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"The Horror Of The Ukraine": The man-made famine in 1932-33, part of a wider famine across the USSR, killed millions

Through conversations with the people he meets in Ukraine, Tim Judah provides a unique picture of what is happening on the ground in wartime.

Crisscrossing the country, he explores the impact of the ongoing conflict, with a focus on the lives of the majority of people, who are caught between westward-leaning nationalists and Russian-backed rebel forces. The book is not a blow-by-blow account of events that led to the 2014 Maidan revolution, the annexation of Crimea or the resulting war. Instead, Judah provides a unique and highly important “impression of what Ukraine feels like, now, in wartime.”

A veteran war correspondent, Judah has reported on the war in Ukraine for the New York Review of Books and the Economist, where he is the Balkans correspondent. Thanks to knowledge of that region, he is able to provide illuminating points of comparison between the war in Ukraine and the Yugoslav wars. He has also covered conflicts in Romania, Iraq, Afghanistan and Uganda.

Without the “weaponising” of history, the conflict in Ukraine could not be fought. Judah analyses how past events are emphasised or glossed over in today’s Ukraine. In much of the west and centre of Ukaine, statues of Lenin have gone. In the west, too, memorials have been built to honour the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the UPA, of Stepan Bandera. More than 3.3 million people starved to death during the Great Famine of 1932-3, which was engineered by Stalin, but its memory is contested. The place historical events take in Ukrainian consciousness depends on who is in power. Those who glorify the Soviet past in Ukraine ignore its dark episodes and vice versa. Ukrainian nationalists exalt those who fought the Soviets but brush over the fact that they often collaborated with the Nazis, and committed atrocities against Poles and Jews.

Anti-Semitism and pogroms are a recurring theme wherever Judah goes. As the great-great-granddaughter of a rabbi who was murdered in a Ukrainian pogrom, I found these parts difficult to read. Anti-Semitism was the main reason my family left Kiev, where I was born, after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. When Judah writes that Jews in the West have been brought up on tales of how “the Ukrainians were the worst”, I sadly know what he means. In one chapter, “The Shtreimel of Lviv”, he recounts that despite the city’s effort to present positive stories of Jewish life in Ukraine, the gruesome shadow of the past remains.

For this book, Judah speaks with an impressive range of people on the ground from all sides of the conflict: pensioners, businessmen, the keeper of a wildlife reserve,  officials, such as the new minister of finance, families who live in bomb shelters, Ukrainian nationalists, young and old, separatists who yearn for a new Soviet-style regime, teachers and poets. “Everywhere in Ukraine ordinary people want to tell you what they think, in large part probably because they believe their own leaders don’t listen or care about them,” he writes.

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