Bakhmut, called Artemivsk by the Russians, has become part of the grim roll call of the Ukraine war, one of the eastern cities blasted into a jagged hellscape of shattered buildings and rubbled roadways by the back-and-forth struggle between the two sides. Bakhmut even has the dubious distinction of being the place where the mercenary army of the infamous restaurateur turned condottiere Yevgeny Prigozhin battled for months to provide Vladimir Putin with a pyrrhic and temporary victory. It was also the city to which a 25-year-old Chris Miller, fresh from a stint as a local journalist in Oregon, was posted on joining the Peace Corps. This was 2009, before the 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity, before the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the start of an undeclared conflict in the south-eastern Donbas region, and a world away, it seemed, from the 2022 invasion.
Nonetheless, some of the early seeds of trouble were already growing. The young American – there to teach English and work in the local library – encountered people convinced he was a spy (he smiled too much) who fulminated against the politicians in Kyiv (not that they were any more keen on Moscow). In 2014, this sentiment would transform among a small but sadly armed minority into a conviction that they had to rebel, and the rest is bloody history.
The point is that Miller was there, and that his subsequent career as one of the best of the Ukraine correspondents is rooted precisely in the fact that he doesn’t just know the country from the bottom up, but has clearly fallen for it. This does not make him an uncritical cheerleader for Kyiv, any more than it means he depicts the pre-invasion pro-Russian militias as uniformly despicable villains. Instead, he offers a vivid, engaged and engaging series of vignettes and impressions of the period up to the early days of the war.
Ukraine before the Euromaidan movement of2013-14 was a paradoxical mix of oligarchic corruption and optimistic grassroots activism. Miller’s tales of the travails of investigative journalism in those days – he was a reporter for the Kyiv Post – give a good sense of the environment in which pressures mounted until an explosion of anger brought down the undoubtedly corrupt, even if elected, President Yanukovych. (He had reneged, under strong Russian pressure, on a commitment to sign an association agreement with the EU.)
Miller’s account of this revolution is fascinating and granular, told through his encounters with protesters of all stripes, from nationalist firebrands to the young volunteer for Euromaidan’s PR arm who observes that “revolutionary Kyiv has an interesting allure to it … full of possibilities, full of potential for any young person”. Of course he was right, but that “interesting allure” was obscured by the fog of teargas and the smoke from burning tyres and molotov cocktails, which would have to clear before those “possibilities” could be realised. Miller is also honest enough to recognise that this was not a simple struggle of good versus evil, passing a “Nazis only” sign at the door of the offices of the pro-revolutionary Right Sector movement to interview its leader. Formed in 2013, it was an alliance between ultranationalists and street-fighting football hooligans.
His writing about the war is equally nuanced. We get stories of heroic Ukrainian resistance on the frontline and of celebrities such as Andriy Khlyvnyuk, frontman of one of the country’s biggest bands, who exchanged his microphone for a machine gun. This has, of course, been the tenor of much of the reporting from the region, although Miller is able to give it a distinctive spin. What is more striking, though, is that he also goes further, talking not just to soldiers and commanders but the cooks and the surgeons, the civilians spotting Russian advances with their “wedding drones” – cheap quadcopters of the sort often used to film celebrations – and all the other less frequently sung heroes. What emerges is truly a people’s war.
From reporting brutal clashes with protesters in Maidan Square to finding the launch site of the missile that brought down the MH17 passenger airliner on 17 July 2014, killing all 298 people on board, to being in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine when the invasion began, Miller has been at the heart of whatever has been going on. His contacts are legendary, and given his capacity to come up with good stories and live to tell the tale, so too must be his luck. It was Miller, for example, who was able to buttonhole Russian nationalist writer Alexander Prokhanov, in rebel-held Donetsk for a “safari”, and record his opinion that “this is a beautiful war”. Similarly, he was one of the journalists who found orders issued by Russian nationalist commander Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, left behind when his forces retreated, sentencing looters to be executed by firing squad.
Though this is a thick book, it is one without a story of its own – or rather it is Ukraine’s story. This is in part an account of the country’s emerging history, in part an autobiographical tale of Miller’s time spent navigating it. As a result, no theme or message emerges beyond the potentially commonplace ones that Ukrainians are determined to fight for their homeland and freedom, and capable of doing so very well indeed. This is more an observation than a criticism, and Miller certainly has a journalist’s eye for telling details and ear for poignant or revealing comments. He avoids caricature without getting bogged down by caveats. He is not pretending to be a historian or an analyst, but is instead taking the reader on a journey through the tumult of recent years. What a passionate, colourful journey – by turns inspiring and horrifying – it turns out to be.
• Mark Galeotti is honorary professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, and the author of Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine. The War Came to Us: Life and Death in Ukraine by Christopher Miller is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.