Black Soil: Chernozem and Tusit in Ukraine
Black soil was packed into a plexiglass sarcophagus two feet wide and six feet high. We stood in the basement of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in the UNESCO World Heritage–designated, Western Ukrainian city of Lviv, variously called Lemberg, Lvovuv, or Lviv depending on which country claimed or occupied it. The soil defied iPhone photography. Black soil. Chernozem.
RaeJean Stokes, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer from the United States Embassy in Kyiv, pointed her left hand to the structure. “That’s what Ukrainian black soil looks like,” she said.
The second largest country in Europe but not part of the European Union, Ukraine possesses twenty-five percent of the most nutrient-rich black soil on earth, part of a belt stretching from Croatia, across Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Southern Russia. Formerly dubbed “the bread basket of Europe,” Ukraine wafts through the historical imaginaries of many countries that occupied, invaded, or border with it as a place where a bounty of grains grow. Ukrainian black soil—some of the most fertile on the planet—now lures international agricultural investors from Canada and large multinational corporations including Cargill and Monsanto.
The spectre-like reflections of me balancing my black mobile phone and black backpack clouded over the black soil. The reflections impeded capturing this display in a photographic image. This structure spanned a large portion of wall, part of the permanent exhibition World War I in Central Europe, 1914–1918 on the global, multinational histories of World War I.
Our guide, Volodymyr Beglov, explained the installation had been designed to simulate a sensorium of what it felt like to be surrounded by soil during battle. World War I had inaugurated both trench warfare and chemical warfare. According to Volodymyr, World War I also marked the first time genocide and ethnic cleansing were mobilized as weapons of war. Nine million soldiers died from these battles. The exhibition featured many dazzling new media components such as 4-by-5 foot touchscreens where one could tap on a photo of a poppy or a bandage or a woman’s dress to decipher its deeper historical significance for the war.
A tour marked by absences and gaps, Alyona brought us to empty lots and vegetable markets and parks. Synagogues once stood on this soil in these places. The Nazis and then the Soviets razed the synagogues, rounded up Jews, and shot them point-blank in the back of the head just outside of Lviv. Alyona lifted up small pictures of synagogues and Jewish street life the size of a mobile phone. She had culled these from the internet. The Jewish archives in Lviv are incomplete. She asked us to ponder the empty spaces juxtaposed with the historical images, a low-tech augmented reality interface of sorts. We walked through an excavation of a synagogue in the Lviv central district. It was transitioning into a historical commemorative site. Due to lack of funds, the synagogue could not be rebuilt. Construction workers replastered the one remaining, crumbling wall, eroding into the churned up, dust-spewing soil below.
On the long flight over to Ukraine from Ithaca in upstate New York, I decided to memorize the map of Ukraine, a place I had never thought about much. I had watched the Vice News series short-form documentary war reporting from the Donbass for another project a year before. I admired the bilingualism of the reporter, his proximity to participants, and his full immersion in the action. But I needed the map to somehow quiet the complex Ukrainian histories overwhelming my ability to unravel a throughline, a pattern, some way to understand as someone who is not a specialist in Eastern Europe, Russia, or the Soviet Union.
Black soil grounds Ukraine’s shifting identities, languages, and borders—once part of the Habsburg Empire, then part of Poland in the Western Ukraine. It was a sovereign state between 1918-1921, and then part of the USSR in 1922. The Nazi Occupation of Ukraine spanned 1941-44, declaring it part of Germany. In 1922, the Soviet Union declared Ukraine part of its territory, which resumed in the post-1945 period. In 1991, it became a post-Soviet Republic. Large demonstrations, student protests, and hunger strikes against corrupt centralized governments flowered in 1991, 2004, 2013, and 2014, the black soil of people organizing to reclaim something abstract yet urgent about transparency, anti-corruption, freedom to travel without a visa to the European Union. These demonstrations summoned a nationalism that felt different from other nationalisms of unified identity and protected borders, a nationalism reclaiming histories dismembered, buried, ghostly. I met people who spoke Russian under the Soviets as children, and then, as adults, learned Ukrainian phrase by phrase.
Growing up Irish Catholic in Chicago, I would often hear about Ukrainians, but mostly because their Eastern Orthodox churches sported domes rather than spires with crosses. They were referred to as “DPs” (displaced people), shadowy immigrants fleeing something big and political never discussed openly.
Imprinting the map, I wanted to know which cities were in the East where an undeclared civil war (or global face-off between Russia and the West, depending on one’s news sources) continued to erupt. I wanted to know where the Crimea—which the Russians occupied in February 2014 after the Maidan Revolution—was located. I wanted to know where Chernobyl was actually situated, as it loomed large and placeless in my mind as a nuclear disaster, a transnational radioactive cloud, and a monumental and continuing environmental catastrophe. I needed to decode the fluid cartographies of Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Moldova, Romania, and Belarus. I wanted to imprint in my mind the names of cities I could not properly pronounce, pinning them and my confusions on a map. That way, I thought, I would dig my mind into geography grounding people and references—a small, rather insignificant way to specify place and people beyond the large, vague, revolution- and war-obsessed Western media representations of Ukraine.
Black soil infused the complex histories I fought to understand that unsettled my preconceptions about Ukraine. Black soil of the borderlands, the bloodlands, the blood-soaked and contaminated lands, the lands straddling the imaginary hallucinations of both East and West.
As historian Timothy Snyder soberly argues in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2012), in the borderland region of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the Baltics, over fourteen million people died at the hands of Hitler and Stalin between 1933 and 1945. In a land with the richest soil on earth, a central government-induced famine from 1932 to 1933 was promulgated to install Stalin’s farm collectivization across the Soviet Union. 3.3 million perished from starvation in Ukraine alone.
The April 26, 1986, explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear disaster in history, contaminated the soil with radioactivity. This year marked the thirtieth anniversary of Chernobyl, now no longer a moniker of a place but a word equated with disaster. In Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine (2015), Anna Reid contends that the Soviets’ faulty machinery and improper protocols prompted the accident. Their cover-up provoked citizen political outrage. For some writers, the catastrophic Chernobyl accident not only disgorged radioactive fallout across Europe, but was the first salvo to undo the USSR. One young man I met at Indie Lab at America House Kyiv, who uses the pseudonym M. Vadimskiy, had produced a rough cut of his slow-moving, careful portrait film entitled The Farm: Zone 2 (to be released in 2017). The film tells the story of a middle-aged man displaced from Donetsk in 2015 due to the ongoing conflict there who moved to Chernobyl to farm, a quiet story with chilling implications. The character had transited from a war zone to a contaminated zone.
Before I left, many friends in Ithaca asked me why I was traveling to a war zone. They worried for my safety. While in Ukraine, I received some emails from other colleagues asking me to describe how it felt to be in a country at war. I appreciated these queries. They catapulted me into a somewhat discomfiting, fragmented, transitory interstitial zone between the Western media representations (or fantasy projections) of Ukraine and my embodied experiences there walking the streets of Kyiv and Lviv and talking to filmmakers and programmers in theaters and in smaller, more intimate workshops.
Before arriving, almost every book I read about Ukraine invoked the word “crisis” as a catchall for a country in “transition”: Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West by Andrew Wilson (2014); Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands by Richard Sakwa (2015); Crisis in Ukraine by Gideon Rose (2014). These narratives sewed a metaphorical quilt of Ukraine as a country of deaths, occupations, wars, famines, communists, Soviets, independence, revolutions, more occupations, the European Union, citizen uprisings, Vladimir Putin, and more war. Few of these books mentioned the crushing poverty of Ukraine: I heard a story that elderly people diagnosed with cancer refused medical treatment in order to avoid bankrupting their children.
Sitting in my hotel room in Kyiv watching CNN International analyze the US Presidential contest as an election in which voters were aligned against rather than for candidates, a strange realization percolated through this haunting space. From my third-story fancy hotel window, I observed the shining domes of St. Michael’s Monastery, frequently called St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, which had served as a makeshift hospital for the wounded from the Maidan protests, spliced like a dialectical montage with the large-screen TV blaring CNN. This trip constituted the first time I had lectured in public about documentary film and new media in a place with an ongoing war, a Russian occupation, and two years out from a massive people’s revolution.
With very little reporting from Ukraine beyond what many I met anointed “Putin’s Russian narrative,” and sporadic armed fighting in the East, these queries project the impact of what I now assess as an almost total news blackout. These friends’ questions suggest the reductionist condensations of Ukraine into one destabilized, excessive image of men with guns occupying decaying public buildings. These projections annihilate a much more variegated territory composed of vital sedimentary layers of different soils, histories, roads, spaces, people, and media practices. In contrast, nearly every other day, a filmmaker or a guide or a State Department escort would casually insert a story about “the crowdsourced war in the East,” where Kyivans leave plastic buckets in front of food markets to raise money for weapons and bulletproof vests for the army. I heard stories about women making varenyky (Ukrainian dumplings stuffed with meat or fruit) to deliver to soldiers on the front.
Moss and I delivered our separate talks on “Film as a Type of New Media” to a group of sixteen people not involved in media at all. We were at the First Lviv MediaTeka, a space in a library dubbed a “third space” where people could gather without paying. Light bursting in through the windows from the sunset nearly erased our PowerPoint images projected on a newly painted white wall. Afterwards, Shari Bistransky, the US Embassy cultural affairs officer, mentioned that no international news organizations operated any bureaus in Ukraine. International journalists arrived for the Maidan Revolution, with hundreds of thousands in the streets singing the national anthem and battling police and security forces. These journalists covered the subsequent war in the East, tagging after bands of men hauling Kalashnikov rifles. After the ceasefire, they left.
Before I departed from the US, the Economist ran two stories about Ukraine. One described a government minister who resigned his post.1 The other detailed the IT boom in Ukraine, now reconceived as a European business outsourcing haven comparable to India for its low prices.2 According to Ukrainian filmmakers I met, if you could speak and type in English, you could earn significantly more than the average salary of $300 a month.
Flying back from Munich, I realized that the war environ of Ukraine resonated more with the quiet, everyday images of people attending classical music concerts in military uniforms and going to work with helmets in the short film Listen to Britain (UK, 1942, directed by Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister) than with the overblown spectacle of guns, soldiers, and napalm in Vietnam pictured in Apocalypse Now (US, 1979, directed by Francis Ford Coppola). Rather than news images of bands of men with guns in Donestk occupying buildings or tracking stories of female sex slavery favored by agitated young male freelance newshounds prowling around Ukraine, I observed quieter gestures, hints, inflections, intonations, reflections, and traces. A young man in a screening at the American Independence Film Festival in Lviv revealed he was from Donetsk. He was one of the over one million internally displaced people in Ukraine from the war in the East.
A young National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy journalism student told me she wanted to create a new media project about returning soldiers. This week, back in Ithaca, I realized that this same journalism program had developed the stopfake.org site, a bold online initiative to “check facts, verify information, and refute verifiable disinformation about events in Ukraine covered in the media.” I have intermittently followed this muckraking site post-Maidan, usually prompted by enthusiastic Facebook posts from colleagues who know more than me about Eastern Europe and Russia. Many journalism colleagues admire stopfake for its determined insistence on a strategy of rigorous and bold refutation based on fact-checking.
While delivering my talk on collaborative new media practices for the graduate students in journalism at Mohyla, I did not realize that I was standing at a podium at the very university where this groundbreaking online journalism project—also a collaborative endeavor like the new media documentary projects I had shared in my lecture—had been developed.
In March 2014, just after the Maidan uprising—also known as the Revolution of Dignity—faculty members, alumni, and other journalists contributed to stopfake to contest the Russian propaganda and disinformation war with facts. The site debunked the story that Sweden would export Ukraine’s black soil, a narrative repetition and remix of legends that the Nazis shipped sacks of Ukrainian black soil back to Germany. I learned from Anna Sumar, a Ukrainian staffer at the US Embassy in Kyiv, that National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy was more “Western” than the other universities. I asked her what that meant. She said they had instituted transparent systems to prevent students from bribing faculty for grades.
I met Andril Lytvynenko, a filmmaker, at a small workshop on indie documentary. He had produced a quietly surreal film entitled In the Fields (2014) about the largest biodiversity region in Europe called Askania-Nova, a place of virgin steppe. Askania-Nova held layers of different histories composted together: a German established it in in 1898, the Red Army claimed it in 1919 and declared it a sanctuary park, the Soviets remade it into a research center, and independent Ukraine affirmed its importance. At the screening, lost in references and places and headset translations, I pulled up a map of Ukraine on my iPhone to find it. I discovered it was adjacent to Crimea.
Programmers, filmmakers, professors, guides, US State Department representatives, and students I met denounced the ascendancy of the “Russian narrative” of propaganda discounting the Maidan revolution and claiming “fascists” populated Kyiv. Although I had read articles online dubbing Ukraine “the new Cold War,” (in fact, there is a website by this name that tracks events in Ukraine, newcoldwar.org) I did not hear one person—American or Ukrainian—ever invoke this term with its residual evocations of a bilateral, pre-1989 world. I heard the term “frozen war” to describe the continuing military skirmishes in the East between Russian-supplied mercenaries, separatists, pro-Russian partisans, unemployed workers, pro-Ukrainian volunteers, and Ukrainian army members after the September 2014 brokered ceasefire. At the Dovzhenko Film Archive, the young, intellectually driven archivists explained a current curatorial and research project to find films about the Donbass region, the “frozen war” zone in the East.
The colors of the Ukrainian flag—yellow and light blue—wafted through the visual landscapes of screenings, workshops, restaurants, and streets. Faded flags draped from apartment balconies. A young man with a tattoo of the flag on the top of his right hand smoked a hand-rolled cigarette, gazing out over trees in a ravine in an urban Kyiv park hidden behind nineteenth-century apartment buildings. A young woman furiously scribbled notes in a small black notebook in the Indie Lab workshop, her long dreadlocks rippling down to her waist, each tinted yellow or blue. At the outdoor craft market in Lviv, down the street from the Leopolis Hotel, a woman vendor stood behind a crudely assembled wooden table displaying wristbands and hairpieces tightly braided from yellow and blue ribbon, spread out in a carefully designed pattern, like a museum art installation.
Black soil and chernozem inch through reflections on my time in Ukraine. Black soil under my feet held contested lands, horrific geographies, wars over territories and languages. Black soil tilled in order to stand and reclaim, a history unraveled by many overlapping Eastern European and global diaspora histories rarely considered in the US. Black soil returned me to a place to ponder deaths across decades that join the soil in blood and bone and memories furrowed deep below the surface. Black soil evoked for me what grows up from the land rather than descends down from authorities or ideologies or fantasies or state-manufactured narratives.
As I ambled around Kyiv armed with an umbrella and a bilingual map, my first stop centered on the Maidan Nezaleshnosti. I wanted to feel the space and pay homage to the “Heavenly Hundred” killed by the security forces. By some accounts, as many as eight hundred thousand Ukrainians marched in demonstrations during the months of the Euromaidan Revolution in 2013–14.
This journey might have been the only time I visited sites I had first seen in documentaries. I had viewed this legendary square in the Academy Award–nominated feature Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015, directed by Evgeny Afineevsky) and in Maidan (2014, directed by Sergey Loznitza), two very different documentaries in style, argument, and approach. I met Ukrainian filmmakers who sharply criticized both films because the directors, one of Ukrainian heritage currently working in Israel, and the other a Ukrainian national producing films in Europe, did not actually live in Ukraine as regular residents. They had privilege. They had visas or different passports. They lived elsewhere.
Both films repeat images of the winged woman on top of the tall pillar monument in the middle of Maidan Nezalezhnosti, which means “independence square.” I went there but could not quite see the winged figure, the sun backlighting her. In the InterContinental Hotel, I spied other women bursting out of the key-coded elevators each morning in skin-tight short lycra dresses, four-inch heels, long hair unwinding to their waists, and heavy, dark eye makeup. I wondered if they were prostitutes, part of Ukraine’s sex trade and internet bride business, propelled more by poverty than sexuality. At the Maidan, my eyes drifted down to the pictures of the dead taped to the concrete foundation, a makeshift memorial of the “Heavenly Hundred” who were killed during the Maidan uprising.
Black soil helped me begin to get my head around the range of media I encountered in Ukraine. The ten books I read before my trip—by historians, journalists, and think-tankers prepping transnational business ventures—referenced the black soil of Ukraine, a way to transnational economic success through agriculture. As a place with potential where plants can grow and soil can be plowed, black soil loomed as a metaphor for the explosive media practices I encountered.
This term anchored my resolve that many different media ecologies emerge from the fertile soils of the Maidan people’s revolution, the legacy of the Soviet state, the occupation of Crimea, and the “frozen” civil war in the Donbass region that would keep Ukraine destabilized and out of the European Union. As I posted on Facebook and in emails to colleagues back in the US, it felt like a Ukrainian Documentary New Wave was ascendant, like grain emerging from a field in the steppes.
Film Quarterly (full disclosure: I am on the editorial board) contacted me about launching a campaign to post shorts emerging from this Ukrainian Documentary New Wave, post-Maidan cinematic practices about everyday people, small places, local battles. Shorts rather than features, designed for sharing rather than festivals, these films chiseled out space for voices from the ground. Ella Shtyka and Dmytro Tiazhlov, co-programmers of the American Independence Film Festival and Indie Lab, supplied a careful selection of Ukrainian independent shorts drafting a different map of Ukraine from the ground up. The films crafted stories about bold journalists, Orthodox priests fighting for LGBTQ rights, corrupt police, citizen fights against unauthorized construction, a pro-Russian teen, and romance at the Maidan barricades.
This rich humus of black soil poked through at the American Independence Film Festival in Kyiv and Lviv. The American films offered a way to bounce into issues laced through the unresolved and unfolding Ukrainian imaginary: energy concerns, internally displaced people, the reclamation of lost histories destroyed by state ideologies, civil society, people-centered initiatives.
I experienced layers of the black soil of Ukrainian cinema from large-budget feature films about the Maidan protests in 2014. Winter on Fire operated with a more popular culture narrative arc and characters to chart the revolution. Maidan, a film that I deeply admire, elaborated this historic event with formal rigor, long-take tableaus, and insistence on the collective. After I met the director, Chad Gracia, after a screening, Mann suggested I download Garcia’s The Russian Woodpecker (US, 2015) to gain another view of the conspiracy tales encircling the Soviets and Chernobyl. The film charted a different, more individual psychogeography of Chernobyl through performative documentary style. In my hotel room after a long day of watching, lecturing, and listening, I streamed it on my iPad with headphones via Amazon.
At Bistransky’s dinner party with Ukrainian filmmakers, I met twenty-one-year-old Alexandra Chuprina. So excited she kept apologizing for her English, she told me about urgent, street-smart, anonymous short-form documentations. The #Babylon ’13 Collective designed and produced these films for Facebook repostings, a platform used more than email in Ukraine. The one hundred filmmakers of #Babylon ’13 ranged from professionals to amateurs, from established to young. They filmed the Maidan, Donbass, soldiers, Crimea.
I invented the category of the Ukrainian Documentary New Wave. Each day, I encountered a staggering range of different urgent documentary practices. At Indie Lab at America House, a short direct cinema-style film chronicled a teenage Russian nationalist in Donbass and a collaborative new media archival project followed Kyivans criticizing the decommunization laws to remove statuary traces of communist ideology. That very day, Tiazholov, a documentary filmmaker as well as co-director of the Indie Lab initiative, told me his hometown had been renamed, the Russian name removed and new Ukrainian name installed. Oleksandra Mykolyshn, the head of promotion at the Dovzhenko Film Archive, gave me a catalog of Ukrainian films published by the Ukrainian State Film Agency. Sixty-two feature-length Ukrainian documentaries spanned its pages on topics including the Maidan, soldiers, the Donbass, identity, Crimea, gypsies, and the environment.
Black soil, chernozem: histories fallow, turned over, tilled, rooted, hoed, film movements discovered, bursting out, fertile.
On a warm Saturday night after a sold-out screening at the American Independence Film Festival, we sauntered back to the hotel with Stokes, ambling down a large boulevard called Vul. Khreshchatyk. Closed to traffic that night, rock bands, jazz groups, karaoke, and young singers with guitars peppered the sidewalks. Large groups circled around them.
People in groups, arms entwined, strolled slowly through the street, down the sidewalks, through the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). Some cuddled on benches. Some carried beers, forbidden but tolerated. Stokes shared that there was a word in Russian and Ukrainian for this kind of leisurely strolling with others in public places. I could not pronounce the word. In an email to me after I returned to the US, Stokes wrote that the word was hulyaty, which translates as “to stroll.” But somehow, it made sense that this collaborative activity in public demanded its own word. The contrast with US cities and even my small thirty-thousand-person upstate New York town of Ithaca, where everyone walks fast and never saunters together, could not be more pronounced.
Later, back in Ithaca, I posted for linguistic help on Facebook to snare this elusive word I could neither say correctly nor remember accurately. Marina Orekhova, the Ukrainian line producer for The Babushkas of Chernobyl (US, 2015, directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart), about intrepid women who farmed in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, responded. I liked her feisty, fiercely intellectual, and artistic denunciations of various films made by outsiders about Ukraine’s transition. She suggested the word was “tusit.” I realized that the concept of strolling together in public engendered many words and many forms, from leisure to demonstrations to just being with others in streets blocked off. Tusit. Hulyaty.
Ten days before, I had sat in economy class on the Lufthansa plane to Newark, trying to capture jumbled layers of experiences, conversations, readings, and thoughts from Ukraine in my gray Moleskine notebook to write this report. I started to think about how nothing is ever unified and stable, that everywhere we go—not just Ukraine—is always in transition, a word often levied as camouflage for political instabilities. I want to revise the word “transition” more positively, as an unsettling that connects the earth with the sky, histories with what has not yet come.
I considered that black soil and walking with others in public space needed to be embroidered together. I would pirate a strategy from vyshyvka, the acclaimed Ukrainian intricate decorative embroidery hanging from clotheslines strung in the outdoor markets: that which grounds in white linen and then moves thread through patterns.
Tusit and vyshyvka suggested different registers of the same movement, strolling with others as a needle with saturated red thread, exploring space, listening, watching films, discussing, embroidering a life. Talking with others about documentaries large and small in publics with sold-out audiences or with only sixteen people activated an intellectual tusit: a sauntering together through ideas without an agenda, a meandering to reclaim a conceptual street and to shut it down from traffic. An intellectual, cinematic, artistic tusit. Chernozem and tusit. Black soil. And wandering, together.
Patricia R. Zimmermann is a professor of screen studies in the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. She was in Ukraine in May 2016 as an envoy for the American Film Showcase, which is produced by the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and funded by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
NOTES 1. “Corruption in Ukraine: Dear Friends,” Economist, February 13, 2016, www.economist.com/news/europe/21692917-ukraines-grace-period-tackling-cronyism-may-have-run-out-dear-friends. 2. “Ukraine’s Restless East: The city beta-testing Ukraine’s revolution,” Economist, May 27, 2016, www.economist.com/news/europe/21699545-russian-speaking-kharkiv-it-industry-one-few-things-thriving-city.