A History of Ukraine

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine
Serhii Plokhy
Allen Lane  432pp  £25

Ukraine has been the focus of world attention in recent years. In the wake of the Orange revolution (2004-05) and the Euromaidan protests (2013-14) – during which Kievans took to the streets to demand closer integration with western Europe – it has suffered widespread, violent unrest across its eastern territories. Russia’s subsequent prosecution of a covert military campaign against the Ukrainian government in the Donbass region and its formal annexation of the Crimean peninsula has caused consternation in western capitals. In this opaque, largely undeclared conflict, all interested parties have sought to instrumentalise history for political ends. ‘Memory politics’ and historical grievance fuel the conflict and, in extremis, history – its appropriation and misappropriation – has become a weapon of war. 

It is in this context that Plokhy locates his formidable account of Ukrainian history. His remit is vast: careering, often at breakneck speed, from an account of the region given by Herodotus to the present day. It is a story of historical contingency and ever- shifting borders, as the lands at the western edge of the Eurasian steppe that now constitute Ukraine are redrawn by regional empires: Roman to Ottoman, Habsburg to Romanov, Nazi to Soviet. It is often a tragic history, which reaches its ghastly apogee early in the 20th century. The devastation visited upon Ukraine by the state-orchestrated famine of 1932-33 and later by the Nazis is unspeakable – every sixth Jew killed in the Holocaust was Ukrainian.

Plokhy sheds considerable light on the current conflict by paying special attention to the integrated history of Russia and Ukraine. Both states claim to be the legitimate heirs of Kyivan Rus, the medieval state centred on Kiev. The image of Yaroslav the Wise appears on the banknotes of both countries. The founding myth of modern Russia is of a state ‘conceived and born in Kiev’. More pertinently, as Plokhy highlights, despite Putin’s claim that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was an act of ‘historical justice’ to redress the transfer of the peninsula to the Soviet Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954, it was Russian imperial expansion of the late 18th century that led to dominance by Russia of lands once inhabited by the Crimean and Noghay Tatars. Similarly, the recently revived notion of ‘Novorossiya’ (the territory connecting Crimea with mainland Russia) was also born of Russian imperialism under Catherine the Great, centred on the former lands of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. As Russian claims persist that the Ukrainian state is an artificial formation, it propagates a narrative that, ‘the only genuine and thus historically legitimate polity is the empire: first the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union’, Plokhy states.

This erudite account errs only under the weight of its own ambition. Its relentlessly chronological and sometimes clinical attempt to provide a comprehensive as well as granular account can seem a little list-like and leaves a sense that Plokhy’s narrative might have been better curated. However, this is an important, timely survey of Ukraine’s history, providing a corrective to recent historical abuses. Though it may sound like a grand sentiment, if the misappropriation of history is a weapon of war, historical truth can sometimes be a potent instrument of peace.

John Owen is a journalist and producer, whose documentaries include The Warroom and Churchill: When Britain Said No, both broadcast on BBC2. 


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