Paweł Pieniążek: Greetings from Novorossiya: Eyewitness to the War in Ukraine

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Polish journalist Paweł Pieniążek was among the first journalists to enter the war-torn region of eastern Ukraine and Greetings from Novorossiya is his vivid firsthand account of the conflict. He was the first reporter to reach the scene when Russian troops in Ukraine accidentally shot down a civilian airliner, killing all 298 people aboard. Unlike Western journalists, his fluency in both Ukrainian and Russian granted him access and the ability to move among all sides in the conflict. With powerful color photos, telling interviews from the local population, and brilliant reportage, Pieniazek’s account documents these dramatic events as they transpired. This unique firsthand view of history in the making brings to life the tragedy of Ukraine for a Western audience. Historian Timothy Snyder provides wider context in his superb introduction and explores the significance of this ongoing conflict at the border of East and West.

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Paweł Pieniążek



Translated by Małgorzata Markoff And John Markoff

Indifference kills just like a bullet.




THE YEAR 1989, the year the Polish war reporter Paweł Pieniążek was born, was understood by some in the West as an end to history. After the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe, what alternative was there to liberal democracy? The rule of law had won the day. European integration would help the weaker states reform and support the sovereignty of all.

But was the West coming to the East or the East to the West? By 2014, a quarter century after the revolutions of 1989, Russia proposed a coherent alternative: faked elections, institutionalized oligarchy, national populism, and European disintegration. When Ukrainians that year made a revolution in the name of Europe, Russian media proclaimed the “decadence” of the European Union (EU), and Russian forces invaded Ukraine in the name of a “Eurasian” alternative.

When Pieniążek arrived in Kiev in November 2013 as a young man of twenty-four, he was observing the latest, and perhaps the last, attempt to mobilize the idea of “Europe” in order to reform a state. Ukrainians had been led to expect that their government would sign an association agreement with the European Union. Frustrated by endemic corruption, many Ukrainians saw the accord as an instrument to strengthen the rule of law. Moscow, meanwhile, was demanding that Ukraine not sign the agreement with the EU but instead become a part of its new “Eurasian” trade zone of authoritarian regimes.

At the last moment, Russian president Vladimir Putin dissuaded the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from signing the EU association agreement. The Russian media exulted. Ukrainian students, who had the most to lose from endless corruption, gathered on November 21 on Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, to demand that the agreement with the EU be signed. Pieniążek arrived a few days later. After police beat the students on the night of November 30, the young men and women were joined by hundreds of thousands of others, people who would brave the cold, and worse, for the next three months.

The “Euromaidan,” as the protests were called at first, was multicultural and anti-oligarchical. Ukrainians were taking risks for a local goal that is hard to understand beyond the post-Soviet setting: Europeanization as a means to undo corruption and oligarchy. By enriching a small clique, writes Pieniążek in this collection of his reportage from Ukraine, “Yanukovych brought the state to the brink of actual collapse.” In December 2013 Russian leaders made financial aid to Yanukovych’s government contingent upon clearing the streets of protesters. The government’s subsequent escalation of repression—first the suspension of the rights to assembly and free expression in January 2014 and then the mass shooting of protesters in February—turned the popular movement into a revolution. On February 22, Yanukovych fled to Russia. (Two years later his political strategist, Paul Manafort, would resurface in the United States, playing the same role for Donald Trump.) After the failure of its policy of repression by remote control, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. By March Russians who had taken part in that campaign were arriving in the industrial Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, Yanukovych’s onetime power base, to help organize a separatist movement.

Inhabitants of southeastern Ukraine had just as much reason to be dissatisfied with corruption as anyone else, and it was reasonable to fear that the revolution in Kiev was nothing more than a swing of the pendulum from some oligarchs to others. Just how these sentiments might have been resolved through negotiations or elections we will never know, since the Russian intervention precluded both, bringing instead fear and bloodshed that changed everyone’s political calculations. Slovyansk, a small city in the Donbas, was an early gathering point for separatists. When Pieniążek arrived there in April 2014, he found the place crawling with armored personnel carriers, and he understood that local opposition to the revolution in Kiev was supported by outside forces. The Russian citizen Igor Girkin, a veteran of the Crimean invasion and the commander of the separatist forces, had made Slovyansk his headquarters.

Under Girkin’s supervision a “people’s mayor” arrested the elected one, and the new authorities murdered two people who opposed them. When the Ukrainian government sent policemen to investigate the crime, they were arrested by the separatists and photographed in humiliating positions—images suggesting the local dissolution of Ukrainian state power. As Pieniążek reported, power now resided in the former headquarters of the Ukrainian state police, which Russian soldiers and officers used as their base. By March 2014 Crimea had been annexed by Russia, and in April further Russian annexations of Ukrainian territory seemed possible. Putin spoke that month of a “New Russia” (Novorossiya), meaning Donetsk and five other regions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Putin maintained that the use of the Russian language beyond Russia’s borders justified Russian invasion. If the unity of language groups were accepted as a principle of rule, then international state borders would cease to matter. The Second World War began from such arguments (think of the Anschluss and the end of Austria, the Sudetenland and the destruction of Czechoslovakia, and Danzig as a pretext for war against Poland). Thus the founders of European integration insisted that state borders be respected and issues of human rights be resolved within their necessarily imperfect confines. Pieniążek was continually struck by the fact that separatists characterized the European order as “fascist,” even as they spoke of the significance of common language and common blood. What they meant, he realized, was simply that “everyone who does not support Russia is a fascist.”

Ukraine is a bilingual country with a cosmopolitan ruling class. Because almost all Ukrainians speak Russian as well as Ukrainian, they belong to what Putin calls “the Russian world” (russkii mir). Yet this “world” is by no means automatically aligned with the politics of Moscow. Kharkiv, a university town near the Russian border, is governed by people who take a sympathetic view of Russia but have rejected separatism. Dnipropetrovsk, the onetime Soviet “rocket city,” became the gathering point of Russian-speaking Ukrainian volunteers who fought against separatists and Russians. Cosmopolitan Odessa excelled in mockery of Putin.

The city of Donetsk fell to the separatists for local reasons. In spring 2014 its local oligarchs were indecisive and tried, disastrously, to play Kiev and Moscow against each other. This had little to do with ethnicity; the most important Donetsk oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, is a Volga Tatar. With local power uncertain Russian veterans of the Crimean campaign could travel to Donetsk at a time when Ukrainian central authorities hindered such people from reaching other east Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv. Afterward Russian troops could move into Donetsk across a border that Ukrainian authorities were unable to control. Some of the Russian regular soldiers were Siberians, and many of the irregulars were Chechens. Thus people who did not speak Russian were killing people who did—in order to defend the Russian language in a place where it was never threatened.

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