Missing the swallowtail butterflies of Ukraine

In the teeth of Russian assault, we think of Ukraine as the borderland, the bloodlands, Europe’s cursed killing ground. But no-one mentions Ukraine’s extraordinary natural beauty.
butterfly ukraine
A rare swallowtail butterfly resting on lavender in Sevastopol. Credit: Vasyl Roha / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Russia’s war against Ukraine means countless images of pain. The themes are trauma, wounding, wanton destruction and a good deal of wickedness. The suffering of Ukraine’s people is unimaginable, and I cannot be the only person — nor even the only civilian bystander — to find my dreams invaded by the violence and fear. All the same, when I first learned of a successful rocket strike on Russia’s Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea, the image that came to my mind was a bright cloud of butterflies. Swallowtails, to be specific.  

It’s almost twenty years now since I stood on the infamous Malakoff Redoubt and looked down on the port of Sevastopol for myself. The scene was grey — and grey ships, grey sea. Perhaps it was the history that leached the colour out. I’d gone to the Crimea to make some radio programmes for the BBC. An enthusiastic local guide, an expert on the Crimean War, was telling us about the relative advantages of guns. He was rattling through some numbers as we climbed the rocky ridge whose capture, in September 1855, had resulted in Sevastopol’s fall and I heard him listing numbers of the dead, the injured, and the total hours of fire. Now I was meant to talk myself, to record commentary live. But I was beyond any words. I’d never seen a swallowtail butterfly — in my native England they’re confined to one small region, and even there they’re under threat — but high up there among the pines the shining wings were everywhere; not one or two, but scores of them. After so many tales of death, and burdened by the guilt that comes with standing on cold bones, it was like hearing whispered blessings from a cloud of seraphim.

If peaceful nations are obliged to fight, to defend themselves on land or in the air, the question is bound to arise: what are we fighting for? In Britain during the Second World War, more than one public figure thought of village greens and Sunday cricket matches with warm beer. That image, far more than someone’s abstract notion of democracy, was guaranteed to speak to any son of Albion. In the case of today’s Ukraine, we outsiders may speak of liberty and justice and the rights of nations to define themselves, but the smoke from a Russian bomb can obscure a great deal of abstraction. What is Ukraine? Is it food, sunflowers and fields of wheat? Or is it Kherson’s ruins and lines of the dispossessed? What promise does this country hold that justifies the human price that real people pay?

One answer, or a part of one, comes from those butterflies. It is easy to forget, but Ukraine is beautiful. Not merely fertile — its black earth feeds the whole of Europe, to say nothing of India and even China — but wild, magnificent. In the teeth of Russian assault, we think of Ukraine as the borderland, the bloodlands, Europe’s cursed killing ground. We have read about successive partitions — the division between East and West and the linguistic legacy of that. We have been reminded how many of its people starved in the Terror Famine of Stalin’s time, how many were murdered or transported by the Nazis, how many were evacuated as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But no-one mentions that the landscape has healed itself each time, that what Ukrainians call home is more than just some place somewhere.

Back in Crimea, we drove away from Sevastopol. Our route lay through the Valley of Death, the battlefield that Roger Fenton photographed in 1855. Then we headed to Balaklava, taking in a landscape made famous in 1854 by the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade. Balaklava, of course, is also associated with its own design of headgear, a woollen helmet with eye-slits: concealing, sinister and hot. Balaklava today also boasts some old submarine emplacements, secret tunnels in the rock for Brezhnev’s Cold War fleet. In all, I wasn’t expecting much from the place but historical data, cold feet and a lot of unquiet ghosts.

What greeted me could have been Greece. The inlet is a lovely blue, a sunlit harbour lined with cliffs. There are fishing boats along the old Genoese jetty, small stuccoed cottages, a run-down quay. What’s more, the sea beyond the harbour was alive. A school of dolphins played across it, unhurried, free and bright. Drinking Crimean wine that night, I listened to a nightingale. I heard them almost everywhere along that coast.

So what conclusion can I draw? If I were Russian, I’d simply answer that Crimea — ‘our Crimea’ — belongs to the great power whose agents captured it and then annexed it. The same will be true, Russians may dream, with more parts of Ukraine. It’s what we Russians all deserve, a nice beach in the sun, the reasoning goes. Such views may be abhorrent, but there’s no denying that its very beauty makes Ukraine into a prize.  

Its citizens are learning more and more to value it. ‘I’ve only realised how lovely my country is since I’ve been forced to leave it,’ say so many refugees. They’re right, and it’s their futures that depend on taking Ukraine back. But there is something subtler than possession at stake here. Land can flourish and repair itself and its beauty alone — look at the way the forests of Chernobyl have revived. The larger question is about how to rebuild the country again. When EU agencies pile in with their joint ventures and partnership schemes, when roads and bridges are re-laid and people told to make new lives, I’d like to think they’d take care, those outsiders with all their plans. Step lightly. Mind the butterflies. Honour the song of this good land.

Catherine Merridale

Catherine Merridale writes and broadcasts on Russia and on Soviet history, including the history of war and trauma. Her portrait of the Kremlin, Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History, won both the Wolfson Prize and the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize. She is a Fellow of the British Academy.

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