John Reed was born in Portland, Oregon in 1887. After growing up in the Pacific Northwest, he became a journalist. Somehow he made his way over to Russia just in time for the Bolshevik Revolution. His classic eyewitness account, Ten Days that Shook the World, which was published in 1919, was hardly an objective interpretation of this revolution. It was sympathetic journalism, evidence of the American romance with the Soviet experiment and a book of striking scenes and images. (Reed is one of three Americans to be buried in the Kremlin wall.) He had stumbled on the story of a lifetime, a story too urgent, too important, and too absorbing for him not to write a book about it.
The journalist Christopher Miller has walked in some of Reed’s footsteps. In The War Came to Us: Life and Death in Ukraine, his book of revolution and war, Miller tells of his journey from Portland, Oregon, where he was a young man looking for purpose in life, to Artemisk in eastern Ukraine, where he taught school for the Peace Corps. Then, about a hundred years after Reed, Miller happened upon a series of world-shaking events. The War Came to Us is the chronicle of an American in Eastern Europe, someone who sought a small adventure and found himself in the heart of history. His book brings to life places—Artemisk, Mariupol, Donetsk, Luhansk—that until recently were as unknown to people outside Ukraine as they were to Miller when he first left Portland for Ukraine in 2010.
A book about war, The War Came to Us is at its best on peacetime Ukraine. Prior to 2013, Miller’s experience was run-of-the-mill: he had landed in an unfamiliar environment, out there in deepest eastern Ukraine, until step-by-step he learned Russian, figured out how to teach the local schoolchildren, made friends, and discovered ways to relish Artemisk, a typical Ukrainian place and a modest city far from Kyiv. From Artemisk, Miller began to explore the region known as the Donbas, which is known for mining and heavy industry. Miller characterizes it as “haunted by a dark past.” Yet he fell in love with his adopted region and adopted country, opting, when his tenure with the Peace Corps ended, to stay on as a journalist based in Ukraine.
While working for the Kyiv Post, an independent newspaper, Miller immersed himself in Ukrainian politics. He was in Kyiv when the Maidan Revolution erupted in November 2013. In meticulous detail, he describes the spontaneous gatherings in central Kyiv, the serial government crackdowns, and the duel-to-the-death between the protestors and Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s hapless president. Reminiscent of John Reed, Miller was an enthusiast of the “Revolution of Dignity.” He was not quite a participant in the uprising and not quite a bystander. His friends and colleagues were pushing for revolution, and when Yanukovych fled the country, opening a new chapter in Ukrainian politics, Miller was delighted.
As revolution yielded to war, Miller traveled the country. His narration of Crimea’s annexation is second-hand, but his writing about Russia’s incursion into the Donbas is firsthand and highly nuanced. Having traversed the region, Miller deftly describes the loyalties of the Donbas in the spring of 2014, which were not necessarily on the side of the post-Maidan government in Kyiv—he notes “a sense that Kyiv didn’t care about people in the east or see them as true Ukrainians”—but which betrayed no real desire to separate from Ukraine. Had that desire been widespread before 2013, Miller would have encountered it on the ground, which with one exception he did not. In 2014, he was perfectly positioned to assess the artificiality of the Russian project in the Donbas and the menace of the two gangster statelets Russia was erecting that spring and summer.
Once the active fighting ceased in Ukraine—in February 2015—Miller no longer had a big story on his hands. In The War Came to Us, he passes quickly over his journalist’s life in the seven years between Russia’s first invasion and the countrywide fighting instigated on February 24, 2022. Even with a low-grade war always in the background, Kyiv might be place of dinner parties, cocktail bars, and cultural happenings. It might be a normal twenty-first century city, while most of Ukraine was a normal twenty-first century country—with its gradual integration into the outside world and its stubborn political challenges. When he went back in the Donbas, Miller was more directly confronted with the long shadow of the 2014–15 war.
A useful contribution of Miller’s book is its sweep. It begins on February 24, 2022, with Miller in the Donbas: he is in his hotel while early in the morning “four successive explosions from Russian cruise missiles struck the Krematorsk airbase just 2,000 feet away.” Then the book goes back more than a decade in time. Russia’s assault on Ukraine is currently in its ninth year. This circumstance is easy to forget in the rush of events spinning out from the day-to-day war. It helps to explain two of the war’s defining features: the Ukrainian will to fight, which did not have to be invented in February 2022, as it was the legacy of a long battle; and the Kremlin’s will to fight, which stems from its sense that Ukraine was “lost” in 2014. Miller gives historical depth to an ongoing war.
Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has been extensively reported. It has dominated headlines for the last year and a half. The War Came to Us does not add any journalistic revelations to the record. It breaks no news, and Miller does not speculate in detail about why Russia has done what it has done—for the simple reason that Miller’s is a book about Ukraine and not a book about Russia. Miller’s linkage of Maidan activism to the civic patriotism of Ukrainians at the onset of the 2022 war (and ever since) is entirely persuasive, but this linkage figures in almost all Western accounts of Ukraine and its national spirit. In its substance, The War Came to Us mostly retraces familiar ground.
In its style, The War Came to Us does not measure up to Ten Days that Shook the World. Before going to Russia, Reed lived in Greenwich Village, where he absorbed the era’s belletristic modernism. An avant-garde impulse, rich in montage and adopted from symbolist poetry, graces Reed’s reporting from Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Reed was a painter in words, and Ten Days that Shook the World endures because it is literary and unsentimental, if at times a bit breathless. The War Came to Us is sentimental without being literary. The passages on the 2022 war, despite their intrinsic drama, have a rote quality to them. They lack the vividness and focus of first-rate war writing, as if the author (understandably) is still overwhelmed by all that he has witnessed and experienced in Ukraine.
Memories of Artemisk in The War Came to Us are a treasure. Only slowly does the reader learn how precious they are, since Artmemisk is the Russian name for a city better known as Bakhmut, around which one of the set-piece battles of the war has raged. Miller visited Bakhmut and its periphery during the war. His writing about the wreckage is searing, and it makes the record of his sojourn there in 2010–11 especially poignant. Artemisk/Bakhmut has since joined the ranks of Europe’s lost cities—pre-war Warsaw, Dresden, Coventry, Rotterdam, and many others. Only by being made aware of what Bakhmut was, a provincial place blessed by the banality of peace, can one feel the true horrors of the war that came to Ukraine in 2014 and then more radically in 2022. In his rendering of the contrast between war and peace, peace and war, Christopher Miller has given us an invaluable record of Ukraine’s past and present.
Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America. He is a non-resident senior associate at CSIS. His next book, Collision: The War in Ukraine and the Origins of the New Global Instability, is due out with Oxford University Press in spring 2024.
Image: A woman pushes a baby carriage in Odesa, Ukraine. (IMF/Brendan Hoffman)
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