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Books feature

The history of Ukraine — from Herodotus to Hitler

Serhii Plokhy's work explains how this vast, once distant steppe between forest and sea is now regarded as ‘the Gates of Europe’

9 January 2016

9:00 AM

9 January 2016

9:00 AM

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine Serhii Plokhy

Allen Lane, pp.395, £25

At the beginning of the historical record, the lands that we now call Ukraine were a reservoir of fantasy. Achilles probably did not sail from a Greek port on the north of the Black Sea up the rapids of the Dnipro River to find his final resting place, as some Greeks once believed. Nor is it likely that Ukraine, or the Pontic steppe as the Greeks had it, was the homeland of the Amazons. That said, it was Herodotus who supplied the south-to-north physical geography that Serhii Plokhy wisely follows: the ports of Crimea and the coast, the rich steppe heartland, and the forests. For Plokhy, the formation of Ukraine is the establishment of a unity among these three zones, and his themes are ‘geography, ecology and culture’.

Greek culture reached Kyiv, a city on the Dnipro where steppe meets forest, in about 1000 AD. Byzantine civilisation extended northward, thanks to an assist from Scandinavians. The Vikings, seeking trade and tribute, were the first to control the northerly forests, but did not master the steppe. After attempts to intimidate Constantin-ople, these Scandinavians, known as the Rus, settled on conversion. Their leaders took the names of local Slavs and married them, and accepted the Church Slavonic invented by Byzantine clerics as the language of their new faith. Yaroslav, the most famous ruler of Rus, is associated with the law codes written in a secularised version of that tongue. His daughter was unhappy as queen of France, whose culture she found ‘revolting’.

When the Mongols arrived from the east in 1240, the lands of Rus were divided into three zones. The westernmost principality, Galicia-Volhynia, would fall under Polish rule. The easternmost, Vladimir-Suzdal, remained a Mongol dependency until 1480, when Ivan the Great broke the ‘Tatar yoke’. His capital was Moscow. The difference between the trajectories of Galicia and Volhynia, today’s western Ukraine, and Muscovy, later the seat of the Russian empire and the USSR, are undeniable. But to concentrate on these two extreme variants is to miss the main story.

Kyiv and most of the territories of Rus, as Plokhy notes, fell to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, another powerful pagan domain from the north. This second southward conquest allowed for a second northward transmission of culture. Kyivan law and its language were adopted by Lithuania, assuring the transmission of a form of Byzantine culture as far north as Vilnius — at the very moment that Byzantium itself fell to the Ottomans. Thanks to Lithuania, the main stream of the history of the lands that we now call Ukraine flowed north and south until the 17th century.

The axis of Ukrainian history turned from south-north to west-east when this classical heritage was challenged by a latinising ‘renaissance’ arriving from westerly Poland. The Polish language slowly gained prestige in Vilnius and subsequently throughout Lithuania. Then a Polish reformation and counter-reformation brought sophisticated disputation to all the lands of Poland and Lithuania, including Rus. At just this moment, in 1569, the territory of Poland-Lithuania was reassigned, such that Rus was split from north to south: roughly speaking, today’s Belarus remained in Lithuania, while today’s Ukraine fell to Poland.

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Ukrainian nobles, clerics and peasants faced instead the onslaught of an emerging modern European civilisation. Polish nobles brought, and many Ukrainian nobles adopted, Catholicism, the Polish language and principles of land management needed to transform steppe into plantation. Reformers and counter-reformers turned the principles of disputation against local Orthodoxy. Some Orthodox bishops responded both by generating a union of eastern and western Christianity at Brest in 1596; this led to the Greek Catholic faith that is dominant in western Ukraine today. Others adopted western methods of argumentation and education. The Kyiv Academy, Orthodox, Latin, and baroque, was the eastern outpost of university education.

This Polish push from the west gave rise to a rebellion that created an opening for Muscovite power in the east. Plokhy is at his best when describing the Ukrainian Cossacks, free men of what remained of the untamed steppe. Mainly concerned to secure legal status in Poland, they roused the peasants through religious and social appeals. Having failed to secure acceptable alliances with the Ottoman empire, their preferred ally, the Cossacks turned to Muscovy in 1654. The attack of the Muscovite armies on Poland dug the east-west channel of influence from the other side. A truce in 1667 left western Ukraine in Poland-Lithuania and eastern Ukraine and Kyiv in Muscovy. By now the term ‘Ukraine’ was in use for the lands on both sides.

Russia itself arose from this clash. The rulers of Muscovy, like the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, had styled themselves the successors of Rus. But when its commanders encountered the Cossacks in 1654, they met a foreign world. The two sides needed translators. The Cossacks assumed, incorrectly, that they could negotiate with tsars as with Polish kings. In fact, the defeat of Poland was a prelude to the subordination of the Cossacks themselves. The Orthodox theologians of the Kyiv Academy offered themselves to their new ruler, the tsar, and brought ideology to Moscow. It was in their interest to claim that Kyiv and Moscow were part of the same historical entity, since this justified their position as its ideologists. Thus the origins of a ‘Russian’ empire, declared by Tsar Peter I in 1721.

As the Russian empire joined with the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns in partitioning Poland-Lithuania in 1772, it was beginning a process that would bring most of the Ukrainian lands under a single ruler. Even as it was dividing Poland, Russia drove the Ottomans from the Black Sea coast and the Crimean Peninsula. Forest, steppe and coast would be united in the 19th century by railways, so the crops grown on the steppe could be sold on world markets. As elsewhere, globalisation was accompanied by romantic nationalism, which began in Ukraine in and around the university at Kharkiv. Russian rulers could not at first decide whether Ukrainian patriotism was favourable or detrimental to their own interests. When they decided upon the latter and banned the Ukrainian language, important writers moved to Habsburg Galicia, the one region of ancient Rus now beyond the Russian empire.

In the late 19th century the industrialisation of what is now southeastern Ukraine, the Donets basin (Donbas), was undertaken by a Welsh industrialist, John Hughes. The industrial town founded by Hughes is today known as Donetsk. The confusion between what was Russian and what was Ukrainian was natural in this region, where poor Russian peasants migrated to work in cities surrounded by Ukrainian peasants. After 1917, Soviets inherited the dual processes of nationalisation and modernisation. Their first idea was to support Ukrainian culture, on the logic that Ukrainian national consolidation could support socialist construction. Yet when the collectivisation of agriculture brought famine rather then plenty, Stalin blamed the Ukrainians for the failure of his own policy and directed the resulting starvation to the Ukrainian republic. Meanwhile, Hitler’s fantasy was to reverse Soviet industrialisation and transform Ukraine into a German breadbasket. The second world war was thus fought for, and largely in, Ukraine. Between the onset of Stalin’s political famine in 1932 and the departure of German troops in 1944, Ukraine was the most dangerous place in the world.

Soviet victory extended Ukrainian territory to the west, taking from Poland the remainder of the territorial inheritance of Rus — today’s western Ukraine. When the Crimean Peninsula was transferred from the Russian republic of the Soviet Union to Soviet Ukraine in 1954, this was a concession to geography and ecology. From Russia, Crimea is an island. From Ukraine, Crimea is a peninsula. Soviet rulers concluded that Ukrainian peasants would better farm Crimea than Russian ones, and irrigated the Crimean countryside with water from the Dnipro. In this way the territorial unification of Soviet Ukraine was completed.

The national idea in postwar Soviet Ukraine, as Plokhy persuasively conveys, took two pregnant forms. There were those who rejected the Soviet system as such, the guerrilla fighters and the human rights activists. And then there were the Ukrainian communists, who took pride in the industry of the southeast. The Soviet leaders who arose from the linguistically mixed Ukrainian southeast, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, maintained patron-client relationships that were the cement of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev managed to offend both groups, and brought them together. When the time came in 1991, more than 90 per cent of the inhabitants of Ukraine, including a majority in the Donbas and Crimea, voted for independence.

In a relatively brief history such as this one, certain major themes will escape. A reader seeking a fair account of the ethnic cleansing of Poles from Volhynia by Ukrainian nationalists will be disappointed, as will one seeking a social history of Jewish life and death in Ukraine. The events of the second world war are narrated at speed, and without connection to the larger argument. Nevertheless, the basic point is made. The story of Ukraine’s emergence, as territory and society, has much more to do with unity, first economic and then political, of the three belts of territory already identified by Herodotus. This interpretation leaves room for debate about just when a Ukrainian nation arose. The national question here is one among others, nicely couched in historical detail, which, like that journey of Achilles, bridges the known and the unknown.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20, Tel: 08430 600033. Timothy Snyder is the Housum professor of history at Yale and the author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

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