We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“A SMALL TOWN IN UKRAINE” by Bernard Wasserstein (Penguin-Random House, $NZ40); “THE RUSSO-UKRAINIAN WAR” by Serhii Plokhy (Penguin- Random House, $NZ 40); “AFTERMATHS – Colonialism, Violence and Memory in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific” edited by Angela Wanhalla, Lyndall Ryan and Camille Nurka (Otago University Press $NZ50)
Bernard Wasserstein’s A Small Town in Ukraine is a work of both deep historical research and personal memory as passed down by his father. The small town in question is Krakoviec [he tells us it is pronounced Krah-KOV-yets], now in Ukraine on the border with Poland. But it wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, the population of Krakoviec was dominantly Jewish, a shtetl occupied by Ashkenazi Jews, but as Wasserstein warns us, the shtetl has often been “the object of much mythologising, nostalgia and sentimentality” (p.41) when life there was often stressful. It wasn’t like day-long happy singing and dancing as in the film Fiddler on the Roof.
Wasserstein begins with an account of his grandfather Berl Wasserstein who was happily attuned to the life he was living in the Berlin of Weimar Germany. But by 1938, with the Nazis now tightening laws against Jews and brutally expelling them, Berl returned to his origins in Krakoviec. We know what will come – the Holocaust that spread through Poland, Ukraine and the western reaches of Russia – and this will destroy Berl Wasserstein, though his son (the author’s father) is able to escape.
Here, however, Bernard Wasserstein turns to chapters (taking up about half the book) surveying the whole history of central Eastern Europe. It is a very complex history. Nations are made and destroyed over centuries in wars and invasions by Poles, Germans, Austrians, Tatars, Cossacks and Russians. Names of regions change (Ruthenia? Galicia?). By the 18th century, many Poles have moved into the region and Polish aristocrats are controlling much of what is now called Ukraine. The local Polish lord is relatively benign to the Jewish community in little Krakoviec, but by the middle of the 19th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire claims much of the Territory. This is basically good news for the Jews of Krakoviec as the Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph is very protective of the Jews and is admired by the Jewish people. In Krakoviec there is a handsome synagogue, but there are growing numbers of gentiles, and there are also Roman Catholic and Russian Catholic churches. (“Russian Catholic” Christians accept the pope as head of their church, but worship in eastern rights. They are not to be confused with the Russian Orthodox church, and they are sometimes called “Uniates”, a term which they find insulting, though Wasserstein seems unaware of this.) And it is now, in the mid-19th century, that “Ruthenians” discard the term, revert to the ancient name Ukrainian, and begin a long nationalist campaign to expel the Poles. So to much nationalist violence both ways.
In the First World War, Russian and Austrian armies rolled this way and that through the territory, with the Russians often committing pogroms. The Poles were fighting for an autonomous nation (Poland had been carved up between Russia, Germany and Austria). The Ukrainians were fighting for independence – and they often saw Jews as unreliable. It was in this period that Ukrainian and Polish groups turned to terrorism as they fought each other. [It is interesting to note that Wasserstein barely mentions the Holodomir – the man-made famine ordered by Stalin in the 1930s which caused the death of about four million Ukrainians – but then he is focusing on events around his forebears’ village and its area.]
And so at last we move to Krakoviec as it was when Berl Wasserstein was there again. He and his family spoke the Jewish dialect of German, Yiddish, at that time the language most widely used by Jews. With the threat of Nazism, Jews were now trying to flee far from Europe, especially as Poland was also expelling Jews even before the German invasion of Poland. Then Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia made their pact and jointly invaded Poland. Hitler’s armies set about exterminating Jews. Stalin’s army set about destroying all Polish leadership and culture. The Russians took over the eastern part of Ukraine. In a bogus plebiscite, Russia incorporated Ukraine into the Soviet Union. Soviet atheism meant all synagogues and churches were closed down or turned into factories. Soviet control also included the “resettlement” and killing of Ukrainians in their thousands. It was the commissar Khrushchev who was in charge of this, belying the much-later image he had as a relatively reasonable head of the Soviet Union. The Nazis pushed on into Ukraine, killing Jews as well as Poles en masse. By now, in their hunger to be rid of Poles, many Ukrainians joined the Nazi SS, rounding up Jews for extermination and ambushing and murdering Poles.
By the time, in the latter stages of the war, that the USSR took over all of Ukraine, there was, as far as Bernard Wasserstein can ascertain, a grand total of one Jew living in Krakoviec. For a while, Berl Wasserstein and his family had been able to hide under the protection of a Ukrainian, but eventually their “protector” betrayed them to the SS and they were sent to a death camp. But one member of the family escaped, Addi Wasserstein, the author’s father. By various – often dangerous – means, Addi was able to escape to Italy and then managed to get all the way to Palestine, where he stayed until the end of the war, and then emigrated to the United States.
Bernard Wasserstein does not end his story with this great escape. He is intensely interested in what became of Krakoviec in later years. Even after the war and under Soviet control, there was still two-way “ethnic cleansing” between Ukrainians and Poles and intermittent terrorism. Eventually the Ukrainians ground down and expelled the Poles. Krakoviec became a Soviet-ruled outpost. Wasserstein remarks “The population dwindled to barely a thousand. The Jews had been murdered, the Poles expelled. What had for several centuries been a multi-ethnic community was now almost entirely Ukrainian.” (p.204)
Wasserstein and his brother visited Krakoviec twice – in 1996 and 2019 after Russia had withdrawn and Ukraine was now fully independent. These were journeys of filial piety as much as of curiosity. Wasserstein was observing a sad and run-down little town, but he was also looking for traces of buildings associated with his forebears. They were hard to trace. They did find a memorial to the Jews who had been transported and murdered – also noticing that somebody had scratched a swastika on it.
Wasserstein was startled to see that the Ukrainian “patriot” Roman Shukhevych was honoured with a huge monument and his image still appears on Ukrainian postage stamps as a founder of the modern state of Ukraine. Wasserstein points out that Roman Shukhevych was an ardent “ethnic-cleanser” who hunted down and killed Jews and Poles under the direction of the SS. As you are probably aware, over 75 years since the end of the Second World War, Vladimir Putin uses such information to suggest the Ukraine is a “fascist” state and he is liberating it. In fact, early in Putin’s attempted invasion of Ukraine, you may have seen images of Russian soldiers “discovering” (i.e. planting) fascist propaganda in Ukrainian bunkers. In spite of all the horror, Wasserstein ends on a positive note. After centuries of Ukrainians and Poles being at logger-heads, Poland is now scrupulously supporting the Ukrainians in their struggle.
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With Serhii Plokhy’s The Russo-Ukrainian War we get a different perspective on Ukraine. This is not a personal memoir, but an astute historian and journalist’s account of a war and its origins. Serhii Plokhy wrote his book between March 2022, when the attempted Russian invasion began, and completed writing it in February 2023. Inasmuch as a book can be up-to-date and topical, The Russo-Ukrainian War is as up to date as it could be, although obviously the most recent events cannot be included. By the time you read this, the situation could have changed radically.
What Plokhy does in his first two lengthy chapters is to examine the whole history of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine. Deeply imbedded in Russian mythology is the notion that “White Russia” (Belarus) and “Little Russia” (Ukraine) are just extensions of Russia and therefore, by right, should be absorbed into Russia itself. Digging back to the Middle Ages, Russian chauvinists claim Ukraine’s capital Kiev (Kyve) was the first centre of Russian culture and identity, and therefore should belong to Russia. Much of this claim is based on the fact that for some centuries Russia ruled Ukraine. But despite Russian claims, and even allowing for the fact that a minority of Ukrainians speak Russian, the great majority of Ukrainians speak their own language and do not regard themselves as Russian. Through centuries, Ukrainians repeatedly rebelled against Russian rule and they are still aware of the Holodomir – Stalinist Russia’s planned famines in the 1930s which killed about 4 million Ukrainians. Ukrainians are a nation apart. For Russia to claim Ukraine again would be like Britain reclaiming India, or France reclaiming Algeria… I mean, they both ruled those countries once, didn’t they?
Plokhy explains how, after the disintegration of the USSR, Russia’s fragile democracy failed. Boris Yeltsin tried to tidy up Russia’s constitution, but in doing so he paved the way for autocracy. Enter Vladimir Putin, who has in effect made himself permanent autocrat. Putin is angry that in the disintegration of the USSR, Russia lost so much territory when Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States voted for independence. Even in the Crimea, which had a Russian-speaking majority, the vote was for independence from Russia. When Putin invaded and took over Crimea in 2014, he hastily arranged a rigged referendum to claim the majority of Crimeans wanted to re-join Russia. It is interesting to note, as Plokhy does, that Vladimir Putin, the former KGB man, frequently curses Lenin for having set up a system in which Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states could be regarded as fellow Socialist Republics and run their own internal affairs under Soviet surveillance. Says Plokhy, among Putin’s favourite reading are the works of the “White Guard” general Anton Denikin, who fought against the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war but who advocated for a “unified” Russia (including Ukraine, Belarus etc.) ruled directly from Moscow. What I take from all this is that through the centuries, and up to Putin, the essential ideology of Russia has been autocratic imperialism. Whether Tsarism, Communism or Putin, the autocratic Russian ideal is dominance of adjoining East Central Europe and adjoining Asian states. [BTW, as Plokhy notes, it is a sad fact that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a brave critic of the Soviet regime, cuddled up to Putin in his last years and embraced the expansionist Russian ideology.]
Now all this is the setting for Plokhy’s account of the current war in Ukraine, but I think it is the most crucial part in understanding why the war is taking place. When the Cold War ended, Eastern European countries that had had Communist governments imposed upon them now rushed to join western protection. In 1993 Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the (adjoining Russia) Baltic states joined NATO. Later Finland (next to Russia) and Sweden (abandoning its neutral status) also joined NATO. This was a nightmare to a Russian autocrat. As Plokhy remarks “Vladimir Putin thought about Russian security in the same way as the tsars and commissars did: to make Russia safe they created and maintained a belt of buffer states. Putin wanted to bring most of the former Soviet republics under the leadership of Moscow…” (p.91) Yet here were neighbouring states that were no longer buffers.
So to Plokhy’s account of the ongoing war. Having invaded Georgia and attached it to Russia, Putin showed that he would use force in rebuilding the Russian empire. Then there was the campaign to corrupt the Ukrainian government by bribery and threat. Putin supported the corrupt Ukrainian premier Yanukovych who toed Putin’s line. Yanukovych fled the country (with a pile of money) when he was overthrown by Ukraine’s popular Orange Revolution and democracy was restored. At which point Putin invaded Crimea. Volodymry Zelensky - a Jew who had grown up speaking Russian but who diligently learnt the Ukrainian language – became president of Ukraine. Zelensky shut down Putin-funded stations which peddled Putin’s propaganda and promoted violence against the Ukrainian government.
In February 2022, Putin unleashed what he called a “special military operation”. He concentrated at first on taking over and “liberating” the Donbas regions, where Russian-speakers were the majority. In this attack, he had some local support. But it was clear that Putin’s real intention was an all-out invasion of Ukraine, which was shown when Russian forces began rocket and drone attacks against Ukraine’s capital Kyve, far from the disputed Donbas. Russian tanks lined up, assuming they would soon be entering the Kyve. But they were repulsed. And this is where we come to the Achilles heel of Putin’s plans. Putin believed his own propaganda, and told his Russian audience that Ukrainians would welcome his forces with open arms as liberators. Quite the opposite was the case. Ukrainians rallied behind Zelensky and the Ukrainian armed forces proved to be more formidable than Putin expected. Please note that, at the time I am writing this review, Putin’s “special military operation” has gone on for fifteen months, with some indications that the Russian army has bogged down. But I am not so naïve as to imagine that this will be the final judgement on Putin’s attempted invasion.
In his later chapters Plokhy diligently chronicles the war and its consequences – the massive movement of refugees; the to-and-fro of Ukrainian and Russian forces taking or being driven out of certain areas; the Ukrainian forces re-capturing areas in the Donbas; the fact that Russian bombing of the Donbas region killed more Russian-speakers than Ukrainians; the Russian failure to capture the port of Odessa and the Ukrainians joy in sinking a Russian warship (embarrassed by the event, Russian media claimed the ship had sunk in a storm) ; the process by which (West) European countries imposed sanctions on Russia – the USA and the UK were the first to send help to Ukraine - France, Italy and Germany finally got on board, but they were a little reluctant as they depended so much on Russian gas. Which relates to the way prices for oil and gas affected the economies of much of the world. Framing Putin’s war as a rogue event, Plokhy sees the “special military operation” as encouraging China to take a more aggressive attitude to Taiwan. In his closing chapter he also opines that, where once Russia was the more dominant force [during the Cold War] totalitarian China has now surpassed it, with a healthier economy, a more advanced infrastructure, more industrial activity and much stronger military forces. In Asia, Russia is now the junior partner.
In writing this review, I am fully aware that The Russo-Ukrainian War was written by a Ukrainian and therefore that it will have some patriotic biases. But I do not believe a minor bias distorts either the author’s historical perspective, or his reportage on the war.
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One of the most difficult tasks a reviewer faces is giving a balanced account of a collection of essays. There will be so many different perspectives presented that the reviewer has to make broad generalisations, often missing the particular nuance of each contributor’s work. But Aftermaths, subtitled Colonialism, Violence and Memory in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific sets out its agenda very clearly in its Introduction. There, two of the editors, Angela Wanhalla and Lyndall Ryan, tell us that colonialism is an ongoing, living process and not merely an event in the past; that violence and warfare were often the minor part of colonisation, being supplemented by the confiscation of land and suppression of indigenous customs and beliefs; that the descendants of colonisers often suffer from historical amnesia, either not knowing or choosing not to know the violent things their ancestors did in creating their colony; and that attempts at “assimilation” were not always benign. Put simply then, the 21 essays collected here are an indictment of colonialism. Women are dominant in this indictment – to be precise, of the 24 contributors, only three are male. Note also that some Australian contributors are happy to use the term “Aborigine” while others shun it. I am not sure of the current status of this term.
The collection is divided into five sections, which I summarise thus:
Part One: Violence perpetrated by colonialists: Joanna Kidman and Vincent O’Malley use the story of the massacre at Orakau pa in 1864 as an example of history being cleaned up to sooth pakeha sensibilities. Amanda Nettlebeck shows how long it has taken Australians to accept that the indigenous people were defending their lands when colonisers massacred them – and only now are some public memorials acknowledging this fact. Keri Mills calls for many Pakeha to accept that their ancestors benefitted from land confiscated from Maori. A rather strange, and very ambiguous, contribution by Anaru Eketone questions whether a Methodist missionary was a martyr killed by Maori as his co-religionists thought… but in the end she has to admit that, whatever the status of the missionary, real violence was involved.
Part Two: Violence specifically against indigenous women: Victoria Haskins deals with the massacre of the Wilot people in California in 1860, and how a dress, used in coming-of-age ceremonies, was confiscated… only to be returned well over a century later so that it is once again an icon to this people. Kate Stevens discusses how, in colonial Fiji, young indigenous girls were often stigmatised by the law as provocateurs in rape cases. Lyndall Ryan considers the specific case of a “code of silence” among frontier Australians which prevented prosecution of those who murdered a young Aboriginal girl. One anomaly here is Angela Wanhalla’s beautifully crafted account of a former slave woman, from the West Indies, who married a British soldier, and they apparently lived in harmony… but of course such pairing was extremely rare.
Part Three: Direct physical and sexual abuse of indigenous people: Shino Konishi relates the harsh ways in which the explorer Eyre treated his indigenous “boys” and trackers. Stephanie Gilbert speaks of sexual and other abuses that took place in “homes” for Aboriginal girls (part of the “stolen generation”) – and further discusses how, in recent enquiries, such victims often have to relive trauma repeatedly in giving their testimonies. As told by Erica Newman, orphanages in colonial Fiji were quite different – indigenous Fijians were never separated from their families or placed in residential care; but the children of indentured Indians were, being thus deprived of much of their Indian identity.
Part Four: Early critiques of colonialism: Jane Lydon chronicles early, but feeble, attempts in 1880s Western Australia to rein in pastoralists who exploited Aboriginals almost as if they were slaves. Lachy Paterson discusses a short-lived Maori newspaper in the 1860s which defended the Kingitanga by comparing its assertion of autonomy with the Haiti revolution.
Part Five: Recent artistic responses to colonialism: Rachel Burgess gives an account of the Aboriginal artist Rover Thomas’s non-representational paintings referring to a massacre in 1924. Anna Johnston deals with Judy Watson’s mapping and naming all sites in which Aborigines were killed by pastoralists, making them known to all Australians who had ignored or not known these things. Tony Ballantyne balances the statue of James Cook in Gisborne with the more recent monument to Te Maro, a leader who was killed by Cook’s crew. And Penelope Edmonds records how a statue of John Batman, sometimes called the “founder” of Melbourne, was put on trial recently by Aborigine activists, who pointed out that Batman was one of those who attempted to exterminate all Aborigines in the state.
If you have had the good fortune to have a copy of Aftermaths at hand, you may notice that I have left out four of the essays.
One I regard as exceptional, because it is the only essay to dwell on the impact of colonisation upon indigenous flora. This is Grace Moore’s exceptional account of Louisa Atkinson, an early Australian conservationist who repeatedly warned that chopping down indigenous trees to create farmland would eventually cause ecological disaster. Regrettably, she was right.
The other three I find a little overblown. Patricia O’Brien illustrates the sexual abuse of indigenous women by talking about the Australian film-star Errol Flynn, whose forebears were “blackbirders” (kidnappers of indigenous people to exploit in plantations) and who himself sexually exploited indigenous women in New Guinea before he went off to exploit underage girls in Hollywood. Kirsten Moffat gives a rather laboured account of a satire that was written against those who invaded Parihaka. And, similarly, Caitlin Lynch and Sian Smith pick apart Rudall Hayward’s 1940 film Rewi’s Last Stand, faulting it (easily) as a sugar-coated version of what really happened. I am not implying that these three essays are historically inaccurate, but they do come close to being frivolous in comparison with the more weighty issues dealt with in most of this collection.