Ukraine Without Russia: Towards a longue durée View of Ukrainian History
When I travelled to Kyiv for research in the summer of 2016, I rented a small room at the top of a 1970s high-rise block in Livoberezhna, a residential area on the eastern Left Bank of the Dnipro River. As the room faced west, the glistening sun made work in hot summer evenings all but impossible, but as a consolation it offered a spectacular view of the river scenery and the hilly Western bank, including of course the golden domes of the cave monastery. What drew my attention most, however, was the large Motherland Monument dedicated to the memory of the Great Patriotic War overlooking the river a little further to the south. It was bitterly ironic, I thought, that this Soviet-era embodiment of local fighting spirit and resistance brandished its sword and shield to the East, to Russia, the erstwhile ally turned aggressor, rather than to the allegedly hostile West, which was, after all, the direction where the German occupants had come from. At the same time, it seemed to me that this concentrated gaze on Russia aptly illustrated a more general problem – namely, how to conceptualize Ukraine and its history without inevitably invoking the more powerful neighbor looming on the horizon.
This memory came to mind when I read Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe in the wake of Russia’s all-out attack on Ukraine in the last weeks. With half a dozen monographs in the last decade alone, the author is one of the most prolific current experts on Ukrainian, Russian, and Soviet history. Despite the book’s seemingly normative title, Plokhy’s comprehensive yet concise survey of Ukrainian history steers clear of any fixation with Russia by covering almost three millennia with the aim of providing a longue durée history of Ukraine. In this way, Plokhy is able to focus his narrative on overarching topics and trends that, as he demonstrates, have shaped the course of events in the regions now known as Ukraine. One of the main themes in his account is a constantly moving frontier: between sedentary agriculture and nomadism, between the Western and the Eastern church, but also conceptual spaces such as the frontier between Europe and Asia. As early as the fifth century BC, Plokhy shows, the fertile black soil motivated Greek ventures into the region, and ancient Greek and Roman figures such as Herodotus, Strabo, and Ovid located the border between “civilization” and “barbarism” in the region of the rivers Borysthenes (Dnipro) and Tanais (Don). Over time, the shifting frontiers resulted in tendencies to regionalism and pluralism that have often been stronger than in neighboring areas, Plokhy argues. While these factors are often considered to have undermined the emergence of a strong national identification in Ukraine, Plokhy convincingly shows that the resulting multiple centers proved beneficial during the partition into Russian-controlled Dnipro Ukraine and Austro-Hungarian Galicia Ukraine in the nineteenth century. They have likewise contributed to a more pluralistic society, a precarious yet functional electoral system, a greater need for balancing interests and coalition building, and an arguably even more corrupt oligarchy than in other former Soviet republics after 1991.
Plokhy is less concerned with dating, measuring, or in any way quantifying the emergence of a national consciousness in the Ukrainian lands than might be expected from a comprehensive history of a comparably young national state. He does, however, convincingly show how regional stakeholders, whether Polish-Lithuanian palatines, Orthodox reformers, Kyiv princes and clergy, or Cossack leaders, recurringly and increasingly referred to the mythical origins of the Kyiv Rus’ and the region’s purported distinctiveness to justify their politics and interests in the Early Modern period. Of course, these were all elite narratives, but does that not apply to the origins of any national project? Seen from this overall perspective of a changing political landscape over centuries, the Russian and Soviet claim to fraternal ties becomes only the latest in a long chain of political identity-building projects in the region, and its unmatched success appears to be the result of it coinciding with an age of social mobilization and mass politics.
Although the book is written against the background of the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 – the first edition features a cover photograph of the Maidan protests – the main text generally avoids an overly presentist undertone: this war will end, too, but the land and its population will remain. Only rarely does Plokhy directly or indirectly refer to current events, for example when he points out that the settlement of the Black Sea littoral or New Russia since the late eighteenth century was an imperial project predominantly carried out with settlers from Ukrainian lands. Occasions like these generally show-case Plokhy’s masterful ability to provide subtle and concise explanations for consequential phenomena, for example, the relatively small Ukrainian population in the rapidly growing industrial cities of southern and eastern Ukraine in the last decades of the nineteenth century or the emergence of an urban population that prefers the Russian language yet identifies as Ukrainian during the Soviet interwar period.
As Plokhy writes in the acknowledgement section, the book emerged out of a lecture course on Ukrainian history that he held at Harvard University in the fall of 2014. This is arguably both its greatest strength and the reason for its main – though negligible – weakness. On the one hand, Gates of Europe is a masterful synthesis of almost three millennia in just 350 pages. Plokhy’s account is gripping and always easy to follow. His ability to explain and contextualize complicated matters in simple terms without being reductive makes this book an invaluable guide both for undergraduate students who look for a general introduction to Ukrainian history and for longstanding experts seeking to contextualize a more specialized topic. The main text is further supplemented by a variety of helpful appendices, including ten detailed historical maps, a timeline of events, a glossary, further readings for each of the main sections of the book, and a Who’s Who of Ukrainian history.
On the other hand, Plokhy’s commitment to maintaining the position of a neutral observer and providing an overview of an argument without taking sides at times prevents him from making calls that readers would expect from such a widely recognized expert in the field. When he approaches disputed issues such as Symon Petliura’s responsibility for the 1919 pogroms against the Jewish population, the Ukrainian-Polish conflict of 1943, or whether the Holodomor constituted a genocide, Plokhy frames the matter as an open question without providing unequivocal answers, instead retreating to phrases such as “many believed”, “claimed”, or “historians still argue” (pp. 223, 281). This problem is further aggravated by the general absence of references, which are particularly wanting whenever Plokhy cites quantitative data without a clear indication of their origin – for example the number of famine and pogrom victims (p. 222, 253), the percentage share of blame for the latter that he apportions to the different sides in the Civil War (p. 222), or the growth of the Ukrainian population in Tsarist Russia after the Partitions of Poland (p. 145). When he writes about the 1932-33 famine, he makes a rare error in emphasizing that “only in Ukraine did it result from policies with clear ethnonational coloration” (p. 254) because it coincided with a reversal of the previous Ukrainization policy and repression against leading Ukrainian communists. This description of the national specificity, however, also applies to the famine in Kazakhstan, which primarily affected the nomadic Kazakh population.
None of this, however, detracts from the main achievement of this book, which is a comprehensive and authoritative account of Ukrainian history that does not require the shadow of Russia to make sense of its subject. All too often, it seems, do present-day accounts paint Ukraine either as a constitutive appendix of its larger neighbor or as some kind of anti-Russia that is free, democratic, Western-oriented (or rabidly ethnonationalist and murderously aggressive), thus mirroring the nineteenth-century arguments between so-called Little Russians and Ukrainophiles. Against the background of Plokhy’s magisterial work, this binary appears to be a false dichotomy because either version of the Ukrainian narrative indeed requires Russia to complete it. Plokhy recalls the case of one of the early Ukrainian independence activists in Kharkiv in 1900: their manifesto, written by the local lawyer Mykola Mikhnovsky but published in Galicia due to the Russian ban of the Ukrainian language, made their case for independence on the basis of the claim that the Russian tsars had reneged on the guarantees given to Cossack Hetman Khmelnytsky at Pereiaslav in 1654 – the alleged act of accession that has since been a cornerstone of Moscow’s claim to Ukraine. The story is telling because it illustrates the subtle effect of centuries of Russian and Soviet tutelage of Ukraine: even those who seek to fend it off find themselves compelled to appeal to it. One could arrive at a similar conclusion with regard to late Soviet and post-1991 Ukrainian independence movements, which have “always had a European orientation” (p. 353) because Europe is not Russia.
Putin’s pseudohistorical justification for the war that today’s Ukraine was a gift of the Bolsheviks – that it is “Lenin’s Ukraine” (Ukraina imeni Lenina) – is a grotesque falsification, but one that contains a grain of truth: namely, that the Communist Party did all it could to promote a version of Ukraine which is inconceivable without Russia, thereby locking it into a discursive duality with its alleged elder brother for future generations. Of course, part of this came about by way of Ukraine’s “rise […] to honorary second place in the hierarchy of Soviet republics and nationalities” (p. 298), whether through Leonid Brezhnev’s Dnipropetrovsk faction in Moscow or through the army of Ukrainian engineers and skilled specialists partaking in the vast country’s industrialization, resembling a similar phase of Ukrainian cultural, religious, and scholarly influence in Muscovy in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.
The Russian aggression in 2014, Plokhy writes, galvanized and unified Ukrainian society as perhaps never before, which does not come as a surprise given similar processes of crisis-induced identity formation in Poland during the Partitions and in the German lands under Napoleon. The same can be said about the ongoing war. Indeed, many have pointed out that Putin’s hostile actions only strengthen the nation whose existence he denies – to paraphrase his own words, that he is creating an Ukraina imeni Putina, a Ukraine in the name of Putin. In addition to deaths and the suffering of hundreds of thousands brought to Ukrainian cities by the Russian aggressors, this is another fallout of the war. It threatens to further link the national discourses of Ukraine to Russia – in the West, in Russia, and within Ukraine itself. Plokhy’s book offers no protection against Russian shells and rockets, but it provides an antidote to the kind of fateful narratives that helped to unleash them.
 For recent approaches that emphasize Russian-Ukrainian codependency, see Andreas Kappeler’s works, especially Ungleiche Brüder: Russen und Ukrainer vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart (München: C. H. Beck, 2017), Kleine Geschichte der Ukraine, 5th ed. (München: C. H. Beck, 2019), as well as the review essay Volodymyr Kravchenko, “Putting One and One Together?: "Ukraine", "Malorossiia," and "Russia"”, in Kritika 20, no. 4 (2019), p. 823–40.
 Robert Kindler, Stalins Nomaden: Herrschaft und Hunger in Kasachstan, Hamburg 2014; Sarah Cameron, The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan, Ithaca, N.Y. 2018.