Things Fall Apart

by Andrew Stuttaford

Here’s a must-read in the New York Review of Books by Tim Judah, writing from Sloviansk/Slavyansk (the latter is the Russian spelling) and its environs, a key “separatist” enclave in Eastern Ukraine.

In many ways the beginning of this conflict in eastern Ukraine resembles that of the beginning of the Yugoslav wars. But the similarities are superficial. As the rebels in Khrestysche—who are variously described as “pro-Russian” or “separatists” or, by the Ukrainian authorities, “terrorists”—scanned the horizon before firing their salute over Aleksandr’s grave, I was struck by the crucial difference. In the Balkans, the men would point to the next village and tell you how they had come to kill us in 1941 and how we are not going to let them do it again. In eastern Ukraine there is no ethnic basis for strife, but hate is still being manufactured. Almost everyone speaks Russian, but you can describe yourself as Russian or Ukrainian along a sort of spectrum. Nor, in contrast to the Balkans, do religious differences play a part. Almost everyone is Orthodox….

Whoever is at the end of the chain of command—and there is little doubt that ultimately it is Vladimir Putin—the vast majority of rebels are locals. They have help from volunteers who have come from elsewhere and a crack mobile team of disciplined and experienced soldiers. In the meantime, the situation throws up all sorts of people who are having the time of their lives. Suddenly what they are doing has meaning and they feel like they are taking part in something great, worthwhile, and historic.

In every revolution, in every guerilla movement, there is always that. The cause that brings meaning, or maybe excitement, and maybe just a bit of power.

And it’s far easier to “manufacture” hatred when history is anything but.

Yekaterina Mihaylova runs the press office of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk…. I asked her about the Ukrainian famine of 1932–1933, in which some 3.3 million people are estimated to have died [there are far larger estimates]. “The legend of the Holodomor,” she said, using the name given to it here, was created in Canada by fascist Ukrainian exiles. On Stalin’s Gulags she said, “that story is like Snow White, or…”—and at this point Ludmila, who was translating for me, stumbled, looking something up on her iPhone translator—“‘Thumbelina?’ Do you know what that is?”

And so the fog thickens, and, truth, well, what was it someone said about it being the first casualty? There was a report (linked to by me here) a few days ago that the entire Roma community “had left [Sloviansk] en masse.”  Jamie Dettmer (of Voice of America and the Daily Beast, recently in Sloviansk) kindly e-mailed me today to say that although there had been some harassment of newer Roma arrivals, he had spoken to Roma residents (“there are hundreds” there) and “most have been left alone. Like most other residents they are keeping their heads down . . .”

Dettmer is clearly no fan of, “the thugs of Sloviansk and notes that “terrible things” have been happening in that city, but his e-mail is a salutary reminder of how difficult it is for outsiders (and I suspect not just outsiders) to work out what is going on in a part of Ukraine that seems to be becoming unmoored in more senses than one.


If war is coming, which is the way it feels, Aleksandr and Volodymyr will be remembered and not just by their families and friends. When the Balkan conflict began in the early 1990s the names of the very first to die were engraved in everyone’s memory and later in the history books. Soon after, the individual names and faces gave way to the torrent of numbers.

Read the whole thing.