Menu
25/07/2017

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

  • Serhii Plokhy
  • Visto: 2917

Hardcover, 352 pages. Basic Books, 395 pages
ISBN 0465050913 (ISBN13: 9780465050918)

As the award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy argues in The Gates of Europe, we must examine Ukraine’s past in order to understand its present and future. The Gates of Europe is the definitive history of Ukraine that helps us understand the country's past and the current crisis.

Why the struggle for Ukraine is the key to Europe’s future? This book attempts to give us an answer from a historic perspective. At the heart of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is the contested legacy of a long-forgotten superpower: Kievan Rus. Both Vladimir Putin’s Russia and post-Soviet Ukraine lay claim to the mantle of Vladimir the Great, a prince who just over 1,000 years ago accepted Christian baptism for his unruly tribes of Slavs and Vikings. To patriotic Russians, that was the founding action of their statehood. For Ukrainians, the story is the other way round: their country, so often wiped off the map by its neighbours, is the true descendant.

Ukraine’s identity and its enemies over the past ten centuries are the central threads of Serhii Plokhy’s admirable new history. He eschews polemic—almost to a fault, given the horrors he describes. The subject material could seem dauntingly dense: few readers will be familiar with the twists and turns of the history, and unfamiliar names and places abound. But Mr Plokhy—a Harvard historian whose previous book, “The Last Empire”, was a notable account of the Soviet Union’s downfall—treads a careful path.

The story is not just of high politics, gruesome and enthralling though that is. Even when Ukraine did not exist as a state, he writes, “language, folklore, literature and, last but not least, history became building blocks of a modern national identity”. He pays particular attention to the linguistic complexities. Ukrainians may speak Russian yet also identify profoundly with the Ukrainian state. The real linguistic divide is with Polish: western Ukraine was for many decades under Polish rule. Memories of massacres and oppression are recent and vivid, making the reconciliation between those two countries all the more remarkable.

The epilogue to “The Gates of Europe” rightly describes the Ukraine crisis as central to Russia and Europe as a whole. It is widely known that the Ukrainian national anthem begins: “Ukraine has not yet perished”. Belief in Ukraine’s history of tolerance and legality, rooted in European Christian civilisation, keeps hope alive. In his elegant and careful exposition of Ukraine’s past, Mr Plokhy has also provided some signposts to the future.

Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies at University College London:

“Serhii Plokhy has produced a perfect new history of Ukraine for these troubled times—authoritative and innovative, but always clear and accessible, and a delight to read.”

Norman M. Naimark, Stanford University:

“For a comprehensive, engaging, and up-to-date history of Ukraine one could do no better than Serhii Plokhy’s aptly titled The Gates of Europe. Plokhy’s authoritative study will be of great value to scholars, students, policy-makers, and the informed public alike in making sense of the contemporary Ukrainian imbroglio.”

John Herbst, former US Ambassador to Ukraine:

“Serhii Plokhy offers a short yet comprehensive history of Ukraine that contextualizes Mr. Putin’s current policies as aggression against the wishes of the Ukrainian people, as well as the order established at the end of the Cold War. A pleasure to read, The Gates of Europe will take those familiar with the Moscow narrative on a mind expanding tour of Ukraine’s past.”

Review:

Rows over inheritances are bitter—within families and between countries. At the heart of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is the contested legacy of a long-forgotten superpower: Kievan Rus. Both Vladimir Putin’s Russia and post-Soviet Ukraine lay claim to the mantle of Vladimir the Great, a prince who just over 1,000 years ago accepted Christian baptism for his unruly tribes of Slavs and Vikings. To patriotic Russians, that was the founding action of their statehood. For Ukrainians, the story is the other way round: their country, so often wiped off the map by its neighbours, is the true descendant.

That dispute underlies today’s smouldering war. Many Russians find it hard to accept that Ukraine is really a state; moreover, Ukrainians (especially if they speak Russian as a first language) are essentially Russians. The territory they inhabit is therefore part of Moscow’s patrimony.

Ukraine’s identity and its enemies over the past ten centuries are the central threads of Serhii Plokhy’s admirable new history. He eschews polemic—almost to a fault, given the horrors he describes. The subject material could seem dauntingly dense: few readers will be familiar with the twists and turns of the history, and unfamiliar names and places abound. But Mr Plokhy—a Harvard historian whose previous book, “The Last Empire”, was a notable account of the Soviet Union’s downfall—treads a careful path.

The story is not just of high politics, gruesome and enthralling though that is. Even when Ukraine did not exist as a state, he writes, “language, folklore, literature and, last but not least, history became building blocks of a modern national identity”. He pays particular attention to the linguistic complexities. Ukrainians may speak Russian yet also identify profoundly with the Ukrainian state. The real linguistic divide is with Polish: western Ukraine was for many decades under Polish rule. Memories of massacres and oppression are recent and vivid, making the reconciliation between those two countries all the more remarkable ...

[ Full text ]