Screwing up in the strange parts of the world is never fun and is usually miserable, but you learn things by doing it. You see things that governments and ministries of tourism wished you would not. Ukraine is so strange that you can even see these things in the dark. We actually saw more of Ukraine’s strangeness because we showed up in the dark.
I don’t remember what time we crossed the frontier. Eight o’clock in the evening? Anyway, it was dark. When I say it was dark, I mean it was dark. The back roads of Western Ukraine are as black at night as the most remote parts of the American West where no humans live in any direction.
Yet Western Ukraine is not empty.
And, oh God, the roads. I don’t care where you’ve been. You almost certainly have never seen anything like them.
The second worst road I’ve ever driven on was in Central America in the mid-1990s. It’s only a fraction as bad as the road Sean and I took into Ukraine. This one would have been no worse off had it been deliberately shredded to ribbons by air strikes. The damage was so thorough that the surface could not possibly have been repaved or repaired even once since the Stalinist era.
I white-knuckled it behind the wheel while Sean cringed in the passenger seat. I did not dare drive faster than five miles an hour. Even at that speed I had to weave all over the place to avoid the worst of the gaping holes, some of which were as wide as mattresses and deep enough to swallow TV sets.
I saw no cars, no street lights, not even a single light from a house. Ukraine looked depopulated. My maps said there were villages all over the place, but where were they? Did we just drive into an episode of Life After People?
“This is exactly like Russia,” Sean said. “Exactly.”
He had visited Russia two years earlier and will never forget the vast darkness at night on the train between Moscow and St. Petersburg. “We’re in Russia!” he said.
Then the ghost figures appeared. ...
You can pre-order the book here.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Probably most of us are guilty of throwing around terms like "the West" and "the Middle East" without really thinking too hard about what they mean, or where those places begin or end. If you want to understand what "the West" is, read this book to learn where it is, and where it is not.
There is a persistent feeling of loneliness in this book. It is the loneliness of communities cut off from one another and from themselves; but it's also the loneliness of certain individuals who refuse to be confined within the communal walls that are assigned to them. ...
One final note: The values and traditions that we cherish in the West are by no means assured of continuance. "The West" is an abstraction that exists in space and also in time. If in the title you replace the word "where" with "when", the book is also a warning.