THR Web Features   /   April 14, 2022

Ukraine: Against History and Geography

Tracing the lines of an embattled map.

Richard Hughes Gibson

In her late poem “Map,” the Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska relates the sense of peace that one enjoys when standing over a tidy, color-coded rendering of our planet’s surface: “Its plains, valleys are always green,” its uplands and mountains “yellow and brown,” its oceans “a kindly blue,” and “in every black pinprick / people keep on living.” Such a map provides a picture of the world just as we’d like it to be: with distinct, clearly demarcated features, immutable names—a limit of one per place— and stable populations. Yet a map can only deliver such serenity by withholding “the vicious truth”: “Mass graves and sudden ruins / Are left out of the picture.” Maps are at best approximations of the fluid state of things at any given time, and at worst misleading projections of an order that is truly “not of this world.” “I like maps,” Szymborska concludes, “because they lie.”

The poet’s words have been on my mind in the last few days as the withdrawal of Russian forces around Kyiv has allowed the world to discover the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in occupied towns and villages. Markariv, Buzova, Bucha: places too small to warrant the world-geographer’s glance now hold our attention as bodies are drawn from drain pipes, cellars, and mass graves. Meanwhile, “sudden ruins” such as Irpin and Mariupol remain doggedly on the national map, though so much of what constituted them as cities—their buildings, their traffic, their inhabitants—have been blasted from the scene. Many of those refugees have joined their compatriots in fleeing across the western border, including to Szymborska’s hometown, Kraków, while Ukrainian troops look warily to the boundaries with Belarus in the north and Russia in the east. Ukraine has become the geography of vicious truths. One grasps why the Polish poet, who had witnessed the terrible arrival of German tanks in 1939, found pleasure in the trim fabrications of the world map.

The war in Ukraine is also a reminder that geography is an ongoing contest. This war, like so many others before, rests on a conflict of interpretation between neighbors. Where is Ukraine? The answer coming out of Russia is a backward-looking one, though its character is distinctly modern in emphasizing ethnic and cultural solidarity. The two nations, on Moscow’s telling, don’t just share a common border: They share a common history, a common religious tradition, a common language. (All points debated by Ukrainians.) The old maps—of the glory days of the Soviet Union, of the Russian Empire, of the early medieval kingdom of Kyivan Rus’—are brought forward as evidence that the two nations belong together still within the Russkiy mir, “the Russian world.” Soldiers quitting the outskirts of Kyiv have left behind maps that show large portions of Ukraine in Russia, as Russia. Invasion isn’t possible according to those maps; they plot only the restoration of lost unity. The Economist poignantly quotes Serhiy Kaplichny, director of the municipal burial service in Bucha, speaking of his murdered friend Andriy Dvornikov: “His only crime was not immediately accepting Russkiy mir.”

For Ukrainians, maps allow for no such exercise in imperial nostalgia. Open up any history of Ukraine, and you’ll immediately be struck by the numerous claims made upon its territory over time. Some or all of the expanse that we now label “Ukraine” was a portion of Kyivan Rus’ (doomed by the Mongols’ raids); the principality of Galicia-Volhynia (vassal state of the Golden Horde); the grand duchy of Lithuania (which took Kyiv in 1362 and at its height reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea); the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795); the Ottoman Empire (in the southwest); the Grand Duchy of Moscow, later the Russian Empire (in the east); and the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (1773-1918); among still other incursions (including German occupation in World War II) and local permutations. “For centuries,” the historian Anne Applebaum writes, “the geography of Ukraine shaped the destiny of Ukraine. The Carpathian Mountains marked the border in the southwest, but the gentle forests and fields in the northwestern part of the country could not stop invading armies, and neither could the wide open steppe in the east.” As a result, Applebaum explains, “Over many centuries, imperial armies battled over Ukraine, sometimes with Ukrainian-speaking troops on both sides of the front lines.”

Ukraine as we envision it now didn’t take shape until the Russian Revolution, and even then its borders with several neighbors—Moldova, Romania, Poland, and Russia—shifted repeatedly across the twentieth century. That Soviet map, however, holds little charm for many now, for long before the Soviet project went bust, leaving decaying buildings and implements throughout Ukraine (especially its rural districts) that visitors still remark on, the Soviet leadership in Moscow had been no great friend to its neighbor. Lenin resisted Ukrainian autonomy from the start, quashing its nascent independence movement in the late teens, and Stalin cracked down on Ukrainian dissent, including with the manmade famine of 1932-1933 (Applebaum calls it “Stalin’s war on Ukraine”). As Tony Judt observes in his magisterial account of Europe since 1945, Postwar (2005), Soviet leaders treated Ukraine as an “internal colony” for decades, exploiting its natural resources, keeping its citizens under close surveillance, and shipping its products “to the rest of the Soviet Union at heavily subsidized prices.”

Ukrainians have therefore sought to imagine an alternative geography, one in which their country faces Europe rather than the Russian gloom. Again, Judt’s analysis remains prescient. At the turn of the century, Judt noticed similar arguments bubbling up about forgotten European connections and credentials in so many of the countries on the former Soviet Union’s western edge—Romania, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland— and the historian recognized the unique nature of these claims to inclusion in the new European order:

Europe … is not so much about absolute geography—where a country or a people actually are—as relative geography: where they sit in relation to others. At the end of the twentieth century, writers and politicians in places like Moldova, Ukraine, or Armenia asserted their “Europeanness” not on historical or geographical grounds (which might or might not be plausible) but precisely as defense against history and geography alike.

What Judt so clearly perceived is that on the other side of the twentieth century’s horrors, Eastern Europe couldn’t point to obvious markers of common culture with the West—wars and Communist regimes had destroyed them. In this respect, the Iron Curtain worked. Thus, Eastern European nations appealed not to a “common past” (as Putin does now in his “Russian world” speeches) but to a “common future.” Seen in this light, the current war pits one relative geography against another, although perhaps it might be better to speak of each as an aspirational geography, one to preserve historical precedents, the other to imagine a new attachments and common enterprises.

“Every war is ironic,” Paul Fussell famously wrote in The Great War and Modern Memory, “because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.” The full scope and character of the current war’s ironies won’t be known for some time. But already some are apparent. An effort advertised, at least within Russia, as a campaign to liberate Ukrainians (from fictitious neo-Nazi captors) has revealed the tenacity of Ukrainian independence. A “special military operation” designed to warn the world of the enduring might of the Russian military has revealed its leaderships’ ineptitude and equipment’s dilapidation.

Up to this point, though, no irony appears sharper than the war’s ongoing influence on the relative geography of Europe’s eastern edge. An assault intended to keep Europe at bay has instead drawn European leaders into Ukraine, including multiple visits from heads of state to Kyiv. European neighbors are behaving as unabashed military allies, sending vast sums of cash and an array of weapons to aid their neighbor. A few days ago, the chief of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, visited Bucha, promising aid for Ukraine’s rebuilding and offering to process Ukrainian’s application for EU membership quickly should it come in. These are gestures that suggest a shift in not only the relative but (again to borrow from Judt) the moral geography of Europe. Whether Europe’s attentions will last is an open question, but the irony is nonetheless patent: The war is solidifying the very mental reconfiguration that Mr. Putin intended to arrest. Ukraine is winning its argument against history and geography.