The edge of Western civilization. The breadbasket of Europe. Of the many roles Ukraine has played throughout its history, perhaps the most important has been as Europe’s borderland. The world was reminded of as much in 2014, when protests erupted in the capital of Kiev, unleashing a chain of events that would lead to the ouster of the Ukrainian president, the introduction Russian patrols in eastern Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Russia called the uprising a Western-backed coup, while the West welcomed the developments. Many feared the country would splinter along pro-Russia and pro-Europe lines. And so, Ukraine’s status as Europe’s first frontier was once again secured.
But in “The Gates of Europe,” Serhii Plokhy’s meticulous telling of Ukrainian history shows that these events weren’t as unique or unexpected as one might think. Ukraine’s history is littered with uprisings and ethnic, cultural and linguistic divides. Plokhy begins his account in the fifth century B.C. with Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian whom Plokhy refers to as “the first historian of Ukraine.” He goes on to describe the pivotal moments that shaped the country’s history, from the Great Revolt to the collapse of empires following World War I, allowing Ukraine to form its own not-yet-independent state.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book is the epilogue, where Plokhy writes about the issue of nation-building and Ukrainian identity. Russia was able to take control over Russian-speaking Crimea with relatively little military force in part because of the linguistic and cultural connections between the population there and Russia. Many Russian leaders and “volunteers” who joined the fight in eastern Ukraine have made direct connections between the Russian language and Russian nationality. From this perspective, anyone who speaks Russian is part of the Russian nation and deserves Moscow’s protection, even if they live beyond the country’s official borders. This was part of the justification for the annexation of Crimea and it’s part of Ukraine’s ongoing weakness – a large chunk of its population speaks something other than the official language of Ukraine. The country has thus struggled to form an identity of its own. Indeed, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly claimed that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people and downplayed ethnic distinctions between them.
It’s important to remember, however, that the New Russia project – the attempt to merge parts of eastern Ukraine with the Russian state – wasn’t as successful as its architects had hoped. Plokhy points out that most Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Donbass refused to identify themselves as Russian, and after five years of war, Russian-backed rebels haven’t managed to secure full independence from Ukraine. It’s hard to see where the conflict will end, but the broader struggle in which Ukraine has repeatedly found itself may never be resolved.
Valentina Jovanovski, editor