Review; The Gates of Europe; a History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy(2015) Assessment 8 out of 10

Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard. Hrushevsky himself was a Ukrainian politician and historian, who wrote 10 volumes covering Ukrainian-Rus up to 1660. At 354 pages, plus notes and glossary etc, this makes The Gates of Europe a tearing rush of a book.

 Indeed the earlier chapters on steppe tribes and the Viking origins of the Rus are too thin. Either they should have been extended or cut. The argument for extension would have made the book more a history of the lands which became Ukraine, the argument for cutting them would have meant the book better lives up to its sub-title of being a History of Ukraine.

Here at the Gates of Europe territories & peoples were ordered, divided & then put together again in different ways. At times you think of this as national history written to presage an “inevitable” Ukrainian national outcome. However its subtitle is “a History”, not “the History of Ukraine”, so you are reminded that this is contingent history, the outcome uncertain and as yet unknown, a case where history hasn’t ended, but then it hasn’t anywhere, particular territories or jurisdictions and particular nation states not the end game, but the state of play when described.

 Context is given to the present conflict, where the Russian army has struggled more in the forest and forest steppe of northern Ukraine than in the steppe of the south and east. At various times Plokhy refers to parkland. I was unsure where & what this was. Physical barriers & remoteness existed elsewhere. The purest (oldest) Ukrainian dialects are found where the population sheltered from slave raiding in the Carpathians and in the marshes and forests around the Pripyiat river which flows east to join the Dneiper.

Kyivan Rus, a 19th century fictive name for it, had chosen Orthodoxy as its state religion in the 10th Century from Byzantium, a significant (fairly)  near power. Historians and nationalists viewed Kyivan Rus and successor principalities as predecessors of both Russia & Ukraine. The big divide came with the Mongol conquest of the 13th century. Kyiv took centuries to recover, instead borderland principalities were favoured, whilst what became Russian lands were subject to the “Tartar yoke” until the 15th Century.

Princes from Galicia and Volhynia, in particular Danylo of Haylich, retained local power whilst subject to the suzerainty of the Golden Horde. The Orthodox see based on Kyiv moved to Moscow, following Danyo’s alliance with the Pope, its diocese split between All Rus, which became Russia, and Little Rus, Ukraine, so questions about whether they form a unity or are separate go back a long way.

Polish histiography concentrates on the Partitions of Poland of 1772-95, which extinguished the Polish state. Plokhy makes it clear that Poland itself had previously participated in partitions of Ukraine, in the late 14th century Poland taking Galicia & W Podolia, Lithuania Volhynia and the lands around Kyiv. Threatened by the Teutonic Knights, Poland & Lithuania formed a Commonwealth with common sovereigns.  In 1568/9 under the Lublin Union more land, Volhynia and around Kyiv, was transferred from the grand Duchy of Lithuania to the dominant partner, the Kingdom of Poland. This territorial division was followed by creation of the Uniate Church, following Orthodox ritual but subject to the Catholic Church, which was accepted generally in Volhynia & Belorussia, but not in Ukraine. Divisions created under the Lublin Union have persisted to this day in the present border between Belorussia and Ukraine.

 Subject to slaving by Turks and Tartars forbidden from enslaving their Moslem  co-religionists, Cossacks lived on the steppe outside areas of traditional settlements. Ukrainian peasantry joined them to avoid serfdom on Polish manorial estates. The Cossacks protected Orthodoxy from Catholic Poland. They were at this time largely foot soldiers. They rebelled against, and were defeated by, the Poles six times, but on the seventh, the Great Rebellion of 1648, they allied with the Tartars, who provided cavalry. Together they crushed the Polish army, then acted against the Jews, Catholic priests & Polish nobility. A further defeat of the Polish army was followed by creation of the Cossack Hetmanate.  Twice defeated by the Poles when abandoned by its Tartar allies, in 1654 it agreed to the suzerainty of the Muscovite Tsar, a date recognised in 1954 in Russia as the ter-centenary of the “re-unification of Rus”. Plokhy notes that “Every time the Cossacks switched sides in the Muscovite-Polish war they lost additional elements of sovereignty”. In 1667 under the Truce of Androsov the Hetmanate was divided in two between Poland and Russia along the line of the Dneiper.

 On the Partition of Poland, Russia established the Pale of Jewish Settlement. It was limited to lands which had formerly been within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, again showing how defunct territories persist.

Plokhy refers to various 19th century Ukrainian nationalists who followed the volkish romantic Herder idea of nationality, based on language and folk tales “A poet is the creator of the nation around him, he gives them a world to see and has their souls in his hand to lead them to that world.”

 In truth national “self-determination” came about in the terrible circumstances of the failed empires, which ended the First World War. From there for Ukraine things went progressively worse.

 In 1918 Ukrainian independence was recognised at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk when the Bolsheviks made a separate peace with Germany. In the anarchy which followed, Ukraine was fought over between the Poles, Ukrainians, Whites & Bolsheviks. There were separate Ukrainian forces from former Austrian Galicia and former Russian Ukraine. Both were decimated in late 1919 by typhus. Anti-Jewish Pogroms were carried out by all except the Galician Ukrainians.

Western peacemakers failed to understand the difficulties of applying Wilson’s national state model to the intermingled religious & ethnic circumstances of eastern Europe.

In 1919 the Curzon Line was proposed as the eastern boundary of the re-established Polish state reflecting the limits of Polish majority territory. However fighting continued between the Poles & Bolsheviks and the ceasefire line recognised at a treaty signed at Riga, Latvia in 1921 was further east, incorporating in Poland mixed ethnic Belorussian & Ukrainian majority areas., Ukrainian Bukovyna became Rumanian Transcarpathian Ukraine which had been Hungarian and became Czech Ruthenia ( a third or fourth name for Ukraine). Between the wars Ukraine remained the largest European national group without a state.

There was forced collectivisation. 4million died in famines of 1932/3 when Stalin enforced grain production targets from Ukraine. The famine left the people traumatised.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact divided Poland in a Fourth Partition. The Soviet sphere of influence took it forward to the Curzon Line. The Pact however turned out to be a trap, as Stalin moved troops west of his defence lines towards the new border, which there was no time to fortify before the German attack in 1941. 3.5m Soviet prisoners were taken. The Germans hadn’t planned to take so many prisoners and 60% of those captured died.

In Ukraine Einsatzgruppen executed Jews, in plain sight, ahead of establishment of the death camps. At Babi Yar, outside Kyiv, 33,000 were shot in two days.

The suffering didn’t end with the end of the war. 500, 000 Ukrainians were forcibly moved east of the new border with Poland. 250,000 Ukrainians, accused of nationalism were deported to Siberia. Multi-ethnic Poland & Ukraine were being bought to an end.  In 1946/7 close to a million died in a further famine, the result of Stalin demanding grain production when Ukraine was hit by drought. Throughout people were treated like commodities, their humanity denied.

The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 in northern Ukraine, indicative of Soviet incompetence and lack of transparency, was followed in 1991 by Ukraine’s parliament declaring independence, effectively ending the Soviet Union. The 1990s saw significant falls in living standards and population with divestment from the Soviet space-military-industrial complex.

More recently there has been a revival. Russian nation building was based on there being a single country, culture & language, which incorporates Ukraine. In Ukraine bilingualism & multi-culturalism have become the norm. 17% of Ukrainians were Russian, but only 5% thought of themselves as exclusively Russian. Ukraine is recognised as the software engineering capital of east and central Europe. Given their past, it is unsurprising that the Ukrainians were choosing to disassociate from Russia. You can see why all this worries Putin.

 This is traditional narrative history told with little pause for breath. You are left with a better understanding of part of Europe, which we should know more about, and about the deep sources of the current crisis, whose outcome remains uncertain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s