Quiet American: Sophie Pinkham in Ukraine

Black Square is essential reading for anyone struggling to understand the instability on the edge of Europe — with a dizzyingly colourful cast of characters who never come across like clichés.

Natalia Antonova
21 September 2016

Kyiv, March 2014: Sophie Pinkham's new book on Ukraine retells the events of the past three years from the ground up. CC BY-ND 2.0 streetwrk / Flickr. Some rights reserved. Sophie Pinkham’s Black Square starts out seeming like a slow and leisurely book — until it causes you to have a crying fit in a fast food place selling chebureki at 1am.

That isn’t to say that the book, which interweaves analysis of modern history with intimate portraits of contemporary Ukrainians (and some Russians), ups the drama quotient halfway through. Pinkham’s calm, wry tone stays consistent throughout, even while she describes Ukraine’s 2014 revolution and the war in the east of the country that erupted later that year.

There is a saying in Russian, “It is the quiet depths that hold the devils.” As a writer, Pinkham, who first came to the post-Soviet world as a Red Cross volunteer and went on to write about the region for the New York Times and the London Review of Books, illustrates this saying well.

The “quiet depths” here are the casual stories featuring everyone from musicians who sleep on the floor in Pinkham’s apartment to earnest and not-so-earnest harm reduction NGO workers. From this mosaic of lives a disturbing portrait of Ukraine’s political and social fracturing eventually emerges.

It’s not just lands that are contested in Ukraine nowadays. Take the fact that Pinkham spells the Ukrainian capital’s name as “Kiev”, the more commonly accepted and Russian-sounding spelling, whereas this publication’s style guide demands the Ukrainian-sounding “Kyiv”. As a native of the city, I tend to use both spellings interchangeably and get angry when anyone tells me to stick to one version.

War and politics, however, dictate that such choices are no longer neutral — a shame for those of us who, like Pinkham, remember a more peaceful and occasionally even hopeful time.

Pinkham explains competing historical narratives and clashing interests that have factored into Ukraine’s current predicaments: dependence on foreign money, the loss of Crimea and a shadow war

In a manner that seems effortless but involves a lot of research, Pinkham explains competing historical narratives and clashing interests that have factored into Ukraine’s current predicaments: dependence on foreign money, the loss of Crimea and a shadow war with rebels and Russian volunteers and regulars in the east of the country.

One of her important observations is made on a trip to Rakhiv, a town located between the beautiful mountains of western Ukraine: “Many of its inhabitants spoke three or more languages,” Pinkham writes of Rakhiv. “Its small population was Ukrainian, Hungrarian, Romanian, Russian, Hutsul, Rusyn… In the mountain air Ukrainianness became particularly fragile, crumbling at the touch.”

As Pinkham reminds us, national identity is a relatively new invention, and “largely the product of nineteenth-century nationalist movements that created ‘imagined communities,’ a sense of blood relation between people who had never met and who had dramatically different ways of life.”

Still, it was the last line about fragility that made me cry as I was eating my chebureki (a food Pinkham describes as “large dumplings”), in case you are wondering.

Like many people born in Ukraine, and in a family of competing identities, I am intimately aware of the fragility of Ukrainianness. The fact that current instability might mean that Ukraine as a concept could be “disappeared” keeps me up at night.

Many factors conspire against modern Ukraine – Pinkham cites everything from a lack of effective governance to how the steppe (which played a crucial role in the thirteenth century sacking of Kyiv) now serves as the home for Russia-backed breakaway “republics,” like an ancient curse roaring back again.

Of course, Pinkham doesn’t use phrases like “ancient curse.” In fact, one of the book’s greatest virtues is its frequent hilariousness.

“The cold-water tap still didn’t work, the babushka next door was still insane,” Pinkham writes of her old apartment in the Ukrainian capital.

“One of the great moments of the Pushkin Klezmer Band was when, with Seryozha the Gypsy, they performed the song ‘Tutti-Frutti’ at a Jewish-Muslim friendship conference in Kiev (Don’t ask me why they were having a Jewish-Muslims friendship conference in Kiev.),” she writes in one of her typical observations of Ukraine’s beautifully weird music scene.

“The last Jew in Stalindorf was lying in bed in his underwear. He wore thick bifocals and looked grumpy”

Even a trip to a village that was the site of a horrifying WWII-era massacre has a passage that is bound to make you laugh out loud: “The last Jew in Stalindorf was lying in bed in his underwear. He wore thick bifocals and looked grumpy.”

The lack of drama makes the tragedies contained in Black Square all of the more obvious.

The rising tide of violence in Ukraine and what Pinkham describes as Moscow's “bloodthirsty and cheerful” attitude to it are two tragedies that have now become intertwined. This is a book about Ukraine that’s bookended by two sections about grim realities in Russia, and it’s easy to see why Pinkham made the choice to tell the story this way.

The two countries are linked by history and colonial aggression – as well as by millions of people who have families and friends on both sides of the border and are now being twisted this way and that.

It’s a credit to Pinkham that she tells the story of a region through ordinary people – not politicians, not famous dissidents, not oligarchs, not journalists, not anyone you normally hear from, basically. This becomes especially important in how Pinkham approaches Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which she relates through the eyes of regular participants, and neither romanticizes nor demonises.

Pinkham’s approach to the ensuing war in the Donbas is equally cool and even-handed –  and equally prioritises narratives of ordinary people caught up in big events.

“Sveta looked anxious and happy, her eyes open as fresh wounds,” Pinkham writes of a refugee from the war in the Donbas, part of a group of people who have been demonised as pro-Russian collaborators and/or stupid thugs.

“To many, the draft seemed like a form of human sacrifice,” Pinkham writes about young Ukrainian men eager to escape going to a war that nobody can call a war.

Pinkham’s approach both humanises and demystifies Ukraine, but there is one mystery in the narrative that’s constantly present, and that’s Pinkham herself. To quote Zelda Fitzgerald, “You always know what she thinks, but she does all her feeling alone.” A careful, conscientious observer does well to blend into the scenery, but Pinkham is the kind of narrator who inevitably leaves you wanting more personal details and observations.

Did Pinkham think she was going to die when she flew on a rickety, old plane to Irkutsk? Why did Pinkham and the golden-haired guitarist named Kotik (literally: Little Cat) break up? Are the musician Topor and Pinkham still friends even though he accused her of writing her book to make money from Ukraine’s suffering one time?

Throughout the book, Pinkham stresses her status as an American outsider, “an improvident alien”

Throughout the book, Pinkham stresses her status as an American outsider, “an improvident alien,” a person behind a barrier — behind which there is, presumably, the American life she doesn’t really speak of, there is normalcy, and what she describes as her status as a “respectable, educated person.” On the other side, there are naked rastas, stars falling over the sea, heroin addicts, and being the potential subject of a Roma bridenapping.

Is the barrier the function of national identity, does it go deeper, or is it more of a storytelling device? Has the barrier grown thicker or thinner over the long years she has spent in this part of the world? These lingering questions are my unsubtle way of demanding a companion volume, of course. 

For now, Black Square emerges as essential reading for anyone who cares about Ukraine, anyone who’s wondering if they should care about Ukraine, and anyone who happens to like nonfiction narratives told in a human voice.

Sophie Pinkham’s Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine was published by WW Norton in August 2016.

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