The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy

The first argument of The Gates of Europe is its existence: a history of Ukrainians as a people, a nation separate from others; a history of the Ukrainian lands that is not a subset of another history, whether that other history is Russian or (less probably) Polish. In his very first sentence, Plokhy cites the Scots as an example of a people for whom it is self-evident that histories would be written about them. Scotland has, of course, been part of a larger polity for more than 400 years, as Ukraine was for a similar period. Whether the Scots will follow the Ukrainians into national independence is a much livelier question now than it was in 2015 when Plokhy’s book was published. Just as it is self-evident that there is Scottish history, so there should be no question that there is Ukrainian history.

The second argument locates Ukraine in broader contexts of Europe. “The title of the book, The Gates of Europe, is of course a metaphor … Europe is an important part of the Ukrainian story, as Ukraine is part of the European one.” (p. xxi) Sometimes Ukraine proved a barrier to invasion in one direction or another. In contrast to other European countries, notably Poland, Ukraine did not develop an ideology of being antemurale christianitatis, a bulwark of Christendom against invaders. Sometimes the region was a “bridge between Europe and Eurasia, facilitating the interchange of people, goods, and ideas.” (p. xxi) The interplay of these two arguments forms much of the substance of the book. “Nation is an important — although not dominant — category of analysis and element of the story that, along with the ever changing idea of Europe, defines the nature of this narrative.” (p. xxi)

The Gates of Europe presents a history that is mostly, but not entirely, political in its focus. He sets out the geographical scope of the work: “This book tells the history of Ukraine within the borders defined by the ethnographers and mapmakers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which often (but not always) coincided with the borders of the present-day Ukrainian state.” (pp. xxi–xxii) He then briefly sketches his thoughts on the relationships among politics, culture, and history.

Politics, international and domestic, provide a convenient storyline, but in writing this book, I found geography, ecology, and culture most lasting and thus most influential in the long run. Contemporary Ukraine, as seen from the perspective of longue durée cultural trends, is a product of the interaction of two moving frontiers, one demarcated by the line between the Eurasian steppes and the eastern European parklands, the other defined by the border between Eastern and Western Christianity. The first frontier was also the one between sedentary and nomadic populations and, eventually, between Christianity and Islam. The second goes back to the division of the Roman Empire between Rome and Constantinople and marks differences in political culture between Europe’s east and west that still exist today. The movement of these frontiers over the centuries gave rise to a unique set of cultural features that formed the foundations of present-day Ukrainian identity.

Plokhy adds a perspective on the complexity of history within these Ukrainian lands. “One cannot tell the history of Ukraine without telling the story of its regions.” (p. xxii) Rule from different imperial capitals — Moscow, Warsaw, Vienna, Istanbul — left differences in institutions, demographics, historical ideas, and forms of cultural expression. He works to tell his stories chronologically, keeping details of, for example Russian- and Austrian-ruled Ukraine together to develop a comparative perspective. The approach shows how contemporaries in different regions addressed similar questions, and how the separation of the people into different polities affected leaders and ordinary people. It also shows the interplay across imperial frontiers.

The history of Ukraine begins with Herodotus. Greek settlements reached the northern shores of the Black Sea, and trading relations reached into the Pontic steppe. “[T]he territory of today’s Ukraine was a quintessential frontier where Greek civilization encountered its barbaric alter ego. It was the first frontier of a political and cultural sphere that would come to be known as the Western world. That is where the West began to define itself and its other.” (p. 3) In asserting Ukraine’s importance for defining the Western world, he is also arguing for its importance as a subject of study, and implicitly against political leaders who would consider Ukraine a subset of Russian history. Plokhy notes the nomadic peoples who inhabited the steppe — Cimmerians (with a nod to Conan), Sarmatians (later to feature in the ideology of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), Scythians — and gives a sense of what archeology and Herodotus have combined to show about these ancient peoples.

This approach continues through the early chapters. Plokhy writes in a lively style, and he gives convincing detail without getting bogged down in minutiae. He is also careful to give context for the sources, as in this summary at the end of the chapter on the advent of the Slavs:

We know precious little about the Slavs who settled Ukrainian territory prior to the tenth and eleventh centuries [by which time the Greek colonies were long gone, and contact with Byzantium limited]. What we do know comes, by and large, either from their Byzantine and Gothic adversaries or from Christian zealots of later centuries, such as the Kyivan chronicler, who saw the Slavs as little more than bearers of pagan superstitions. … What was ignored by the chroniclers and remains largely unknown to us is the process of their mostly peaceful colonization of eastern Europe … The Slavs were agriculturalists who followed in the wake of nomad invasions, as the nomads who “made history” usually did not know what to do with land that was not steppe in which their animals could graze. The waves of Slavic colonization were slow and mostly peaceful, and the results were to prove long-lasting. (p. 21)

From these uncertain beginnings, Plokhy traces the creation of a state centered on Kyiv (Kiev) led by Slavic princes, with a strong admixture of Vikings and an attraction to Byzantium. Though Kyivan Rus’, as the polity is known, was on the borders of Europe, politically it was involved with relations as far away as the North Sea and the Atlantic coast. Noting these connections advances Plokhy’s overarching argument about Ukraine’s place among European nations.

Under Yaroslav’s rule, Rus’ became a full-fledged member of the Christian community of nations. Later historians would call him the “father-in-law of Europe” because he married his sisters and daughters to European heads of state. … Unlike his father, Yaroslav was not wed to a Byzantine princess, but his son Vsevolod was — to a daughter of the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus. Yaroslav himself married a daughter of Olaf Erikson, the king of Sweden — a reflection of the Viking origins of his dynasty. His daughter Yelyzaveta (Elizabeth) was the consort of Harald Hardrada, the king of Norway. His son Iziaslav married a sister of the Polish king Casimir, who was already married to one of Yaroslav’s sisters. Yaroslav’s daughter Anastasia became the spouse of Andrew the White of Hungary, and another daughter, Anna, married Henry I of France. (p. 38)

Plokhy quotes a letter from Anna describing France as “a barbarous country where the houses are gloomy, the churches ugly, and the customs revolting.” He adds dryly, “Paris under Henry I was clearly not Constantinople, but more importantly, in Anna’s eyes, it did not rank even with Kyiv.” (p. 39)

And so Plokhy proceeds through the centuries. He writes a mostly political history that places Ukraine firmly within currents of European history. He selects sufficient details to give readers a feel for the period, to trace key connections, but does not let his narrative get bogged down in either names or particular places. He notes the trade routes that provided economic power underpinning (or undermining) various rulers, and how certain rivers and borders became recurring themes in Ukrainian history: The interplay between the steppe and cultivated or forested lands, the Dnieper, Bug and occasionally even the Danube.

He describes how the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania extended their control into Ukrainian lands as the Mongol tide receded from that part of Europe. In the 15th century, when those two polities joined in a dynastic union that eventually became the Commonwealth of Two Nations, the Rus’, the Ukrainians, became a largely unacknowledged third nation. That set the stage for many future conflicts. In the treaties setting up the union, only Catholic nobles were allowed to hold high office, “the first instance of discrimination against the Rus’ elites at the state level.” (p. 64) Meanwhile in Muscovy, Ivan III was the first ruler to call himself tsar. He declared independence from the Golden Horde (a Mongol successor state) and began a “‘gathering of the Rus’ lands,’ taking Novgorod, Tver, and Viarka” and claiming further lands including those of today’s Ukraine. (p. 65)

These conflicts echoed through the centuries. Local rulers tried to extend their power, sometimes within states based in distant capitals, sometimes declaring and maintaining their independence. Princes in western Ukraine became involved in Balkan politics; leaders in eastern Ukraine contended with Russian expansion. Plokhy is particularly good at explaining the origins of the Cossacks, their particular notions of freedom, and how they fluctuated between freebooting and serving imperial rulers. He also clearly explains the role of religion in these conflicts, no mean feat considering the confusion that Uniate believers often provoke.

In one of the ironies of the region, Kyiv provided many of the thinkers who promoted Moscow’s ideology of being the Third Rome, a pillar of Russian imperial thought.

Coming into the modern era, Plokhy draws attention to continuities such as regional differences, while showing what is new, such as industrial development in the southeast. He details the effects of the First World War and the civil war that followed the collapse of the Russian Empire. Some Ukrainians took the collapse of the empires as an opportunity to set up an independent state. Unlike the Poles, but like the South Caucasus peoples, they did not succeed, and most Ukrainian lands wound up under Bolshevik rule. Significant areas, including the city of Lviv (Lwów), were part of the interwar Polish republic. This division echoed earlier splits in Ukraine, and can also be seen in current divisions along party and interest lines.

Plokhy is unflinching about the effects of communist rule, and about the horrors of the Second War as first the German war machine rolled across Ukrainian territories and then the Red Army beat them back. Nor were they universally welcomed as liberators — “The Ukrainian Insurgent Army continued to challenge Soviet rule in the Galician countryside into the 1950s.” (p. 295) Plokhy says this was longer than any other armed resistance in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, although Baltic historians make similar claims for the partisan “forest brothers” who resisted Soviet power. He captures the low-key but crucial rule that Ukraine played in bringing the Soviet Union to an end, as well as the massive corruption that became visible in the first years of independence.

Writing about Ukraine’s most recent political developments, from the Orange Revolution in 2004 to Russia’s seizure of the Crimea in 2014 and instigation of rebellion soon afterward in Ukraine’s easternmost regions, Plokhy draws on the book’s theme of the European connections of Ukrainian events. The underlying mix is complex:

The line between the parklands of central Ukraine and the southern steppes became a porous border between the predominantly agricultural areas to the north and the urban centers of the mineral-rich steppes to the south. The frontier of Western and Eastern Christianity, after reaching the Dnieper in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, retreated to Galicia and now recalls the border between the Habsburg and Russian empires of the pre-World War I era. Within the former Habsburg possessions, Galicia differs from the largely Hungarian-ruled Transcarpathia and the former Moldavian province of Bukovyna. Within the former Russian Empire, Volhynia, which was under Polish rule during the interwar period, is different from Podolia, which stayed under Soviet rule for most of the twentieth century. There is also a difference between the formerly Polish-ruled lands on the Right Bank of the Dnieper and those of the former Cossack Hetmanate on its Left Bank, as well as between the Cossack lands and those colonized largely through the centralized efforts of the Russian Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The borders of those lands also serve as a line between Ukrainians who are more comfortable speaking Ukrainian and those who prefer Russian in everyday speech.
In reality, Ukrainian regionalism is even more complex than the account of it just presented. (pp. 351–52)

Regions, complexity, and connection to Europe. Those are the overarching themes of Plokhy’s history of Ukraine, and he conveys all three with strong narrative and judicious examples. Taken together, they validate his fundamental argument in favor of Ukrainians as a European people with a claim to a distinct history.

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.