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Igort's 'The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks'
“In general, do you think people can be trusted?”
This is the question professor John Halliwell* has used in order to establish the happiness of countries. He has found that the more people agree, the happier the country**.
In the world happiness report for 2012-2014, Russia occupied the 64 place. Romania, my country, placed below that position at number 86. Ukraine was number 111, from the total of 158 countries.
Human interconnection and the ability to trust are great components of personal happiness. As proved above, they reflect also a country’s wellbeing. Hence, if countries, such as the ones mentioned, display a low level of happiness, that must imply the fact that people don’t trust each other.
The unhappiness can even be observed at a surface level. When you walk the streets you see plenty of gray people, gloomy expressions, and lack of energy.
Nevertheless, what lies underneath? What is the origin of that lack of trust? Furthermore, are people justified in holding on to their distrust?
Igort’s 'Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks' offer answers to such questions.
Igort is an Italian comics book artist and illustrator. Yet, his family’s origins are Ukrainian. His 'Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks' are a work of graphic journalism based on almost 5 years (starting 2008) spent in Ukraine, Siberia, and Russia.
He draws and writes about:
- survival stories
- the disruptive influence of politics
- war's destructive powers
*From the Vancouver School of Economics at University of British Columbia
**According to data cited in Indian School of Business' course A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment available on coursera.org.
The Ukrainian world
The first thing Igort notices is that the contemporary Ukrainian living conditions are not great. For example, the civil services in the town Dnipropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine, are of a sickening quality. Also, the town’s housing business is run by the mafia.
It is a society where common people are at a disadvantage. In comparison, those that gathered privileges in Soviet times, by occupying military or political positions, still use them.
So then, people are, generally, still marked by their past. They still feel the Soviet censorship. Those times formed their habit of not truly expressing themselves.
However, some people, especially older ones, did open up and the author recorded their stories. They are authentic and offer a complex picture of the Ukrainian life beginning with the late 1920s. Yet, the picture stirs sad emotions and displays gruesome details.
These are people that descend from generation to generation marked by poverty. Or at least, hard living conditions. To make things worse, in the 1930s famine destroyed their lives.
One woman, Serafima, remembers surviving as a child by eating horsehide from the black-market. She also remembers cannibalism was commonplace. A quarter of the Ukrainian population died of starvation in that period.
Now, famine is not an uncommon plague of those times. However, documents reveal that the Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor, was engineered. Chiefly, so that communist Russia could gain economic advantages. As the Ukrainian peasants, kulaks, opposed collectivisation.
Ukraine tried to obtain the Holodomor internationally recognised as a genocide, yet did not succeed.
Collectivization meant stripping people of their properties. I know about collectivisation. My grandparent’s destinies were also shaped by Stalin’s decisions. In eastern Europe, many grand and grand - grand - parent's destinies were shaped in the same way.
In those times, there were also deportations to Siberia. There were also the abuses committed by the secret police. Also, western powers that pretended such realities did not exist. Also, western media that misrepresented the truth.
Other stories depict:
- the decomposition of family structures
- health altering hard work that had to be done from an early age
- people mistreating each other
- the Chernobyl disaster and its still felt influence
- the contemporaneous countryside where the young ones have lost life's meaning
Now, it seems unfair to ask, but, how can people that lived through this answer the question: in general, do you think people can be trusted?
In truth, there are also people that remember living in good conditions. As, in those times work was available, while the present economy is worse off. There are not enough jobs and the prices are high.
The hero journalists
The Russian Notebooks dwell on the Chechen war realities.
Unfortunately, there are long records of journalists killed in Russia in the last 15 years. Journalists that made it their mission to bring to light facts. To showcase the truth. Including the truth about the war in Chechnya.
The author concentrates on Anna Politkovskaya’s story, a journalist and writer assassinated in 2006 in Moscow. She uncovered atrocities. Consequently, could not conceive to turn her back on them, even if her contemporaries were not always interested. Even if her contemporaries could not protect her.
Maybe we’d like to share our secret, that secret called war, but those who live in peace have no interest in hearing it
As they had local complaints of abuses and crimes, the journalists were investigating how the Russian army fought in Chechnya. Correspondingly, they found out that the complaints were completely true.
The army was physically and psychologically terrorizing civilians, torturing, crippling, and killing them. Civil prisoners could leave an army's camp only after their relatives paid a ransom. A ransom was also necessary in order to release a prisoner's dead body.
The uncovered truth was that that war could have ended sooner. However, it was a too attractive mean of laundering dirty money and of making money.
This is the end, beautiful friend
The pages describing the war are particularly hard to read and watch. I understand the need to silence such a stream of information. At some point, I was thinking that I need to know about the good in the world, not about these cruelties.
Therefore, I understand that the reaction might be even stronger when it hits closer home. When such things are happening in one’s country. However, going unconscious, turning a blind eye are never the solution.
Anna Politkovskaya knew that. The Russian journalists are modern day martyrs.
The solution to the trust problem offered by the happiness researchers is to take chances and put our trust in others. Yet, never blindly. Additionally, to hold people responsible for their wrongdoings.
I think the journalists did that. Their actions are a great act of trust towards society. Also, their mission was, and is, to establish the responsibility of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, society betrayed them. I do hope that not always.
If society turns its backs to these truths, it also turns its backs to the possibility of living a happy, clean life.
It might be easier, more pleasant, more satisfactory, for the moment, to look only at the good parts of life or to dwell in pleasant activities. However, that will not bring us closer to a positive answer to the question:
“In general, do you think people can be trusted?”
I read the arc copy of this book, as I found it on Netgalley.com and Simon & Schuster kindly approved my reading request.