Friday, April 15, 2022

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

Serhii Plokhy's The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine is a history both of the land occupied by the contemporary nation of Ukraine, but even more of the people who are Ukrainians. It covers 2500 years ending with 2020 in the revised edition. (The revised edition came out in 2021.)

Especially now it made for a pretty fascinating read.

The history begins with Herodotus, which any history that justifiably can ought to do. 😉 The area was not then inhabited by Slavic speakers, but Cimmerians and Scythians, who spoke Iranian languages. Plokhy also makes use of Procopius' history, to discuss the area's relation to Byzantium, but he mostly moves over this period pretty quickly.

Slavic speakers first move to the area as part of the migrations caused by Attila the Hun. (5th or 6th century.) As the power of the Huns wanes, a new state, Kievan Rus' is established covering most of what is now Ukraine, Belorussia, and European Russia. Kyiv is the capitol. The nobles, led by the Rurikid dynasty, are a mix of Vikings and Slavs; the people, mostly Slavs. It reached its political apex under Yaroslav the Wise (978-1054).

It seems the word Rus' (the basis of Russian) comes (via the Finns) from the Swedish word 'ruotsi' used to describe the Vikings as the 'men who row.' 

Yaroslav partitioned out the kingdom to his three eldest sons. Plokhy compares this division to that of Charlemagne. Like Charlemagne, Yaroslav did it to prevent inheritance squabbles among his sons, and it succeeded about as well as Charlemagne's attempt did. (That is, not at all.) New successor kingdoms were the result. These fought among themselves and tried to work with their more powerful neighbors (the Khazars, Byzantium). The word Ukraine first appears in the historical record at this time (in the 1180s). Then everything was swept away by the Mongol Horde in 1240. This was the beginning of differences between the various east Slavic states though none of them exactly correspond to three current ones. (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia).

Two east Slavic vassal states are formed in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion. One is Muscovy, with its capital Vladimir (near Moscow) and is the area around Moscow. The other, Galicia-Volhynia, was centred in Kyiv but moved its capitol to Kholm (now Chełm in Poland) and occupied the area of what's now western Ukraine and eastern Poland. The two vassal states received different treatment; the Muscovy state, closer to the Mongol heartland was more oppressed; the Kholm state was allowed a looser rein. 

In 1323 the last male heirs (grandsons of the founder) of the Galicia-Volhynia dynasty died. The Mongols were a bit weaker. Galicia was taken over by the Polish kingdom; Volhynia by the Lithuanians. 1386 marks the beginning of the joining of Poland and Lithuania in a commonwealth. But the administration of the two areas remains separate. Plokhy thinks this is the beginning of a separate identity for Belarusians and Ukrainians. 

The Cossacks begin as a sort of peasant rebellion in what is now eastern Ukraine, but in 1648 Bohdan Khmelnitsky creates a state (the Hetmanate) out of Polish-Lithuanian lands in what is now eastern Ukraine. Plokhy doesn't play down the pogroms that have left Khmelnitsky as little more than a swear word in Jewish history, but he did create a sort of Ukrainian state. But by 1780 the Hetmanate had been absorbed into Russia. Western Ukraine is split between Austria-Hungary (Lviv) and Russia (Kyiv) during the partitions of Poland.

There's an attempt to set up a new Ukrainian state in the immediate aftermath of World War I, but it doesn't last, doesn't really even get on its feet.

Plokhy discusses the state of education in the Ukrainian language in the various jurisdictions as one of the formative elements of a Ukrainian identity. The ability to use one's native Ukrainian in a public setting comes and goes at the political whim of the various powers. For instance, Austria-Hungary at one point trying to beat back Polish nationalism allows schools to use Ukrainian. Later to placate the Poles, Ukrainian is no longer taught. 

Plokhy makes a good case for a Ukrainian identity, which is, of course, like anybody else's, only strengthened by persecution. In the 19th century a number of nationalities were finding their feet; Plokhy does suggest that the Ukrainians were a little late in finding theirs, though they did not really have a state of their own at any point in the 19th century.

I felt like I learned a lot from the book, especially in the time frames that were more obscure to me: the Middle Ages in Slavic lands. Looking at Plokhy's list of publications on Wikipedia, (he's now a professor at Harvard) it's clear one of his real interests is the formation of Ukrainian identity, and I found that the most interesting part. 

This is a book for a non-specialist reader. (Like me!) It reads well, but it does cover 2500 years in 360 pages, so there are a few places where it felt a bit thin--World War I, for instance. Still. Full of fascinating and timely and suddenly--unfortunately--much more important things to know. Recommended.


  1. What a timely read! I know I'd like to know more about Ukraine's history; I'll have to see if my library has this one.

  2. Sounds like a book I want to read!

    1. It's a good one, especially for the moment.