Friday, 20 May 2022

Ukraine and Russia 1917-2022

Russia invaded Ukraine on 24th February 2022. I want to understand the two countries better.

Ukraine has certainly had a turbulent last century:

Russian Revolution and Civil War (1917 - 23)
The Holodomor (1932 - 33) Millions die in Stalin's persecution and famine.


A Brief History of Ukraine: WWI to the Euromaidan Revolution

Here are some books on the subject.

This book was promoted in a UNSW newsletter: 

'This slim volume of just over 200 pages is something of a marvel. Written by a world-leading historian of Ukraine, it introduces readers to the history, geography, economy, politics, and contemporary life of the country now suffering from Russia’s invasion.

Serhy Yekelchyk precisely defines both the commonalities and differences in the histories of Ukraine and Russia, and he also delves into the entanglements between Ukrainian and United States politics. Yekelchyk asks all the right questions and answers them succinctly and precisely.

There is no better book to start reading on the background of the current war. If you have time to read only one book on this topic, this is it.'

Serhy Yekelchyk is a Ukrainian historian who teaches at the University of Victoria in Canada. He is one of the leading scholars of Ukrainian, Russian, and East European history. The second edition of this book was published in September 2020. 

Conventional wisdom dictates that Ukraine’s political crises can be traced to the linguistic differences and divided political loyalties that have long fractured the country. However, this theory obscures the true significance of Ukraine’s recent civic revolution and the conflict’s crucial international dimension. The 2013-14 Ukrainian revolution presented authoritarian powers in Russia with both a democratic and a geopolitical challenge. In reality, political conflict in Ukraine is reflective of global discord, stemming from differing views on state power, civil society, and democracy. 

Ukraine’s sudden prominence in American politics has compounded an already-widespread misunderstanding of what is actually happening in the nation. In the American media, Ukraine has come to signify an inherently corrupt place, rather than a real country struggling in the face of great challenges. 'Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know' is an updated edition of Serhy Yekelchyk’s 2015 publication, The Conflict in Ukraine. It addresses Ukraine’s relations with the West, particularly the United States, from the perspective of Ukrainians. The book explains how independent Ukraine fell victim to crony capitalism, how its people rebelled twice in the last two decades in the name of democracy and against corruption, and why Russia reacted so aggressively to the strivings of Ukrainians. Additionally, it looks at what we know about alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, the factors behind the stunning electoral victory of the political novice Volodymyr Zelensky, and the ways in which the events leading to the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump have changed the Russia-Ukraine-US relationship. 

This volume is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the forces that have shaped contemporary politics in this increasingly important part of Europe, as well as the international background of the impeachment proceedings in the US.

Canadian scholar Orest Subtelny provides a context from the long span of European history:

In 1919 total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kyiv changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food.

The occupation of Kharkiv by the Volunteer Army of General Anton Denikin, 1918

Antony Beevor discusses his book: Russia: Revolution and Civil War (1917-1921)

In 1917 a devastating struggle took place in Russia following the collapse of the Tsarist empire. Many regard this savage civil war as the most influential event of the modern era. Terror begat terror, which in turn led to even greater cruelty with man’s inhumanity to man, woman and child.

The struggle became a world war by proxy as Winston Churchill deployed weaponry and troops from the British empire, while armed forces from the United States, France, Italy, Japan, Poland and Czechoslovakia played rival parts. The incompatible White alliance of moderate socialists and reactionary monarchists stood little chance in the end against Trotsky’s Red Army and Lenin’s single-minded Communist dictatorship.

Using the most up-to-date scholarship and archival research, Antony Beevor, assembles the complete picture in a narrative that conveys the conflict through the eyes of everyone from the worker on the streets of Petrograd to the cavalry officer on the battlefield and the woman doctor in an improvised hospital.

Comment (DS). Antony Beevor made a comment that writing this book had given him PTSD. You can take that as a warning about reading it! It is quite a tome. Lots of complicated Russian names to keep track of! 

There are lurid descriptions of the chaos and suffering incurred as the Reds and Whites moved backwards and forwards across the country, with cruelty and ruthlessness to the populations affected. The Whites were irresponsible and disorganised. The Reds were vicious. Armies used to sweep across the country, looting, raping and killing. Then the other side would sweep back in the other direction, also looting, raping and killing.

 And Quiet Flows the Don

And Quiet Flows the Don is 4-volume epic novel by Russian writer Mikhail Sholokhov. 

The novel is considered one of the most significant works of Russian literature in the 20th century. It depicts the lives & struggles of Don Cossacks during WWI, the Russian Revolution & Russian Civil War. In 1965, Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Plot summary

The novel deals with the life of the Cossacks living in the Don River valley during the early 20th century, starting around 1912, just prior to World War I. The plot revolves around the Melekhov family of Tatarsk, who are descendants of a Cossack who, to the horror of many, took a Turkish captive as a wife during the Crimean War. She is accused of witchcraft by Melekhov's superstitious neighbors, who attempt to kill her but are fought off by her husband. Their descendants, the son and grandsons, who are the protagonists of the story, are therefore often nicknamed "Turks". Nevertheless, they command a high level of respect among people in Tatarsk.

The second eldest son, Grigory Panteleevich Melekhov, is a promising young soldier who falls in love with Aksinia, the wife of Stepan Astakhov, a family friend. Stepan regularly beats her and there is no love between them. Grigory and Aksinia's romance and elopement raise a feud between her husband and his family. The outcome of this romance is the focus of the plot as well as the impending World and Civil Wars which draw up the best young Cossack men for what will be two of Russia's bloodiest wars. The action moves to the Austro-Hungarian front, where Grigory ends up saving Stepan's life, but that doesn't end the feud. Grigory, at his father's insistence, takes a wife, Natalya, but still loves Aksinia.

Grigory takes part in the Civil War, repeatedly changing sides. Many of his friends and relatives are killed in action or executed. Natalya dies after a failed abortion. Grigory tries once more to elope with Aksinia, but she is killed by a stray bullet. Grief-stricken, Grigory buries her and returns home, with his prospects unclear.

The book deals not only with the struggles and suffering of the Cossacks but also the landscape itself, which is vividly brought to life. There are also many folk songs referenced throughout the novel.

The novel has been made into a film or TV series several times. This 2006 mini-series is accessible.

 Doctor Zhivago.

Whilst not specifically involving Ukraine, this classic novel covers a period of Russian history from 1902 to World War II. In a way similar to 'And Quiet Flows the Don', it involves a love story embedded in historical events. It was unsuccessfully suppressed by the Soviet authorities. The author, Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.

It was made into several movies, of which the best known is Doctor Zhivago, by David Lean (1965).

This 2002 TV mini-series featured Keira Knightly, Hans Matheson and Sam Neill. I think it is better than the classic version.

The films are set against a backdrop of World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Russian Civil War.

The Holodomor was a politically driven famine that killed many millions of Ukrainians. It can be seen as the Ukrainian equivalent of the Holocaust

The Ukrainian Genocide

Depopulation in 1929–1933, including Holodomor time

The novel 'The Hand that Signed the Paper' covers events in Ukraine in the early 1930s through to the Second World War. Written by a young 21 year-old woman from Brisbane who called herself Helen Demidenko, it won several top Australian Literary prizes, including the Miles Franklin Award, The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal.

The novel caused a scandal for two reasons: the central characters who had suffered during the Holodomor attributed their misfortunes to Jewish communists, and initially perceived the arrival of Nazi troops as being a liberation. They went on to join the SS, and participated in the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, and in the running of the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka. Thus some saw the novel as being anti-semitic.

The second reason was that the author wrote under a pseudonym, and presented herself as being from a Ukrainian family, when in fact her parents were English migrants.

Helen Demidenko/Darville

The return of Helen Demidenko: from literary hoaxer to political operator

Nazis occupy Ukraine (1941 - 43). Many massacres, eg Babi Yar.
Soviet Red army advances back across Ukraine and Poland. (1943).
Nazi extermination camps discovered, eg: Treblinka 


Vasily Grossman was a Ukrainian Jew who was a Soviet war correspondent who later became famous for the novel 'Life & Fate' (see below). The book 'A Writer at War' contains his notes from his experiences from the battle of Stalingrad, the advance of the Red Army through Ukraine, Poland and Germany to the defeat of Berlin. Grossman was one of the first journalists to enter a Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka. Some of his descriptions are harrowing. 

The passages are explained by Antony Beevor, one of the great historians of our time.

Life & Fate, by Vasily Grossman has been described as one of the greatest novels of all time. I agree. It is, to the Second World War, what 'War & Peace' was to the Napoleonic War. Vasily describes the events around the Battle of Stalingrad, with human touches showing the effects of Stalinism on Soviet people, and Nazism on the people under Hitler's power, especially Jews. It is a very humane book, which was also unsuccessfully suppressed by the Soviets, eventually being smuggled out of the USSR and published in the West in 1980.

Wikipedia article. A good summary of the book.

'The time is between about 1930 – the start of the second Ukraine famine – and 1945. The zone is the territory that lies between central Poland and, roughly, the Russian border, covering eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. Snyder's "Bloodlands" label is jarring, a title those beautiful lands and those who now live there do not deserve. But it's true that in those years and in those places, the unimaginable total of 14 million innocent human beings, most of them women and children, were shot, gassed or intentionally starved to death."


On 18th August 1991 the 'August Coup' attempt occurred. Hardline communists tried to topple President Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup was foiled partly by Boris Yeltsin, who then took over from Gorbachev. This led to the dismantling of the USSR and the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine 24th August 1991. A referendum on Ukraine becoming independent of the USSR was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of 92.3% of voters. 

1991 Ukrainian independence referendum results, by region

A short trailer of 'The Event', a film about the August 1991 coup attempt.

I think many of us in the West have failed to understand the significance of the 1991 coup attempt. It was actually a very close thing, and might easily have been successful. In the minds of many Russians, it was a disaster because it was followed by the disintegration of the USSR, and the 'loss' of their Eastern European allies, many of whom went on to join NATO. 

1994: The Budapest Memorandum.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and its disintegration into its component states, there was a very real fear that the nuclear weapons positioned in some of those states might fall into the hands of some terrorist groups. Ukraine at the time had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, albeit under Russian control. Major international diplomatic efforts went into reducing the risks, as a result of which the weapons were returned to Russia and dismantled, and the Budapest Memorandum treaty was signed by Russia, the UK, and the US guaranteeing Ukraine's borders.

According to the memorandum, Russia, the US and the UK confirmed their recognition of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine becoming parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and effectively abandoning their nuclear arsenal to Russia and that they agreed to the following:

    • Respect Belarusian, Kazakh and Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in the existing borders.
    • Refrain from the threat or the use of force against Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine.
    • Refrain from using economic pressure on Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine to influence their politics.
    • Seek immediate Security Council action to provide assistance to Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine if they "should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used".
    • Refrain from the use of nuclear arms against Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine.
    • Consult with one another if questions arise regarding those commitments.

The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 represented the repudiation of the treaty, an offence greatly compounded by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

It also carries wider implications for countries being pressured to abandon nuclear programs, such as Iran and North Korea. 'Look what happened to Ukraine when they agreed to denuclearize!'

Ukraine war: what is the Budapest Memorandum and why has Russia’s invasion torn it up? 
The Conversation, March 3, 2022.

Enlargement of NATO

The Eastern bloc before 1990

The progressive enlargement of NATO

The Orange Revolution occurred in Kyiv between November 2004 to January 2005.  It was mostly peaceful with large crowds demonstrating in Maidan Square and elsewhere. 

It followed a presidential election widely considered to have been fraudulent.

The two candidates were: Viktor Yushchenko (pro EU and NATO) and Viktor Yanukovych (pro Russia).

In September 2004, Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, possibly by Russian agents. He recovered. In the second round of the election, on 21st November, Yanukovych was declared the winner. Many international observers declared the result to have been rigged. This triggered the Orange Revolution.

The Ukrainian Supreme Court annulled the result and ordered a re-run election, which Yushchenko won.

His presidency was complicated by conflict with his one-time ally and the woman he appointed as Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been a star of the Orange Revolution.

Yulia Tymoshenko

The political shenanigans in Ukraine between the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the 2010 presidential election are hard to understand, and must have been very distressing to the Ukrainian public. I think there was a three-way struggle between Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych, which ended with the election of the pro-Russian Yanukovych. Tymoshenko was subsequently tried for abuse of power and jailed. Many western countries protested her political prosecution. She was released in February 2014.

In November 2013, the Yanukovych government had been preparing to sign an agreement with the EU. Under Russian pressure, Yanukovych abruptly reversed course and moved away from Europe towards Russia. This provoked outrage in the population, particularly in the western part of the country and Kyiv.

The Maidan Revolution was also known as the 'Revolution of Dignity'. Unlike the Orange Revolution of 2004, which was largely peaceful, the Maidan Revolution turned violent, with more than 120 deaths. The Yanukovych government was overthrown. Russia regarded it as an illegal coup.

The Fight for Ukraine (video)

 There were protests both for and against the revolution, especially in the south and east of the country.

In February and March 2014, following the Maidan Revolution, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. A referendum endorsed the move, although it was declared illegal. 

Russia has traditionally regarded Crimea as being an important part of Russia, partly because Russia has no cold-water ports like Sevastopol. Ports on the north coast and Baltic freeze over in winter. 

Since the annexation, Russia constructed a bridge to cross the Kerch Strait. Called the 'Crimean Bridge', it significantly obstructs the access of Ukrainian ships to the port city of Mariupol on the coast of the Sea of Azov. 

 War in Donbas.

Situation on 28th May 2022

A civilian passenger jet, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, was shot down over Hrabove (a village in the Donetsk Oblask) on 17 July 2014, killing all 298 people on board. DPR-affiliated insurgents blamed the Ukrainian government for the disaster, whereas the government, Netherlands, and Australia blamed Russia and the insurgents.

2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine 

In July 2021, the Kremlin published an almost 7,000-word essay by Putin, entitled “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, in which he argued that Russia and Ukraine were one nation, artificially divided. It laid the groundwork for his deployment of troops to Ukraine in February.

Restoration of empire is the endgame for Russia's Vladimir Putin

"Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years," a relaxed and apparently self-satisfied Putin said. "On the face of it, he was at war with Sweden taking something away from it... He was not taking away anything, he was returning. This is how it was."

The argument that because a state once owned another territory, so that they have a right to 'return' it was satirised nicely here.

Next on the agenda: Britain

An Ukrainian oligarch called Viktor Medvedchuk was the leader of the main opposition party in Ukraine until February 2021. His young daughter is called Daria (18). Putin is Daria's godfather. Days after the Inauguration of President Joe Biden, the Ukrainian government decided to get tough on Medvedchuk. They took his TV channels off the air, depriving Russia of its propaganda outlets in the country. About two weeks later, on Feb. 19, 2021, Ukraine announced that it had seized the assets of Medvedchuk’s family. Among the most important was a pipeline that brings Russian oil to Europe, enriching Medvedchuk and helping to bankroll Medvedchuk’s political party. 

Putin, Daria and Viktor Medvedchuk

It is much easier to access information that is sympathetic to Ukraine than it is to find information that is sympathetic to Russia. One exception is the American film director Oliver Stone. Here he is interviewing Medvedchuk and Putin (2019).

The Untold Story of the Ukraine Crisis. Time Magazine, February 2, 2022

Fiona Hill, Former Senior Director for Europe and Russia, United States National Security Council, and former deputy assistant to the President and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019, has expert and unmatched knowledge of the inner workings of Putin’s Russia. 

This is a very articulate explanation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president of Ukraine on 21 April 2019, with 73% of the vote.

He had been a comedian and actor, probably the first President of a country to perform by playing a piano with his penis.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Focus Stacking

I have previously discussed High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography, in which one merges photos with different levels of exposure.

I have just learned another trick; Focus Stacking.

When I am taking a portrait photo of a single person, I usually set the aperture of the lens to a wide aperture, in order to give a shallow depth of field, and blur out the background in order to emphasise the face.

Thus recently I was taking some photos of some relatives of George's. I had my Fujifilm X-E3 with its 50mm prime lens set wide at f/2.0.

When I left the room, George's brother Ken picked up my camera and took some shots of the two relatives, without changing the aperture.

He is in focus; she isn't.

She is in focus; he isn't.

This raises the idea of somehow combining the two photos to get a copy in which they are both in focus.

This is how to do it.

Open the photos in Adobe Lightroom Classic. (You also need to have Adobe Photoshop on the computer.)

Select both photos.

Then go to the menus in Lightroom: Photo/Edit In/Open as Layers in Photoshop....

Next, in Photoshop, select the layers. 

Then, in Photoshop, go Edit/Auto-Align Layers... This corrects any misalignment such as occurs especially if the camera was hand-held.

Choose the Auto option.

Next Edit/Auto-Blend Layers...

Choose 'Stack Images'.

Voilà! Now save your focus stacked image and continue to process it in Lightroom.

Both in focus.

Monday, 16 May 2022

Sydney May 2022

We flew to Sydney for a long weekend, partly to catch up with some of George's relatives.

Her Aunt Elaine (98) recently learned of a bloke Harding (97) who had been in the same kindergarten with her at the ages of 6 and 5. Their two fathers had been GPs together in the small town of Crookwell. We joined a lunch with them to facilitate the 'catch-up'. Both of them had been recently widowed, and both are fully in possession of all their marbles.

Harding and Elaine. Last met about 90 years ago.

Some other photos from walks around Sydney.

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbour

A fleet of MC38 One-Design boats racing

Viewed from Middle Head.