— Paul Amery's Blog


If you stand on St. Vladimir’s hill, on the right bank of the river Dnieper in Kiev, the flatlands across the water recede far into the distance.


The left bank of the Dnieper–eastern Ukraine–boasts no natural boundaries. Heading eastwards from Kiev through the endless fields of rich black earth, you won’t encounter a major obstacle until the Volga, over 1000km away, then the Ural mountains, 2500km distant. Both the Volga and the Urals are in Russia.

“Ukraine” means borderland. And that status implies the possibility of endless fights over territory that is easy to grab but hard to keep.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, “White Guard”, is set in Kiev in 1918/20, during the civil war that followed the collapse of Tsarist Russia.

Kiev, previously part of the Russian empire, changed hands 14 times during that period, Bulgakov describes, fought over and held intermittently by a pro-German Ukrainian puppet regime, a Ukrainian nationalist “directorate”, pro-czarist White Russians, Bol’sheviks and Poles. Regimes changed overnight and wearing the wrong epaulettes on your army uniform–or speaking with the wrong accent–could cost you your life.

The Bol’sheviks kept Kiev after 1920, having concluded a deal with the Poles to split Ukraine. Communist rule was extended from central and eastern Ukraine to western Ukraine, formerly controlled by Poland, in 1945 (and following the Yalta agreement between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill). It continued until 1991, when the current independent republic came into being after the disintegration of the USSR.

The USA, now a vocal supporter of Ukrainian independence, advised the opposite when the USSR was on its last legs. In August 1991, then-president George W. Bush told an audience in Kiev not to split with the Russians in Moscow.

Given Ukraine’s history, it’s unlikely that today’s presidential election, even with its clear winner, sounds the start of a period of stability. Many eastern cities responded to the call to vote with a sullen silence, partly in response to intimidation by local militias.

Where borders are absent, questions of allegiance are always on your mind. A popular Ukrainian saying is “moya hata s krayu”: I want to live on the edge of the village, out of the thick of things and out of trouble.

Those surveying the armed bands marauding throughout the country since the beginning of this year will be keeping their heads down. Experience tells you that’s the best course of action. Who knows where the next set of boundaries will be drawn in the borderlands? And whose hands may you fall into as a result?