Black Earth by Jens Mühling

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

If someone was to have asked me what I thought the second largest country in Europe was, I wouldn’t have picked Ukraine. Turns out it is. Up until now, I had only known it as the location of the town of Chernobyl, the location of the world worst nuclear disaster to date. This was the first of many crises that enveloped the country, ousting of former presidents and the Russian annexation of Crimea are two of the notable events that have shaped this country. There

Back in 2015, Jens Mühling decided to try and discover this enigma of a country for himself. Climbing on a bus in Poland he wanted to try to discover why this place had been subservient to a variety of powers for the past thousand years. After a minor delay at the border towns of Medyka and Shehyni, he was in. There never used to be a border there until relatively recently. The whole region used to be called Galicia and was part of Poland. But borders have a habit of moving and places come under different fiefdoms and this region was no different, even being part of Austria at one point in its history.

Travelling onto Lviv, there he meets a Pani Kristina who takes him around the local prison which was where 1000 people were slaughtered by the retreating Soviets. This was a propaganda boom for the Nazi’s at the time, who filled it once again with their own choice of dissident and committed equally appalling atrocities. He also meets a man who at one point was in the SS Galacia division. After the war, he returned to Lviv as he was a member of the OUN. He was soon caught by the Soviets and imprisoned along with thousands of others.

In the South-West of the country is the town of Dilove. The countryside he passes through is undeveloped, but beautiful farm and smallholding land that seemed to have been heading back to a pre-industrial time. It is a beguiling sight. It is dark by the time he arrives, but the view he glimpses of the mountains stands out starkly from the sky. Called Transcarpathia by people from Kiev, it originally used to belong to Hungary, then Czechoslovakia before the residents declared their own state. It lasted a day before it was invaded again. It was absorbed into the Soviet bloc before independence in 1991. It is a town that he finds fascinating, but he is made very aware of the way that the place has been marginalised over the years.

He heads to other cities in the country, visits museums where he is the sole visitor, share a bus seat with a woman holding a giant pumpkin who had never seen a foreigner before and arrives in the city of Uman as 30,000 Hasidim arrive to commemorate the passing of Rabbi Nachman. He arrives in Kiev, as the chestnuts are falling from the trees and collecting at the bottom of the hills. He even manages to get over to the Crimea which is now controversially part of Russia once again.

I thought that this was a carefully written book about a country that isn’t always visible on a global stage. His descriptions of the landscape he passes while looking out the windows of buses and trains show a country that has not really emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mühling makes an effort to engage with all the people that he meets, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree with their point of view. There is a lot of history in this country and he draws the stories of the country out revealing details of places that have been subservient to greater European powers whilst mostly being ignored by them.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    This sounds like the best and most serious type of travel writing. I had a friend who had to move from the Crimea during the hostilities and I know she would find it fascinating.

    • Paul

      Good travel writing is difficult to find at times, but this is really well done almost borderline reportage.

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