On the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

In Kyiv you live under the sword of Damocles. Every day: what if Russia starts bombing using jets, what if they nuke, what if they invade from Belarus. It is very difficult to live under those conditions. If you don’t have milk or eggs you go out to the store to buy them. If you don’t have security — if someone is constantly threatening your health and your life simply for the crime of living — what do you do, then? 

During a trip to Avdiivka in the east I found myself near the “zero line” talking with an old woman, one of the handful of civilians who had remained. It had been a good neighborhood before the war, and most of the families had means or opportunity to leave. The woman and her disabled husband were in one of those situations where they weren’t wealthy themselves, had nowhere else to go, no family, so they’d stayed. Russian artillery had ruined their shed, and sprayed the walls of their modest home with shrapnel, and cratered their garden. She was telling me in that characteristically Ukrainian, laconic way how they survived — precariously, stoically, day by day — when the Russians opened up with automatic grenade fire on a position some hundreds of meters away, starting a firefight.

Shed ruined by mortar fire, Avdiivka, Ukraine

The Ukrainian soldiers accompanying us said that it was time to go. On our way out we encountered the woman’s husband near the end of the driveway sitting in his wheelchair. A series of explosions and the rattle of machinegun and small arms fire nearby hastened our departure. As we jumped into the waiting cars, he began to wail like an animal. A soldier wheeled him back toward the house and shelter. We took to the road, bouncing past the empty houses. A pack of feral dogs ran from the fighting — I tallied a poodle, a shi tzu, and a collie (among other breeds) —pets that were left behind by their owners, a dystopian vision of what in other circumstances might have made for an uplifting Disney film.

Two days after that I was back in Kyiv, worrying about Russian threats to blast the city and destroy Ukraine, talking with my then-girlfriend (now wife) about what to do if things got worse; where we’d go. How not to end up like that old couple in Avdiivka. 

That was in 2016. 

I wasn’t going to write anything for the anniversary of Russia invading Ukraine last February. The small tragedies and catastrophes my family and friends have endured and encountered — the violation of basic human dignity, the diminishment of human rights, the fear, the killing, the disruption of every aspect of our lives — is a small portion of that of the widow or orphan, the kidnapped children who had to watch their parents murdered and are being raised by Russian strangers. What could I write or say that would meaningfully contribute to this grim tapestry? Of what use could I be?

This morning I woke up, as I did a year ago, with little sleep, facing a full day of work. I was thinking about what was going through my head then, and I realized that there was one insight I could share that might be useful to people whose first meaningful encounter with Ukraine was during the events of the last year.

That moment, the invasion, was one of the worst of my life, followed by one of the worst years. I’d trade anything for the invasion to be reversed; for Russia to withdraw its forces and change its violent and imperialistic ways. 

Some of the shrapnel and bullets found on the property of an Avdiivka resident between 2014-16

But having lived under the threat of death and destruction so long, to worry every month or so whether Russia was going to bring ruin to Kyiv and Ukraine, the invasion also came as a relief. This is what I wanted to share with people I know, many of whom heard me say something like this when I lived in Ukraine: to be next to Russia is to be crazy. Most Americans cannot imagine coexisting with an existential threat bent on erasing not just them, personally, but everyone and everything they ever knew. I learned in Ukraine what it felt like to have a knife at my throat; to be weak, vulnerable, a target.

Ukraine was always going to resist Russia’s invasion, just as they’d resisted in 2014, and as they have so many times before over the centuries. In the past it has always been held back by friends or abandoned by potential allies, restrained in its purpose to free itself from that fear — never given the means to end the persistent bullying at the hands of its wicked neighbor. Few Westerners know (though many can, if they examine the details of their own personal lives) the impotent anger and rage that Ukrainian people have had to endure while Russia casually indulged in every manner of physical and psychological aggression. Russia invaded — twice now — a year ago today, for the second time in the 21st century. Is it any surprise that Ukrainians have fought back? Can anyone blame them for wanting to finish this war — once and for all — and to finally know peace? 

Against Expanding Tweed

It’s the 21st century. After centuries of struggle and scientific advances in medicine — of one painful step forward followed by numerous staggering steps back — we’ve arrived at a moment in history where we know in detail the things that can hurt a person, and how, if not always why. We know the various ways that pollution can lead to things like asthma and cancer. We know how diet can affect mood and sometimes lead to autoimmune disorders. We know how damaging industrial waste can be both for the environment, and for the people who live in and depend on the environment for food and shelter.

We’ve seen the damage, and to our credit as a species, we’ve found ways to slow, arrest, and in some cases to roll it back. In my hometown of Branford, the Atlantic Wire company has been shuttered; people fish and swim in a part of the Branford River that just a decade ago made NYC’s East River look like a mountain brook. More broadly on the Long Island Sound, fish preservation initiatives have led to a rebound in menhaden populations, which, in time, will allow fishermen to catch at least one 20-25lb bluefish per month. As someone who grew up poor, I can testify to the difference a fish like that makes in a kid’s diet and habits. Advances in technology are making the cars that back up on I-95 during rush hour and Route One on the weekends cleaner.

We’re far from perfect, and maybe not even good (although, as individuals, often well-intentioned), but we understand how much harm has been done to the environment, and is being done to the environment, and have correctly concluded that this constitutes harm to ourselves. We are, therefore, attempting to remedy the sins and errors of our past, before they bury our future.

If Atlantic Wire, a business that required toxic industrial chemicals (and depended for profitability on an ability to dump said chemicals into the Branford River), suggested reopening its factory on the Branford River, people would protest. No number of jobs would be worth spoiled water and birth defects among the children raised nearby. No financial windfall would compensate for the human catastrophe we know follows in the wake of a DuPont.

The science is established now, it’s not up for debate. People may argue about whether the harm to human health is acceptable in utilitarian terms — some number of people profiting greatly from the sickness and misery of a few — but nobody would deny that the sickness or misery caused by industrial pollution aren’t real. Gone are the days of Mr. Burns — he’s been identified, and satirized. We know his name, and his game. We wouldn’t be fooled by the power plant owner, the industrialist, the death-peddler, if they suggested adding a few jobs in a town that would then become blighted by illness and misery.

A factory by any other name

What if there was another profitable but toxic way to use land, that didn’t raise red flags the way a factory would? What if one could build a factory that didn’t look or act like a factory, but produced the same deleterious effect on human health, and the same devastation in the environment? Are people so gullible that they could be deceived into putting the profitability of a big business ahead of their own, simply because the shape of the project didn’t include tall smokestacks and brick or cement walls?

Yes; people would be that gullible; especially when this factory-that’s-not-a-factory promises beyond jobs and economic growth that most quintessentially seductive pact, in which people are made more comfortable, and the product that’s being developed is convenience.

The name of the factory-that’s-not-a-factory is Tweed New Haven Airport.

Tweed airport before expansion; a small but busy place from which to fly locally

Stench followed by sickness

We tend not to think of airports as factories, because they are conduits rather than component-makers in the great commercial engine, but in terms of the pollution they generate, the two are similar. As recently as a decade ago, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, LAX was the largest single source of carbon monoxide in the entire state of California. 

Anyone who’s had to sit on a tarmac in an airplane knows that, from the smell; anyone who’s stayed at an airport hotel has heard the planes taking off, rattling the windows, and when the wind blows just right, smelling the fumes of burned JP8.

Afghan and Iraq veterans know the smell too, from a different place — burn pits, which were recently acknowledged as leading to respiratory conditions and illnesses such as cancer and asthma. JP8 isn’t just used in jets, it’s the military’s standard form of fuel. I saw it poured into blivits, giant balloons that would hold thousands of gallons of the stuff. I saw it poured back out into armored cars and helicopters — it’s poured into other vehicles, too — tanks among them. I know the smell of JP8 well. Sometimes when planes fly over my house in Branford, low, approaching Tweed, the smell they leave in their wake returns me to the dusty hills and mountains of Afghanistan, a plume of smoke wafting in off a pile of trash that’s been accelerated by a liberal dousing of JP8. This is probably because the fuel commercial aircraft use (Jet A or Jet A-1) is a first cousin of JP8; fuel that’s missing a couple ingredients the military adds to make it more stable for use in extreme environments. JP8 is more hazardous to human health than Jet A or Jet A-1 in the sense that lava is more hazardous to human health than a blazing fire; the difference is in degree.

The worst stench I ever smelled was in Ukraine, on one of two trips I made to the city of Mariupol, a kilometers-long factory out of the mid-20th century. It was in a bowl, near a marsh on the Azov Sea. The air reeked with fumes, the pollution was asphyxiating. I had to hold a rag over my mouth for minutes while the car crept by the factory and checkpoints, almost choking on the rancid air. People fished in the marsh behind the factory. I asked around, and the life expectancy in the area was abysmally low — people said in the 50s, though that’s anecdotal.

Is it the case that these people were genetically inferior, or subject to the outrages of poverty and malnutrition? No, AzovStal was a place people were proud to work, and were well compensated to work there. This was a matter of living inside a space where the air was so thoroughly polluted, it was impossible to maintain good health. A nightmarish place to live, a dangerous place to raise a family. Though it must be said that Russia found a way to make living in Mariupol even worse!

Humans tend to live in valleys, near water, so I’ve lived in a couple other places where I got to see firsthand what happens when air pollution gets out of control: Vicenza, when I was posted to Italy with the 173rd Airborne, and earlier in Osaka when I was teaching English in Japan. Both cities exist in bowls, valleys surrounded by high mountains where the air can sit and settle when the wind doesn’t blow. Children growing up in the area are at much higher risk for asthma (we know this in part because of the detailed medical records kept by the US military). And while numbers are hard to come by for Osaka, it’s an industrial city, and I recall vividly the awful smell that would descend over the city on occasion.

New Haven is in a partial bowl; especially that part of it in the lowest area, Fairhaven, bounded by hills to the north, west, and south, and gas tanks and I-95 to the east. Various environmental hazards present themselves to Fairhaven residents — any pollution that is generated in or around the low-lying area eventually settles there, either from power generation, planes overhead, traffic from I-95, or other sources. And children in Fairhaven are at a higher risk for asthma.

The shore is alive with the sound of airplanes

We’re accustomed to thinking of pollution in terms of toxic chemicals that can affect our health. Such chemicals might, as in the case of particulates spread by smoke and smog, lead to respiratory, cardiovascular and/or other internal illnesses. Cancer, autoimmune disorders, deformities among infants, pre-term births. Horrible stuff.

Modern medicine has established a causal relationship between another type of pollution and ill health — what’s called “noise pollution.” As anyone who has heard a loud bang unexpectedly knows, noise can be upsetting. There is an evolutionary purpose for this — noise represents a threat, the approach of something that can harm you, be it a large predator or a storm. This is hard-wired into us, so much so that noise beyond a certain decibel level actually hurts us. Ask the guy who’s suffered from tinnitus in his left ear since a squad leader dumped a magazine full of 5.56 next to his head providing covering fire during a fighting withdrawal in 2010 how I know.

Beyond injury that can occur during construction or in combat, there’s the persistent effect of noise pollution that isn’t extreme or long-lasting enough to cause permanent damage but which, over time, can exacerbate preexisting conditions or make serious conditions worse. A motorcycle roaring down the road, waking you in the middle of the night. Nearby fireworks. A study published on the National Institutes of Health site concludes: There is clear evidence that sleep disturbances are associated with health deterioration, and growing evidence that exposure to noise pollution, around-the-clock, negatively affects health, too. It has also been proven that nocturnal noise pollution significantly impairs sleep, objectively and subjectively.

Noise also pollution increases the incidence of hypertension, cardiovascular disease and impairs cognitive performance in children. Lancet. 2014 Apr 12; 383(9925): 1325–1332.

Who has been jolted awake late at night, or early in the morning, by a low-flying jet taking off from Tweed, or coming into land? This is not a regular occurrence here in Branford, or in this area — but it will be, for Tweed to be a successful and profitable business. Will local ordinances make any difference? Of course not. The FAA is not bound by town ordinances such as those dealing with noise, or pollution — it is a federal authority. Once the expansion is complete, it will become difficult and dangerous to live in the area, and people who have the means, and value their health, will be forced to leave the area or deal with the consequences. Those who lack the means will, as people without means must, remain.

Environmental impact (birds, plants, etc)

When we talk about people leaving the area to avoid pollutants of the chemical or auditory variety, our first thought is (quite naturally) for ourselves. Nature, however, is also affected — plants, animals, insects; the ecosystem.

How much damage has been done to earth in the name of progress? The Greater New Haven area is a strange, dim reflection of itself from 500 years ago. Wetlands have been filled in for condominiums or developments; lowlands and the ocean, dumping grounds for trash and water carrying chemicals and plastics downward throughout the food chain.

Nature itself is changeable. The pyramids were built with the assistance of a giant Nile tributary that dried up millennia ago. Water levels go down, as when England was connected by land bridge to Europe and Long Island was an extension of Connecticut, and water levels go up, as was the case when the world was a much warmer place. But these changes usually occur gradually, over thousands of years, and the changes we’re making unfold in months and decades.

So much effort has been made in Connecticut to heal the ecosystem. To make the food chain stronger and more resilient, by making efforts to clean water in sustainable ways and planting native pollinator species and helping reinforce the bottom of the ocean food chain in various ways.

And yet here we go, with Tweed, tearing paths through the air, poisoning the flora and the fauna, rolling back whatever meager progress hundreds of volunteers have made to help prop up a system on which we depend, and which has been brought through neglect, inattention, and convenience to the very brink. The noise pollution that will damage the health of residents is awful enough — at least people can afford to move their bedrooms to basements, or the wealthier, install insulation that mitigates the effects of low-flying jets. Animals have no such protection.

We know that expanding Tweed and Tweed’s flights will damage the environment— this isn’t up for debate, every place that has an airport of a particular size or a factory ends up seeing citizens, wildlife, and plantlife suffer from illnesses at higher rates, and the environment negatively affected. That’s guaranteed. This isn’t the 1950s, the science isn’t unsettled.

Investing in the Past; a New Haven Legacy of Failure (Farmington Canal)

The 21st century has been characterized by extraordinary opportunities for businesses and governments capable of taking advantage of technology breakthroughs. One of these is the widespread adoption of remote work technologies such as Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, and probably some other new platform I haven’t heard of. Remote work has just begun to transform how people relate to the office — a generation of young workers have no connection to traditional office culture, and do not need or want it, a shift that will totally reorganize how businesses invest in infrastructure, and where people live. Why hire a coder living in San Francisco for $200,000 when one can get someone of comparable discipline, work ethic, productivity, and utility for $25,000 a year who lives in Kyiv, or Calcutta, or Nairobi? For those businesses where security and citizenship are a concern, hiring someone for $150,000 a year who lives in a suburb of Cleveland or Indianapolis still offers extraordinary savings, when multiplied over dozens or hundreds of workers.

This has other implications as well, for “the city,” which was developed organically over time as a way to gather resources and specialists, and then, in the industrial age, to gather workers for factories. In a service economy, there isn’t much need for corporate offices, save among those to whom it is familiar and comfortable. People can just as easily do their jobs remotely, and those businesses that are most successful are those that can take advantage of the flexibility offered by remote technology. In time, those businesses will inevitably overcome rivals that sink millions or tens of millions into obsolete commercial real estate.

The decision to expand Tweed is based on an assumption that the social and work habits of the 20th century will dominate that of the 21st and therefore that the same infrastructure will be necessary. Who is deciding that an airport is a great idea? People who use planes to move around the country for work or for leisure. Who moves around the country for work or for leisure? Those with the resources and professional connections to take advantage of a national or international network — older, more established, financially successful people. People whose vision of the future depends on their experiences of the past, for better and for worse.

It’s not entirely clear where the $100 million projected to improve Tweed will come from, though older, more established, financially successful people and institutions is a good wager. AvPorts, the LLC that will own and operate Tweed, claims that it will raise the capital from various sources. As the chief business of these organizations is profit, it’s reasonable to assume that the expansion is, from their perspective, a speculative investment — a wager. One can be certain (and not assume) that profit will be the overriding concern in any conversation that requires making choices that impact neighbors. It is also reasonable to think about the cost of maintenance for large infrastructure of this sort, which, when speculative investment fails, often ends up defaulting to municipalities. Take as an example of this the abandoned and half-remediated Atlantic Wire site, which still has contaminated dirt exposed to the elements. Atlantic Wire is bankrupt, and the company that bought the property for development claims not to be responsible for maintenance or cleanup. Who pays? Branford residents and, eventually, the town. Who’ll pay for any inconvenience or disaster that strikes an expanded Tweed? Connecticut, New Haven, the shoreline.

This isn’t the first time New Haven has gotten into bed with investors to gamble future commercial success on an aging or mature transportation field. Gambled in the sense that transportation infrastructure is expensive, and any investment in the field must weigh the cost of development against the risk that it is or will eminently become obsolete — that nobody will use the new thing that has been bought, and that it will become an expensive and fruitless millstone, which instead of driving economic development, will be a costly weight around a city’s neck.

In the early 19th century, New Haven leaders pooled private resources and invested in an established and millennia-old technology at the worst moment possible. They took out loans, raised capital, and poured great reserves of human energy into creating the Farmington Canal. Rivers had been the primary engine of commerce since before the time of the Pharaohs, and making a river where none existed represented the pinnacle of organized human might. The visionaries of the Farmington Canal, long vexed by Hartford’s position on the Connecticut River, sought to jump New Haven over its nearby co-capital city, to dominate trade in Connecticut, and enrich its citizens.

The story of how those New Haveners and leaders in nearby towns (led by the accomplished and renowned Yale Man James Hillhouse) were able to muster political will and raise private capital is similar to the story of how Tweed is coming together as a speculative investment. People interested in learning more about how the canal was built and by whom are encouraged to read more about the canal’s fascinating and sad history.

Sad, because at the same time laborers were digging a path through Connecticut’s legendarily rocky soil, big changes were happening across the Atlantic Ocean. In Great Britain, a device called the steam engine had been set on a carriage that was itself placed on parallel metal beams supported by wooden trestles. This primitive device would lead to the development of the train, and almost overnight, totally revolutionized commerce. The investment necessary to create and maintain a canal was immediately outstripped by that of the investment needed to create and maintain rail lines. Those cities and groups that were quick to invest in railways reaped extraordinary benefits. Not only did the Farmington Canal fail, proving profitable only once while operational, it did so in the context of other projects succeeding. The canal has, after renovation, recouped some of the labor that went into its design and construction, as a beautiful walking and biking trail — this was not something intended by its original advocates.

New Haven today has an advantage over New Haven of the early 19th century. Perhaps New Haven’s leaders of the 1830s did not know about the train, had not read the literature or seen the potential when they sank money, time, and effort into shoveling out a divot through which to send boats laden with goods for trade. It may not have even occurred to them that there was another opportunity on the horizon. Today, the opportunities to invest in transformative and revolutionary infrastructure are many, and well known to all. The possibility that canals could become obsolete may not have been public or even specialized knowledge in 1835; today, it is likely given technological developments that small airports will become obsolete, and all but the biggest will fold (or become huge money pits for the regions that insist on operating them on the taxpayer’s back).

What are some potential targets for infrastructure development that aren’t airports? Anything having to do with electrified transport (cars, trains, bikes). Anything making a place more attractive for someone to live, as cities will become attractive not because of work opportunities, but because they are pleasant places in which to commute, socialize, and raise families (here, pedestrian and bike lanes seem like a useful way to develop New Haven and its surrounding area). If as seems likely drones will play an increasing role in commerce, perhaps developing an Aerodrome for drones (a hub for larger and smaller drones) might be worth considering; it has the advantage of offering New Haven a potential advantage over competing cities, rather than attempting to replicate a mature service that is already available nearby in JFK, Bradley, La Guardia, and Newark, to name a few.

There are two things about Tweed that are novel to any extent — cheap flights, and that one should only drive 5-25 minutes for a flight, rather than 45-120 minutes. At some point, the cheap flights will vanish, just as fares for Uber have steadily climbed from their appealing beginnings. And the more people who use the airport, the more traffic one can expect, eroding the advantage in convenience one reaps on the road. Neither of these will make any difference to the generation accustomed to socializing personally and professionally online, whose businesses and entrepreneurial projects will absolutely demolish those of rivals who insist on hazarding their company’s precious resources on commercial real estate — what amounts to living museums.

Painting a target on New Haven (military)

There is another compelling variable to consider when it comes to Tweed’s expansion. The odds of its being a problem are not great, but it is a consideration worth mentioning, given how human history has unfolded, and the unlikelihood that we or our children are living at the end of history.

Has anyone looked out of the passenger side window of an airplane taxiing down the runway at Bradley or JFK or O’Hare or LAX, and seen a C-130 Hercules military transport, or a C-17 Globemaster, or Blackhawk helicopters parked somewhere on the tarmac? Thought to themselves: “aren’t there military bases for that sort of thing?” Wondered: “why is military equipment sitting right next to — no, on — civilian infrastructure?” I have!

Part of this is because much of the military has been privatized, and a great deal of what was once exclusively civilian or exclusively military has been made into a combination of both, to save money. If convenience has been one head of the hydra of our age, saving money in the name of corporate efficiency has been the other — a satanic beast that has twice betrayed us. First during the pandemic and second (more recently) in Russia’s wicked and immoral invasion of Ukraine. Fully one third of what was once military tasks and responsibilities have been outsourced to private contractors, all the while making use of whatever space can be rented or leased on the private market (one study estimated that half the over $14 trillion spent on the various post-9/11 wars has gone to private contracting, according to a piece by PBS, for some sense of its pervasiveness). The argument is that it saves tax dollars and is efficient, when in practice, it doesn’t do the former and isn’t the latter.

An uncomfortable secondary consequence of this military sprawl into public life is that a regional airport is a military target in a way local airports are not. Regional and international airports are always on an enemy’s list of objectives either to be seized for follow-on operations, or destroyed to impact a nation’s ability to mass air power for defense. In a war, regional airports can expect at least one of two things (sometimes both): to be invaded by an enemy army, or to be bombed or rocketed by an enemy air force. If you doubt that this is true, I encourage you to read up on any war that has taken place since aircraft became a large part of warfare.

Rather than indulge a lengthy fantasy about the ways in which a large airport would endanger the area and its residents during war, how New Haven would take on a significance to an opposing military that it does not currently possess, I’ll conclude by saying that New Haven is not at present any higher on anyone’s list of cities than Hartford, or Stamford, or New London. Expanding Tweed as some hope will mean if there is ever a war, that someone will be punching in missile or drone or air drop / air assault coordinates corresponding with whatever facility is there. Expanding Tweed represents a risk. That risk is small in a world characterized by peaceful coexistence. It is much bigger in a world contorted by war.

The argument for Expanding Tweed

Up until now, the arguments presented have been those against expanding Tweed. In the event one has not heard the arguments for expanding Tweed, they are as follows, in no particular order (some will be more appealing than others):

1 — it will bring jobs to the area; dozens or hundreds depending on how big one thinks Tweed will get

2 — it will help New Haven grow both by making it a more convenient destination, and by (arguably) generating revenue

3 — it will make travel more convenient (currently for those who have property or business in Florida)

4 — it’s a done deal, expansion is a fait accompli and you’re dumb if you resist it!

Most of these arguments have been debunked or challenged point by point in an Op-Ed by Sara Nadel (a classmate of mine at Hopkins) published by The Hartford Courant. For people seeking a comprehensive breakdown of the arguments against the arguments for Tweed, one cannot do better.


There are a few (conditional) arguments for expanding Tweed, and many more against expanding it. Whether it will be expanded or not is beyond me; I’m a town RTM member in Branford, a man with few connections and little practical influence. Weighing the pros and cons the expansion doesn’t seem like a terrific idea — certainly not a slam dunk — and it also seems clear to me that not all the cons were weighed properly before people decided to go ahead with the project. Rather than be put to the people of this area only after a sincere public accounting of the costs and benefits to such a project, and in keeping with the modest and democratic traditions of New England, the expansion is being treated like something that has already been decided, and citizens as childlike annoyances who need to be tolerated and convinced, rather than adults who are capable of making up their own minds (but who might choose against such a massive change to the area’s environmental and infrastructural topography).

I hope this piece has offered readers some material for consideration. If, upon consideration, readers feel moved to do something to slow or stop an airport expansion that is likely to do quite a bit more harm than good in the short and long term, I beseech them to write or act.

On War Films and National Unification, or Why Ukraine Deserves a National Epic

Generation War is a three-part miniseries that unfolds over the course of five years, 1941 to 1945. It follows five German friends: a Jewish tailor, an aspiring actress, a nurse, and two Wehrmacht soldiers who are also brothers. It is a sentimental portrait of World War II, but also unsparing—everyone is punished for experiencing the war, and the more awful the choices the characters make, the more awful their fates.

The series came out in 2013, and many reviewers were careful to describe the ways in which Generation War was problematic. It generalizes and oversimplifies—in some ways, it does so in ways that border on trivialization. It makes extraordinary coincidences seem commonplace. People survive, albeit changed. The Poles are anti-Semites, and the Ukrainians are so brutal it makes the Nazis look merciful by comparison. Russians are enemies, rapists, and (ultimately) judge, jury, and executioners for the Germans who survive the war.

The series is, in short, a German story. The title, in German, loosely translated, reads “Our Fathers, Our Mothers.” While subtitled in different languages, the series is not targeting anyone else’s experience of World War II: it’s claiming to present a vision of the war as seen through the eyes of children and grandchildren. From this perspective, as a series, Generation War is successful—regardless of what occurred to people during World War II, this story is not for them—it’s not a story for Poles, or Ukrainians. In a certain sense, it’s not a story about The Holocaust, either, although that tragedy affected many German citizens.

German WWII pillbox in Kamyianets-Podilskyy; a town and region famous for another, much older castle. Ukraine’s history involves many different countries and cultures moving to and through its landscape, each leaving traces, but ultimately retreating.

Zinky Boys is a non-fiction collection of vignettes about the Soviet War in Afghanistan, by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. Drawn from interviews and conversations with wounded veterans, widows, traumatized survivors and (most terribly) mothers of dead soldiers, Zinky Boys is the translation of a Russian term for the people brought back in sealed zinc coffins during the fighting: tsynkovay grobyi. It is reminiscent of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a similarly-conceived non-fiction project set in America’s intervention in Vietnam’s civil war. Zinky Boys offers damning testimony as to the criminally negligent conduct of the war, if not the foolishness of war itself—this testimony seems to have paralleled a push in the media to discredit the war. Many former citizens of the USSR still conflate media attacks on the military and the politicians responsible for the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan with the fall of the USSR. Zinky Boys has taken on a symbolic meaning that extends beyond the stories within. One could say that it’s a Soviet story about the collapse of the USSR, similar to how Generation War is a story told from the perspective of German children or grandchildren .

Different Perspectives on Similar Events

National storytelling is an important component of the modern nation-state. Growing up, I was taught to view these stories as essentially negative—manipulative, failed attempts to forge unity from a more sophisticated and complex world. These stories were supposed to be fundamentally untrue on a certain level. Deceptive, kitsch, bad art.

Watching Generation War in Ukraine, with a Ukrainian whose family had experienced World War II, I was aware of three perspectives—firstly, that of the series’ creators, who were making Generation War as a sentimental and national account of World War II from the German perspective. Secondly, that of the Ukrainian, who saw and noticed things of which I was unaware, and the series creators were also likely unaware. Thirdly, there was my own perspective, that of a German-American whose grandfathers both fought in the war (against Germany) for America. The overall effect of this was a paradoxical simultaneous appreciation for how the modern, ethnic nation-state has developed, as well as a clear understanding that these rigid definitions will always be vulnerable to change and evolution.

While WWII kitsch started almost as soon as the war ended, with movies like The Best Years of Our Lives offering redemptive and positive views for the future, in modern terms, the film and tv series that began the retrospective urge to understand were undoubtedly Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, both of which influenced Generation War. I think it’s fair to call Band of Brothers a type of series, now—a kind of story that a nation tells itself after the fighting is over to understand what happened. Band of Brothers was not the first miniseries of its kind, nor was it the last—it was non-fiction, and portrayed events (presumably as they happened) from history. Generation Kill, following a Marine unit during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is influenced by Band of Brothers (which was very kind to the Germans, and in fact allowed the Germans to determine its ethical heart, extraordinarily) as was another, less successful WWII series following the Marine Corps (Pacific).

Not every country focuses its attention on World War II as much as the USA—Russia, of course, focuses on one part of World War II, “The Great Patriotic War,” or everything that happened after Nazi Germany mounted an attack on them, and not including the two years they were allies of Nazi Germany. The USA and Russia are similar in the sense that World War II (or “The Great Patriotic War”) were experiences which no matter how traumatic during the fighting, became great stories of unification: the soil in which the seeds of national unity could be grown, profitably so. World War II was a sort of Bildungsroman for both the USA and the USSR as global powers.

Italy, Japan and Germany’s movies, series, and art about World War II are decidedly less positive and more circumspect. Not surprisingly, Jewish accounts of World War II focus far more on The Holocaust than any other aspect. And other countries pay far less attention to the event at all—for a variety of reasons, some of which are certainly economic, but also largely because WWII wasn’t formative for them in the same way it was for the USA (or the USSR). China springs immediately to mind as one such example.

Individual Experiences, and the Supposed Death of the Modern Nation

As a series that attempts to describe a type of experience representative of the status quo in Germany, Generation War works. As a series that describes every individual German’s experience of the war, or every Pole’s, or Ukrainian’s, or Russian’s, of course, it fails. One recent movie that sets out to describe how a solitary human moved through World War II and does so successfully—on a universal level—is the Hungarian film “Son of Saul.” Capably unpacked here, the movie uses The Holocaust historically and allegorically, to demonstrate how humans make difficult choices under impossible circumstances, and what value those choices have, on an individual level. This is not “Hungary’s” story, nor is it “the story of Jewish Holocaust survivors everywhere,” it is a story about a man who has lost his sense of purpose, and discovers that sense again, redeeming himself in the process.

Movies that speak to individuals regardless of their gender, class, ethnicity or religion are special, and help frame important questions that people have about the world around them. They can be set in a concentration camp or on another planet, in a squalid hovel or in a lavish mansion and they are equally useful. They point to the human experience.

Industrial-scale wars of the 19th and 20th century as well as genocides that occurred therein helped drive the first globally-significant secular transnational organizations. The failed “League of Nations,” the United Nations, the USSR, NATO and the European Union all responded to some war or another. Although they reflected competing ideological and political interests, the tendency throughout the 19th and 20th centuries seemed, until recently, to be away from national boundaries and national self-definition. Increasingly, the thinking was that nations didn’t necessarily have any particular right to exist—not really. Sovereignty depends on context, and relationships. And individual rights, especially in the light of The Holocaust, were more significant than the rights of the nations in which those individuals existed.

Return of the Nation-State Model

As it turns out, that thinking depended on faulty assumptions. Nations deserve to exist, and require their own art, their own movies and television series. I would not have thought or written this in 2013. Then, I would have claimed the contrary. It seemed, then, that defensive alliances like NATO were obsolete, and that as the prospect of wars of territorial ambition were soundly behind us, things like armies and nations should not exist. It seemed to me that the destruction of modern nation-states would lead inexorably to greater harmony for people, and for peoples. In other words, I was naïve. Others were, too.

America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Europe’s support of the Libyan insurrection of 2011 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 changed everything. Each of these events eroded the importance of sovereignty, and allowed individual nations to determine the fates of weaker nations, often over the vociferous and reasonable objections of other countries. But while Iraq and Libya came first, no single action did more to end the dream of a transnational or globalist  world than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Ukraine was a modern, European country that had relinquished a substantial nuclear arsenal and more or less willfully dismantled its military. Boats and planes were cannibalized to keep smaller fleets afloat and in the air, while, tanks and armored personnel carriers rusted from disuse. A massive Army shrank to 40,000 on paper, though perhaps only 20% of that in reality. Ukraine tripled down on the post-Cold War theory that nations would not attack one another for territory, and especially not great nations like Russia.

Not to put all the blame on Russia—the USA and Europe assured Ukraine that it would be protected. Ukraine, too, gambled that the world would be a fundamentally more stable and less violent place. Conversation in Europe and the U.S. turned to the violence of words and economic structures—microaggressions and neo-colonialism—and away from the idea of actual violence, done to us by others (this possibility, that others could do us violence, is why each “we,” each nation, has a police force and a military). President Obama’s weak and indecisive response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine convinced Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, that Russia could take without serious consequences beyond Western sanctions.

Between Russia’s attacks, and Europe and America’s inability to mount credible defenses of Ukraine, the hope for a peaceful post-national future was destroyed—at least, in my lifetime.

Ukraine Should Tell Its National Story

So if individuals can profit from good cinematic storytelling, but also countries, and countries are necessary, those nation-building (or critical) stories like Band of Brothers and Zinky Boys and Generation War are not just permissible, not just necessary, but actually good.

Living in Ukraine and hearing the stories of its many varied inhabitants, I’ve seen how groups of people without any ostensible similarities (people of Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, Greek, Czech, Khazak, and Turkish descent) can find common cause and community in resisting an external threat: in this case, Putin’s fascistic Russia. Ukraine is a country, now, in a way that it was not in 2010, and not in 1990. To say that Ukraine is not a country today is to be incorrect, factually, but also it is an act of violence against the Ukrainians who have made the place their home, together, regardless of the problems that come with the land and its government.

Ukraine could use a “nationalist” series about its own history, that stretches back to Scythian times, and moves forward through Kyiv Rus, through the Mongol occupation, through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the partition among Austria-Hungary and Russia, through World War I and World War II and the USSR, to the present moment. It is neither possible to write or produce such a work without diminishing individual narratives, nor can those individuals fail to take on a political or national significance that ends up functioning as propaganda. Nevertheless, for Ukraine to be its own country, it requires a national story, and that story should depend on the people who live there today.

This would require facing the Polish-Ukrainian wars of 1918-19 and 1944-46, one of which ended in defeat for Ukraine, and the other in defeat for Poland. It would require facing Ukrainians like Stepan Bandera, who sold out to the Nazis, and Bogdan Khmelnytsky, who sold out to Russia. It would require facing its anti-semitic history. It would require a great deal of fortitude and discipline, and (most difficult of all) it would require a serious, multi-year commitment from wealthy and obsessive backers, to do the story justice.

The alternative — that Ukraine continue to exist at the mercy of the nations and storytellers around it — should no longer be acceptable to Ukrainians. They have a nation that they’ve defended, that’s worth defending. They deserve the very best story to help people understand why.

Hybrid War Comes to America

Hybrid War, a controversial but memorable term to describe war in Ukraine from 2014-15, has finally arrived in the US. Whether it stays and grows into a full-blown civil war remains to be seen.

What is “Hybrid War?” That depends on whom you ask. But since you’re asking me, in the context of this essay, I’ll tell you what I believe it to be. Hybrid War, in my estimation, is a type of conflict where an attacker exploits definitional gray areas in a country’s understanding of peace and war to gain an advantage. It is a hybrid of “peace” and “war,” wherein a defender is faced with difficult or even impossible choices that force the selection of disadvantageous courses of action.

One example of Hybrid War was an episode in Ukraine, in April of 2014 in Kramatorsk, where a crowd of ostensibly unarmed civilians surrounded an element of the Ukrainian Army’s 25th Mechanized Brigade, disarmed it, and essentially morphed into a separatist paramilitary. Picture it: dozens or hundreds of civilians throwing stones and shouting at you. Your countrymen. You’re faced with three options—first, to retreat, suffering a defeat by failing to secure or defend your objective. Second, to open fire, and be complicit in the mass murder of dozens or hundreds of unarmored civilians, a clear violation of the law of war and human rights. Third, to permit oneself to be captured, disarmed and sent on your way.

This Ukrainian unit chose the third option, and allowed themselves to be captured by an angry crowd of their countrymen. It was the wrong choice. But every choice was wrong, there was no good choice in that moment, in part because military units aren’t supposed to carry out law enforcement, they’re a violent solution to a tactical problem in war.

I don’t believe that Hybrid War is some fancy new doctrine that incorporates different types of weapons platforms. I believe it is a well-designed threat with no good tactical solution, which operates by designing a specific type of confrontation to take place where peace becomes war before a unit can adapt and respond in a military context, where one set of logic ends and another begins.  


Protestors and police in front of the Capitol building the night of January 6th. Via screenshot of video taken by John Ismay, obtained from his Twitter feed.
Police and protestors at the U.S. Capitol the night of January 6th. Photo via screenshot of video from John Ismay’s Twitter feed

Hybrid War was the very first thing I thought of when I saw video of police officers opening a fence barricade to allow a crowd of Trump supporters into the capital. The officers were faced with a series of bad choices, the most plausible were run or be beaten (they chose to run, and some of them were eventually beaten). If they’d had firearms, perhaps they could have been tempted to open fire—certainly (and thankfully) none did. At least, until protestors breached the Capitol itself, and attempted to penetrate an inner sanctum.

But this coming long weekend, MLK weekend, no less, is bound to see violence at some of the planned 51 protests (50 in state capitals, plus a larger protest envisioned for Washington, DC). The largest protest is likely planned for Washington DC—as can be surmised from the fact that leadership has supplemented law enforcement with 20,000 mobilized National Guardsmen. State capitols will be secured by state and local law enforcement.

The police certainly were not prepared to confront their fellow citizens with violence on January 6th. Have the National Guardsmen and their police allies prepared for that possibility? In the event that the promised “storm” or “krakan” or whatever the insurrectionists are calling themselves these days arrives, are the Guardsmen and police officers prepared (as the police were not, on January 6th) for violence? If not, it won’t matter if there are 100,000 guardsmen on hand, or 1,000,000.

Law enforcement in every state capital face this threat until inauguration, as well. It won’t last forever. At some point, “Hybrid War” either evolves into full scale war, as it did in Ukraine’s East in 2014, or it evaporates into ill intention, or low-grade insurgency. Either way, the spectacle of masses of civilians spontaneously but deliberately turning into a hostile military force is no longer there—all the civilians have become active insurgents, and are therefore valid targets, or all the insurgents are in the process of becoming civilians. The threat evolves, or vanishes.


When I originally learned about Hybrid War, in Ukraine, my first thought was for the NATO soldiers stationed in the Baltic region. I talked with everyone I could about the problem and phenomenon—I was terrified that US soldiers in Riga would be surrounded by “Latvian civilians” (in reality, Russian provocateurs) and forced into one of these impossible situations. This, of course, would either lead to some sort of black eye for American forces, or, if they made the wrong choice, a horrible incident that might create a state of war, and on awful footing.

The solution, I thought at the time, was to run units deploying to NATO countries and especially those to be stationed in Eastern Europe through “Hybrid War” exercises during JRTC or NTC training. Allow Platoon Leaders and Company Commanders to encounter this Kobayashi Maru style paradox, not to demoralize them, not to bully them, but simply to allow them to think through the scenario, lest they encounter it for the first time on the battlefield with real consequences.

As far as I understand, no such readiness exercises were ever incorporated into U.S. military training, either stateside, or in Europe, with or without NATO partners. This threat remains a strategy capable of being used deliberately by Russia, and other clever non-state actors, whether consciously or because they have intuited its potential.

For now, I’m hoping that it remains a possibility, and isn’t employed against US military or law enforcement units.

Thoughts on the partisan attack on Congress, and Euromaidan

In the winter of 2014, protestors filled Independence Square in Kyiv. Upset that Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, had refused to open the country further to European trade and commerce, hundreds, then thousands, and ultimately millions of people converged on Kyiv and rose up throughout the country, battling police and military units to have their voices heard.

Moderates stood side by side with radicals—neo nazis, anarchists, socialists, liberals, and conservative moderates, atheists and devout believers joined together in outrage, and united in common cause against their joint enemy. Yanukovych fled to Russia rather than face the consequences of his criminal attempts to subdue the protests. The effects of what’s called the Euromaidan Revolution are still felt today in Eastern Europe, and can be seen in the ongoing protests around Viktor Lushenko’s dictatorship in Belarus.


Ukrainians describe Euromaidan as a revolution, but it was really more of an uprising; a spontaneous explosion of dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s ongoing dependence on Russia and Moscow, and the brand of corrupt capitalism endorsed there. Ukrainians from all walks of life had become fed up with a government that wouldn’t or couldn’t listen to the priorities and problems of the people. Meanwhile the comparatively few who benefitted from personal proximity to Yanukovych were vastly outnumbered. This, of course, is a well-known historical flaw of governments centered around a narrow ideology or a specific personality, too many people get left out, and when push comes to shove, there aren’t enough of them to defend it against its opponents.

To return to the protests on Independence Square—its success depended on many factors, but among them, the cross-sectional composition of its crowds was probably the most important. Had only far-right or far-left protestors opposed Yanukovych’s administration, everyone else would have remained home, correctly seeing the crowds as partisan. If Yanukovych’s military and police had been fighting against some niche political movement, it would have been easy to dismiss the disorder as illegitimate, behavior to be avoided. But the crowds were not partisans, even at first, and the anger at Yanukovych was deep. And so when the military cracked down, people didn’t see officers beating fascists or anarchists, they saw them beating their sons, their daughters, themselves.

Partisans, as everyone knows, do not have everyone’s best interests at heart. Partisans have an intense belief in their own world view that excludes the perspectives of everyone else. This is why governments and systems imposed by the rare successful partisan insurrection are always brittle, and quickly fail—they don’t enjoy sufficient support to survive. Starved of the love and loyalty on which a nation depends, partisan-fueled movements ultimately end in violence and defeat, whether that’s on a scale of years, or decades, it is inevitable.


The storming of the US Capitol building by Trump supporters on January 6, as well as the promised “million militia march” of January 19-20, did not represent a broad faction of American citizens. People may have had various intentions within the crowd of January 6th—kidnapping, murder, vandalism (historical allusion intended), to engage in civic protest, or just accidental sightseers, pulled up the steps and over the line of police as though by some mysterious attractive force—they all shared one thing in common: hostility toward the current electoral process, and support for Trump’s negation of the results of the 2020 election.

The Trump supporters framed their actions as dependent on systemic reforms—a movement to transform and overhaul a government and leadership-system riddled with corruption and nepotism. The ostensible hypocrisy of supporting the corrupt and nepotistic scion of a real estate empire built on legally dubious maneuvers and precisely the type of insider dealing they find objectionable does not factor into this schema, because a hallmark of Trumpism is a willingness to overlook Trump’s flaws, and to see him as a means to an end.


The attack on Congress was made by the radical right. It’s not accurate to describe them as a “fringe,” as their desecration of Congress was supported by (according to polls) at least 45% of the people who voted for Trump, a number that’s somewhere in the region of 35 million people, or somewhere around 10% of the US population. This is a big number! It’s certainly large enough to support some form of insurrection or counter-revolution (the counter-revolution being a revolution against democracy and against the traditions of the United States). In the long run, it’s probably not sufficient for that insurrection to succeed.

Trump enjoys the passionate, even fanatical loyalty of some supporters, a fanaticism that led many to bet heavily on his victory, and to support him financially, and to do other illogical, irrational things that weren’t actually connected to his success. Everyone who voted for Trump is not a “Trump” partisan, many voters likely supported him out of loyalty to the Republican Party, or as a protest vote against the leadership team of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who do not inspire the same level of passionate devotion.

That passion is so powerful among the people who do love Trump (or consistently behave as though they do, which amounts to the same thing) that it blinds them to the fact that the high esteem in which he’s held by them is mirrored to an opposite degree by just about everyone else, who, if they have any position at all about Trump, dislike or even loathe him.

It should be obvious to anyone that a modern country cannot be led by someone who’s loved by 10% of the population, grudgingly accepted by a further 10%, and then disliked or hated by the remaining 80%. Certainly not a country with democratic traditions as old as those of the United States.

Only one question really remains: 10% might be able to seize power through swift and organized violence—they’ve been planning and organizing to do this for years, it’s certainly feasible—but how long can they remain in power? ISIS ruled large portions of Syria and Iraq for several years, before being overcome. The “thousand year Reich” promised by Hitler and his supporters lasted 12, though its demise was hastened by Hitler’s imprudently attacking every neutral Great Power possible. The Confederacy barely lasted as long as ISIS (and, counting the people they had enslaved to work on their behalf, were nearly as popular).

With a weekend of violence on the horizon at every state capital, and promises to disrupt the inauguration of the next president, the US faces a dangerous moment in its history. No help will be forthcoming from the federal government, as, obviously, the current president is disinclined to use his authority to do anything substantial to stop his supporters from seizing power on his behalf. Those state governments that have the vision and spirit to lay out aggressive and robust plans of defense should “protesters” again mysteriously transform into “hostile insurgents” (as many of them have said they will do on social media) will survive a furious but shallow assault. State governments that treat this threat unseriously may get lucky and avoid disaster—or something much worse could happen.

Come what may, what is happening in the United States is no “Euromaidan,” no broad, durable critique of the system at large. It’s a naked power grab by a minority of ideologically-motivated extremists who’ve gathered around a (to them) beloved personality. If they do follow through with their threats, they’ll either seize power through violence and lose it quickly thereafter, or fail to seize power, and ruin the peace known and enjoyed by Americans as their birthright for generations—one of the best parts of being an American, freedom from fear, freedom from want.

The Battles of Zelenopillya: Part 1 of 2

There are three completely separate versions of a battle in Ukraine. One version exists in the United States and western European countries, where it is popular among national security experts, officers, and military strategists. Another version exists Ukraine, where it is a well-known chapter in the history of the Russo-Ukrainian war. They agree on the fact that a battle occurred, but the circumstances surrounding that battle are remarkably different, as are the lessons that each country have drawn from it. The third, Russian version, doesn’t agree with either of the others.

The battle is named for the nearest town—Zelenopillya—and the version that has been popularized in the U.S. and western Europe goes like this:

Two battalions of Ukrainian mechanized infantry gathered during the predawn darkness of July 11, 2014, to seize the last separatist checkpoint along the Russian border. One day, maybe two, left of fighting and they’d have secured their border with Russia, cutting off resupply to the separatist movement. Roaring toward Zelenopillya in a fleet of Soviet-era tanks and armored patrol cars crewed by a motley mix of young, battle-hungry conscripts and grizzled Red Army veterans, the units were no match for a modern army, but more than sufficient for the demoralized Russian-armed separatists. Vehicles clattered by farmer’s fields, one by one down a battered road.

Despite being poorly trained and hastily equipped with vintage Kalashnikovs and anti-tank weapons, morale was high. The units tapped for this final battle had so far enjoyed nothing but victories in their long slog through the secluded hamlets and rusty coal-mining towns of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

The advancing units paused to get their bearings in an open field several kilometers west of Zelenopillya. Soldiers spilled out of vehicles to nap or stretch their legs, while sergeants took inventory of fuel and ammo and officers congregated to go over the battle plan one last time. And then, quietly but unmistakably, came the buzzing sound of drones overhead. This wasn’t unusual—pro-Russian forces often flew drones to scout enemy positions—but the Ukrainians had been banking on the element of surprise. Then came another, more startling development: attempts to contact higher headquarters revealed that the radios were jammed. Electronic warfare was not a capability the separatists were known to possess.

Suddenly, shells shrieked down from the sky as if from nowhere, unleashing a maelstrom of fire and steel rain. Brand-new thermobaric warheads and top-attack shells took a horrible toll. Vehicles, some of them still occupied, burst into flames, while soldiers outside were torn to pieces. Within the space of a minute, the field was transformed into a boneyard of smoking wreckage, the quiet morning now sundered by incoherent screaming and shouts for help. The battle was over before it had begun, and Ukraine would never again come so close to securing their border.

Photo from eastern Ukraine circa 2017. Military positions on natural or artificial hills like the one in the background (created as a byproduct of coal mining) offer commanding overwatch of the vast fields beyond. From atop the hill, it is easy to spot buildups in open fields when no effort is taken to conceal tanks or armored personnel carriers, or light infantry positions in bivouac.

This account of Zelenopillya is a nightmare scenario for any military. The Russians used drones to spot a mechanized force on the move. When the force halted, the Russians deployed electronic jamming to prevent the unit from communicating with superiors (or even individual vehicles from communicating with each other). Then, again, using drones for spotters, it used precision munitions to hit the force before it was able to move again—so precisely, in fact, that it “destroyed” the units, reducing their combat power by damaging or destroying vehicles and killing or wounding soldiers to the point where the units ceased to exist. Most American and western units would have difficulty accomplish this feat using drones—that the Russian military possessed this capability and were able to use it with such ease and effectiveness sent shockwaves through the national security establishment.


The version of Zelenopillya one hears from veterans and Ukrainian leaders in places like Kyiv and Kramatorsk is remarkably different from its U.S. counterpart.

In Ukrainian sources and according to veterans of the battle, a poorly-trained force that was unprepared for heavy artillery camped in a field. Vehicles were parked next to one another as though on a parade ground for inspection, and soldiers didn’t dig trenches. That encampment had been stationary for at least a day—some accounts have it there longer—making no effort to conceal itself. It was struck, and sustained heavy damage, mostly due to not having prepared for the possibility of being struck in the first place.

“Zelenopillya is a tragedy. It could have been a small tragedy, but it became a very large tragedy because of the negligence of commanders. Absolute negligence on a tactical and strategic level,” according to Sergii Mandalyna during an interview. Mandalyna, an artilleryman with the 79th airmobile brigade, was at the camp at Zelenopillya the morning of the attack.

In Ukraine, the artillery attack was primarily noteworthy for political reasons: prior to July 11, 2014, the Russian Army had never attempted to destroy a Ukrainian unit with an active duty unit from within Russia. Up until Zelenopillya, the Ukrainian military thought that it was fighting a Russian-led separatist moment—it didn’t occur to anyone that they’d be fighting Russia itself.

According to soldiers and officers present at Zelenopillya, the camp was more like the type of improvised depot for fuel, food, water, and ammunition that one might encounter in a peacetime garrison. It was used by units in the area as they battled separatists and attempted to secure their border with Russia—at the time of Zelenopillya there were platoon or company-size elements from the 24th & 72nd Mechanized Brigades and the 79th Airmobile Brigade, as well as police with a Border Police unit. There were no fighting emplacements; some veterans reported being ordered not to dig. Most of the vehicles were parked in rows, side-by-side, as if for inspection in a vehicle motor pool. And, according to soldiers interviewed, at least part of the reason the strike on Zelenopillya was effective was that many vehicles were loaded with supplies for operations; when struck by rockets the vehicles went up like roman candles.

“The reason it was so damaging was that the grads set off the Ukrainian ammunition,” said Mandalyna. “There was so much ammunition on the vehicles, there wasn’t room for people. That caused more casualties than the grads themselves.”

Ukrainian veterans of Zelenopillya said that there had, allegedly, been harassing fire from grads on July 10th, before the tragedy itself—possibly the Russians bracketing the camp. But single shots fired near or across the border weren’t taken seriously. Sergii Loskutov, a soldier with Ukraine’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade at the time, said his unit had received pot-shots at night from BM-21s by the Russian border on the days leading up to the strike. “There were 5 grad cars that tried to hit us at night, you could see them with their headlights. 2-3 cars, moving across the border 100 meters, shot at us, and then left. The shooting wasn’t very effective. We had trenches and dugouts at our camp [not Zelenopillya], and when we heard grads fired, we knew we had about 45 seconds to hide. Almost none of our people were killed by taking these sensible precautions.”

While nobody was able to say with certainty when the camp at Zelenopillya was created—some said days before the attack, one veteran said as early as June 2014—all were clear that the camp existed for far longer than a few hours, a period of time that included a substantial amount of daylight. It had been scouted repeatedly by drones in the days leading up to the strike, and was known to the separatist-held towns in the surrounding area. Furthermore, at that moment in the war, some of the more senior officers in Ukraine’s military had suspect loyalties.

Loskutov had visited the camp at Zelenopillya the day before the attack. Mobilized in the beginning of March, when Russia seized Crimea, Loskutov had served in the Red Army as a paratrooper during the waning days of the USSR, seeing action with the Belgrade Division in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. He described the camp as “big green tents that weren’t even hidden. Just in the middle of a big open field.” He had previously visited the camp twice.

“When I heard about the attack in Zelenopillya, of course I was sad. As a soldier, I thought more could have been done. The officers in charge of the camp must have thought that they were safe. But everyone who already had fighting experience all knew that the camp was a very unsafe place,” Loskutov said via translator.

Loskutov said that when his unit visited Zelenopillya, they would camp close to a treeline, to be away from the center of the camp, and closer to some cover.

Another veteran wounded in Zelenopillya agreed that the camp was dangerous. At the time a 19-year-old sergeant assigned to a BTR (a Soviet light tank) with the 79th Airmobile Brigade, Ivan Isaev’s unit had been fighting in the area when it stopped in at Zelenopillya for the first time for a meal. He was shocked by the lack of preparedness in the camp.

“I jumped down from my BTR, a soldier greeted me in shorts. I asked ‘don’t you have a war here?’ And he said ‘There’s fighting, but it’s far away.’ The feeling in Zelenopillya was that the war did not apply to them. It looked like an ordinary training camp, like something in the rear,” Isaev said.

The day of the strike, Isaev’s unit had returned for some sleep prior to moving back out on mission. They parked their BTR by the treeline, away from the tents of the main camp, in an effort to make themselves less conspicuous as a target. They were exhausted when they arrived at the camp, and didn’t dig shelters—it would have taken too much time.

“I survived only because I slept by a tree,” said Isaev. “I remember the night like it was yesterday. I woke up rapidly when I heard the blast of other shells in the camp, and understood I had no time to hide. I couldn’t protect myself. I thought ‘what should I do?’ Two seconds later a grad landed a few meters from me and my soldiers, behind a tree. All 7 of us were wounded, in and outside the BTR.”

Isaev feels that his life and limbs were saved when a medical officer—a veteran of the Red Army who had served in Afghanistan (in Ukraine they are known as “Afghantsi”) rendered first aid. Later, Isaev’s feet were amputated.

Another soldier who contributed information to the story was in Isaev’s BTR during the attack, and was blinded.

This version was seconded by Viktor Muzhenko, the Chief of the General Staff and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine at the time. In an April 2019 interview he described Zelenopillya casualties as attributable to leader negligence and panic on the part of presumably ill-disciplined soldiers—not a sophisticated Russian super-weapons. Then, in a letter written in January of 2020, which will be published in the following essay, he confirmed that account in full.


Ukrainian military vehicles parked on the reverse slope of a hill, circa 2016. Western assessments of Zelenopillya and other battles depend on assumptions about how Ukrainian and Russian military units operate, but rarely center voices from the battles themselves, or have a clear picture of what those battles consist of in terms of men and equipment.


The third version of Zelenopillya is the Russian version, which is that Russia was not responsible for the shooting at all, and has never directly involved itself with the war in Ukraine’s east. This account is almost certainly reduced to baseless propaganda; nevertheless, it is Russia’s official account, and therefore must be registered as such, if nothing else to provide a sad record of a period in history when the once-proud Russian people withdrew from their tradition of singleminded pursuit of truth, in favor of blind national propaganda.


The third, Russian version of Zelenopillya is easy to consider and dismiss. But the first two are more difficult to reconcile. Was Zelenopillya a demonstration of the lethal power of Russia’s modern artillery, synchronized with electric detection and attack abilities, using advanced munitions—a caution to the U.S. military? Or was it an opportunistic ambush using conventional capabilities that the Russians have possessed for decades, carried out against undisciplined and unsuspecting soldiers?

The evidence for the U.S. / western narrative rests wholly on a draft white paper, “Lessons Learned from the Russo-Ukrainian War,” written and published in the summer of 2015. Written by Philip Karber, PhD, President of The Potomac Foundation, a Washington, D.C. based think-tank focused on international relations and national security, the draft white paper was never intended for dissemination—instead, it was, according to Karber, more of a rough first assessment of Russian capabilities, intended to provoke consideration. The paper got out into the world, and is the sole piece of firsthand evidence that exists for the U.S. / western narrative.

Karber’s paper doesn’t even focus on Zelenopillya—it’s about the rest of the war as it happened between 2014 and early 2015. The battle of Zelenopillya appears in Karber’s account as an interesting anecdote, not a central episode in the story of how Ukraine was defeated by Russia. Zelenopillya’s importance to Karber and to doctrine and strategy emerges later, through repetition, and through application as a hypothetical to European and American formations.

Many subsequent essays, op-eds, blogs (like this one) and studies can ultimately be traced back to Karber’s draft white paper. Perhaps the most astonishing example of the narrative’s penetration into military thought is its appearance in FM 3-0, the Army’s field manual for doctrine. There, Zelenopillya (the U.S./western version) can be found as the ultimate example of Russian lethality: advanced detection, electronic jamming, drone-integrated spotting, and long-range precision fires linked with advanced thermobaric munitions.

The evidence for the U.S. / western version of Zelenopillya rests entirely on Karber’s draft white paper, a piece of analysis compiled from a distance that rests on second- and third-hand reporting.

What are the weaknesses of this account? Apart from the lack of direct evidence, a weakness in and of itself, it gets key details of the battle wrong. The Ukrainians were not moving, they were stopped in a semipermanent location, for hours, a day, or days depending on the source. And while it’s true that the Russians might have used precision munitions to strike a large, stationary (mostly sleeping) target, they could also have used conventional munitions to achieve the same effects.

There are many other reasons to doubt the U.S. / western version of events. In the absence of Russian accounts or any direct evidence, there is no way to validate that Zelenopillya was the result of powerful new Russian weapons, though it might have been. More importantly, the achievement of striking a stationary target in the open (unfortified) with heavy artillery—pretty much a worst-case scenario for the target—has been accomplished at least as early as 1453, when the Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer used a giant cannon firing stone projectiles to smash down Constantinople’s long walls. If one is searching for an example of 21st century prowess to demonstrate lethality, there are probably better cases to be found in warfare than the modern equivalent of a turkey shoot.

The former Ministry of Culture building in Opytne, 2km from the Donetsk Airport, circa August 2016. Traces of fierce Russian and Ukrainian artillery battles that disregarded or in some cases targeted civilian structures were everywhere. Precision targeting, while a more recent capability in the history of war, is not necessary within former Soviet military doctrine, which is content to accept any collateral damage as a necessary byproduct of defeating an enemy.


Evidence for Ukraine’s version is more straightforward to come by—one can establish this version’s basic elements by interviewing veterans of the battle who were present there, and this account interviewed five veterans of Zelenopillya. Reading follow-up Russian-language and Ukrainian-language media accounts of the battle one finds ample secondary evidence corroborating the account described in this piece, complete with photographic evidence of the camp’s existence in daylight prior to the battle. General Muzhenko, the overall commander of the war effort at that time, attributed the battle’s outcome primarily to indiscipline (not digging in) and surprise (this was the first time a Russian unit had directly struck a Ukrainian target with such power).

There is also Occam’s Razor—the simplest explanation is usually the most likely. In conversation with four U.S. artillery officers (one former Marine, a current Army officer, and two former Army officers), each of them said that striking a stationary target with artillery would be easy to achieve without resort to sophisticated targeting systems, and indeed was a mission that had been carried out routinely in warfare in WWII. One former artilleryman claimed that given a pencil, a protractor, a map, ten minutes, a battery of rocket artillery, and a target of two stationary battalions (or more) worth of mechanized assets in the open parked next to each other on a football-sized field, he felt confident that he could achieve destruction of the target.

In other words, there was nothing special, technologically, about Russia’s attack on Ukraine at Zelenopillya. The only thing unusual, from the Ukrainians’ perspective, was that the attack happened at all—that they’d been betrayed, as they saw it, by a neighbor that had sworn to protect them.


Each version of the battle of Zelenopillya creates a problem, and generates solutions. To the Ukrainians, the “problem of Zelenopillya” was twofold: untrained and undisciplined units that offered a large, stationary target to Russian spotters, paired with a fundamental misunderstanding of the battlefield (they did not think Russia would shoot artillery at them). Their solution to the former problem was to train soldiers and units, so that during movement to and at the front, they dispersed and took cover, digging in where necessary. Ukraine’s solution to the latter problem was solved once news of Zelenopillya spread, and commanders became aware of the risk of being pummeled by Russian artillery.

Both of these solutions were important because Ukraine continued its military presence in and around Zelenopillya and near its border with Russia for the better part of a month. Zelenopillya did not result in the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces—they maintained their strategic position, while maneuvering and maintaining dispersal so as not to be caught in another, similar strike. For the next month, they were not caught; though stationary units were hit heavily, dug in, the losses never approached those at Zelenopillya. There were two other places where artillery played a direct role in defeating Ukrainian forces—the battle for Luhansk and Donetsk airports—in both of those cases, dismounted infantry had taken up positions within buildings that sustained sufficient damage to prevent their fortification.

The problem of Zelenopillya as sketched out in the version that depends on Karber’s draft white paper is that Russia can quickly and precisely mass overwhelming heavy artillery at ranges exceeding those of western artillery platforms.

This assessment more or less assumes a battlefield similar to that of Ukraine, where neither Russian nor Ukrainian air power can be brought to bear for fear of unacceptable losses. Given that the U.S. relies on air power to support field units, this loss is far more damaging than to the Russian or Ukrainian militaries, and it is true; without an air force, the U.S. and western militaries are vastly diminished.

The solution that the U.S. has hit upon, having hand-waved away air power in this nightmare scenario, is to spend billions on expanding its military with more artillery—the M109A7 Paladin—and to invest in greater range for existing guns. To put that in other terms, the answer is buy more and better weapons.


In the final estimation, there are three versions of the battle of Zelenopillya. The Russian version seems certain to be a lie (though, interestingly, only the Russians know the truth). The U.S. / western version is probably not true, and even if some of its details are correct, it gets key details wrong, chiefly, the critical role played by advanced systems able to hit targets on the move. The Ukrainian version—which is that poorly disciplined troops exposed themselves to a risk of they were not aware, like a swimmer entering the ocean at dusk, unknowingly floating above some hungry toothed monster—is most correct, and, therefore, should be seen as such hereafter.

Establishing the “true” battle of Zelenopillya (or, at least, the truest currently accessible) resolves one paradox, but creates another, different problem entirely. If the Ukrainian version is “correct,” and fairly easily confirmed—a couple days of googling and fact-checking, as well as retaining a translator then tracking down living veterans of the battle is sufficient to debunk the U.S. / western version—readers are left with evidence of an astonishing, almost unthinkable situation. The U.S. military and ostensibly nonpartisan think tanks such as RUSI cannot, apparently, objectively interrogate their own analysis. As things stand now, a baseless rumor is being used as fact in U.S. Army doctrine.

Billions of dollars in procurement and R&D money has been and is being committed to address what the U.S. and western militaries have decided is the problem of Zelenopillya. Thousands of young men and women are being trained or instructed to address this same essentially imaginary problem. If an unsupported hypothetical is capable of setting a system in motion—if, on a certain level, that system must be on autopilot, as seems to be the case, isn’t the real problem of Zelenopillya an inability to self-critique? Isn’t the real threat that the U.S. and western militaries may no longer possess the capacity to perform meaningful self-diagnosis?

The next piece about Zelenopillya, which I will publish in the coming weeks, will attempt to delve further into how and why the U.S. system might operate this way, examining in greater detail why and how the U.S. / western version of Zelenopillya came to be endorsed at the highest levels of the military and congress, who has used that narrative, and to what purposes.

Value’s steep price

Medlyn’s Farm, a fixture of my hometown of Branford, Connecticut, went on the market for $2,000,000 early October of 2020. A lightning rod for political opinion after some of its fields were damaged in flooding, the farm had struggled in recent years to turn a profit. But their fresh produce and eggs were coveted in the town—I and my wife would stop in on weekends when travel or leisure took us to Guilford, and we had opportunity to pass its stand. Customers paid in cash, depositing the money in a basket and taking change as appropriate. Nobody tended counter, nobody looked over one’s shoulder—transactions were carried out using the honor system.

The sale of Medlyn’s Farm marks the end of an era in Branford. One of the last farms to sustain itself using an old business model will be gone, and given climate change and its proximity to the ocean, it’s unlikely to continue in its current form. Whether developers purchase the land and turn it into condominiums or a subdivision, or the town finds a way to scrape together the money to return it to its natural state of coastal wetlands, or some enterprising entrepreneur decides it’s worth rescuing in its current form, Medlyn’s Farm, a family-run business, will likely disappear.

Even if it remains as a farm, there will be changes—the entrepreneur will change the price structure, and one will no longer be able to walk into a room alone, leave a $20 bill, and take 2 dozen fresh eggs and some greens and herbs. It will be necessary to interact with someone at a cash register. Books will need to be kept, money accounted for. Produce will become “merchandise,” with a code in the system for each type (4470: Broccoli. 4480: Cauliflower. 300: Egg, chicken, large).

Although I know that there are good reasons to permit the farm to return to its natural state (saltwater marsh)—ecological health, coastal resiliency—part of me feels sad to see another farm disappear from Connecticut’s landscape. Especially at a moment in human history characterized by a backlash against the type of conglomeration and globalization that has replaced smaller farms with industrial-size multi-national ranches, farms, and dairies—the kind one finds sold in places like Stop & Shop and Costco—the end of Medlyn’s Farm is a small tragedy. Branford, population 28,000, was never going to be supported by the handful of independent farms still growing corn and lettuce. But Branford and Connecticut are less resilient for the loss of Medlyn’s Farm, and those farms like it that have quietly gone out of business, been sold piecemeal, or been turned into homes sold for $350,000 or $500,000 to upwardly-mobile middle-class families looking to escape to the suburbs. To what end?

The New York Times Magazine At War section, too, is folding up. It will continue to exist in some form as a newsletter, but a promising place for veteran journalist and nonfiction voices to debut is gone, one of the casualties of a changing media business model. In similar news, “Task and Purpose” has been sold, and whether it continues its existence as a site dedicated to military journalism is similarly questionable—it had been championed steadily by its owner, Zach Iscol a veteran, and when ownership changes, content often does as well. The leaders of “The War Horse” have been furloughed due to expected donor funding not coming through in the pandemic. Stars and Stripes remains a political target subject to budget cuts, as do Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Liberty, two channels that often cover war and the military.

This isn’t something that a lot of people probably care about. “At War” aspired to be a publication that could be read by every New York Times reader, and I loved it, and many of my friends loved it, too. I published in it, years ago; it’s difficult to overstate how significant it is to be a young writer and get a New York Times byline. It’s everything, and “At War” didn’t limit its scope to writers who looked like me, they brought in as many stories as they had time and space for. “Task and Purpose” is somewhat niche, but fills an important role when it comes to reporting and commentary on veteran and military issues that would otherwise be “too far afield” for other publications—similar with “The War Horse.” “Stars and Stripes” does reporting on the military that other publications cannot or will not underwrite. And in spite of the distaste with which the left views VoA and RFERFL, in authoritarian countries they actually fill an important role. People read and watch VoA and RFERFL with enthusiasm and it offers pro-democracy dissidents a space to connect, intellectually and politically. So long as those are ideals that animate the U.S., one would think that those outlets would be funded and appreciated. And the value of media institutions covering the military, and veterans affairs—a combined 8-9% of the federal budget—would, one imagines, serve the national good, regardless of whether many readers found it interesting.

Medlyn’s Farm brings a kind of value to the community of Branford that obviously doesn’t stand up to the test of the free market—it can’t make enough money to be profitable (or sufficiently profitable), especially in the face of climate change. Similarly, journalistic coverage of the military and the veteran world are not sufficiently profitable, according to who determines sufficiency in this type of scenario—but they have value within the culture. Citizens “profit” by sharing in the experiences of military veterans and especially combat veterans (the choice to enter war being necessarily informed by those who have practiced it, those who have studied it, and those who have experienced it). Citizens also profit from a critical examination of the military itself—especially in our culture, civilian oversight of the military, combined with a tradition of military nonpartisanship, is one of the strongest guarantees against dictatorship.

But the utility of military or veteran focused writing and journalism, like the utility of a single farm, is not enough to outweigh whatever financial requirement that writing or farm is being asked to meet.

Once “value” is introduced to a discussion about a business or institution, you can be sure that what will actually be accomplished is the destruction of something important and vital. In the case of Medlyn’s Farm, the destruction means a small part of the fabric of my home community will be unraveled. I probably don’t agree politically with the Medlyn’s Farm owners, whose difficulties with climate change were weaponized by individuals who did not believe in “global warming” (and who have resisted efforts to adjust to what is now unarguably occurring). I do know that Medlyn’s Farm’s owners gave the town something more than a market at which to buy food grown locally. They gave us accountability, they were part of a history and a way of life that’s already essentially gone, and, moreover, is now being erased. They were part of a model that should be viable, not just because we want things to appear a certain way, but because to have things operate in a particular fashion means on a certain level that they are that way. Because a Medlyn’s Farm has value.

I’m going to miss Medlyn’s Farm. I’m going to miss the military journalism and veteran writing that doesn’t have a sufficient readership (small outfits like the Wrath-Bearing Tree, which I and some friends run based on a value proposition that does not depend on profitability, are doing fine). And I wonder if I will ever see a moment when responsible adults will be capable of seeing the wisdom of continuing a project for its own sake—evaluating the project on its merits—rather than because it is profitable to do so.

It’s time to get scared

Nobody expected it to happen in the city of Donetsk. One of the hosts to the European Football Championships in 2012, the city boasted a modern airport, and state of the art infrastructure. Its economy wasn’t as healthy as in times past, due to reduced demand for coal and steel, but the city still had a lot to be proud of. Sure, there had been reports of checkpoints manned by pro-Russian paramilitaries in villages, and smaller cities—cities like Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. But the police or military would surely take care of those issues.

In May of 2014, the city erupted in violence. Within weeks, loyal policemen and members of Ukraine’s security service were run off or killed, and before long, those armed men wearing balaclavas were setting up checkpoints in and around Donetsk, stopping anyone with a Ukrainian flag on their car, rounding up the opposition for intimidation, torture, or worse. They robbed banks, occupied government buildings, and before long, declared a “people’s republic of Donetsk.”

Ostensibly tied to laws mandating the use of Ukrainian language, this violence began before the law entered effect, and was, in fact, part of a broader attempt to destabilize Ukraine, seize as much land as possible, and turn it into a small rump state in order to punish it for spurning Moscow. The Russian-led and Russian-funded operation found adherents in all the places such violent and destabilizing insurrections do—the desperate, the unemployed, the criminal cast-offs, the traitorously-hearted. All those to whom the idea of a sovereign Ukraine and Europe were anathema—all those, in fact, to whom law and order and civilization were anathema.

These events played out just a month and a half after Russia had seized Crimea, and illegally annexed it. Surely if ever there was a time to view Russia with skepticism and suspicion, it was after March of 2014. But the action was viewed as a fait accompli—a tragedy that was complete and total, and not some kind of preparation for further violations.

The invasion of Eastern Ukraine was something different—an exponential expansion of the potential scope of hostilities.

Five months later, in September of 2014, active duty Russian army units were maneuvering on the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine. The ensuing conventional war and the cold war that followed a cease-fire in March of 2015 cost both sides thousands killed, tens of thousands wounded, and led to over 2 million civilians displaced or fled.

It could never happen here

Poor Ukraine! Luckily, that country is far away, and has nothing in common with the U.S. They speak a different language, their customs and architecture are different, they’re right next to Russia, which has owned Ukraine outright for large chunks of the recent past. The types of things that happened there could never happen in the United States.

The fact that such behavior in the U.S. is unthinkable made it so interesting to see what amounted to reactionary paramilitary groups organizing in Oregon, and setting up checkpoints to detain ANTIFA and BLM arsonists. Rumors, quickly (and unsurprisingly) determined to be unsubstantiated, started by far-right provocateurs and spread by credulous and alarmed citizens, indicated that ANTIFA and BLM demonstrators had infiltrated the suburbs and were setting fires so they could loot homes. Social media facilitated the spread of these rumors, especially Facebook. A certain type of social media consumer and gun owner, who as a rule hates  ANTIFA and BLM and respects the thin blue line, took matters into their own hands.

In Ukraine it took a few weeks to get groups of separatists organized. They had to be recruited—taken off the street and sobered up, released from prison, and then bullied or intimidated into holding guns to point at surprised Ukrainian families. It takes time to organize an insurrection in a place that is not prepared to rebel. Bribes need to be paid, examples need to be made.

It took a couple days for the men holding shotguns and rifles to set up checkpoints in the U.S., no organized leadership beyond motivated “patriots” at the local level, and a single flimsy rumor.

There are a few reasons why it was so easy, in the U.S., to turn vigilantes (if you want to be generous) or reactionary paramilitaries (if you want to be honest) out onto the streets to take the law into their own hands. The first is that in America, there is a proud culture of gun ownership, that exists mostly on the right, so if one is interested in starting a right-wing insurrection, one doesn’t need to “arm” anyone. Second, in America, there has been a decades-long effort on the right to undermine government and seed the idea that “leftists” are conspiring to infiltrate and seize power in the government, and that loyal American patriots will therefore be needed to stand up as individual citizens to resist illegal and unlawful orders, according to their assessment of whether a thing is illegal or unlawful. Ukrainians, by contrast, had almost no warning from Russia that they would be invaded and annexed or “liberated” as the case was in Ukraine’s east, it took time to adjust to their new reality. Third, the current president, Donald Trump, and those associated with him, have been doing their utmost to frame that decades-long animus in specific terms, tied to the demonstrations and protests that have unfolded since the summer of 2020. ANTIFA and BLM are the chosen targets—whether Trump or any of his associates actually believe what they say is a different question entirely (surely if they actually believed the groups posed a real threat, nobody affiliated with them would be permitted to roam free). It is indisputable that “leftism”—Marxism, ANTIFA, BLM, socialism, communism, The Democratic Party—have been fused into one amorphous and objectionable mass, for political purposes.

Insurrection, counter-revolution, an uprising of loyal citizens pushed too far—whatever one’s political persuasion, whatever one’s perspective, whatever one wants to call the thing that could happen, what’s indisputable at this moment in history is that a large, heavily-armed group of people in rural and suburban America have been primed to detonate in mostly the same way that groups were compelled to detonate in Ukraine. They are waiting for the order—any order, any pretext—and keeping their eyes peeled for the signal. When they receive it, they will issue out from their suburban homes and mansions, pulling balaclavas over their faces or wearing COVID masks as a subversive gesture of compliance with rules they see as illegitimate, and carrying rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Many will be wearing body armor and helmets. They will establish checkpoints, looking out for BLM subversives and ANTIFA infiltrators. They will occupy town halls and city halls to defend the rights of—whom or whatever, the president, their congressman, a charismatic local grifter, the constitution. Hostile politicians and individuals, as well as their families, will be intimidated into compliance or driven away if they’re lucky, and worse if they’re not. Law and order will be imposed with extreme violence, and at the expense of America’s democracy.

That is a likely outcome to Trump losing the presidential election in 2020 and refusing to leave office, or contesting the result of a “close” election. Of course, it could never happen here.

Okay I’m scared. Now what

All is not lost. The case of Ukraine’s east is significant both because it shows what is possible when a nation fails to respond swiftly and decisively to destabilizing acts, and also because there were days and weeks when Ukraine’s local, regional, and national government agencies could have responded and did not.

What needs to happen, in the U.S., is that elected representatives of both political parties—Republican and Democrat—must make it clear through statements and personal posts on social media that groups establishing checkpoints or attempting to seize power will be imprisoned and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law by local or state police, or, if it comes to it, national guard units activated for the purpose. Under no circumstances will armed groups be permitted to selectively enforce laws according to their discretion.  

This does not mean that people will not be permitted to own or carry firearms, according to local or state ordinances. There is a clear and obvious difference between 4-6 men wearing armor and balaclavas, carrying firearms, manning blockades on the road or securing government offices on their own initiative, and someone walking down the street, face naked to the world, with an AR-15 strapped to their back in a state that permits such things. The latter says “I am a citizen and neighbor who has a right to carry a weapon, and that right is protected by law” (and presumably a permit where necessary). The former says “I am functionally equivalent to the police or national guard.” The former poses an existential threat to the state and must be dealt with quickly. The latter is making a tedious point about the second amendment.

Dealing with the threat of paramilitaries in November requires action and planning now, in the present. It requires, most importantly, that people and leadership take this threat seriously, as Ukraine’s leadership failed to do until it was too late and the situation was already out of control. The advantage that the U.S. has over Ukraine is that no hostile national neighbor is capable of biting off a chunk of territory without reprisal. The disadvantage is that actual neighbors—friends, relatives, you know them, you see their posts on Facebook and Twitter, they’re talking about what they want to do—will, left to their own devices, go down this dark, destructive path themselves.

Russia and the “Nazi Collaborator Narrative”

There is an insidious story about WWII that concerns the Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian identities. The story has a few moving pieces, but basically goes like this: (1) the USSR did so badly in when Hitler invaded the USSR because traitors in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus collaborated with the invading Nazis. (2) Those same anti-Soviet, Nazi collaborators were also primarily responsible for physically carrying out the Holocaust in those countries—they were the camp guards, the paramilitary units. (3) There is something essentially reactionary and anti-semitic about these three places and peoples.

The conclusion one is intended to draw from the narrative, depending on how it’s employed, is either that this area and these peoples are best avoided and distrusted because they’re inherently immoral, or that they are in need of a brutal central authority who can rule these “barbarians” —an authority such as Moscow.

Not an Excuse, an Explanation

Much has been made of this narrative over the years, by apologists/propagandists from two countries (Russia and Germany), and also a little by those from other European countries and Great Britain. Because the way these people use the narrative is simple, it’s useful to address the European side of things first. In Germany, they use this story to let themselves off the hook for the Holocaust, pinning it instead on some “bad Nazis” who planned and supervised it – instead of “ordinary” Germans. The “ordinary” collaborators with the Nazis were the Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian citizens who enthusiastically carried it out in Eastern Europe. It is a comforting fiction, one that allows individuals to take some responsibility for WWII, for somehow permitting the Nazis to come to power and for enabling them to wage war – but the very worst of the war’s consequences are displaced onto the shoulders of others—the local residents of the countries, who had to be held back in their indiscriminate fury against Jews. Perhaps, the implication sometimes goes when anti-Semites tell the tale, locals held a deserved resentment against their Jewish neighbors.

Ask most Germans about the Holocaust, and they—alone among residents of countries who have performed outrages against others—will start out by pointing the finger at themselves, at Germany. This is the painful lesson that defeat taught them. They will still, however (and few will contest it) add that there were other assistants, willing and excited to pitch in—and this expansion of the world of responsibility makes it a little easier to bear the burden of guilt. The place where their assistance invariably comes from is the land of the savage, lawless Slav.

The European narratives of WWII vary by who tells it (obviously the Italian version is different from the French version, or from the Yugoslavian version), but most resemble the German version with an important twist. As Germany was responsible for WWII, the Germans are primarily to blame, with individual local collaborators (criminals, bullies, the scum of society) assisting in secondarily as German soldiers and foreign SS conscripts carried out the Holocaust. Furthermore, these European versions essentially validate (or do not question) the German addendum that it was the Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians who did much of the physical butchery on the ground, in the camps, and in person in the forests. This tacit admission stems, no doubt, from the facts that Germany is a neighbor, in Europe, and to think that one’s neighbor systematically constructed and carried out genocide would make it difficult to live with them peacefully. Also, anecdotal accounts of Holocaust survivors do single out vindictive guards and paramilitaries from those countries. Finally, when most of these stories were being told, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the USSR was an enemy of the states of Western Europe, and so there was an added incentive to assign a large portion of the blame to Soviet Republics.

Along with the German narrative, the broader European narratives invariably end up exonerating the country that the story is about—the real enemies are the bad Nazis / Germans, and those slavs on the other side of the train tracks. Let’s put it this way: the guards at Auschwitz didn’t always speak German, but they never spoke French.

A variation on this theme can be seen recently in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. Previously unable to formulate or interrogate a coherent national or individual narrative about their experiences in WWII as both victims and perpetrators, these European countries have begun to ask uncomfortable questions about the role they played. Their versions of the “Nazi Collaborator Narrative” tend to take (as the German narrative) limited responsibility for events such as Baba Yar in Ukraine, while displacing responsibility to Germany and neighboring countries—but are still remarkable in their efforts to grapple with what some of their citizens did, and why. It takes a kind of confidence in one’s culture, a belief in civilization’s capacity to heal and move forward even to attempt what Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian playwrights, documentarians, and filmmakers have done, and it speaks highly of those countries’ capacity for arts and culture.

Nevertheless, most Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, while aware of the “Nazi Collaborator Narrative” in basic terms, have no idea how important it is to Westerners’ understanding of their countries and culture. They understand their countries’ past primarily through the lens of the USSR, and are usually shocked to learn that their countries are viewed in the West as allies and executors of the Nazis’ villainous plans—the less-intelligent thugs who did what refined, Germans could not. It is inconceivable to them that the people whose countries were invaded twice or three times over by the Nazis and USSR could possibly be “the bad guy” in the WWII movie. How could the victim be at fault?

And yet, the victim is often at fault, when one reads stories about how Belarusian independence is a Nazi plot, or that Ukraine’s government and military are full of neo-Nazis and fascists. These stories depend on half-truths and exaggerations, and are often created and spread by Russian nationalists and the Russian government.

Russia’s Nazi Collaborator Narrative

Germans and Europeans benefit from perpetuating the Nazi Collaborator Narrative indirectly, and emotionally—as a way of helping them cope with the embarrassment and shame of having attempted to erase Jewry from the earth or not tried sufficiently hard to stop that erasure from happening.

Russia benefits far more directly from the narrative. As the inheritor of the USSR’s legacy, Russia gets to view Nazi Collaborators as enemies, and replay a version of history in which the USSR is the protagonist (for who are Nazis and Nazi collaborators but antagonists). Countries and peoples who were Nazis and Nazi Collaborators have no right to self-defense, no right to external assistance, no right to sympathy.

Another way in which Russia benefits from the Nazi Collaborator Narrative is similar to the way in which European countries conquered by the Nazis benefit—which is to say, it takes them off the hook for hard questions that are better left unasked. So long as Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland are no more and no less than Nazi Collaborators, and don’t have any right to ask for understanding or empathy, have no right to their own history, Russia doesn’t have to answer questions like: why did many Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians (and Russians, in fact!) actively help the Nazis? One will have trouble occupying a country for months, let alone years, if the population is hostile—and in spite of active ethnic cleansing and initiatives that bordered on slavery, many people were, in fact, still willing to help the Nazis even in 1944. What had been so bad about the USSR in Ukraine and Belarus that anything, even a monster like the Nazis, was preferable to returning to the Soviet fold?

The history of Nazi collaboration has distinct anti-semitic elements that reach back to the pogroms of the early 20th century and earlier, the 19th, 18th, and 17th centuries. The specific context of these pogroms taking place overwhelmingly in these countries and few other places involves the anti-semitic settlement policies of Imperial Russia—who was allowed to settle where, and for how long. Those policies laid a firm groundwork for what happened when the Nazis invaded, and help explain why things unfolded the way they did in those areas.

To reckon with the consequences of the USSR’s actions before WWII, or, further back, its immediate loss of Finland, Poland, the Baltic States, and near-loss of Belarus and Ukraine after WWI, is beyond Russia’s abilities at the present moment. It does not suit its government to dwell on past failures, even when to avoid doing so means future defeats, and further territorial losses.

On top of that, the Nazi Collaborator Narrative sets Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States and Ukraine out as distinct from polite, civilized Europe—it pits them against one another as nations and isolates them from each other and from European assistance. In other words, it’s the perfect mechanism by which to keep them under Moscow’s thumb.

For these reasons and more, Russia goes out of its way to deliberately perpetuate the Nazi Collaborator Narrative, in Europe as a way of undermining the national credibility of countries, in the US as a way of turning different groups against one another (Ukrainian-Americans versus Jews, in one recent example), and against the countries themselves as a way of isolating them from each other and from the West. So long as the Nazi Collaborator Narrative is dominant, there will always be a group of people who are disincentivized from rendering assistance to Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. There will always be fewer people on the front lines fighting and demonstrating for freedom.

A Bad Tactic Taken Too Far

Since the fall of the USSR, Russia’s dined out well on this arrangement. Russia isn’t the USSR, but inherited its legacy, so it can selectively embrace components of history that it wants or feels are relevant. The parts of the USSR that are inconvenient, such as its alliance with Nazi Germany in 1939, or its post-war anti-Zionism, are quietly retired from active discussion. The parts that are convenient—dignity, victory over the Germans, scientific and technological advances—are retained. Russia has wielded Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus’ unfortunate proximity to Germany and Europe like a cudgel, painting them as fascistic relics, anti-semites, and traitors. Rather than taking a leadership role in the region and attempting to guide the post-Soviet space into a new détente with itself and with Europe, Russia has hectored and hassled its neighbors—in the case of Ukraine, it has invaded and annexed a piece of its territory. The Nazi Collaborator Narrative is what partially justifies this behavior to Russians internally, and to some small and disaffected groups in Europe and the United States who have a tenuous grasp on history.

This cynical employment of the Nazi Collaborator Narrative also creates tensions and plays havoc on good-faith educational efforts of Holocaust memorial initiatives. Impoverished Ukrainians and Poles migrate to places like London and Milan for employment while Belarusians protest for democratic representation and Ukraine continues to fight a war of defense against Russia—dragging them into conflict with well-funded Western institutions helps divide people, and also undermines the anti-authoritarian, humanistic goal of Holocaust education by putting it to service on behalf of an authoritarian power.  

But Russia has been overplaying their hand. If the goal is to bring Ukraine, Belarus, and perhaps one day Poland back into Russia’s orbit, and maybe reclaim some or all of their former Imperial territory, Russia’s continued dependence on the narrative to isolate the countries also ensures that the countries see themselves as separate and distinct from Russia. If they are separated from Russia by their experience of WWII, and Russia sees itself as the protagonist in the conflict, on a certain level that must mean there is no “joining” the Russian project. If one is not Russian, or part of Russia, one cannot be a protagonist—furthermore, by the logic of the Nazi Collaborator Narrative, the Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Baltic citizens are essentially and definitionally not Russian, nor can they be Russian. And they can be ruled by Russia—as evidenced by history—wisely and unremarkably, or unwisely. The latter has been more the rule than the former.

This logical problem for Russia was less important when memories of what former Soviets call The Great Patriotic War were still fresh, and when there was an ideologically inspiring story (communism) to replace the shame of having picked the wrong side. To be part of the USSR was not to be Russian (although Russian language and nationalism did become parts of the heart of the project, as the project failed), it was to be anti-fascist; a worker, a comrade, part of a trans-national movement in which anyone could participate.

That is not the case that is being made to Russians now by their president, nor is it the argument being used to forward Russian interests and thwart the interests of Eastern European countries. The argument is that Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland are fascistic Nazi Collaborators, and Russians aren’t (although of course, many were, and Putin’s Russia is the most openly authoritarian and fascistic major country today).

There is another threat in Russia forwarding a simplistic version of events that excuses them for responsibility—it encourages Polish, Belarussian, Ukrainian, and Baltic citizens to view negative but true information about what their people did in WWII as just more Russian disinformation. The long term effect of this campaign will be to actually help foster anti-semitism in those communities, and reduce the incentive of Eastern Europeans to reconcile with their past. And this type of lie, left unaddressed for decades or centuries can lead to—what else? Pogroms and violence in the future.

 As memory fades of WWII, it is replaced by one’s lived experience of the present. The war becomes just another titanic struggle between East and West, and the emotional power that it held over participants and victims slowly vanishes. Russia’s attempts to keep their memory of it fixed in the present, for diplomatic advantage, is doomed, because most people don’t care about what doesn’t affect them directly. Some people don’t even care about things that do affect them. And the events of 75 years ago, while important and relevant to today’s world, don’t hold the same personal urgency they once did as means of coercing behavior.

Russia’s use of the Nazi Collaborator Narrative to explain events that are negative from their perspective has been very useful for them up until the present moment, and it’s a narrative that still holds power for some people. Because it is used by Russia to separate and bludgeon Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, however, there is an increasing backlash against it—to view it as a kind of Russian lie, a malicious distortion of the truth. Russia’s reliance on it may satisfy its own government, and some of its more nationalistic citizens, but it will only serve to further alienate neighboring, implicated countries from Russia; to set them off as different, essentially apart from Russia, essentially independent. This cannot be what Russia wants—but it may be too difficult for Russia to see another path forward.

Ukraine on the eve of the Zelensky election

The third in a three-part series about Ukraine

Ukraine has gone through many transitions. From the great steppe-empires of ancient times, to mighty kingdoms in the middle-ages, to its partition and occupation by various empires, to its status as a modern nation-state on the periphery of Europe, Ukraine has maintained key aspects of its identity while never quite “making it” as an agent of its own—until its most conspicuous struggle to date, the ongoing fight for independence from Russia.

This modern and independent Ukraine is what I observed while traveling and living there between 2015-17. This information is, as previously stated, being written a year or two after I left, which means some things must be different. I departed from a Ukraine that was just beginning to seriously discuss issues that led to fateful 2019 presidential election. The process of evaluating potential contenders for the presidency was just beginning. I left while the war was grinding on with quiet ferocity—that may no longer be the case by the time one reads this. I suspect that many of the same trends I saw have not changed, that Ukraine is about the same as it was when I left, in spite of the declaration of martial law, in spite of their religious split from the Moscow Patriarchate. Every “legal” or official recognition of war, or rift from Russia, is simply an admission of the state of affairs since 2014, rather than some dramatic new development.

Each Ukrainian contains multitudes, to paraphrase Walt Whitman. The history of Ukraine—its lengthy background as a crossroads for Europe, its period under Polish and then Russian colonization, the lows and the highs of the USSR, the lawless barbarity of the 1990s, and the uncertain but exhilarating pride of standing toe to toe with Russia since 2014—are all reflected within towns, families, and even within individuals.

Ukraine means “borderlands,” in Russian, but to Ukraine’s people, the word means (broadly) to be accustomed to enduring great suffering. Sometimes the people struggle with a common enemy, and sometimes against each another. All over the country, people acknowledge this truth—in the port city of Mariupol, in Odesa (another port city), and in Kyiv, Lviv, Chernihiv, and Khmelnitsky. In all these cities and more—Dnipro, Mikolaiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Sumy, there are people who understand themselves as Ukrainian. Most of them speak Russian, some speak Ukrainian. Many have Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian grandparents. Some have Greek or Jewish grandparents, about which they’ll talk about with friends.

Ukrainians are generous and hospitable, but also have a superstitious and conspiratorial streak in spite of their strength in STEM education, perhaps owing to the low esteem in which religion was held in the USSR and the corresponding attention paid to it by generations of authority figures. Living in a country with low rule of law or institutional credibility, spiritualism and hokum hold a powerful and natural attraction to those who seek a measure of control over their lives. Moreover, conspiracy is a kind of widespread social defense mechanism; it is easy to spread rumors in Ukraine, as in Russia, but no single rumor or conspiracy is generally granted much weight. People are quick to believe even the most stupendous fabrications, but act no faster on those than on credible information. Then, there is the lived experience of people in their fifties and older of the conspiracies that felled the USSR, and the memory of the conspiracies that created it, mapped onto the oligarchic inheritors of the businesses and endeavors that stretch, interconnected across nations, across the vast breadth of the land from the Carpathians in the West to the Bering Sea in the East.

Citizens are welcoming and curious, and willing to engage with foreigners. There are some places (Kyiv, Lviv) where it is common to find people who speak English and not difficult to navigate important landmarks; outside those cities, one needs a guide. This is due in part to the prevalence of Cyrillic signposts, and in part to the Soviet-era legacy of addresses being counterintuitive and hidden. One can wander for an hour seeking what ought to be an obvious address or landmark, only to find one’s destination through an archway, down an unmarked street, and between two dilapidated buildings.

Mystery and romance are at the heart of Ukraine’s society. While Ukrainians themselves dislike the name “borderlands,” as it sets them down as a referential, defined only in terms of something else (their neighbors), they also own their status to being in-between place, a space where fortunate meetings and collisions occur without scripting.

Many people are nationalistic (and here I do not mean patriotic), but they do not connect to their nationalism in the way that people might think (let’s say it—the bad way). They are nationalistic in the sense that Russia’s annexation of Crimea, meddling in politics, seizure of Crimea, and ongoing threat of invasion all put “Ukraine” and “Ukrainian identity” forefront in the imagination of Ukrainians. At a time when politics has put nationalism in the spotlight for the usual, bad reasons in Europe and the United States, it might be strange to hear that there could be a kind of nationalism that isn’t irrevocably and irredeemably compromised. But I’d say the type that springs up organically as a response to an actual (rather than fabricated, as in the case of invented “migrations” to Europe and the U.S.) threat has some basic utility.

That nationalism manifests itself in different ways, from public wearing of traditional clothes like ornate, hand-stitched “Veshivanka” shirts, to the flying of Ukraine’s flag, to less visible means of support. Ukrainians are unusually interested in Ukrainian history, perhaps in some measure due to its relative novelty per se (this essay presumes a novelty in discussing Ukrainian history). Their art, language, and poetry, are all subjects of conversation outside educated circles.

Nationalism conjures horrible images from history, and patriotism, despite Boswell’s (or Johnson depending on how credible one finds Boswell’s accounts) negative framing of the term, doesn’t do much better. In the best circumstances, nationalism is a poison, and that must not be lost in the conversation. Much as a steady course of adrenaline in the athlete’s or warrior’s bloodstream could lead to a much shorter (and violent) life than otherwise, nationalism, unadulterated and in the wrong country, will lead it to criminal activity in and outside its borders, and, ultimately, to collapse.

Fort Tarakanivsky, a crumbling relic of 19th century warfare obsolete before it was completed at the beginning of the 20th, is a haunting, decaying ruin into which one can walk without guidance or oversight—this, however, is not advised as it is extremely treacherous.

Ukraine has an unusual relationship with nationalism, historically and in the present (of course the two are related). It’s more complicated than “Ukrainians are nationalistic.” On the contrary, the pride of local citizens in their history, and that history which their families have been able to preserve against the storm of the 20th century, is refreshing and instructive. Although it will seem paradoxical, Ukrainians who are nationalistic or patriotic (not nationalists) nevertheless do not understand themselves as such, because the idea of Ukraine is still so young there is nothing, bad or good, to guide the sentiment.

The long experiment with socialism and centralization left a number of marks on the place. One is that Kyiv is a massive city with a proud educational and social legacy. There are slums, of course, like Moscow, Tokyo and New York, but people find a way to get by. Public transit is heavily subsidized and more dependable than the DC Metro or NYC Subway (not that that says much anymore). Ukraine is crammed full of engineers, technicians, and IT experts—the product of the USSR’s focus on building engines, rockets, and machines in order to increase industrial and agricultural productivity. Many people who were in their 40s when the USSR fell would be retiring now; because of decreased life expectancies due to stress, environmental factors, and a dilapidated health care system, they’re dying instead of enjoying retirement (this is true of many countries that used to be members of the USSR, with the notable exception of the Baltic states). With help from Putin and his political apparatus, the same phenomenon in Russia has produced nostalgia for a nonexistent Soviet past. In Ukraine it is a source of frustration, confusion, and malaise.

There are some recent buildings that are more or less built to European standards, but most of the buildings still date back to Soviet times, and their quality varies with the era in which they were built. Housing from the 50s is grim, if functional; 60s tends to be sturdy and durable (while retaining the spare functionality of earlier buildings), and buildings from the 70s, 80s, and 90s are miserable and worn. Little of Kyiv or other front-line cities survived the 40s, though there are many buildings that date from the last part of the 19th century, or the first part of the 20th.

Ukrainian society is organized very tightly around family and friends, in large part because it’s the only institution that has had any staying power. In opposition to that organization—which has survived in spite of organized attempts to destroy it by the state, and by political parties—is the mobility made possible by economic opportunity in Europe, and social media (5% of Ukraine’s economy was made up of IT workers, many of whom were working as subcontractors for American or European companies). Ukrainian towns are dying, and a way of life is dying with it.

That opposition of urban to rural, or modern to traditional, is a major fault line within Ukraine. It’s such an antiquated conflict from modern American perspectives that it’s almost incomprehensible. Perhaps the closest analogy would be films from the 1960s or 70s about Western towns being dismantled for interstate highways, or neighborhoods destroyed by a bridge or a connector (this happened in New Haven and Hartford, two cities with which I’m better acquainted than most owing to my proximity to them growing up). The “urban versus rural / blue versus red” political explainers today would have readers believe that this is a divide that animates American voters. But when one visits Ukraine and sees the difference between a place like Kyiv where people routinely travel to other countries, and a town just two hours outside Kyiv where horses pull wheeled carts full of crops and plow fields, one sees measurable and comprehensible distinctions. Yes, rural poverty exists in the United States, and income inequality, but while hookworm in the rural South centers around bad plumbing and sanitation, in many parts of rural Ukraine there isn’t plumbing at all, but outhouses. As of the most recent reckoning, 81% of the US lives in an urban or suburban area, while 19% lives in rural areas; in Ukraine, not only is that split closer to 70%/30%, but the gulf between those two places is far greater.

Urban/rural isn’t the only way to tell the story of Ukraine, but it does a pretty good job, and better than many other models. Traveling to the East to report on the war there in 2017, I found myself in a small, old town. The residents there spoke Ukrainian, and had, presumably, for centuries. I was shocked to hear Ukrainian in the heart of “separatist” territory; the East is spoken and thought of as a “Russian-speaking” and culturally Russian. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the beginning of the industrial age. Prior to the development of coal and mineral deposits there, and widespread migration of Russian-speakers to the area for that industrial work, the East was sparsely-populated and agricultural/pastoral. Owing to those mineral deposits, the land wasn’t fertile—brackish, polluted water sources were common before men started taking coal out of the earth—and farming was less easy than in other parts of Ukraine. I have verified this with my own eyes (and nose). To give one a sense of how Ukraine was for much of its history, as recently as 1897, nearly 53% of the region identified as ethnic Ukrainian, and 29% Russian. While in the 20th century the numbers shifted such that ethnic Russians dominate the east today, many of those “ethnic” Russians identify politically as Ukrainians; once again, the split depending on a complex web of familial, economic, and cultural affiliations.  

View from the summit of Mount Hoverla, the tallest mountain in Ukraine, easily hiked in a day

This isn’t to say that language determines identity, certainly not on a national level. I met plenty of Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots throughout the country. Speaking Russian doesn’t give people any special affinity for that country or culture, any more than speaking French gives people a preference for France and French things. I’ll use myself as an example here; while I love Paris, and appreciate French culture, if I had to choose on a country-by-country level between France and Germany, or France and Italy, or even France and Sweden, I’d choose any of those other countries over the one country where I can make my preferences known in some fluency outside English. Another example: of the dozens of people I spoke with at length in Odesa, Mykolaiv, and Kyiv, most spoke Russian primarily or exclusively. Nevertheless, these were people who went out of their way to emphasize that they identified as Ukrainian, and felt themselves not just part of the national Ukrainian project but an essential part—full citizens, and part of the exciting new national project on which their people had embarked. They viewed Russians as outsiders, who (after 2014) meant them harm; the invasion had put to bed any notion of Russia as a cultural “brother” or even cousin. I suppose this makes sense; if one’s brother wields a knife against you in an attempt to kill you, familial considerations take a back seat to the drama of existential struggle.

If in the center and parts of its West, Ukrainian language competes with Russian at an advantage, in the East, Russian is the dominant language (and again, independent of ethnic or political considerations). This, however, tells a different story than one might think—a story about Industrialization, urbanization, and patterns of migration rather than cultural hegemony. Throughout Ukraine, this is most visible in those hundreds or thousands of towns and hamlets that dot the landscape as they have for centuries, in which Ukrainian is still spoken as the primary language. This is the case in places historically settled by Ukrainians that are currently part of Russia, too, like the region in which Mikhail Gorbachev was born to Ukrainian and Russian parents.

A powerful cultural legacy helps underpin the ongoing influence of “rural” Ukraine. During the aforementioned experience with Soviet collectivism—an experience, for Ukrainians, that is indistinguishable from the famines of the 1920s and 30s, and which was passed down verbally from generation to generation—loss of the legal right to land was one of the most bitterly-felt blows. Land that had been owned and farmed for generations was expropriated by the State and redistributed for collective use. In some cases, that expropriation accompanied the exile of some or all of the former owners to different parts of the then-USSR, including the Soviet Far East, and Siberia. When Ukraine declared its independence in the early 1990s, one of the most anticipated changes was a key land reform that accomplished two things at once: the return of collective land to private ownership, and a contentious law that prevented the sale of farmland to foreign individuals or companies. The EU hates the law, because it frustrates investment and development. But given the country’s history, and the relationship many still have to private land ownership, it’s unlikely that the law will change; this will mean the continued habitation of rural areas of many Ukrainians, and therefore ongoing rural culture.

Another thing worth considering when it comes to the question of whether Ukrainians ought to hang onto their rural heritage—having friends or family with land, or access to land, has been a godsend for even the most affluent Ukrainians seeking to survive during war and revolution. Within living memory, there have been times when food was either unavailable or hopelessly expensive—Ukrainians have learned the value of a resilient economy in which one always has recourse to one’s own garden, if more robust systems fail (as they have).

On many issues, analysts are tempted to characterize national or local disagreements in terms of identity (Russian/Ukrainian based on history) or language (Russian/Ukrainian). From what I saw in Ukraine, and knowing what we do about its history, I think the clash between city and country is the best single way to understand how people think about various issues.

Ukraine Tomorrow

What will become of Ukraine, tomorrow? It’s impossible to know. So much depends on the interests of the countries around it. In concert with Europe as part of the EU and with the military guarantee of NATO at its back, it’s possible to imagine Ukraine growing into a strong and dependable country of commerce and laws, a valuable and important member of a community of developed nations.

Left to its own devices, the country will likely descend into dictatorship, nationalism, or even fascism, as a prudent mechanism by which to defend itself against neighbors that have, historically, invaded and seized portions of its territory (or, in the case of Russia, are actively involved in doing so today).

In the event Ukraine is left to fend for itself and slides toward dictatorship or fascism, it will eventually almost certainly return to some sort of agreement or accommodation with Russia. The energy and attention needed to keep Ukraine independent and aloof from both East and West is tremendous, and while such an exercise has been possible for a time in the past, for a hundred or two hundred years at a time, the allure of participating in some shared community, even one as toxic and unidirectional as one dictated from Moscow, is probably more palatable than solitude. Imagine having to endure both insulting jokes and condescension from Russia, and low-grade racism and cultural superiority from Europe. Either one is frustrating and annoying, but both together will, over time, push Ukraine in one direction or the other.

The journalists, advocates, civil society volunteers, veterans, and middle class aspirants in Ukraine are doing their utmost to pull Ukraine toward Europe, but tradition and the disappointed, impoverished poor are satisfied with an oligarchic or dictatorial status quo. The most clever, energetic, and best-organized side will likely determine Ukraine’s future. Until that time, the country is worth seeing for oneself.