A Review of “The Gates of Europe” by Serhii Plokhy
When news first flashed about war in Ukraine, there was a big spike in Google searches for Ukraine. I can understand that. Until 1991, Ukraine was behind the Iron Curtain and did not feature in British newspapers, nor in any school history curriculum. The only time it hit the headlines was the Chernobyl disaster (1986) and that was before Wikipedia started (2001).
Many of us who tried to repair our ignorance in 2022 would have turned to Wikipedia. In particular, the question in our minds was – why was Putin trying to claim that Ukraine is really part of Russia? But I found that history mind-boggling, maybe because I had no sense of the terrain. As the daughter of a human geographer (Prof J H G Lebon), I have always wanted to see the geography of the region where the history is taking place. Wikipedia provides only historic political maps.
Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard historian
Serhii Plokhy, the Harvard historian who published “The Gates of Europe – A History of Ukraine”, in 2015, gets the priority right, with 10 maps immediately after the Contents page. Map 1 shows that the south east of Ukraine is steppe, then forest steppe north of that, then further north forest. Mountains are on the south west side (Carpathians) and also along the south of the Crimea. The rivers are shown: the Danube, the Dnieper, Dniester, Buh, Donets, Dnipro. This is followed by eight maps of the various periods of Ukrainian history up to 2015.
The Table of Contents reveals how he has divided the history into five periods, entitled
On the Pontic frontier (which includes the coming of the Slavs, the Vikings, “the keys to Kyiv” and the Mongols)
East meets West (which includes the Cossacks, Eastern Reformation, the Great Revolt, the Partitions, battle of Poltava)
Between the Empires (Austria, Prussia, Russian, and Ottoman)
The Wars of the World (from 1919 up to 1945)
The Road the Independence (from 1945 when UN recognised Ukraine as a nation although it was a republic within the USSR until 1991).
A historical timeline
At the back is a Historical Timeline which notes important events in world history as well as for Ukraine. There are also six pages of Who’s Who in Ukrainian history and an index. There is a glossary where some key terms like oblast (= a province of Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine) or Maidan, the plaza in Kyiv where demonstrations took place. There are also six pages of further reading for each chapter. So, this is a serious history book, going beyond what one can learn from Wikipedia.
So, what in this grand sweep of history does one learn that illuminates the current conflict?
First, the actual land of the steppes consists of fertile black earth which is excellent for arable farming. The natives have concentrated on ploughing and harvesting for centuries, while armies and empires rise and fall around them. In the twentieth century it was the need for this agricultural surplus that drove Stalin’s cruel collectivisation that caused the Holodomor and later Hitler to steer his armies of occupation onto those lands in quest of food for Germany.
The shared cultural heritage with lands now in Russia began with the Vikings who were organising trade from the Baltic, along the rivers, and across to the Byzantine Empire, trading in furs and slave, and bringing back silk and silver coins to Scandinavia, as archaeology reveals. The Primary chronicle, written in Kyiv in the 12C tells of a fight for the city in 882, which was won by Helgi on behalf of the overlord of Novgorod, called Rurik. The descendants of those original Viking rulers, the Rurikid dynasty, ruled in Russia until 1598 when the Romanovs took over. An important date in this shared history is in 988 when Vladimir the Great (Volodymyr) accepted Christianity from the Byzantine Empire. Ironic that both Putin and Zelensky share this common name!
After Volodymyr’s conversion, the patriarch of Constantinople created the Metropolitanate of Rus at Kyiv, staffed, of course, with Greeks. Church Slavonic, the first literary language of Rus functioned primarily to make Greek texts understandable. Christian Slavonic literacy spread from Kyiv northwards to Novgorod. Meanwhile in the early Middle Ages the various Rus principalities (Map 2) covered the whole area from Kyiv to Novgorod and eastwards to Vladimir-Suzdal (Map 3), which eventually became Muscovy, with Moscow the chief city.
Both polities were invaded (Map 4) by the Mongols under Genghis Khan. Kyiv fell to the Mongols in 1246. The survivors most likely did not flee towards the Volga (as some Russian scholars suggest) but to the forests of N Ukraine, or the foothills of the Carpathians (where the most ancient dialects survive). This is the time when Russian chroniclers says Muscovy was under the “the Tartar yoke”. The princes in Ukraine accommodated to the Mongols in various ways: Danylo in Galicia and Volhynia attracted refugees from across the Kyiv lands, and also started to negotiate with the Pope. This eventually caused the Metropolitan bishopric to be moved to Moscow in 1325. Galicia-Volhynia then came under Polish rulers.
Map 5 shows that in the C16 and C17, the Polish Commonwealth contained what is now west Ukraine. The Ottomans were in the South in Moldavia and Transylvania, with a Tartar Khanate in Crimea. To the north (where Belorussia is now) was the duchy of Lithuania. Between these, along the Dnipro River and including Kyiv was the independent “Hetmanate” of the Cossacks (Map 6). They were warriors descended from the nomads of the steppes. Their fighting skills made them formidable opponents both of the Polish landowning class, the Lithuanians and the Crimean Tartars.
17th century wars
The Hetmanate split in the seventeenth century in a series of wars (Map 7). Plokhy comments “the main long-term consequence…was the division of Ukraine along the Dnieper between Muscovy and Poland…a major factor in early modern Ukraine history, and some consider it relevant even today.” (p109) Poland then broke up (Map 8) and the Hapsburgs gained Galicia.
The Russian Empire under Catherine the Great was expanding, defeated the Ottomans and gained control of all of southern Ukraine, a province called “New Russia.” The Cossacks were dispersed elsewhere, while the Russian Government encouraged new settlers to farm the steppes. The Hapsburg Austrians prevailed in Galicia, but Catherine moved the imperial border right up to Galicia and struck a medal “I have restored what was torn away” (a reference to all the lands of Kyivan Rus).
National feelings, industrialisation and migration
Napoleon’s wars awakened national feelings in many parts of Europe. During this time Russian imperial journals published poems in Ukrainian for the first time in 1807: “Aha, have you grabbed enough you vicious bastard Bonaparte?”. Nationalism was stirring on both sides of the Dnieper. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, on the Austrian side, Russophile activists (Ukrainian nationalists) were prosecuted, while within the Russian Empire Tsar Alexander prohibited publications in Ukrainian.
But this was also a period of industrialisation, of railway building, and migration. A pity there is no map of this and of the main towns and railways as this is the terrain that is being contested today. About 600,000 thousand Ukrainians migrated to the USA before 1914, including many Jews from the small towns. Russians migrated into the new industrial towns, such as Donetsk. In the imperial census of 1897, there were 3m Russians in a population of 17m Ukrainians.
Ukraine between cultural and political boundaries of the past
Map 9 shows the area that was incorporated into the Soviet Union, both the Habsburg lands in the west and the Russian imperial lands to the east. After the second world war, Ukraine was enlarged again as Stalin and Churchill agreed that Polish borders move westwards, thus the Polish University centre of Lviv became Ukrainian. Khrushchev added Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.
The Epilogue of this capacious history book states, “The Russo-Ukrainian conflict…has deep historical roots…the struggle over historical and cultural fault lines …allow participants in the conflict to imagine it as a contest between East and West, Europe and the Russian world.” “History has left Ukraine united in one state but divided along numerous regional lines that echo the cultural and political boundaries of the past”. “A country located on the East-West divide between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, central European and Eurasian empires…this location…helped make Ukraine a contact one in which Ukrainians of different persuasions could learn to co-exist.”
Plokhy has dedicated the book to the people of Ukraine.