Sophie Pinkham – Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine
ZHANNA SLOR: I have to start by saying I’ve spent a lot of my adulthood wondering what my life would have been like if my family hadn’t left the Soviet Union when I was five, and your book has made me sort of glad I didn’t have to find out. We seem to be on opposite sides of a wall looking over it; or perhaps on the same side of the wall but standing at different parts. You say “no matter how well I learned to speak Russian, I could never go to the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union no longer existed” which really echoes most of what my writing has been about. The difference being, of course, that you’ve spent a lot of time in post-Soviet Ukraine, and I have yet to go back. Judging from your book, I think you probably have a better understanding of the Soviet Union than I do, having only heard stories about it my whole life and not studied the history that much or ever returned to Ukraine. But in different ways we probably both feel like outsiders. I can’t speak for you of course, but logically I know I’m lucky to be an outsider in this case: like you write, my parents have always echoed this sentiment: “The Meksin parents hadn’t been pleased by Anya and Leeza’s decision to come with me to the old country; they’d had good reasons for leaving it, after all, and it hadn’t been easy to get out.” And yet, I can’t help but be fascinated by Ukraine, like you.
Looking back on your experiences there, what do you think is the most jarring aspect of Ukrainian life in comparison to American life? Does it ever feel to you like, despite its difficulties and dangers, Ukraine is a place that feels more alive than its American counterpart? By alive, I mean metaphorically speaking, of course. My family members tell the same stories at every family gathering, and almost none of them ever take place after 1991. Before 1991, they lived a hundred different lives. Here, they mostly just work and live in the suburbs. I’ve always thought that was quite a huge cost to pay for safety.
SOPHIE PINKHAM: Ukraine, like the US, has lots of variety, and I hesitate to make generalizations. But as someone who’s lived in both Kiev and New York, I appreciated the greater emphasis placed on friendship and social relations in Kiev. In my experience, people there were much less likely to understand their own value and identity in terms of their profession and “productivity”; family and social ties were more important. I always appreciated going to social gatherings in Ukraine and not being subjected to interrogations about my job; there, you often have the feeling that work is instrumental, something you do to support yourself and your family, not the essence of who you are. They’re less likely to put pressure on themselves to work obsessively, long after they’re exhausted and unhappy, as a lot of Americans I know do. I also liked the greater spontaneity in social relations, the way people drop by or make last minute social plans, not scheduling everything a week or two weeks in advance, as New Yorkers do. (Of course, this can become very inconvenient when, for example, you’re trying to schedule interviews.)
People I knew in Kiev seemed less isolated in their nuclear families—having children didn’t mean spending the next 10 years seeing only your partner, coworkers, and other parents, as it does for a lot of New Yorkers. This was partly because people in Kiev were much more willing to take their children around with them (to concerts, for example) and were less preoccupied with filling their children’s time with extracurricular activities; partly because they tended to have children earlier and have parents who were able and willing to babysit often; and partly because couples were more willing to alternate babysitting responsibilities. It isn’t a utopia, of course, and Ukraine has many serious social and economic problems, but I do think that Ukrainians are much less socially isolated than Americans are. Ukrainian culture is also less consumerist, though that’s changing.
Another thing I like about Ukraine (and about most non-American countries, to be honest, but especially Slavic countries) is that there isn’t a relentless focus on “positive thinking,” an expectation that you’ll smile effusively even during the most trivial interactions, or a sense that you’re to blame if you’re ever unhappy. (Barbara Ehrenreich has a great book on the American cult of positive thinking and the damage it does to American society.)
ZS: I like all those things too. Although the lack of aggressive positive thinking can also swing too far to the other side; I liked that my parents were very blunt and didn’t give out compliments easily, but they were often way too negative in general. Even when something good happened they’d be looking for the bad stuff hiding underneath. It really makes you grow up an anxious person, especially now, with so much instability lingering all the time. Like you say, “Life is too uncertain now that the Union is gone… Now you choose a path, but you don’t know where it will end.” Do you think the same could be said of life everywhere? I’ve heard of lawyers and doctors in the US moving back in with their parents while looking for jobs.
SP: I don’t know if it’s true everywhere, but it’s certainly true in the United States—many businesses rise and fall quickly, workers have very few rights or protections, and there’s little certainty about what you’ll be able to do in the future. Now, with the “gig economy,” many people don’t even have long-term jobs in the old sense, or workplaces. For all its shortcomings, the Soviet Union did provide a certain amount of certainty and security—though of course nostalgia for socialism involves forgetting the bad parts.
ZS: It definitely does, and yet, it’s quite hard to separate. My grandma always used to go on about how good life was back in the fifties, how happy she was. How much she cried at Stalin’s funeral. I get that she was nostalgic more for her youth than Stalin, but I still don’t think she understood how many people he killed. Which sort of brings me to my next question: you say: “To them, it seemed like nostalgie de la boue, unsavory and unreasonable. This world was something to be escaped, not explored. They were refugees, and I was a tourist.” But aren’t they, in a way, also tourists? I think if I were to go back with you now I would feel more like a tourist than a refugee, even if I am one technically.
SP: Well, they were tourists in the sense of being voluntary short-term visitors. But if you’re returning to the place where your parents or grandparents were born, a place from which your family had to flee, it’s a very different and much more complex experience than visiting a place to which you have no connection, out of curiosity or wanderlust.
ZS: That’s true, but it’s just another sort of tourism, isn’t it? Also, I may have missed it, but are you Jewish? If so, I’m curious to hear if you felt unsafe in Ukraine. If not, I’m curious how much anti-Semitism you caught wind of that didn’t make it into the book.
SP: No, I’m not Jewish. Apart from the occasional tactless joke or comment, I never witnessed any anti-Semitism, except for the recent displays of Nazi-associated symbols by the Azov Battalion, which are horrifying. When I was in Ukraine this fall, I happened to be staying around the corner from the Azov clubhouse, which has a Wolfsangel-inspired logo on its door. I walked by it several times with two of my close friends, a Russian Jew and a Ukrainian Jew, and we all felt quite anxious. That said, I never had the sense that there was widespread anti-Semitism in Ukraine.
ZS: Referencing the Ukraine crisis, you write: “There were somewhat hysterical comparisons, both inside and outside Ukraine, to Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Was Putin now willing to invade any country he pleased? Was he planning to devour Ukraine piece by piece, and then move on to the other post-Soviet states?” First of all, it does seem this way to me. Does it seem that way to you?
SP: Much of the Western media and political establishment has portrayed Putin as an omniscient, all-powerful supervillain. In reality, invading and occupying a country, or part of a country, requires a huge amount of money (Russia is hemorrhaging money over the annexation of Crimea), lots of troops, armor, and so on. As a peninsula that already housed a Russian base, that was very close to Russia, and that was home to a lot of Russian-speakers who were favorably disposed to Russia (and this is leaving out the Tatars and the pro-Ukrainians in Crimea—they’re a minority that has suffered terribly), Crimea is a very unusual case, exceptionally easy to annex for geographical, cultural, historical and political reasons. The Ukrainian government was, in the end, willing to lose it without a fight. (Of course they were in no position to fight then, but Russia knew that.) Donbas (in eastern Ukraine) is also a fairly unusual case—it shares a border with Russia and is home to many people who speak Russian and are favorably disposed towards Russia. Even in this relatively easy instance, Russia didn’t attempt to actually annex the Donbas, and settled for providing the separatists with support. It was decisive support, but it was much less expensive, difficult, and risky than starting a real war with Ukraine. Trying to take over Estonia, for example, would be a very different story—the population would be intensely opposed, NATO could get involved, and so on. (That said, I can certainly sympathize with Estonia’s anxiety about a Russian attack.) In the end, Russia’s economy isn’t doing very well, and its military isn’t so rich. I’m not a fortuneteller or a mind reader, but it seems to me that Putin’s strategy is more about creating the idea of a threat, sowing instability and panic, and promoting Russia’s image as a superpower—this is a lot cheaper than fighting a real war.
ZS: Does it remind you at all of the hysteria surrounding the Trump election, and how people keep comparing him to Hitler?
SP: It’s been remarkable to see how Putin hysteria has been grafted directly onto Trump hysteria, as Putin is being blamed for Trump’s victory. Russia may have meddled, but I doubt its meddling made a decisive difference; the Trump nightmare is a result of the deep problems in American politics.
ZS: One thing I love about your book is your ability to find humor in such strange and often terrible circumstances. But I notice that humor fades a little bit by the end of the book—is it because it becomes more difficult to find it, or is this just coincidence?
SP: It became harder to find it, of course. It’s been extremely painful to watch the course of the war, to interview people who have been displaced or kidnapped or tortured, to see so many young men missing limbs. Some readers have been disappointed that the book doesn’t have a feel-good ending—but it’s nonfiction, after all.
ZS: I’m not sure how a reader could expect a feel-good ending; I hadn’t even thought that was an option, especially considering that you’re writing about very recent events. That section about the Maidan revolution in 2014 was possibly the only time I can remember getting teary-eyed reading nonfiction. It was a very moving portrayal, and I literally hadn’t heard anything about it until your book. However, I have to say by the end I wasn’t sure what was the point of it exactly, since it seems like they merely replaced one corrupt politician for another (which seems to be the case in general with revolutions, right?). Now that it’s been a few years, what do you think came out of it, if anything? Having spent so much time there, do you think there’s a chance it will ever achieve something close to European status?
SP: It’s much easier to depose a bad leader than it is to build a new political system, or fix one that is thoroughly rotten. And reforms are infinitely more difficult when the country is fighting a war (which is, no doubt, part of the reason that Russia intervened to help start the war with the separatists, and to keep it running for so long). Looking back on Maidan, I think one of its fatal flaws was that the movement wasn’t ready for what would happen if then-president Yanukovych was deposed. Serbia’s Otpor movement, for example, had already agreed on a presidential candidate when they entered the final phases of their campaign against Milosevic. That was a much longer-term, better organized protest, of course—Maidan was almost spontaneous. But the fact that two of the three self-appointed “leaders” of Maidan—Yatsenyuk and Tyahnybok—were entrenched politicians, as was the eventual presidential candidate, Petro Poroshenko, and that the Maidan movement didn’t have a strong non-establishment presidential candidate of its own, made it very unlikely that Maidan would succeed in transforming the Ukrainian political system. As for European status—as Europe is moving right, with nationalist and anti-EU sentiment surging, I’m not sure that “European status” has the same cachet it once did. The old certainties are gone. Of course I do hope that Ukraine will succeed somehow in developing a fairer political system, but such a change seems quite distant.
ZS: I love the line: “One of them said, ‘You’re my enemy. Because your camera is stronger than my weapons.’” Do you think this is true?
SP: I’d rather fight an enemy with a camera than an enemy with a gun. Now that so many people around the world are able to disseminate photos and videos with the potential to build support for a war, or enmity towards a certain group, or outrage over a social issue, the camera does have a special power; political propaganda is no longer the exclusive domain of states or political parties. Still, photos or videos can be ignored if one chooses to do so—part of the reason that the camera has become so powerful is that the media and politicians choose to amplify sensationalistic material, and ordinary people are too credulous. You can’t ignore it when your town is being shelled.
ZS: You mention the obsession Russians have with wearing slippers to avoid catching cold. But I’ve always been told that’s mostly for superstitious reasons: that, akin to stepping on a crack and breaking your mother’s back, if you don’t wear slippers indoors your mother will die. Did anyone mention that to you in your travels? Perhaps that’s gone the way of the Soviet Union.
SP: No, I’ve never heard that.
ZS: That’s probably a good thing; I always found Russian superstitions a little absurd. Thanks so much for answering all my questions!
Find a copy of Black Square on IndieBound.
Sophie Pinkham’s writing on Russia and Ukraine has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, n+1, the London Review of Books, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. She lives in New York.
Zhanna Slor is a Ukrainian-born writer and painter living in Chicago. She has been published in numerous literary magazines, including Bellevue Literary Review, Tusculum Review, StorySouth, and Michigan Quarterly Review, which published a piece that later received a notable mention in Best American Essays 2014.