“Black Square” by Sophie Pinkham

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After the collapse of the Soviet Union, people hoped for a new society that liberated them from injustice and provided a better life. The reality was much different. Sophie Pinkham tackles the complexity of post-Soviet societies and their understanding in the West in her book Black Square. The government systems of education, hospital care, and the legal apparatus crumbled. As Pinkham notes, the Soviet Union provided a steady life, even if it was stagnant and unlucrative. The fall of the Soviet Union created a feeling of uncertainty and panic.1

Later on, when Pinkham travels into the more rural territory of Rakhiv, she notes that the mountainous people there sometimes long for the days of socialism to return. Igor’s father says that life is too uncertain after the fall of the Soviet Union and no one knows where the path will end.2 This uncertainty was unsettling for some, and with good reason. The West, especially the United States, often attempts to simplify the complexities of the conflict in Ukraine. In doing so, they cannot see that the pluralistic nature of Ukraine is difficult to understand, but it is worth giving effort.

Ukraine struggled to find their own national identity in some respects. One was their entangled history with Russia in World War II. Some Ukrainian citizens wanted to get rid of the Motherland statue in Kiev, with her Soviet coat of arms. The cost would be too great though and it represented the victory in World War II that many citizens cherished.3 Even Soviet holidays and celebrations were sometimes difficult to erase from Ukrainian society. The Soviet government removed Men’s Day as a national holiday after Ukraine gained their independence but may still celebrate it.4 Other aspects of Soviet society, like music, continued in Ukraine after the collapse. Most people knew them, and it allowed for at least some mutual connection between citizens, even if it was Soviet. There were remnants of Soviet presence, like the Lenin head in the small town of Ulan Ude, that will likely never be moved.5

Ukrainian demonstrators clash with riot police officers at Maidan square in December 2013. Photograph: heineimaging/Demotix/Corbis

Pinkham clarifies Ukraine is ultimately a country divided, both within itself and from the world. Citizens in the cities often speak Russian while those in the rural areas speak Ukrainian.6 Nonreciprocal bilingualism is also prevalent in Ukraine.7 Ukranians often switch between the Russian and Ukrainian language depending on circumstance, but very few reciprocate with the language that one was often comfortable speaking. Someone would speak Russian and the other person would speak Ukrainian and the conversation would continue like this, with each remaining with their own respective language. There is a positive quality in the confusion and complexities of post-Soviet Ukraine, though. For Pinkham it seems to create a nature of cosmopolitanism.8 After 2009 the country seemed like one under occupation, according to Pinkham.9 This is the version that most are familiar with in the West today.

The West does not always understand the complexities of post-Soviet Ukraine. This is clear in the support of Yushchenko, who some considered a champion for a democratic and western thinking Ukraine. His anti-Russian rhetoric and promotion of Ukrainian nationalism may have been pleasing to the West, but it ultimately divided Ukraine’s east and south regions, including Crimea.10 When the Soviet Union dissolved, the U.S. hoped that an independent Ukraine would keep Russia from regaining imperial power.11 The West propagates this misunderstanding with a need to put a positive spin on any story. This is most notably seen by the assistant of the program coordinator, for which Pinkham worked for, refusing to pass on anything but success stories.12

Pinkham highlights the relationship and state of the country when she discusses Alik and Valya’s relationship. She notes they were “bound together in a relationship of mutual self-destruction.”13 This represents the struggle that still faces Ukrainians in a post-Soviet world. They are constantly at odds with each other regarding what they are and what they must become. There are those in the western parts of the country who wish to be a part of the European Union. The idea of Europe to them sometimes equates to “freedom, fairness, and transparency.”14 Those who strive for European values are merely trying to escape from the Soviet past without critically analyzing the issues that befall Western capitalist countries. There is an unbridled and unrealistic optimism in their view of European countries, further complicating their disagreements with fellow Ukrainians in the eastern parts of the country who view Russia as a closer ally. Pinkham notes that Western media outlets categorically misrepresented the conflict in Ukraine by calling it a war between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians.15 For all their differences and faults though, Pinkham argues that many Ukrainians truly care about the state of their country and only want what they believe is best.

There is a complexity of issues that are difficult to sort through when discussing Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. Nikita tells Pinkham that he refuses to leave Ukraine just because things are bad, and instead stays to help and shovel out the shit.16 The fall of the Soviet Union allowed problems in government to reach the light of day. Sometimes, this was good, and in other ways it only affirmed people’s suspicions and paranoia. Under Soviet rule, many assumed politicians were liars, but the corruption and cover-ups of the post-Soviet politicians only confirmed these preconceptions for Ukrainians.17 Ukraine searched for a way in which to distinguish itself and develop a national identity. They did this by adopting their own flag, anthem, and emblems of nationalism. Often though, celebrating Ukrainian identity, especially in more Russian influenced regions of the east, was only possible for the elite or rich.18 The most important was the commitment to the Ukrainian language rather than Russian. It served to “reinforce the new national borders,” as Pinkham says.19 This commitment to a new language caused a host of problems for foreigners and Ukrainians alike. At the conference Pinkham attends in Odessa, they choose to use Russian, since they assume all Ukrainians speak Russian but not vice versa. Some people who did not understand Russian, like those from western Ukraine, became silent observers.20 Many Russian speaking Ukrainians were angry with the language change that took place in Ukraine. Pinkham points out that they, not without reason, felt like Ukrainian nationalists were pushing them out of their own country.21

The story that Pinkham tells about her friend Anya, who watches a bunny eating a strawberry, is a good representation of how some citizens dealt with the disconnect between Soviet and post-Soviet ideas. Pinkham says that Anya bestowed this story upon her and then forgot it, much like a gift. I would argue that Anya has no wish to remember the pre-Soviet era, which again represented stability and comfort in some ways. The world that Anya now had to live in was one of constant destruction, violence and conflict between citizens of a disconnected county. Because of this, she chooses to block out the memories of what the country used to be, feeling that there is no way to return to that state. In a way, it is possibly the most heartbreaking part of Sophie Pinkham’s journey, because it represents the soul of a country that is being ripped apart at the seams. There is no one national identity but rather a complexity of ideas, both pre and post-Soviet. As this paper has tried to make clear, the divide between Ukrainian people is larger and more complex than most outside parties would care to admit. 

  1. Sophie Pinkham, Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. (2016), 24.
  2. Ibid., 86.
  3. Ibid., 40.
  4. Ibid., 61.
  5. Ibid., 18.
  6. Ibid., 42.
  7. Ibid., 79.
  8. Ibid., 79.
  9. Ibid., 145.
  10. Ibid., 48.
  11. Ibid., 54.
  12. Ibid., 20.
  13. Ibid., 50.
  14. Ibid., 148.
  15. Ibid., 206.
  16. Ibid., 57.
  17. Ibid., 179.
  18. Ibid., 99.
  19. Ibid., 41.
  20. Ibid., 60-61.
  21. Ibid., 78.

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