Review: Vivien Horler
A Small, Stubborn Town – Life, death and defiance in Ukraine, by Andrew Harding (Ithaka)
In the general noise, politics and statistics of war that we’ve seen lately – in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza – the individual experiences of those involved can be overlooked or lost.
And if you’re used to reading books, both fiction and non-fiction, set in previous wars – World War 2, Korea, Vietnam – you know what happened in the end.
In the case of Ukraine, and now the Middle East, we don’t know how things are going to turn out, which creates additional poignancy.
Andrew Harding, who recently left SA where he had been reporting for BBC News, found himself covering the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and then decided to write a book about one small but possibly pivotal battle near the little southern town of Voznesensk.
The story is told through the experiences of people he met there. It reads like a novel but is not one; Harding says he didn’t steal the stories he recounts, but did sometimes snatch at them “from people who had far too little time n their hands and far more urgent business to preoccupy them”.
The book is based on dozens of interviews with townsfolk and soldiers.
Oleg Apostol, commander of the 2nd Battalion of Ukraine’s 80th Airborne Assault Brigade, whose code name was Formosa, told Harding he recognised something special in the story of Voznesensk.
He also said he believed “one small, decisive and improbable victory there had almost certainly saved Ukraine from a larger encirclement, and – most likely – from the prospect of defeat”.
Apart from Formosa, other notable characters are elderly Svetlana who lives in the village of Rakova on the outskirts of Voznesensk with her family; Voznesensk mayor Yevhenii; Ghost, a reconnaissance expert; Russian soldier Igor who is actually Ukrainian, and various members of the local home guard.
The book opens in early March, a week to the day after the Russian invasion, with a stand-off: a Russian soldier tells Svetlana he is going to count to three. There she is, in the courtyard of her home, with an AK-47 pointed at her stomach.
Svetlana is, we’re told, inclined to argue with the soldiers, and she is also pissed off – the Russians have roared into the village in their tanks, flattened her favourite pear tree as well as reducing her outside toilet to rubble.
Svetlana, along with everyone else, has been ordered to hand over her phone to stop the locals from warning the Ukrainian military. The Russians are in Rakova to liberate and protect the Ukrainians from “fascists, Zelenskyy and his Nazis”, the soldier tells Svetlana.
She snorts in outrage. “That’s nonsense. You’re just destroying everything,” she tells the soldier. At which point he pushes the barrel of his AK-47 into her stomach and tells her he’s going to count to three.
A week earlier, on the day of the invasion, the disbelieving mayor of Voznesensk and his deputy have gathered a dozen local officials such as the police chief, the hospital director and the head of the local defence forces.
As the room fills up, the deputy mayor mutters to himself: “I have no idea what to do now.”
Voznesensk is at the confluence of two rivers, the big Southern Buh and a tributary, Dead Water River. If the Ukrainians are able to stop the Russians at Mykolaiv, down near the Black Sea coast, by blowing up the town’s huge bridge across the Southern Buh, then the Russians would have to find another way to cross the river.
And to get across the Southern Buh in Voznesensk, they would first have to cross Dead Water bridge in the middle of town on their way to cut off the main road between Kyiv and Odesa.
It is clear to the Ukrainian townsfolk and soldiers – the bridge has to go.
And this is the story of how one small town slowed the Russians down at a crucial moment in the early war. Harding’s aim with the book is “to shine a small light on one rousing but revealing episode” of the war, and he has certainly succeeded.
This is a moving, brave and fascinating glimpse of a few days where ordinary people changed the course of the war.
- A Small, Stubborn Town was one of Exclusive Books’s top reads for September.