A Journey Through Ukraine

With the current events in the Ukraine, I thought it would be a good time to pick up and read Where the West Ends by Michael J. Totten. Michael Totten is an independent foreign correspondent that I've followed for a while. He initially grabbed my attention with his reporting from the Middle East and North Africa, but has also been to a number of post-Communist countries (or still Communist in the case of Cuba, which he visited for a Kickstarter project).

Where the West Ends is written in the form of a travelogue through countries and regions that lie on the cultural and geographic periphery of Europe: Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Balkans, Ukraine, and Georgia.

The chapter about Ukraine starts in Western Ukraine and ends in Crimea, offering a neat snapshot (through the eyes of a couple of American visitors) of the mood and conditions in different regions of the country when the book was written in 2009.

Michael Totten and his travelling companion entered a rural area of western Ukraine from Poland at night, and their struggle to get to Lviv (the key city of western Ukraine) was memorable. The state of the infrastructure made it unsafe to get the rental car's speedometer out of the single digits:

The damage was so thorough that the surface could not possibly have been repaved or repaired even once since the Stalinist era.

The western part of the country is where Ukrainian nationalism is strongest and it sounds like Lviv and the surrounding rural areas are quite neglected with respect to infrastructure and the economy. There is also a huge historical reason for grievances to be found in the Holodomor ("Hunger Plague" in 1932-1933, brought on by Soviet collectivization) that the author provides some background on.

The author admits that he was quite shocked by conditions in western Ukraine; since that is the part of the country that is most pro-EU, he was expecting it to be more advanced, but in fact Kiev (which is apparently on the dividing line between regions that look to Russia and regions that look to the EU) was much better off. In fact, earlier in Where the West Ends some parts of the Balkans get described more positively than western Ukraine.

Driving from the Eastern edge of the European Union into Ukraine was a shocking experience. Western Ukraine may be politically oriented toward Europe, but it is an orphan.

Kiev, we learn, is where Russian civilization began (in 9th Century Kievan Rus). It sounds like an amazing city in terms of the architecture and amenities. An analysis of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine is included in the Kiev section; it was quite foresightful.

Russians and Ukrainians are different people today, but they were once the same people. The fact that Kiev is outside Russia, by far the most powerful of the three Kievan Rus nations, leads to both tension and binding. Ukraine doesn't have much serious tension between the ethnic Ukrainian majority and the large Russian minority, at least not the kind that has convulsed former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and former Yugoslav republics in the Balkans. Civil war seems at worst a remote possibility. A Russian invasion, though, might be possible in a perfect storm. And continued Russian pressure and dominance is almost a certainty.

On his blog, Michael Totten has shared a large portion of the section from his visit to Crimea. Back in 2009 when he wrote it, he predicted that Russia would not easily give up the Crimea—especially the strategic port of Sevastopol'—if the political situation in the Ukraine turned against them. It's worth reading for an analysis of the politics there that was written before the current crisis.

As a whole (i.e. not just the chapter on Ukraine that has some relevance to current events), Where the West Ends is worth reading. It is an enjoyable travelogue, covering some typical adventures and inconveniences that come with visiting out of the way places, as well as highlighting some real gems (e.g. Dubrovnik). At the same time, it has some journalistic elements, offering insight into the politics of some of the places on the boundary between East and West.