By Anna Reid
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“A beautifully written evocation of Ukraine's brutal past and its shaky efforts to construct a better future.”—Financial Times
Ukraine is gripped in a bloody crisis that has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions, and is transforming the world’s energy policies and security architecture. As celebrated journalist Anna Reid shows in Borderland, this conflict is the latest of many. Ukraine has been a borderland, and a battlefield, for more than seven centuries, from the Mongol invasion of 1240 to the Maidan protests of 2014—and, of course, the devastating Russian invasion of 2022.
In this penetrating book, Reid combines research and her own experiences to chart Ukraine’s tragic past and uncertain future. Talking to peasants and politicians, rabbis and racketeers, dissidents and paramilitaries, survivors of Stalin’s famine and of Nazi labor camps, she reveals the layers of myth and propaganda that wrap this divided land. From the Polish churches of Lviv to the coal mines of the Donbass to the Tatar shantytowns of Crimea, the book explores Ukraine’s struggle to build itself a national identity. Updated to include firsthand material from the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war, Borderland is essential reading for anyone looking to understand Ukraine and how its history is shaping its destiny.
The New Jerusalem: Kiev
But the brightest light of all was the white cross held by the gigantic statue of St Vladimir atop Vladimir hill.
– Mikhail Bulgakov, 1925
UKRAINA is literally translated as ‘on the edge’ or ‘borderland’, and that is exactly what it is. Flat, fertile and fatally tempting to invaders, Ukraine was split between Russia and Poland from the mid seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth, between Russia and Austria through the nineteenth, and between Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania between the two world wars. Until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it had never been an independent state.
Being a borderland meant two things. First, Ukrainians inherited a legacy of violence. ‘Rebellion; Civil War; Pogroms; Famine; Purges; Holocaust’ a friend remarked, flipping through the box of file-cards I assembled while researching this book. ‘Where’s the section on Peace and Prosperity?’ Second, they were left with a tenuous, equivocal sense of national identity. Though they rebelled at every opportunity, the few occasions on which they did achieve a measure of self-rule – during the Cossack risings of the seventeenth century, the Civil War of 1918–20, and towards the end of Nazi occupation – were nasty, brutish, and above all short. Moreover, until very recently Ukraine’s neighbours did not see it as a separate country, or Ukrainians as a separate people, at all. To Russians it was part of Russia; to Poles, part of Poland. And many Ukrainians, Russified or Polonised by centuries of foreign domination, thought the same way. With inspiring moments in their schizophrenic history few and far between, and neighbours who refuse to acknowledge the existence of such a thing as ‘Ukrainian’ history in the first place, it is no wonder that Ukrainians are still puzzling out just who they are, and just what sort of place they want their country to be.
The story – Ukraine as borderland, Ukraine as battlefield, Ukraine as newborn state struggling to build itself a national identity – begins in Kiev. When I flew in, on a winter’s night in 1993, the airport baggage hall was ankle-deep in lumpy brown slush. Our suitcases appeared on the back of a Kamaz truck, which dumped them in one large heap, leaving passengers to dig and scramble for their possessions. The road into the city – Ukraine’s only four-lane highway, I found out later – was wrapped in Blitz-like blackness: no street lights, no crash barriers, no white lines. My companions smelt of wet clothes and old food, and carried large, oddly shaped bundles wrapped in string, with pieces of wood for handles. Deposited in a silent square in the middle of an invisible city, I went in search of a telephone box. What I found was a scratched bit of aluminium coping with an ancient Bakelite receiver attached – no instructions, no phone directory, no light. I didn’t have any Ukrainian money either, but miraculously, it turned out not to matter. Inflation had done away with coinage, and Ukraine no longer used the Soviet roubles the phones had been designed for anyway, so now all calls were free. Suddenly things felt a little friendlier, more penetrable – my Ukrainian journey had begun.
Visitors to Kiev usually hate the place, but those who live there nearly always grow to love it. The staircase to my one-room flat might have stunk of urine and rotten cabbage, but outside raggedy black crows swung about in the poplars, shaking gobbets of frozen snow on to the rattling trams below. I liked the cobbled streets with their elaborately stuccoed turn-of-the-century houses, so dilapidated that the city authorities strung netting under the balconies to prevent chunks of plaster falling onto pedestrians’ heads. I liked the hillside parks with their brick paths and rusty wrought-iron pavilions, where teenagers smooched in summer and children in rabbit-fur bonnets tobogganed in winter. I liked the old men playing chess on the benches round the pink-lit fountains on Independence Square, or shouldering home their tackle-boxes after a day’s ice-fishing on the Dnieper. I liked the way the dog-owners promenaded on Sunday mornings, gravely exchanging compliments on their exquisitely trimmed ‘Jacks’ and ‘Johnnys’. I liked the echoey, pigeon-filled covered market, full of peasant women who called you ‘little swallow’ or ‘little sunshine’, and dabbed honey and sour cream onto one’s fist to taste. I liked the couples dancing to an accordion – not for money, just for fun – in the dripping underpasses on Friday evenings. I liked buying posies of snowdrops, wrapped in ivy leaves and tied with green string, from the flower-sellers who appeared outside the metro stops early each spring. And in autumn I liked the bossy babushki who, passing on the street, told you to button up your coat and put on a hat, for the first snowfall had come. I even – sign of the true convert – grew to like salo, the raw pig-fat, eaten with black bread, salt and garlic, that is the national delicacy and star of a raft of jokes turning on the Ukrainian male’s alleged preference for salo over sex.
All the same, Kiev was a melancholy city. Its defining features were failures, absences. Some were obvious: only one supermarket (dollars only), few private cars (six at an intersection counted as a traffic jam), a joke of a postal service (to send a letter, one went to the railway station, and handed it to a friendly face going in the right direction). Others one only felt the force of after a time. With benefits and pensions virtually non-existent, the crudest health care (drugs had to be paid for; doctors wanted bribes), and no insurance (a few private firms had sprung up, but nobody trusted them with their money), Kievans were living lives of a precariousness unknown in the West, destitution never more than an illness or a family quarrel away. It showed in their wiry bodies and pinched, alert, Depression-era faces; the faces of people who get by on cheap vodka and stale cigarettes, and know they have to look after themselves, for nobody else will do it for them.
The absences were physical too. Though better preserved than many ex-Soviet cities, ghosts haunted every corner. Here, an empty synagogue; there, the derelict shell of the once-grand Leipzig Hotel, left to rot by a corrupt city government. The pavement bookstalls sold a heartbreaking little brochure entitled Lost Architectural Monuments of Kiev, listing all the churches and monasteries demolished under Stalin – St Michael’s of the Golden Domes, St Basil’s, SS Boris and Gleb’s, St Olga’s, and on and on. With so many gaps, with so much missing, searching out the past required a sort of perverse enthusiasm, an archaeologist’s eye for small clues and empty spaces.
The easiest of Kiev’s pasts to re-create in the imagination is the raucous commercial city of the pre-revolutionary sugar boom. The novelist Aleksandr Kuprin, writing in the 1910s, described a town full of stevedores and pilgrims, Jewish hawkers, German madams, down-at-heel Russian officers, students, card-players, cigar smoke and cheap champagne. Most of Kiev’s surviving historic centre – ponderous opera house, cobbled boulevards and the extraordinary Chimera House, barnacled with frogs, deer and rhinoceroses, that advertised the city’s first cement factory – dates from then, and on summer evenings the streets still smell, as in Kuprin’s day, of ‘dust, lilac and warm stone’; riverboats whistle on the Dnieper and men drink kvass out of jam jars at little booths under the chestnut trees. A museum on Andriyivsky Uzviz, the helter-skelter lane that plunges down from Catherine II’s rococo St Andrew’s Church to Contract Square, once the site of a great annual fair, houses an atmospheric ragbag of period ephemera: sepia photographs of uniformed cadets lounging against a studio balustrade, a pair of white suede gloves, a painted umbrella, ivory elephants, a stereoscope, a curlicued shop-till, a velvet opera cloak trimmed with ostrich feathers.
But the past that gives Kiev unique glamour, that made it ‘the City’ to the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov and the ‘Joy of the World’ to the medieval chroniclers, is not the brash boom town of the turn of the last century, but the Kiev of a thousand years ago. From the tenth century to the thirteenth it was the capital of the eastern Slavs’ first great civilisation, Kievan Rus. And here Ukraine’s fight for an identity commences. Generations of scholars have bandied insults about how Rus began, how it was governed, even about how it got its name. But the biggest argument of all is over who Rus belongs to. Did Kievan Rus civilisation pass eastward, to Muscovy and the Russians, or did it stay put, in Ukraine? ‘If Moscow is Russia’s heart,’ runs a Russian proverb, ‘and St Petersburg its head, Kiev is its mother.’ Ukrainians, of course, say Kiev has nothing whatsoever to do with Russia – if she mothered anybody, it was the Ukrainians themselves.
Kievan Rus’s founders were neither Russians nor Ukrainians, but the same Scandinavians – variously known as Vikings, Varangians, Normans or Norsemen – who conquered Iceland and parts of England, Ireland and France in the ninth and tenth centuries. Their arrival in Slav lands, according to the earliest Rus history, the Chronicle of Bygone Years, was by invitation of the quarrelsome tribes scattered along the forest-bound rivers south of the Gulf of Finland:
There was no law among them, but tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against another. They said to themselves, ‘Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to the Law.’ They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Russes . . . The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichians and the Ves then said to the people of Rus: ‘Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.’1
The Chronicle may be overstating the Scandinavians’ importance. Some historians think there were never enough of them to have had much influence; others believe that one of the local tribes, the Polianians, built the foundations of Rus before their arrival. Either way, they came not as rulers but as merchants, along a trade route connecting the Baltic and Black seas via the river Dnieper. Sometime in the eighth century, they built their first outpost on Lake Ladoga, near present-day St Petersburg, and in 830, according to the Chronicle, they sailed their dragon-headed longboats downriver to the little wooden settlement atop sandstone bluffs that became the trading centre of Kiev. Byzantium’s Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, writing a memorandum on imperial administration in the tenth century, described boatfuls of slaves, fur, wax and honey floating down the Dnieper tributaries when the ice broke each spring. In Kiev they refitted with sails and oars, and in June they set off in armed convoy for the Black Sea and Constantinople. Hoards of the silver coins the Scandinavians got in return still turn up all the way from Ukraine back to Sweden. It was a dangerous journey, especially so 250 miles South, where a series of rapids meant the boats had to be unloaded and dragged overland, leaving them vulnerable to attack by fierce nomadic Pechenegs. Thus what started out as a commercial venture turned – like the Hudson’s Bay and East India companies in centuries to come – into a political one. Trading posts turned into forts, forts into tribute-collecting points, and tribute-collecting points, by the end of the tenth century, into the largest kingdom in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Carpathians. In the process the Scandinavians’ ruling dynasty, the Riuriks, adopted native customs and language, intermarrying with the local clans and Slavicising their names. Helgi became Oleh; Ingwarr, Ihor; Waldemar, Volodymyr.
The best surviving key to Rus greatness is Kiev’s Santa Sofia Cathedral, built in 1037 by one of the greatest Riurik princes, Prince Yaroslav the Wise. From the outside it looks much like any other baroque Ukrainian church, its original shallow Greek domes and brick walls long covered in gilt and plaster. But inside it breathes the splendid austerity of Byzantium. Etiolated saints, draped in ochre and pink, march in shadowy fresco round the walls; above them a massive Virgin hangs in vivid glass mosaic, alone on a deep gold ground. Her robe, as described by the travel-writer Robert Byron in the 1930s, is of a ‘tint whose radiant singularity no one that has seen it can ever forget . . . a porcelain blue, the blue of harebells or of a Siamese cat’s eyes’.2 On her feet she wears the crimson slippers of the Byzantine empresses, and she is framed by an inscription taken from Constantinople’s Hagia Sofia: ‘God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be moved; God helps her from morning to morning.’ On the twin staircases leading to an upper gallery, imported Greek craftsmen painted holiday scenes from home – almost the only pictures we have of secular Byzantine life. Four-horse chariots (or the bits of them that survived nineteenth-century overpainting) race up the walls, cheered on from windows and balconies, while outside the hippodrome gates a clown dances and musicians play pipes, cymbals, flute and a bellows-organ.
Built to celebrate Yaroslav’s father Volodymyr’s conversion to Christianity, Santa Sofia was intended as, and remains, a place of huge political and spiritual significance. Under the tsars, pilgrims came in millions. (A mournful early graffito reads, ‘I drank away my clothes when I was here’.)3 The Bolsheviks desanctified but never quite dared demolish it; during perestroika Ukrainian nationalists demonstrated outside it; in 1993 members of a New Age sect sprayed it with fire extinguishers while threatening mass suicide; and in 1996 Orthodox believers tried – illegally since it is now a museum – to bury their patriarch within its walls, making do with the pavement outside after scuffles with police. Although of course neither ‘Ukraine’ nor ‘Russia’ existed in his day, Volodymyr – Vladimir in Russian – became the patron saint of both Ukrainians and Russians, celebrated in countless folk-tales and in the large statue, erected by the Ukrainian diaspora, that puzzles residents of London’s Holland Park.
For all Santa Sofia’s passion-stirring power, the conversion that it was built to celebrate was a thoroughly pragmatic one. By the time Volodymyr came to the throne in 980, Christianity was already making itself felt in Rus; his grandmother Olha had privately taken baptism some years earlier. To start with, however, Volodymyr was an enthusiastic supporter of the pagan party. The Chronicle of Bygone Years says he ‘set up idols on the hills outside the castle . . . one of Perun, made of wood with a head of silver and a moustache of gold, and others of Khors, Dazhbog, Stribog, Simargl and Mokosh. The people called them gods, and sacrificed their sons and daughters to them . . .’4 Worse, the pious chroniclers go on, he was ‘overcome with lust for women . . . he had three hundred concubines at Vyshorod, three hundred at Belhorod, and two hundred at Berestrovo. He was insatiable in vice. He even seduced married women and violated young girls, for he was a libertine like Solomon.’5
Despite these unpromising beginnings, Volodymyr must at some point have decided that to keep pace with its neighbours his empire needed an advanced religion. All that remained was to choose which one. The first people he consulted, according to the Chronicle, were the Muslim Bulgars: ‘Volodymyr listened to them, for he was fond of women and indulgence, regarding which he had heard with pleasure. But circumcision and abstinence from pork and wine were disagreeable to him: “Drinking,” said he, “is the joy of the Russes, and we cannot exist without that pleasure.”’6 Following this disappointment, he despatched fact-finding missions to research the remaining options. The Jews and Catholic Germans failed to impress. ‘We saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples,’ the emissaries reported back, ‘but we beheld no glory there.’7 But Hagia Sofia bowled the Kievans over: ‘the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations . . .’8
So Orthodoxy it was. In 988 Volodymyr ordered that the old thunder-god Perun be dragged down to the river and beaten with sticks, and herded the Kievans into a tributary of the Dnieper for mass baptism. ‘Some stood up to their necks,’ wrote the chroniclers, ‘others to their breasts, and the younger nearer the bank, some of them holding children in their arms . . . there was joy in heaven and upon earth to behold so many souls saved.’9 It was one of the single most important events in the history of Europe. By choosing Christianity rather than Islam, Volodymyr cast Rus’s ambitions for ever in Europe rather than Asia, and by taking Christianity from Byzantium rather than Rome he bound the future Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians together in Orthodoxy, fatally dividing them from their Catholic neighbours the Poles.
The drawbacks of the new religion lay in the future; its benefits made themselves felt straight away. By the time of its conversion, Rus already had well-established contacts with Byzantium. In 911 the first historically verifiable Riurik, Oleh, had raided Constantinople, nailing his shield, legend says, to the city gates, and outfitting his homebound fleet with sails of silk. Half a century later Princess Olha fascinated Emperor Constantine when they met to negotiate trading treaties, and her son Svyatoslav allied with Byzantium in a war against the Bulgars. With the Riuriks’ accession to religious respectability the foreign-policy field widened, and they set about forging dynastic alliances with half the royal houses of Christendom. Having captured Chersonesus, a Greek town on the Black Sea, Volodymyr forced Byzantium’s Emperor Basil II to let him marry his sister Anna, a move which enormously enhanced Rus’s prestige. His son Yaroslav earned the nickname ‘Father-in-law of Europe’ by marrying his sons to Polish and Byzantine princesses, and his three daughters to the kings of Hungary, Norway and France.
Unlikely though they seem, these were not unequal matches, for Kievan Rus impressed Europeans with its sophistication as well as its size and power. Bishop Gautier Saveraux, sent by Henri I of France to ask for Yaroslav’s daughter Anna’s hand in marriage, reported home that ‘This land is more unified, happier, stronger and more civilised than France herself.’10 Dispossessed princes such as Olaf of Norway and Aethelred and Edward (later the Confessor) of England, were happy to while away exiles at the Kievan court, and Anna amazed the Franks by being able to read and write: a document from her brief regency after Henri’s death shows her signature – ‘Anna Regina’ – in Cyrillic alongside illiterate French crosses. Hundreds of Byzantine clerics and scholars came to Kiev to staff Yaroslav’s new churches and translate the scriptures, and Kievan nobles adopted Byzantine dress – illuminated manuscripts show them in red and purple silks cuffed and belted with gold brocade. Good manners, as laid down by one of Yaroslav’s successors, required them to get up early, praise God, ‘eat and drink without unseemly noise’ and refrain from beating their wives. Customary law, codified on Yaroslav’s orders, was remarkably humane, stipulating fines rather than corporal punishment.
But Kievan Rus’s glory days were short-lived. Lying on his deathbed in 1054 Yaroslav had pleaded with his offspring to ‘love one another’ for ‘If ye dwell in envy and dissension, quarrelling with one another, then ye will perish yourselves and bring to ruin the land of your ancestors . . .’11 They took no notice, and the empire disintegrated into a clutch of warring princedoms: Kiev, Chernihiv and Turov in the south; Galicia and Volhynia in the west; Novgorod, Polotsk and Smolensk in the north; Vladimir-Suzdal, Ryazan and Tver on the Volga. Kiev itself degenerated from imperial capital into just another petty fiefdom, ruled by twenty-four different princes in a hundred years. A twelfth-century ballad, ‘The Song of the Host of Igor’, deplored the mess:
brother says to brother:
‘this is mine
and that is mine too’
and the princes have begun to say
of what is small: ‘this is big’
while against their own selves
they forge discord
while from all sides with victories
pagans enter the Russian land.12
Nemesis came in the thirteenth century, at the hands of the Mongols. Originating on the north-western borders of China, these superbly organised warrior nomads had already conquered southern Siberia, Central Asia and Iran. In 1237 an army under Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis, swept across the Urals into Rus, as swift and terrifying, in the words of an Arab chronicler who saw them strike elsewhere, as ‘a darkness chased by a cloud’. Swearing to ‘tie Kiev to his horse’s tail’, Batu captured the city in 1240, after a long siege and savage street fighting. All but a handful of its 400 churches were burned, and its earth ramparts, pierced by the three Great Gates, were razed to the ground.
When the Mongol army withdrew two years later Kiev went into a long, near-terminal decline. Trade along the Dnieper had already dried up following the Crusades, which opened the eastern Mediterranean to Christian shipping. In 1299 Kiev lost its religious status too, when the Metropolitan, Rus’s senior churchman, transferred his see to Vladimir, and thence, a few decades later, to Moscow. Constantly raided by Crimean Tatars, the city shrank to three barely connected settlements – the ‘High City’ around Santa Sofia and the old Golden Gate, the Cave Monastery on the hills opposite, and Podil, the old trading district on the river flats.
For the next half-millennium Kiev languished, a stagnant, forgotten backwater. A Venetian visiting in the 1470s described it as ‘plain and poor’.13 Catherine the Great, passing through on her way to Crimea in 1787, could hardly believe that this was Kiev the City of Glory, Kiev the New Jerusalem. ‘From the time I arrived,’ she complained, ‘I have looked around for a city, but so far I have found only two fortresses and some outlying settlements.’14 On into the 1800s, visitors bemoaned its wood-paved streets, crowds of crippled beggars, frequent floods and fires, lack of good stone buildings and dreadful drinking water – so bad, apparently, that even horses wouldn’t touch it. The city only began to revive mid-century, with the arrival of the railways and the sugar boom.
Despite its short lifespan Kievan Rus – ancient, vast, civilised, impeccably European – makes history to be proud of. But whose history is it? According to the Russians, on the Mongols’ retreat the population of Kievan Rus migrated north-east, taking their culture and institutions with them. While the old capital crumbled, Kievan splendour was reborn in Moscow, the fast-expanding principality that became Muscovy and thence Great Russia. Thus the heirs of Rus are not the Ukrainians, with their funny language and quaint provincial ways, but the far more successful Russians themselves.
Ukrainians, led by the turn-of-the century historian Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, say this is all nonsense. Muscovy bore no more relation to Kievan Rus than Gaul to Rome, and treating one as the continuation of the other is like tacking the history of France on to that of the Roman Empire. As for the actual population of Rus, it stayed exactly where it was – or if a few people did move north, they quickly came home again. ‘The Kievan State, its laws and culture, were the creation of one nationality, the Ukrainian-Rus,’ Hrushevsky wrote firmly, ‘while the Volodimir-Moscow State was the creation of another nationality, the Great Russian.’15 Russia, in other words, is not Ukraine’s ‘elder brother’, but the other way round. Rather than calling Ukrainians ‘Little Russians’, perhaps Russians should be calling themselves ‘Little Ukrainians’.
- "A beautifully written evocation of Ukraine’s brutal past and its shaky efforts to construct a better future . . . Reid succeeds in vividly conjuring up dozens of little known heroes and villains of Ukrainian history . . . Reid summons up the rogues and poets of Ukraine’s past with a deft touch, but her real theme is the tragedy which has been Ukraine’s lot for much of its history . . . Borderland is a tapestry woven of the stories of all its inhabitants, recording their triumphs and their conﬂicts with the fairness of a compassionate outsider."—Financial Times
- "Reid has stepped forth with an ambitious, fluent, and remarkably comprehensive synthesis that should be required reading for anyone interested in the region."—Boston Globe
- "Beautifully written and lovingly researched . . . This book brims with colourful historical personalities . . . The mixture of travelogue, history, political analysis and anecdote makes Anna Reid’s account a highly digestible popular introduction to the tragic plight of a country whose very name means “Borderland”. “The West . . . had difficulty taking Ukraine seriously at all,” she writes. Her first (and I hope not her last) book is a noble and praiseworthy attempt to correct this gross historical injustice."—Daily Telegraph
- "Gripping history . . . [Reid] writes with authority having lived for three years in Kiev as a reporter . . . [she] is remarkably clearheaded about the many competing versions of Ukraine’s history and its mostly invented heroes. A wise and generous government in Kiev would give her a medal."—The Times
- "Anna Reid . . . has sharp vision and an enquiring mind which launched her on a journey through the country’s history to help her make sense of what she saw. Often controversial but never stuffy, she takes her reader at the same time on a tour of Ukraine, relating past events to a modern context . . . [she] proves herself an astute observer of the Ukrainian scene."—Times Literary Supplement
- "This book takes the reader on a fascinating and often violent odyssey, spanning more than 1,000 years of conﬂict and culture. Reid covers events from the coming of the Vikings, to Stalin’s purges and beyond to the independence celebrations of 1991. She translates her obvious mastery of her subject into an accessible work, which should enrich the experience of any traveller to this new country."—Independent on Sunday
- "A compelling and improbably enjoyable read . . . Despite its problems [Reid] says, the country has the potential to be one of Europe’s greatest states."—Scotsman
- On Sale
- Feb 7, 2023
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Basic Books