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Talking Policy: Sophie Pinkham on Writing Post-Soviet Ukraine

Sophie Pinkham is an American journalist whose public health work in Eastern Europe eventually led her to move to Ukraine in 2008. She fell in love with the country, though she had no family connections there and had hardly heard of it when she was growing up. Concerned above all with the post-Soviet generation, Pinkham met and befriended activists, artists, doctors, and teachers who allowed her glimpses into a Ukraine that had endured the fall of communism in 1991, the democratic Orange Revolution in 2004, and most recently, the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution that sought to cleanse the government of corruption and align Ukraine more closely with Europe. “Before Maidan, I had a lot of stories about Ukraine and about Russia, but I wasn’t quite sure how they all fit together,” Pinkham writes in the prologue to her 2016 book, Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine. Part travelogue, part exploration of the causes and consequences of Euromaidan, the book charts the search for identity in Ukraine, both individual and collective. Pinkham spoke with World Policy Journal about her experiences in and writing about Ukraine, both before and after the 2014 revolution.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Your book gives a fascinating look at both the role of technology in the revolution itself, and in how we experience world events today. Could you speak a bit about the relationship between technology and the revolution?

SOPHIE PINKHAM: This is an issue that I've though about a lot, since I left Ukraine before Euromaidan and I was of course frustrated to not have been physically present when it all started. One of my Ukrainian friends said, “You weren't there, but why does it even matter? There were so many other people there.” It’s very counterintuitive—on the one hand, you want to witness things yourself. But on the other hand, when the majority of people who are present at a mass event like that are documenting it, you now have access—if you're willing to spend hundreds of hours watching YouTube, which is what I did—to hundreds of perspectives on an event. One person can only be in one place at a time; you have a limited perspective, what you can hear and see is limited, and, based on my experience at other large events and protests, you often know much less about what's going on when you're in the center of an event, than you do if you're outside it—you don't have the longer view.

There are a lot of pitfalls to technology and the spread of information—we've seen this in the “information wars” and the media landscape in general. You have sources produced not by professional journalists, but by civilians, or people you think are civilians—you're not even sure who they are. There is always the possibility that information is being planted, that there's false information. That does happen in Ukraine, as it does elsewhere, so you need well-refined skills for identifying material that isn't trustworthy. But once you're able to winnow down the available sources, you can get a multiplicity of perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

In my book, more broadly, I was interested in this multiplicity of perspectives, the idea of oral history, of combining many voices—especially with everyday people who are able to speak about things in an immediate, openly subjective way, something that people who are professional politicians, for instance, can't necessarily do. I'm very interested in weaving together the subjective experiences of everyday people, so that you get a view of large-scale events from many different viewpoints.

WPJ: You mention in your book that Maidan inspired some of your Ukrainian friends to speak more idealistically, more passionately, than ever before about their country and their national identity. Can you briefly describe this shift in political attitude and why it surprised you?

SP: It was a very striking shift among of a lot of the people I had known for years. Before Maidan happened, Ukraine had gone through multiple waves of idealism and disillusionment, although a lot of the people featured in my book were a bit too young to have actively participated in the 2004 Orange Revolution. That previous wave of idealism was less overwhelming, less transformational than Maidan. Ukraine got rid of President Viktor Yanukovych, [who took office after a rigged election, and lost the seat] to Viktor Yushchenko, [who received the majority vote]. But the Orange Revolution was partly orchestrated by political parties. There were a lot of people who were spontaneously participating in the Orange Revolution, but it didn't have the feeling of the huge, spontaneous wave that Euromaidan did.

After the Orange Revolution, there was a long period of decline in expectations. Yushchenko was a big disappointment, and then of course Yanukovych was elected again [in 2010]. A lot of people in Ukraine became disgusted by politics, reasonably enough. So it was especially remarkable to see this sudden, intense blossoming of hopefulness and idealism during Euromaidan, when people really felt like they were united, that they could create something new. Unfortunately, that feeling curdled relatively quickly, largely because of Russian aggression and the beginning of the war in the east.

Now Ukraine is in another period of disillusionment. But all the same, it was very inspiring to see how excited people were by that display of unity and by the power of ordinary people to influence political processes.

WPJ: Can you give a brief overview on the tensions at play in creating a national identity in country that is both post-Soviet and a buffer state between Russia and the West?  

SP: The country that is now Ukraine has a complicated, and in some ways divided history. One thing to keep in mind is that Ukraine was split between three empires: the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and part of Crimea was in the Ottoman Empire. These overlapping spheres of influence have left marks on Ukraine that are evident even today. Western Ukraine also became part of the Soviet Union quite late, as a result of the Second World War.

There are a lot of demographic differences within Ukraine, and there are religious differences—people in the west are more likely to be Catholic or Uniate, whereas people in the eastern, southern, and central parts of the country are more likely to be Russian or Ukrainian Orthodox.

And then there is the issue of language. Both Russian and Ukrainian are used in Ukraine, but the conflict between languages has been exaggerated by the press and by Ukrainian politicians who use it to curry favor with different groups of voters. Russian politicians also use it as a way of drawing a picture of Ukraine as a country that is more divided linguistically than it really is, that has more internal opposition and contradictions than it actually does. The reality is that Ukraine is a bilingual country where people speak more Ukrainian or more Russian in different places; there are different balances of the two languages, as well as a mixture of the two languages called surzhyk, which I write about in my book. But for the most part, actually, most Ukrainians have a fairly live-and-let-live attitude toward language. One of the things that I was very attracted to in Ukraine was the linguistic fluidity, the openness to bilingualism and the mixture of cultures in the country. It’s very striking and very different from what you see in Russia, for example.

WPJ: Our upcoming issue is about the rising populism and ultranationalism we’ve seen spreading across the globe. How is it emerging in Ukraine?

SP: In Ukraine, the issue is not so much one of populism as nationalism. It's a smaller country that has been controlled and manipulated throughout history by much larger powers, so there is a strain of intense nationalist feeling. Nationalists believe that Ukrainian identity is something in your blood. Sometimes they demand that Ukrainian be the only national language in the country, which is a controversial position.

But when you look at electoral polls, nationalists actually have very little sway in the electorate. Ukrainians like to point out, and rightly so, that Ukrainian nationalists have less support than nationalists in many other European countries. But still, they've been involved in various violent or aggressive acts. Right now, there is a blockade going on in the east that was started by nationalists who want to completely cut off trade with the eastern territories. This is already having very negative effects on Ukraine's economy.

WPJ: In light of the recent resurgence of violence in the east—a conflict that has continued for over three years now—what is something you’d like others to know about Ukraine that they might not already?

SP: What I hope people will be continuously mindful of is the huge toll that the war in the east has taken on civilians and the ongoing humanitarian crisis that's happening in eastern Ukraine. This is especially important when discussions in the U.S. are so focused on the figure of Putin. It's easy to get very absorbed in these “grand strategy,” “great game,” theories of politics, but they ignore how the situation plays out for ordinary people. The situation for civilians in the east of Ukraine is appalling. These people really need help, and policies need to prioritize their welfare.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!  

[Interview conducted by Natasha Bluth]

[Photo courtesy of Sophie Pinkham]  

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