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Night Train to Odesa by Jen Stout review – from Ukraine with love

Night Train to Odesa by Jen Stout review – from Ukraine with love

In the run-up to Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, Jen Stout was in Moscow. The mood there was venomous. Russian television broadcast non-stop propaganda about “Ukrainian Nazis”. In a bar a drinker called Andrei told Stout “fascists” were to blame for the looming crisis. Russians, she found, were touchy and quick to anger. “The wild fantasy, the twisting of history, the paranoia and insecurity; it was all there,” she observes.

When explosions rocked Kyiv, Stout abandoned her trip and went via Istanbul to the Ukrainian border. A freelance journalist and producer, she spoke Russian and knew Ukraine well. But her plan to report on the biggest conflict in Europe since 1945 ran into obstacles. One was a lack of cash and frontline equipment. Another was a condescending male boss who deemed her, then 33, too inexperienced to work as a foreign correspondent in a war zone.

Undaunted, Stout improvised. While covering the influx of refugees into Romania, she stayed with volunteers in a boat repair workshop next to the Danube. She scrounged lifts, travelled in an aid convoy to Odesa, and drove on rutted roads in a borrowed Mitsubishi. She got hold of a flak jacket. It didn’t fit. A friend lent her a stab vest and she slotted in ceramic plates. In Kharkiv, sleeping in an empty flat, she woke to find a mouse gazing at her and nibbling on a crumb.

Stout spent much of 2022 and 2023 writing dispatches and doing radio pieces from Ukraine. She visited cities, towns and ruined villages. Her debut book, Night Train to Odesa, is a luminous love letter to an embattled nation, as it resists the Kremlin’s imperial takeover. Volodymyr Zelenskiy does not appear. Its heroes are regular Ukrainians. Stout writes about them with an extraordinary and heartfelt empathy, as they do their best to live amid bombs and to survive.

She speaks with servicemen who have lost limbs, discusses fermented cabbage recipes and travels in a bus with a group of philosophers. Her conversations and encounters are memorable and haunting. In a village near Izium – occupied for five months – Stout meets the family of the poet Volodymyr Vakulenko. When Russian soldiers interrogated him Vakulenko buried his wartime diary in the garden. They came back and shot him. Later, his body was found in a mass grave.

Stout got to know the brilliant Lviv novelist and essayist Victoria Amelina. The Russians murdered her too. Last summer she was in a restaurant in the eastern town of Kramatorsk when an Iskander missile hit, killing her and 12 other diners. The two women had discussed touring Ireland and Scotland together “after” – meaning once the fighting finished. It was possible to make the most “fantastical plans” because the future was “a little like never-never land”, she notes.

The book is wonderfully written. There are vivid lyrical passages. She remarks on Kharkiv’s “dizzying, eclectic and slightly insane architecture”. It has “1920s modernism, exquisite art nouveau buildings, red-brick workshops of early industry and outrageous Soviet pomp”. In Donbas, she spots “the strange, angular shapes of terykony” – industrial slag heaps. Ukraine’s “vast rivers” and long-distance trains fascinate her because, she explains, they don’t exist in Shetland where she grew up on a tiny island.

At home, Stout says she associated the army with British colonialism, Northern Ireland and the US-led assault on Iraq. In Ukraine, though, she discovers there is no distinction between soldiers and society. Everywhere she finds “solidarity, collective effort and a powerful sense of common purpose”. It was this feeling that kept people going, even as the initial optimism that Vladimir Putin might be quickly beaten began to fade. The country is united, she suggests, despite the darkness.

The war has reached a critical moment. Ukraine is being pounded. It has few air defence missiles left and little artillery because Republicans in the US Congress blocked military aid for six months. The $61bn package – finally approved last week – will help. With or without the west, Ukraine will fight on.

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Luke Harding’s Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival, published by Guardian Faber, was recently named Ukraine’s journalism book of the year

Source: theguardian.com