I have followed Tim Judah in the New York review of Books because he is a reporter who gets right down on the ground and speaks to ordinary people of various persuasions all across the vast geography of Ukraine.
Most of the intellectuals with whom I have contact in Canada have little knowledge and less interest in central and eastern Europe, and I find it useful to read writers such as Judah, Snyder, Satter and others because they give sharp insights into this complicated and unfortunate part of the world.
Ukraine remains a complicated place for westerners, who assume that nationality relies on language, but in this part of the world an ardent Ukrainian might speak Russian. The concerns of Bulgarians, Gaugaz (Turkic speakers) Bulgarians and others in Bessarabia, to say nothing of Crimean Tatars, all remain opaque on this side of the Atlantic.
The book is excellent in describing the failed hopes, the geopolitical fantasies, and complete corruption in a place that was unable to reform itself before falling under attack. The much-maligned Azov battalion consisted of Ukrainian extremists much despised in the west, and yet their volunteers were the ones who defended Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists because the regular army was in disarray. Their actions don’t justify their beliefs, of course, but people looking for simple heroes and simple villains in this region will be disappointed.
Judah generally supports the Ukrainian national idea, and he is contemptuous of the lies coming out of Russia, but he does not deny that people living in Donetsk and other regions, the few who remain, would welcome any government that might improve their lives.
Judah gives a view from the street of people who never expected war to come, and were horrified when it did. Indeed, his experience in the former Yugoslavia taught him that the complacency of every life or the exhilaration of fresh, revolutionary ideas, might give way all too quickly to the horrors of war.
The book lays out how power no longer resides in the party, but rather in an interlocking system of corrupt government and oligarchs with complete penetration of the society right down to street level. Media, judiciary, police, and commerce are all under the thumb of Vladimir Putin and his cronies.
This message has been coming out for some time now, but Satter’s systematic demonstration is unsettling to say the least, especially at a time when the west is concerned primarily with the Middle East and now Europe ever since Brexit.
One of the happiest people on the subject of Britexit must be Vladimir Putin, because Europe has been weakened by the loss of a major contributor.
Paradoxically, this comes at a time when NATO is finally coming around to seeing the Russian threat. Angela Merkel, no warmonger, has said Russia is no longer an ally but a competitor. At this writing, four NATO battalions will be placed in Poland and the Baltics after a July 2016 NATO conference in Poland. Canada is considering participation, while three of the other four are to come from the USA, Britain, and Germany. But will Britain’s commitment to NATO slacken after the withdrawal from the EU? President Obama says we should not worry about it, and yet we should.
I have skin in the game because I am in the Baltics often, doing research for my novels, and I have family living there. But coverage of this part of the world is slight in North America. At my regular poker game, attended by intellectuals of various stripes, I am considered an alarmist about Russia.
Maybe it’s because the more I know, the worse I sleep.
Two Weeks in Druskininkai, an Old-world Spa and Sanatorium
While the Lithuanian spa town of Druskininkai isn’t exactly Thomas Mann’s Davos, nor Germany’s Baden Baden, it has a surreal calmness to it, with many spas dotting the pine forest. During the second week of a heatwave, visitors walk with measured gait, staying in the shade as much as possible. The place attracts vacationers from Russia and Poland, so at least three languages are heard on the streets.
The architecture is a mix of old world resort, late Soviet concrete, and contemporary design, but the feel is completely retro – maybe Uncle Vanya came here for a vacation. The name of the town is based on the Lithuanian word for “salt”, and people used to come here to take the salt baths and calm their nerves. Some still do.
It is a slightly boring place in spite of its water park and theatre festival, but boring can be good. Doris Lessing said that one needs to be slightly bored to write. I am in a townhouse among the pines, an artists’ retreat, after two hectic and lovely weeks in Vilnius with my wife, children, and newborn grandchild. Now I am alone in a three-bedroom house with a merciless sun outside keeping me at my research and the computer.
The place is like a waiting room. But waiting for what?
Tomorrow I drive to Lynezeris, a tiny village of wooden houses, mostly depopulated first by the Soviets and then by the forces of modernization and emigration. My host there told me to rent a “high” car if possible, because the road to this isolated village is very poor. He also told me to wear long pants and long sleeves because the village borders on a vast bog, and the mosquitos and ticks can be bad.
My host wrote me a letter about a year ago, one that piqued my interest and brought me here. Kostas Kubilinskas, whom I have written about before, was the murderous KGB agent who went on to become one of Lithuania’s most popular children’s writers in the fifties and sixties. He was a teacher in Lynezeris, and I am going to that village partially to research his background.
But the stories my host has told me are at least as compelling as the biography of Kubilinskas. The village has variously been part of Czarist Russia, Poland, Belarus, and now Lithuania, although it was always ethnically Lithuania. Borders have been slippery in this part of the world.
It was one of those places where it was very easy to die, by the hand of German or Russian soldiers, Soviet or Lithuanian partisans, KGB collaborators, and others. If you were lucky, you might just end up in Siberia and survive. It was a place where it was best to know nothing and say nothing because one wrong word could bring down the wrath of some powerful party.
It is a place where the East European narrative irony is very strong. Of course the fates may conspire to kill you. Of course things will turn out badly in one way or another. But isn’t it funny how these malevolent fates can sometimes be overcome, or turned to one’s advantage?
As my host says, his uncle still doesn’t speak of the past because independence has only ben around for twenty-odd years, and that’s not a very long time. No one knows what will come next.
I am thinking of writing a nonfiction book about this place, not exactly a history book, though, because there are no sources beyond memories. I suspect it will be something like the Thousand and One Nights, although much shorter, and similar to the story of The Merchant and Jinni, in which a man brings down upon his head the wrath of a Jinni for inadvertently killing his son with a date pit.
Here’’s the opening of that story below:
IT has been related to me, O happy King, said Shahrazad, that there was a certain merchant who had great wealth, and traded extensively with surrounding countries; and one day he mounted his horse, and journeyed to a neighbouring country to collect what was due to him, and, the heat oppressing him, he sat under a tree, in a garden, and put his hand into his saddle-bag, and ate a morsel of bread and a date which were among his provisions. Having eaten the date, he threw aside the stone, and immediately there appeared before him an ‘Efrit, of enormous height, who, holding a drawn sword in his hand, approached him, and said, Rise, that I may kill thee, as thou hast killed my son. the merchant asked him, How have I killed thy son? He answered, When thou atest the date, and threwest aside the stone, it struck my son upon the chest, and, as fate had decreed against him, he instantly died.
That’s the plan, but I’m not exactly sure what I will find on my arrival tomorrow or on subsequent visits. But I’m a sucker for narratives with unexpected twists, and there seem to be a lot of them in this remote, Lithuanian village.
Many of the locals live by picking the plentiful berries and mushrooms in these forests. I’m hoping to come back to the spa town where I am now staying with a sack of narratives from Lynezeris. I hope to order them and write them down. If I’m lucky, I’ll publish them, and pass them on to you.
In conversation with Canadian writers Eva Stachniak and Andrew Borokowski, we wondered why Canada has so few books by writers with Eastern European background. This seemed particularly odd because there are a million Canadians of Polish heritage and a similar number of those with Ukrainian background, to say nothing of Baltics and others.
These musings led to a talk we gave at a Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs conference and again at a University of Toronto Slavic Studies sminar. I then wrote up my musings and published them in the online journal, The Toronto Review of Books.
I am rewriting the Provisionally Yours manuscript, am consulting on the translation of 1997’s Buying on Time, and have assembled a stack of research material for my next novel, so the last thing I need is a new idea.
Yet one has come at me, and I’m finding it very powerful.
I received a letter from a reader in Lithuania who had some information about Kostas Kubilinskas. I used this historical character as inspiration for one of my fictional characters. Kubilinskas was the most prominent postwar children’s writer who, it turns out, had a dark secret. In order to ingratiate himself with the Soviet authorities, he infiltrated the partisan movement, shot and killed a partisan and betrayed several others who were killed in ambush. Then he went on to write popular children’s ditties.
I thought I was done with him, but my correspondent began to tell the story of Kubilinskas the year he worked as a teacher in 1944-1945 in the village of Lynezeris. My correspondent’s father was a boy then, and remembered the writer well. Each evening, Kubilinskas would take a half bottle of vodka and sit under the oldest oak in the area, and write poetry.
So far, so good – a little extra information about my past subject matter.
-But the more my correspondent wrote, and he wrote almost every day, the more interesting the place became to me. I encouraged him to keep sending me the strange and sad anecdotes of the war and the postwar in Lynezeris. Here are summaries of a few of them.
– The correspondent’s father, as a boy, stole a side of bacon and ran off into the woods to grease railway tracks because he’d heard you could stop a train that way. He tried it and it worked, but he and his friends were almost shot to pieces when the German guards fired at them in the woods.
– His grandfather found a German motorcycle in the forest. A retreating rider had run out of gas and fled. So the man hauled the motorcycle home and traded a Russian soldier a bucket of liquor for a bucket of gasoline. The farmer rode the motorcycle happily all through the the forties until early in 1950, when he was deported to Siberia and his riding days were over.
– The villagers had managed to protect six Jews during the German occupation, but the Jews were betrayed for a reward by a farmer’s nephew who came in the fall to help with the harvest. After the Soviets came, they couldn’t find the nephew, so they deported to Siberia the family that had helped hide the Jews.
There are many more stories like this, all filled with poignant detail, so I have arranged to meet my correspondent next summer and spend some time in the village. In the past, it had hundreds of inhabitants and a school, but now it is down to twenty-seven year round inhabitants. Others come in the summer.
I think that the oak tree, the children’s writer, and the incidents of the villagers might make for a strong nonfiction book. I’ll find out.