Read the world: Black Earth – A Journey through Ukraine

Jens Mühling travelled through Ukraine to understand this complicated country, which after centuries remains in a struggle for national sovereignty

For more than a decade, German author Jens Mühling worked for the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. For two years, he was an editor of a paper in Moscow. Many of his essays and features on Eastern Europe have won awards. And his travelogue, A Journey into Russia, was shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award in 2015.

In light of the invasion of Ukraine this year and an ongoing information war, his voice throughout Black Earth – A Journey through Ukraine proves invaluable for readers seeking to learn about the country and its past.

Black Earth captures the beautiful, diverse country as it was prior to February 2022. From the moment Mühling enters Ukraine via the Medyka-Shehyni crossing on the Polish border, he observes changes in architecture and society while zig-zagging between its cities, towns and villages. He explains these details through historical accounts of Ukraine’s shifting borders, peoples, and even prison populations, all of which have repeatedly changed in the wake of different occupying forces.

Mühling confronts difficult subjects throughout. He writes, for instance, about the late politician Stepan Bandera, whom many museums, roads and monuments in western Ukraine commemorate. With the ultimate aim of an independent Ukrainian state, Bandera collaborated with the Nazis, involving his guerrilla soldiers in pogroms against Poles, Jews and communists. Granting his readers space to think for themselves, Mühling tells stories like Bandera’s in clear, though comprehensive, prose.

The writer is open about some of his own opinions, however, which are frequently ambivalent. At one point, he recounts speaking with Ivan Mamchur, an elderly man he met in Lviv, who had been among 13,000 Ukrainians to join Waffen-SS Division “Galicia” in the fight against the Red Army. When Mühling asked him if he had known what the Nazis were doing to Jews, Mamchur claimed leaders told soldiers like him their fight was only against the Bolsheviks. 

Indeed, Mühling introduces the reader to Ukraine’s extremely diverse population – from poets and Cossacks to the ethnic Hutsul people who live in mountain villages such as Dilove, whose inhabitants deem it the geographical centre of Europe.

Nearing the end of his journey, the author arrived in Milove. At the time of writing, one half of it was in Ukraine, the other in Russia. Far removed from those Ukrainians who for many years have seen Russia as an enemy, residents of Milove and Chertkovo, the town across the border, used to attend the Festival of Friendship every summer. Their musicians and dancers performed together, and their politicians called for Ukrainian-Russian solidarity.

As Thomas de Waal, author of The Caucasus, says, ‘Black Earth is much more than a travel book. In his encounters with a diverse cast of Ukrainians, Mühling elicits stories about the past and present of their country which are moving, disturbing, funny, captivating – or all at once. […] Black Earth is essential reading on the country that is now on everyone’s mind.’

Black Earth – A Journey through Ukraine by Jens Mühling (trans Eugene H Hayworth); £16.99, Haus Publishing

By Nicholas Ross. Nick is a traveller, writer and lover of literature

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