Black Square- Adventures in the Post Soviet World (Sophie Pinkham/302 pages)

Perestroiking like Pinkham! it’s so easy to get hooked on every-day Russo/far Eastern European related reportage & literature. why? well, as Pinkham herself puts it – “My family and friends had trouble understanding why I had fallen in love with Ukraine, a country that most Americans could hardly find on a map, famous only for Chicken Kiev and mail-order brides. I tried to explain that I loved the dreamlike quality where the resolutely pre-modern – horse-drawn carts and babushkas afraid of the evil eye – survived amidst the ruins of Soviet utopian modernism, a place that had not yet caught up with the anonymous global marketplace.” it’s no fucking picnic for double-definite & iced outposts with beyond destitute AIDS ravaged populations & absurdly low life-spans drinking, injecting, smoking & pill-popping themselves to extra-early oblivion are staples. Pinkham hails from New York but pursued her Russian proclivity with the Red Cross outreach program & – wait for it – as an aid worker for the George Soros’s Open Society Institute (a foundation promoting democracy & “civil-society in the former Soviet Union) – *cringe*”. I know! I know! but trust me, this book is a veritable treasure trove of information & richly detailed social journalism plus Pinkham frequently demonstrates that she thinks independently & tows nobodies line, & this is clearly no propaganda piece & the criticism flows both ways. the blurb on the books jacket suggests coverage from all over Russia, but beside the first twenty or so pages that covers a Red Cross excursion into Irkutsk, this book is centred around Ukraine. Sophie reports prior, during & of course after the Maidan uprising. she brings more exceptional reportage on this incredible event, a subject I can’t really read enough on. Ukraine has an incredibly complex & intricate history with plenty of piss-taking & incursions from multiple neighbours (Poles, Lithuanians & of course Russians). famines, feuds, massacres, occupations, civil-wars, secessions, revolutions – all it seems at a more regular rate than your average European country. Pinkham seems to have exerted great attention to revising this fractured, byzantine heritage & history, which slowly uncoils throughout Black Square along with her more contemporary reportage. it makes for extremely fascinating reading. however, for me personally – it’s just the sheer scale of character, situationism & behaviour from her subjects that makes this stuff so compelling. “on the street we passed a stoned man whose face was being burned by the cigarette hanging out his mouth” – ” we ate in a giant dining room, confronted by an array of Slavic “salads”: processed meat and mayonnaise with a sprinkling of vegetables” – it either chimes wit y’ chitterlings or it don’t!? on an anthropological angle, Sophie enlightened me to a completely unfamiliar ethnic demographic – the Hutsuls or “Carpathian Cowboys” who live in the highest city in Ukraine – Rakhiv. some mad confluence of Romanian, Russian, Hungarian, Rusyn & Hutsul whatever that may be (those probed seemed less interested in ‘how’ & more interested in ‘what’ if you get my meaning!?

bang to rights! this was a majorly enjoyable read, a book that just sucks you into the pages & shits you out the other-side without creasing the jacket. it’s also a superb reference on the region & it’s involute history. fine work indeed.

Author: Sophie Pinkham
Publisher: William Heinemann (2016)