Black Earth Cover

Black Earth

A Journey through Ukraine

Jens Mühling, trans. by Eugene H. Hayworth

The Armchair Traveller, London, 2019, 288 pages

Book Review published on: October 16, 2020

Over the years, we have seen how the power of influence can affect people. If harnessed correctly, entire societies’ idealisms can be swayed by governments, conflict and occupation, or even different philosophies. We are seeing this today throughout parts of Ukraine. Author Jens Mühling reveals a shocking personal experience to his readers as he travels through different cities, towns, and villages across Ukraine in Black Earth: A Journey through Ukraine. Mühling’s purpose behind his journey is to further address what the media headlines cannot. He displays his credibility through firsthand experience as he discovers the reality of the Ukrainian people, (the nationalist, old communist) Crimean Tatars, Cossacks, smugglers, archeologists, and soldiers. The question Mühling is searching to answer is, what is genuine life amongst the vast societies throughout Ukraine?

Mühling first published Black Earth in German in 2016 and later republished it in English in 2019. He outlines his 292-page travel literature into fifteen chapters, prefacing each after areas he journeyed through. Although Mühling takes his readers on somewhat of an arbitrary route around Ukraine, he does an excellent job capturing personal views of each town’s inhabitants. From the cities of Dilove and Vinnytsia to Crimea and Donetsk and everything in between, Mühling begins to unravel the answer to his question: what is genuine life amongst the vast societies throughout Ukraine? He explores this question by talking with locals, participating in festivals, and visiting different museums, parks, and cemeteries. From empty pedestals that once displayed Vladimir Lenin to full on Russian dialect, we see differences in Ukrainian cities as Mühling travels closer to the Russian border. One of his accounts was the dilemma at a Crimean museum. A month before Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014, the museum had placed some of its artifacts in a mobile exhibit throughout Western Europe. Due to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, the Kyiv Ministry of Culture claimed these artifacts. The Crimean museum disagreed and demanded the exhibit to return the artifacts to their museum. Those artifacts still remain in the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. Another of many personal encounters was with a man named Mykola Kokhanivskiy, who gained recognition by damaging Lenin statues that eventually developed him into organizing the Old Ukrainian nationalist movement.

Black Earth is a very informative depiction of different environments throughout Ukraine. However, we must consider the positives and negatives of how Mühling articulates this story. A potential shortfall is that some readers may find it difficult to fully capture the author’s intent. Interpretation may be skewed due to the book’s translation from German to traditional English. There are also some sections where a lack of European history and understanding of a particular style of writing may create confusion. On the contrary, the book’s most credible points are the personal interviews Mühling conducts, providing true authenticity of life in Ukraine. Mühling’s intentions are to reveal unbiased opinions and provide only facts, something no media, news, or social outlet could ever offer.

Is Mühling able to achieve the answer he was searching for: what is lifelike amongst the vast societies throughout Ukraine? Yes. In doing so, he has done what very few would even considering doing. He placed himself in unconformable situations in areas he was not familiar with, knowing his safety may be in jeopardy. Due to his steadfastness, he is able to answer what life across Ukraine looks like from a societal standpoint. The one negative is potential misinterpretation if the reader is not familiar with European history or traditional English writing. The positive is all the personal interactions Mühling encounters, providing genuine idealisms of the people. Black Earth: A Journey through Ukraine is a must read for anyone who aspires to gain a better knowledge of the power of influence and understand life in Ukraine. I highly recommend any personnel affiliated with the military or NATO, especially those with emphasis in the European Command, to read this travel literature by Mühling.

Book Review written by: Capt. Eric Lowe, U.S. Army, Fort Carson, Colorado