under threat of arrest, and denied political space by an opponent who has adopted his positions, Poroshenko reminded me of Harry Secombe singing “If I Ruled the World”. Poroshenko said he knew how to deal with Putin, with Trump, with the EU, with Nato. But it was all crumbling around him and there was nothing he could do. “Why can’t everyone act like Britain?” he asked me. “What happened to Boris [Johnson]?” I had no answer to either of those questions.

+++

It was cold in Kyiv. Snow lingered on the roofs. One morning, I visited the Jewish Community Centre. It is half synagogue and half soup kitchen. It is run by a Chasidic couple who serve the remnant of old Jews who have not left for Germany, Israel or Austria. I used to be able to stroll in, but now an iron wall enclosed it. A man with a knife attacked the old people one night and they felt they had no choice. I had lunch with them and they recognise me now. They hate Zelensky because he is a nationalist. They hate Putin because he is a tsarist. They refuse to enter the synagogue because they are atheists and long for the Soviet Union to be restored: “Everyone went to school and there was peace.” The only people who care for them are of a faith that socialism was meant to have abolished.

I looked out at the thin tall trees that loomed over the iron wall, within which all hope has fled. The eternal witness to recurring grief.

[See also: What Iranians want]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown

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