When Michael Jennings as born the world was neatly divided into US led and NATO allied West and a Russian dominated East, behind the Iron Curtain. The separation was obvious and physical – barbed wire was involved – and had consequences – acts as simple as fetching groceries worked very differently on either side.
Now, while it is true that Russia is part of Europe there is still a strong sense of difference and separateness about the “Russian Sphere of Influence” as contrasted with the West and Westernised countries. Unwelcoming signs pop-up in holiday resorts, people drink beers with historical ties one way or another, Western retailers, visa requirements, and the routes permitted to low-cost airlines provide clues that you are in a different zone. Is this a local country for local people or a country open for business with the West? Moldova and the Ukraine, in their own ways, define the edge of this space.
The Ukraine is perhaps the most complex country Michael describes. He describes the contrasting histories of two neighbouring provinces of Ukraine: L’viv and Transcarpathia (somewhat synonymous with the admininstative area of Zakarpattia, which is marked on the overlaid map) and it becomes clear what Michael means by complicated. Of particular interest are the histories of Odessa and Donetsk, both Russian speaking but populated by Russians at different times and for different reasons, and demonstrating why they each take a different view of Moscow despite sharing the same language between the three of them.
Another neighbour of Ukraine and Russia is Belarus. A strong and orderly dictatorship ruled by the kind of person that “wishes to wash his hands very often” and whose capital is well manicured in the extreme.
Moldova is a strange country. Largely romance rather than slavic with an economic elite who speaks Russian and a political elite that speaks Romanian. The part of Moldova that was historically Russian has secceded and is now known as Transnistria, along the border with the Ukraine. Despite the breakaway state existing with the backing of a foreign army (the Russian army) there are interactions and economic links across the Dniester. The fact that Transnistrian football teams participate in the Moldovan football league is an example of how the different ethnic groups have made accomodations with each other in a way that has not occured elsewhere.
Michael goes on to cover the mountain range and surrounding region known as the Caucasus. Michael is not interested in the geology as much as he is with the unsettled political situation all around the mountains (most notably in Chechnya and Georgia, at least in my lifetime) and the food and great hospitality of the Georgians. Catering during the time of the Soviet Union was frequently provided by chefs from the Caucasus.
The Armenians have a unique linguistic heritage, unrelated to any other linguistic tradition elsewhere in the world. The victims of a wartime massacre by the Turks they have an interesting set of neighbours. Armenia is open to the West in the ways Michael described earlier and actually has a large emigres population in Los Angeles, but is militarily reliant on Russian help in the even of a renewed conflict with Azerbaijan.
Georgia, as you may know, has two breakaway regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After a war for control of South Ossetia in 2008 Georgia has pursued an aggressively pro-Western policy and sought outside help with it’s severe corruption problem. They went as far as sacking “the entire” police force and hiring new police. The clampdown is so strong that tipping in restaurants is no longer done as staff are in fear of bribery allegations.
Michael returned to the Ukraine two months ago and spoke with members of the Euromaidan protest. Unlike Belarus the Ukraine is clearly very corrupt. Michael pins down the root cause of the Euromaidan uprising as being the extreme corruption, as the middle classes becoming sick and tired of it. Unfortunately Michael believes that these concerns have been put to one side after the war broke out with Russia. Michael invites us to speculate about who will ultimately benefit if corruption is not addressed in the Ukraine.
If you feel you lacked a little of the historical context Michael’s Russian History Primer may be of use.