UKRAINE: Podcasts

There’s a LOT of podcasts on Ukraine available right now, mainly focused on the the Russian invasion and analysis about Ukraine’s future. As always, I’m trying to prioritize podcasts that by Ukrainians or feature Ukrainian voices, though there’s plenty of good material out there otherwise – understandably, Ukraine has been on everyone’s mind lately. Here’s what I’ve been listening to over the last few weeks:

BBC: Ukrainecast – A daily podcast that the BBC started when the Russian invasion happened, focusing just on stories, interviews, news, and analysis on Ukraine and the war.

Highlights from Ukraine – To bolster the previous podcast, Highlights from Ukraine is a short summary in English of what’s in Ukraine’s media that day. It’s run by Ukrainians, and gives even better coverage of internal politics that may not make it into foreign reporting.

UkrainianSpaces: Queer Pride – UkrainianSpaces is an English language podcast that gets into discussions on Ukrainian life, culture, and reality that may be missing from foreign narratives. This episode is both on and by Ukraine’s LGBTQ community. The hosts speak with one of the organizers of Kyiv Pride, who has been getting requests from foreign media to comment on how the war has affected them and the community. However, the media has been asking for stories of suffering, and ignoring the stories of Queer Ukrainians fighting the invasion, or how Ukraine had been making significant strides for the community before the war. Really interesting and introspective podcast.

Fighting For Ukraine – Short daily updates from Yuriy Matsarsky, an Ukrainian journalist who is actively fighting in a civilian militia. Warzone updates, what he’s seeing on the ground, and what he’s feeling as a Ukrainian fighting for his homeland. He also has a GoFundMe up to help support him and his family – they’ve left the country and like all fighting-age men, he is staying.

The Conversation: The history and evolution of Ukrainian national identity – A really interesting podcast with discussion on the creation of Ukrainian identity out of both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, and how it waned during the Soviet years, and is now being recreated – pushed by opposition to Russia.

Deconstructed: The War Over Ukrainian History and Identity – An interview from the Intercept with an Ukrainian sociologist that takes a bit of a different spin from the above podcast. It’s a more non-nationalist interpretation of Ukrainian identity looking at how the Ukrainian government is structuring identity, and the problem of corruption and oligarchs in Ukraine that has rarely been spoken about since the invasion started.

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.

ECUADOR: The Ecuador Reader

When I covered Chile last year, I came across The Chile Reader – turns out there’s a whole series of these useful books on different Central and Southern American countries. The Ecuador Reader is a great big tome of short primary and secondary documents following through Ecuador’s history – historic letters, poems, academic texts, travel journals, and more, all with explanations giving historical context and tying it all together.

As a smaller country that’s been pulled into different neighbours’ orbits (especially Peru and Colombia) and one with three extremely different regions – the coast, the highlands, and the Amazon, Ecuador doesn’t really build up the same coherent national narrative that Chile does. Instead, those internal and external tensions make up so much of Ecuador’s story – and how politics, capitalism, labour and Indigenous movements try to bridge those gaps.

The influence of Indigenous people in Ecuador’s history is particularly interesting – about 25% of the modern population is of Indigenous origin, while another 50-60% are of mixed European and Indigenous background. However, like most other places in the Spanish Empire, Indigenous people were so thoroughly marginalized that for a while they were not even counted on the census or as citizens. That drove a lot of separation from identity and a process of “othering” that still is not undone.

ECUADOR: Podcasts

Cotopaxi, seen from Quito – Source: Malcolm Surgenor

Like the month I covered Chile, I struggled to find a lot of Ecuadorian podcasts in English, and I unfortunately don’t speak Spanish. Mainly these are podcasts about Ecuador, but there’s some really interesting interviews (and music!) in here. Another good one that I included in my post about the Galapagos is Radiolab’s report on the islands.

The Voyages of Tim Vetter: Ecuadorian Food and Culture with Abel Castro – A good interview with Ecuadorian restaurateur Abel Castro – they go over Ecuadorian cuisine in all its regional glory, plus unique Ecuadorian ingredients like naranjillas. Castro is based in New York and also touches on how to provide real authentic Ecuadorian food to a North American audience without compromising it – Americans turn out to have a weird aversion to eating corn on the cob in a sit-down restaurant.

The New Yorker: A Pandemic Tragedy in Guayaquil – Ecuador was hit hard and hit early by the pandemic, with the news picking up stories of bodies in the street in Guayaquil. This reporting (in podcast and article form) by Peruvian-American journalist Daniel Alarcón covers the awful start of the pandemic in Ecuador, the bureaucratic and systemic breakdown, and the human toll. Thankfully, Ecuador has been able to mobilize an impressive vaccination campaign, but the disruption and increase in violence and crime has created new challenges.

NPR: The Lost Tapes Of Caife: A Vintage Ecuadorian Record Label Revived – An interview with Daniel Lofredo Rota, a musician and producer in Quito about his discovery of long-lost recordings from the 50s and 60s from his grandfather’s record studio, how he has become a musical archivist through this, and how this valuable look into Ecuador’s musical past influences his own music now. A playlist of some of the records is available on Soundcloud.

BBC: 1995 Peru-Ecuador Border War – A look back at the 1995 war, including old media excerpts and recollections from officers who fought in the final Peru-Ecuador war.

Feel the Night Podcast – A US-based Latin music DJ podcast, with specials focusing on Ecuadorian chicha. Chicha is the Andean name for cumbia: upbeat folk tunes and rhythms, mixed into dance music (it’s also a local corn beer). These are incredible workout playlists, it’s hard to run on the treadmill without wanting to dance. Check out Episodes 396, 272, 261, 191, and 134 for some great Ecuadorian jams.

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: Background and history

Let’s start off with the usual suspects for a bit of background on Ecuador. Here’s our old friends at Geography Now! with an overview.

Ecuador was part of (and a breakaway product of) Simon Bolivar’s failed Gran Colombia project, a product of the fight for independence from Spain:

For some more on Ecuador’s history, here’s a very detailed political overview (with a bit of a left-wing partisan slant) by Latin American political science professor Luis Jiménez. It’s a lot to take in, as it goes through the many coups, revolutions, and changes in government Ecuador has seen in its history.

GABON: La Françafrique

Presidents Omar Bongo and Jacques Chirac – Source

While the period of decolonization in the 60s and 70s held dramatic changes for all European colonial powers, France has remained deeply engaged in its former colonies – militarily, politically, and economically. This gave rise to the term “Françafrique” – where France agreed to the sovereignty of its colonies, while still retaining a level of informal control over the new countries’ politics (including vetting leaders) and continuing to extract resources. France had just been forcefully expelled from Algeria at the start of the 60s and did not wish to repeat the experience, especially as it had lost access to Algeria’s oil. (Check my Algeria month for more on their war for independence.)

The need for a new source of oil brought Gabon squarely to the middle of France’s neo-colonial attention. As with other former colonies, France aimed for a stable and friendly government in Gabon – they supported the first Gabonese president, Léon M’ba, including directly intervening militarily to stop a coup, and then supported Omar Bongo‘s one-party rule after M’ba’s death, as well as ensuring Ali Bongo’s smooth transition to power after his father’s death. France still runs Camp de Gaulle, an active military base in Libreville, which was installed in order to stop the first coup.

There’s a couple great articles in English on this -“Gabon and the Enduring Legacies of France’s Françafrique System in Francophone Africa” and “Françafrique: A brief history of a scandalous word, plus this brief news report in French on Gabon and Françafrique:

If you understand French, I’d strongly strongly recommend the 2010 documentary film, Françafrique, which includes testimonies from many involved in French Africa in the 60s and 70s, including French political chiefs and oil executives. It’s available on Youtube, but embedding is disabled so I can’t post here. It focuses particularly on Gabon, opening with French presidents’ Chirac and Sarkozy (sitting at the time) attending Omar Bongo’s funeral in 2009. Gabon’s oil, timber, and uranium, make it immensely valuable to France, and the documentary really lays bare the amount of influence France has had over the country and how much wealth France continues to extract.

This isn’t just a relic of history from a bygone era – in 2010, details surfaced through Wikileaks of Gabonese officials embezzling funds from the Bank of Central African States and donating to the two main French political parties – led by Chirac and Sarkozy.