Tobias Wals: Ukraine Beyond the Frontline – Collected Reports

Five years on from the Euromaidan uprising, the Crimean conflict drags on with no solution in sight. Ukraine continues to make the headlines, but Western media is only myopically focusing on the war. For most Dutch people, the country beyond the frontline remains terra incognita. In Oekraïne achter het front (‘Ukraine Beyond the Frontline’) I show the Dutch public less familiar sides of Ukraine by telling stories that usually don’t find their way to the media. The book will contain twelve to fifteen reports, moving from countryside to metropole to frontline. History, and especially that of the traumatic experiences of the 20th century, plays a central role in almost all of the stories. I visit some of the many different communities in Ukraine – Romanians, Crimean Tatars, Russophones – and try to find out how the past affects them.

One story, for instance, focuses on Vasyl Rybchuk from the village of Yavoriv, in the Carpathian Mountains. Rybchuk belongs to the Hutsuls, a small ethnic subgroup usually associated with the 1965 Soviet motion picture Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors – a romanticised and highly inaccurate depiction of Hutsul culture. The film also marked the end of a long period of local resistance against Soviet power in the Carpathians. Even today the Hutsuls form a relatively closed society, averse to influence from Kyiv. Rybchuk became a member of his local community council to fight plans for largescale logging around his village. In his ecological activism, he poses as an ancient molfar, a heathen witch doctor who guards the balance between man and nature. But in doing so, Rybchuk, ironically, draws on the romantic Soviet image of the Hutsul people, as popularized by the film. Another report is about the inhabitants of Slavutych, a town in the woods north of Kyiv, near the Belarusian border. Slavutych, which is also known as the youngest town in Ukraine, was built overnight in the late 1980s to accommodate the survivors of the Chernobyl disaster. Built in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, it was meant to realise the socialist ideals that had by then already lost their lustre: architects from all over the country were flown in to project their visions on a patch of remote woodland. Today many of Slavutych’s inhabitants still work in and around the devastated nuclear power plant and commute to the prohibited zone via a small railway line, which was constructed specially for them. I will also bring forward the Jewish community of Dnipro, who I am currently researching. The Jewish presence in the city, most strongly expressed by the Menorah cultural and business centre, is an interesting point in itself. Considering Dnipro’s history as a closed city and as hometown of many prominent Soviet and Ukrainian leaders, and the emerging issue of right-extremist violence in Ukraine, the story of Dnipro’s Jews is key to understanding Ukraine. Oekraïne achter het front will be published by De Geus and is expected to appear at the end of 2019.

Tobias Wals obtained his BA degrees in Slavic Studies and European Studies at the University of Amsterdam, before obtaining an MA degree in Slavistics (with Russian as his main language) at the KU Leuven in Belgium. After finishing his studies, he moved to Kyiv to learn Ukrainian and ended up living there for about two years. He translated the novel Voroshylovhrad by Ukrainian author Serhii Zhadan into Dutch, and also wrote a novel of his own, Kiev op de bodem van een glas (Kyiv on the bottom of a glass). Furthermore, he regularly publishes articles about Ukrainian politics and society in Dutch media and organizes study trips and languages courses for Dutch students in Ukraine. At the moment, he is working on a collection of travel reportages about Ukraine for the Dutch publishing house De Geus.


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