A journalist’s first book, a graceful mix of personal memoir and political research, illuminates the complexities of Ukraine culture.
The political upheavals of post-Soviet Ukraine can confound and confuse even Ukrainians, so it’s quite an achievement for Pinkham to untangle these strands with such style and insight. Whether through happenstance or fate, she found her “idealism and longing for adventure” paired with a beginner’s study of the Russian language and a fascination with the country and surrounding region. She served as a Red Cross volunteer in Siberia before graduate school and subsequently made a series of visits to Ukraine, working on an oral history project and helping with resources for HIV/AIDS, an epidemic in a country where hard drugs and shared needles were rampant. Pinkham’s experiences with that country’s equivalents of punk rockers and communal hippies would be engaging enough on their own, but her account of how an initially nonviolent protest in the town square of Kiev turned deadly over a three-month span provides a perspective at odds with the black-and-white account one was more likely to read in Western media—other than the articles she published in the likes of the New Yorker and the New York Times, which became the foundation of this book. “Cold warriors lurched up out of their coffins, yelling about freedom, democracy, and the right side of history,” she writes, while refusing to succumb to oversimplification about freedom-loving insurgents (who might also be homophobic, misogynist and anti-Semitic) or oppressive Russia (who may well have been conducting campaigns of false information). It was difficult to tell which of many sides were to blame when Molotov cocktails were flying from different directions, and nobody could figure out whose side the deadly snipers were killing for. Pinkham humanizes the people she met and befriended, and she recognizes that, if anything, a protest that led to warlike conditions has left the future even murkier than before.
First-rate reporting, research, and writing in a debut that will make readers care as much as the author does.