Still reeling from the pandemic, the world was rocked to its core on February 24, 2022, when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, an act of unprovoked aggression not seen in Europe since World War II that conjured up distressing historical parallels. If there were voices that previously denied the echo of Hitler’s Austrian Anschluss to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, as well as German adventurism in Sudetenland with Russian-sponsored separatism in the Donbas, there was no mistaking the similarity to the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. But it was Vladimir Putin’s challenge to the very legitimacy of Kiev’s sovereignty—a shout out to the Kremlin’s rising chorus of irredentism that declares Ukraine a wayward chunk of the “near abroad” that is rightly integral to Russia—that compels us to look much further back in history.
Putin’s claim, however dubious, begs a larger question: by what right can any nation claim self-determination? Is Ukraine really just a modern construct, an opportunistic product of the collapse of the USSR that because it was historically a part of Russia should be once again? Or, perhaps counter-intuitively, should western Russia instead be incorporated into Ukraine? Or—let’s stretch it a bit further—should much of modern Germany rightly belong to France? Or vice versa? From a contemporary vantage point, these are tantalizing musings that challenge the notions of shifting boundaries, the formation of nation states, fact-based if sometimes uncomfortable chronicles of history, the clash of ethnicities, and, most critically, actualities on the ground. Naturally, such speculation abruptly shifts from the purely academic to a stark reality at the barrel of a gun, as the history of Europe has grimly demonstrated over centuries past.
To learn more, I turned to the recently updated edition of The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by historian and Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy, a dense, well-researched, deep dive into the past that at once fully establishes Ukraine’s right to exist, while expertly placing it into the context of Europe’s past and present. For those like myself largely unacquainted with the layers of complexity and overlapping hegemonies that have long dominated the region, it turns out that there is much to cover. At the same time, the wealth of material that strikes as unfamiliar places a strong and discouraging underscore to the western European bias in the classroom—which at least partially explains why it is that even those Americans capable of locating Ukraine on a map prior to the invasion knew almost nothing of its history.
Survey courses in my high school covered Charlamagne’s 9th century empire that encompassed much of Europe to the west, including what is today France and Germany, but never mentioned Kievan Rus’—the cultural ancestor of modern Ukraine, Belarus and Russia—that was in the 10th and 11th centuries the largest and by far the most powerful state on the continent, until it fragmented and then fell to Mongol invaders! To its east, the Grand Principality of Moscow, a 13th century Rus’ vassal state of the Mongols, formed the core of the later Russian Empire. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was in its heyday among the largest and most populous on the continent, but both Poland and Lithuania were to fall to partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and effectively ceased to exist for more than a century. Also missing from maps, of course, were Italy and Germany, which did not even achieve statehood until the later 19th century. And the many nations of today’s southeastern Europe were then provinces of the Ottoman Empire. That is European history, complicated and nuanced, as history tends to be.
Plokhy’s erudite study restores from obscurity Ukraine’s past and reveals a people who while enduring occupation and a series of partitions never abandoned an aspiration to sovereignty that was not to be realized until the late 20th century. Once a dominant power, Ukraine was to be overrun by the Mongols, preyed upon for slave labor by the Crimean Khanate, and throughout the centuries sliced up into a variety of enclaves ruled by the Golden Horde, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austrian Empire, the Tsardom of Russia, and finally the Soviet Union.
That long history was written with much blood and suffering inflicted by its various occupiers. Just in the last hundred years that included Soviet campaigns of terror, ethnic cleansing, and deportations, as well as the catastrophic Great Famine of 1932–33—known as the “Holodomor”—a product of Stalin’s forced collectivization that led to the starvation deaths of nearly four million Ukrainians. Then there was World War II, which claimed another four million lives, including about a million Jews. The immediate postwar period was marked by more tumult and bloodshed. Stability and a somewhat better quality of life emerged under Nikita Khrushchev, who himself spent many years of residence in Ukraine. It was Khrushchev who transferred title of the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. The final years under Soviet domination saw the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The structure of the USSR was manifested in political units known as Soviet Socialist Republics, which asserted a fictional autonomy subject to central control. Somewhat ironically, as time passed this enabled and strengthened nationalism within each of the respective SSR’s. Ukraine (like Belarus) even held its own United Nations seat, although its UN votes were rubber-stamped by Moscow. Still, this further reinforced a sense of statehood, which was realized in the unexpected dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence in 1991. In the years that followed, as Ukraine aspired to closer ties with the West, that statehood increasingly came under attack by Putin, who spoke in earnest of a “Greater Russia” that by all rights included Ukraine. Election meddling became common, but with the spectacular fall of the Russian-backed president in 2014, Putin annexed Crimea and fomented rebellion that sought to create breakaway “republics” in the Donbas of eastern Ukraine. This only intensified the desire of Kiev for integration with the European Union and for NATO membership.
A vast country of forest and steppe, marked by fertile plains crisscrossed by rivers, Ukraine has long served as a strategic gateway between the east and west, as emphasized in the book’s title. Elements of western, central, and eastern Europe all in some ways give definition to Ukrainian life and culture, and as such Ukraine remains inextricably as much a part of the west as the east. While Russia has left a huge imprint upon the nation’s DNA, it hardly informs the entirety of its national character. The Russian language continues to be widely spoken, and at least prior to the invasion many Ukrainians had Russian sympathies—if never a desire for annexation! For Ukrainians, stateless for too long, their own national identity ever remained unquestioned. The Russian invasion has, rather than threatened that, only bolstered it.
Today, Ukraine is the second largest European nation, after Russia. Far too often overlooked by both statesmen and talking heads, Ukraine would also be the world’s third largest nuclear power—and would have little to fear from the tanks of its former overlord—had it not given up its stockpile of nukes in a deal brokered by the United States, an important reminder to those who question America’s obligation to defend Ukraine.
As this review goes to press, Russia’s war—which Putin euphemistically terms a “special military operation”—is going very poorly, and despite energy supply shortages and threats of nuclear brinksmanship, the West stands firmly with Ukraine, which in the course of the conflict has been subjected to horrific war crimes by Russian invaders. However, as months pass, and both Europe and the United States endure the economic pain of inflation and rising fuel prices, as well as the ever-increasing odds of rightwing politicians gaining political power on both sides of the Atlantic, it remains to be seen if this alliance will hold steady. As battlefield defeats mount, and men and materiel run short, Putin seems to be running out the clock in anticipation of that outcome. We can only hope it does not come to that.
While I learned a great deal from The Gates of Europe, and I would offer much acclaim to its scholarship, there are portions that can prove to be a slog for a nonacademic audience. Too much of the author’s chronicle reads like a textbook—pregnant with names and dates and events—and thus lacks the sweep of a grand thematic narrative inspiring to the reader and so deserving of the Ukrainian people he treats. At the same time, that does not diminish Plokhy’s achievement in turning out what is certainly the authoritative history of Ukraine. With their right to exist under assault once more, this volume serves as a powerful defense—the weapon of history—against any who might challenge Ukraine’s sovereignty. If you believe, as I do, that facts must triumph over propaganda and polemic, then I highly recommend that you turn to Plokhy to best refute Putin.