UKRAINE: Tanks in Chernobyl

Chernobyl today – Source

We’re all pretty familiar with the Chernobyl disaster (I’d recommend Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy for a good book on it, or even the well-researched HBO drama from a few years ago), but it was back in the news recently for being caught up in the Russian invasion. Russian convoys kicked up nuclear dust in the Red Forest and there were rumours of Russian soldiers digging positions without even using protective equipment. The plant is now back in Ukrainian hands, and media has been allowed in:

However, there’s an interesting story that doesn’t frequently get told – that among the abandoned vehicles and buildings are several WWII Soviet tanks, rusting away and too radioactive to move. They were part of a plan to blow a hole into the plant to drain the water before a steam explosion happened – a plan that never went through, and instead divers, miners, and plant workers drained the tank manually.

For a longer, more comprehensive history of Chernobyl, Plainly Difficult did an excellent documentary into the disaster itself:

UKRAINE: Kievan Rus and St. Olga of Kyiv

Like many pieces of history right now, there’s a deep divide over who it truly “belongs to”. The Kievan Rus are claimed as foundational nations by Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, and is part of competing narratives over Ukraine and an independant nation vs. a “brotherly nation”/subset of Russia, as the Kievan Rus were based in Kyiv, and originated Russian royal families. However, the Kievan Rus’ foundational dynasty were originally Varangian – Swedish vikings that had traded, raided, and settled down the rivers into Eastern Europe, and they largely held a loose confederation of land, not a single unified empire.

One of the best stories of the Kievan Rus is the tale of St. Olga of Kyiv – a woman who was probably sainted to stop her from murdering more people (this actually happened a lot in the late viking era). Her story is likely largely embellished in the historical record, but boy it is a hell of a tale. This is where the reference of “sending pigeons” from Ukrainian stand-up comes from – to destroy an enemy city by requesting a bird from the rafters of each house of the city as her wedding gift, then tying burning cloth to all the birds and letting them fly back to the thatched roofs. The whole great gory story is here, worthy of an action movie:

UKRAINE: Jewish Chernobyl

The ruins of Chernobyl’s synagogue – Source: Pierpaolo Mittica

The town of Chernobyl didn’t just spring out of nowhere on April 26, 1986 – it was a long-standing town in northern Ukraine. Chernobyl the town is about 15km south of the power plant (most plant workers lived in Pripyat, the company town built around the reactor). The town has a deep Jewish history, and has been a site of Hasidic pilgrimage for decades – there still is the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty today.

The Jewish community in Chernobyl, like other Jewish communities in what was the Pale of Settlement, faced pogroms and violence through the centuries. The majority of the Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust. After the war, the surviving Ukrainian Jews faced the repression of organized religion in the Soviet Union, and many left for Israel or North America. Those who emigrated over the years still feel deep ties to the region, like the Twersky family of Chernobyl Hasidic lineage (warning: Holocaust footage):

When the nuclear disaster happened in 1986, the town of Chernobyl was evacuated and abandoned, with the Ukrainian and Jewish populations scattering across the Soviet Union. Most of the USSR’s Jewish population would later emigrate to Israel, the US, and Canada at the end of the Cold War, though there still is a solid Jewish population in Ukraine today, including Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

Ukraine still remains an important site of pilgrimage for Hasidic Jews, including the Chernobyl dynasty’s tombs (as well as the location of many family graves). For a personal account of reconnecting with Chernobyl, I’d recommend the article “Why Chernobyl’s Jewish History Still Matters — 31 Years After The Accident” by Anna Khandros, plus Pierpaolo Mittica’s photoessay “Chernobyl before Chernobyl: The Hasidic Jews’ Pilgrimage“.

If you’re interested in learning about other Jewish communities in the former USSR, I covered the Bukharan Jewish community in Uzbekistan last year.

This month: UKRAINE

This month is the first month I’m choosing the country deliberately, instead of at random. This month, I’ll be learning more about Ukraine. With the Russian invasion in February and the war still ongoing, Ukraine is already very much in the news. I’m hoping to get beyond the headlines and learn more about the country’s culture and history this month.

So, what do I already know about Ukraine?

Of course, with Russian invasion, we’ve all had a major crash course in Ukraine’s relationships with Russia, Europe, and NATO. We’ve seen the awful bombing, fighting, and war crimes in cities like Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv, the rise of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a war leader, the bravery and resistance of Ukrainians, and the larger geopolitical ramifications of Russia becoming an international pariah. Here’s a really good primer from early March:

Here in Canada, we are a deeply pro-Ukrainian country, and have been for decades across the political spectrum. Canada actually has the largest Ukrainian population in the world outside of Ukraine itself and Russia (at least before the displacement of millions of Ukrainian refugees into Europe this year).

The Ukrainian connection is most deeply felt in the Canadian prairies, with Ukrainian-Canadians making up 10% of Alberta, 13% of Saskatchewan, and 15% of Manitoba’s population. I grew up in Alberta, and Ukrainian culture is so ingrained there that pierogies are a basic staple food, as common in grocery stores as pasta or sandwiches, and my family in Saskatchewan learned Ukrainian because it helps with work and with community events.

We also have a giant pierogi! – Source

Canada is also one of the few countries that recognize the Holodomor as an official genocide, and our Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is Ukrainian. She was banned from both the Soviet Union and Russia for her pro-democracy work in Ukraine in the 80s and 90s and her investigations as a journalist into Russian oligarchs after the fall of the USSR. When Russia invaded Ukraine, sentiment ran high here – Canada has supplied weapons, funds, helped gather allies, and …changed the street sign in front of the Russian embassy.

That’ll show Putin!

However, while I’m not going to put the current war or Canada’s connection with Ukraine totally aside this month, I really want to focus on Ukraine as a country itself – I’m planning to lean more into art and culture from Ukraine, including popular culture, film, music, and literature. Pierogies, borscht, and cabbage rolls are already familiar staples, but I also really want to dig deeper into Ukrainian cuisine. And I know Easter has already passed, but I want to take a crack at making pysanky – I’ve always wanted to try.

My current knowledge of Ukrainian history is mainly about the tragedies of the 20th century – dekulakization and Stalin’s Holodomor, the Eastern Front and the Holocaust, and Chernobyl. This month I really want to learn more about the larger story of Ukraine as a nation and the rise of the concept of “Ukrainian” – something that is clearly still contested today.

Addendum: A note on spelling. I’m following the linguistic shift that has happened recently in the West. We now use the Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation for names, rather than the Russian. This is shift started around 2019 with a campaign by the Ukrainian government, but really solidified with the Russian invasion this year. While it is definitely political, it also reflects a larger shift of respecting what countries wish to be called – Czechia instead of Czech Republic, Eswatini instead of Swaziland, and Côte d’Ivoire instead of Ivory Coast.

So Kiev is now Kyiv, Lvov is now Lviv, and Zelenskyy is spelled with two Ys (though one Y is also common, but not the Russian ending of “-ski”). There’s a few names that I’m keeping the old Russian spelling, specifically Chernobyl (instead of Chornobyl), since it’s so well known by that name.

ECUADOR: Real life on the Galapagos Islands

Lonesome George in 2006 – Source

The Galapagos Islands are famous for being an incredible untouched wilderness with some of the rarest and most endangered species in the world; species that gave Darwin the insight into developing his theory of evolution. These islands were uninhabited by humans initially and only visited by whalers and explorers until the 19th century, when it was annexed by Ecuador.

The human impact on the Galapagos’ ecosystem has been immense – the introduction of goats (leading to Project Isabela and the use of Judas goats), invasive species and diseases, consumption of tortoises and other wildlife for food, permanent human habitation, the massive tourism industry that has grown over past decades, climate change, and plastic pollution.

Radiolab made an incredible podcast on the reality of the Galapagos – asking how and if conservation can actually work, and if we can ever really return nature to a “primeval” state. They also touch on Lonesome George, goats, Darwin’ finches, but also the politics in Ecuador, including with voters permanently living and working on the Galapagos. Listen here.

For those living on Galapagos, the reality isn’t too rosy either – there’s deep poverty and a sense of being ignored by the central Ecuadorian government, while trying both to support a livelihood and not destroy the wilderness that provides this livelihood.

As for the rare and varied wildlife itself, there’s a lot of classic and current documentaries, with the BBC / David Attenborough ones clearly setting the gold standard for nature docs. However, I wanted to share a REALLY old school one from the 60s, narrated by Prince Phillip, of all people.

ECUADOR: The many, many wars between Ecuador and Peru

I’m still wrapping my head around the scope of Ecuadorian history – as much as I love history, South America is a huge blind spot in my knowledge. In grade school we did a cursory study of Brazil (the BRIC countries were big as a concept then), but almost zero on the Spanish-speaking countries.

One of the things I’m learning is that there have been many wars between neighbouring countries – Chile’s successful war against Peru and Bolivia that left the latter landlocked, for example. However, Ecuador and Peru take the cake – they were actively disputing a border for almost 200 years, even before either were independent from Spain, and have had multiple wars over that time (mostly resulting in Ecuador losing territory).

Ecuador’s modern borders, and the disputed territory now belonging to Peru – Source

The first round was part of the larger internecine wars in the early 1800s between the newly independent countries that followed the wars for independence from Spain – Ecuador was a main battleground in the Gran Colombia-Peru War in 1828-29, which included the shelling of Guayaquil (being a large valuable port city, it’s been fought over a LOT).

After Bolivar and Gran Colombia eventually failed, as one of the successor states, Ecuador tried to settle its share of debts from the War of Independence from Spain. British creditors were given rights to Ecuadorian territory, but that included land in the Amazon basin contested with Peru. So, from 1857-60, there was another war between the two countries, but still no resolution on the border.

Things simmered for a century, until in 1941, things boiled over again into another war. While the 1941 Ecuador-Peru War had nothing officially to do with WWII, it seemed to provide an opportunity for Peru to take advantage of global (particularly American) attention being elsewhere. Ecuador was routed and forced to cede its claims to much of the disputed territory.

Here’s a really good look at the war from the Time Ghost WWII channel (the same people who did The Great War), including a look at the fighting and diplomacy around the war:

Ecuador and Peru’s border disputes continued through the 20th century, with two more small wars – the Paquisha War in 1981 and the Cenepa War in 1995. Here’s a military-focused look at the Cenepa War for additional context:

A peace deal and final settlement of the border between Ecuador and Peru was brokered in 1998 and so far, it has held. Optimistically, Peru and Ecuador sorted out their maritime boundaries peacefully in 2011, have signed bilateral trade deals, started to interconnect their electrical infrastructure, and have pretty positive relations.

ECUADOR: Project Isabela and the Judas Goat

So the video below is really entertaining but frames Project Isabela as a ridiculous human-animal war like the Australian Emu War of legend, but really, it’s more like Australia’s attempts to stop invasive species like cane toads or rabbits, or New Zealand’s war on land predators. However, unlike in the Antipodes, this project has actually been quite successful.

Goats had been introduced into the Galapagos Islands a few centuries ago, and were so successful that they were consuming all the plant life needed for native species like the Galapagos Tortoise – the ecological devastation was so severe that the tortoise was near extinction in the late 20th century. However, using extreme prejudice (sharpshooters in helicopters) and tricks like Judas Goats, the Ecuadorian government was able to eradicate the goats and work on restoring the natural habitat.

Here’s a bit more serious look at the same from the BBC, including comments from Ecuadorean conservationists. (Warning – video shows goats being shot).

Unsurprisingly, shooting down thousands and thousands of animals, even if an invasive species, was controversial. However, it was successful – in 2006, the Galapagos Islands were declared free of all large introduced mammals that were threatening the native wildlife: goats, pigs, and donkeys.