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Photo courtesy of Geo Politica
Photo courtesy of Geo Politica
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'Black Square' Offers an Intimate and Genuine Portrait of Post-Soviet Ukraine

Picture of Michael Barron
Books and Digest Editor
Updated: 14 February 2017
In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution next year, Culture Trip will be showcasing a number of works tied to the events that led to the creation and dissolution of the Soviet Union, as well as its enduring influence. This week we look at American writer Sophie Pinkham’s debut Black Square, which highlights her personal relationship with a country caught in the flux of modernity and political upheaval.
Cover courtesy of W.W. Norton
Cover courtesy of W.W. Norton

On Christmas Day, December 25, 1991, the president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned as the Secretary of the Soviet Party and officially dissolved the Soviet Union. In his resignation speech, Gorbachev noted: “I have firmly stood for independence, self-rule of nations, for the sovereignty of the republics, but at the same time for preservation of the union state, the unity of the country. Events went a different way.”

Gorbachev was referring to the instability and conflicts that had rocked the Union in its last years. “The old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working, and the crisis in the society became even more acute,” he said. “Many things could have been done better, but I am convinced that sooner or later our common efforts will bear fruit, our nations will live in a prosperous and democratic society.” A few days later, George H.W. Bush would formally acknowledge the newly formed Russian Republic as well as the 11 nations that were now independent of its rule. Among them was the Ukraine, a country with a rich history and culture that had all been made indistinct under the sickle and hammer.

Now, nearly 25 years after the collapse of the U.S.S.R, the Ukraine’s reclamation of its identity lies at the heart of writer and scholar Sophie Pinkham’s engrossing debut Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine. The title is taken after the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich’s iconic and eponymous painting, which depicts a single geometric block totally absent of light. “For Malevich,” writes Pinkham, “Black Square represented the end of time, the culmination of history…for him, truth began at zero.” Its relevance rings for true for the Soviet Union. After its collapse, time had reset to zero for these former states, once independent, then dependent, only to find themselves at a loss in freedom. In the ensuing years, Pinkham notes how these states “struggled to establish their places in the world, to define their identities,” having been “forced to reinvent and rebuild yet again.”

Black Square spans Pinkham’s experiences of the Ukraine from 2004-2005 to around 2014. Though written as personal narrative, the book is divided into four distinct parts that allow Pinkham to pivot her focus: the HIV-Crisis rampaging throughout the post-Soviet states, a portrait of Ukraine and the diversity of its people, its conflict with Russia, and that conflict’s aftermath.

Pinkham recounts how the region experienced one of the world’s highest spikes in drug use soon after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. She begins not in the Ukraine, but nearly 4,000 miles away in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Sent by a Red Cross exchange program, Pinkham discovers an underfunded HIV-clinic that is staffed by ignorant doctors and unprincipled administrators. Only the outreach workers, “poor, HIV-positive former drug users themselves,” provide any worthwhile assistance.

Photo © Deborah Feingold
Photo | © Deborah Feingold

There is a delicate shift in the book’s subjectivity when Pinkham, attending a palliative care conference in Budapest, meets a tall and gaunt Ukrainian man named Alik. Though a doctor by trade, Alik himself struggled with drug abuse, but he impresses Pinkham by dismissing the state’s current outreach efforts as a joke. After she wins a Fulbright to study the HIV-crisis in the Ukraine, it is Alik who plays a key role in introducing her to the bohemians of Kiev. It is this turn of events that allow Pinkham to enmesh herself in its community and participate in the events that will endanger its identity.

Pinkham has a gift for bringing the people she encounters into colorful focus: batty artists and idealist musicians; Crimean hippies and political activists; Ukrainian nationalists and non-Ukrainian Ukrainians. She accompanies a friend to a small town home to several ethnic groups, including Hutsuls and Rusyns (not to be confused with Russians) that is “sometimes, but not always, considered a subethnicity of Ukrainians”. Under a statue of a Hutsel in the town is a plaque that reads: “We know who we are.”

Through them, Pinkham provides a portrayal of the tug-of-war of what it means to be Ukrainian, where its language is source of pride, and its nationalism is a source of capriciousness. During the Maidan revolution, Pinkham once again steps into a more journalistic role, interviewing friends and participants alike, and deftly showing the complexity of the clash: “I’m against Maidan,” says her friend Topor, a musician. “Why should I die for a nationalist idea.” Only a couple of paragraphs later he flips: “But on the other hand,” he says, “I’m for Maidan! Now the police are afraid of the people.”

By the end of Black Square, Pinkham has undergone a chameleonic change. Even as the events of the conflict settle, she has not just the perspicacity but the ability to get a read on Ukraine’s future through a wide-range of people. In this, she follows in the footsteps of Svetlana Alexievich. But by allowing herself into the story, Pinkham adds a layer of intimacy to Black Square—humility.

by Sophie Pinkham
W.W. Norton (US) | William Heinemann (UK)
304 pp. | $26.95 | £20.00