I wanted to do a short post that was positive for a change, so I thought the book review I’d been planning to write for months would naturally be the most appropriate.
Some months ago I finished Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe – A History of Ukraine, and it is absolutely masterful. It’s strongest features? First, it is written by a Ukrainian historian. No, I’m not saying this like Viatrovych fanboy who says “Ukrainians should write Ukrainian history!” But when studying a country it helps to spend some time reading the work of that country’s historians to get their point of view. While outsiders’ detachment may help free them from potential biases, that same detachment can also cause them to miss or devote less time to those things in the country’s history which don’t necessarily catch their interest. A native historian can give you an idea of what local people find significant about their country.
Secondly, Plokhy strikes a good balance between detail and pacing. One thing about general histories is that they can sometimes be either too light, not delving deep enough into some important events or phenomenon and lacking crucial nuance, or they do the opposite, forcing you to slog through excruciatingly-detailed descriptions of sometimes minor events over the course of centuries. Naturally when I saw the book opens with the region of Ukraine during Antiquity I feared it would be the latter. Yet the author moves at a lively pace, moving more quickly over those parts which aren’t as crucial in the history of Ukraine. And speaking of crucial parts in Ukraine’s history, the book is also very recent, giving the reader key details about events such as the Maidan “Revolution of Dignity,” the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion and occupation of the Donbas region.
Having deliberately saved the best for last I can now tell you the greatest feature of Plokhy’s book- it truly brings the Ukrainian people, stretching back to the ancient Rus, to life. It does this by properly reclaiming Ukrainian historical figures whenever they lived, even if they died long before the ethnogenenis of the Ukrainians. Plokhy shows the Ukrainian people, particularly from the early modern era onward, as a coherent nation even though it lacked its own state.
Another great aspect of this portrayal is agency. For much of my life I’ve noticed the tendency of some Ukrainians or well-wishers to portray Ukrainian history as one of victimization and domination. In Plokhy’s history, different groups of Ukrainians act, and sometimes it doesn’t go well for them, but they are responsible. They are not simply acted upon. Even in the Soviet era, a period of Ukrainian history that some nationalists like to declare totally invalid, Plokhy shows that Ukrainians could be both victims and perpetrators, ruled and rulers via their dominance of key cadres after the Stalin era. Rather than treating the centuries of foreign domination in Ukraine as a black hole in which Ukrainians were simply objects and not subjects, he presents the long march toward Ukrainian statehood in a progressive way, from possessions of the Commonwealth and the Russian Empire, to a short-lived series of states in the revolutionary interwar period, to a unified Soviet republic and founding member of the UN, to an independent state suffering from Russian neo-colonialism, and finally to a state up in arms to overcome that neo-colonialism. Regardless of nation state status, Plokhy’s Ukraine has never died.
If I had to note some flaw I could say the book does skimp a bit when it comes to pointing out the role of the OUN-B nationalists and their role in the Holocaust (it does, however, clearly mention the ethnic cleansing of Poles), but if you look at the actual amount of text dedicated to those nationalists in general this is not particularly surprising or egregious. I think sometimes some of my Ukrainian readers infer that I insist every mention of interwar Ukrainian nationalists must necessarily include the laundry list of atrocities committed by some nationalist groups. I suspect this is because of the legacy of Soviet propaganda plus the Yanukovych administration, which often put up monuments to “victims of the Banderites” in places where no Banderites or any other nationalists even operated, such as the Crimea. This is simply idiocy.
Beating the dead nationalist horse is not my aim at all; I don’t really see them as being very relevant to Ukraine today. I’m far more opposed to the whitewashing, glorification, double-standards, and pseudo-history concerning the OUN and UPA. I’m sick of seeing them shoehorned into Ukrainian politics and Ukrainian history whether as heroes or villains. Thus Plokhy’s book truly shines because he gives the nationalists exactly the amount of text they deserve for a movement which never attracted more than a minority of Ukrainians as a whole, many of whom joined only under duress and not out of ideological fervor. The legend of the nationalists, which has been inflated by Soviet and Russian propaganda on one hand and the Bandera cult on the other, gets deflated to its proper place in Ukrainian history by Plokhy. So in the end, the one “flaw” really isn’t a flaw at all, or at least it is a totally defensible one.
In conclusion I highly recommend The Gates of Europe as an essential introductory general history of Ukraine. I think any Ukrainian or person of Ukrainian heritage reading this book would be proud to see that Ukrainians made important contributions in the history of the region and even globally despite lacking a nation state for much of their history.