The Gates of Europe (2015) offers a compelling overview of the history of Ukraine, a nation which lies between the East and the West. Due to this unique geographic position, Ukraine has been fought over and subjugated by a long line of imperial forces throughout history. Indeed, the history of Ukraine is one of the most important facets in the history of Europe.
Who is it for?
- History buffs
- People curious about Russian-Ukrainian relations
- Anyone interested in democracy
Unravel the fascinatingly complex history of Ukraine.
From ancient times to modern days, it’s an understatement to say that Ukraine has been through a lot. Taken over by Vikings, Mongols, and Ottomans, and stuck between the Kingdom of Poland and the empires of Austria and Russia, Ukraine has rarely found a chance to exist as an independent state. Turmoil and oppression have been the norm. And yet, through it all, the Ukrainian people have kept their history and culture alive, even when their language was forbidden by the Russian Empire.
This is the story of those people and a region of Europe that has always sat at the crossroads of East and West, Europe and Asia. Since Ukraine is essentially the gateway to Europe, its story and its independence have always been important. In this summary you’ll see why neighboring nations have laid claim to its heritage, and just how interwoven Ukrainian history is to the overall history of the continent.
The region of Ukraine was first populated by nomadic tribes that traded with nearby Greek colonies.
This Summary will attempt the challenging feat of giving you an overview of Ukraine’s history as described by Serhii Plokhy in The Gates of Europe. It’s a dramatic story that involves a lot of different actors, with many ups and downs. So let’s dive right in.
As is the case with a lot of ancient European history, the official written record really starts with the Greeks. In this case, it was Herodotus, a historian whose nine-volume series, Histories, contains some of the first known writing about the origins of Ukraine.
Even in the time of Herodotus, around 500 BCE, the area that would become Ukraine was on its way to becoming a dividing point between the East and the West. This region includes a portion of steppes, forests, and mountains that stretch north beyond the Black Sea. To the Greeks, this area was regarded as the Pontic frontier. Within it, the Greek empire ended and the land of the so-called “Barbarians” began.
Herodotus was interested in the history of the Barbarians, a term used at the time to describe anyone who wasn’t Greek. Before Herodotus’s research, there were only mythological tales about what was going on in the area north of the Black Sea. There were rumors that this was the land of the female warriors known as the Amazons and final resting place of the hero Achilles. But then, in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, Greeks began to hear stories about a real tribe of nomadic warriors known as the Cimmerians, who were pushed out of the region after fierce battles with another nomadic tribe known as the Scythians.
At this point, the black nutrient-rich soil of the steppes was already gaining a reputation that would later result in Ukraine being known as the “breadbasket of Europe.” The Scythians had been cultivating and trading grains, but all this came to a halt once the Sarmatians showed up. Like the Scythians, the Sarmatians were also nomadic, of Iranian origins, and made up of different multiethnic and multicultural tribes.
Around the first century CE, the Romans eventually made their way to the Greek colonies. Now, what would end up being known as the “Western world” was becoming familiar with the region. In particular, the Romans were interested in the two rivers, the Dnieper – or Dnipro, as Ukrainians call it – and the Don. The Dnieper stretches from the Black Sea northward past what would become the city of Kyiv. It was already an important river for trade. The Don is to the east of the Crimea, and at its mouth was a Greek colony belonging to the Bosporan Kingdom.
According to another Greek historian, Strabo, these were more than just rivers. As he saw it, to the west of the Don lay Europe. To the east, Asia.
By the end of the tenth century, the region was a thriving part of the European tapestry.
Around the start of the sixth century CE, another group arrived at the Gates of Europe: the Slavs. They play a significant role in Ukrainian history.
The Slavs settled in the Balkans as far west as the Danube and as far east as the Dnieper. The Slavs were seminomadic, but looking at the linguistic evidence, the ancestral homeland of the Slavs is believed to be in the Volhynia and Pripyat regions of what is now northern Ukraine. Not a lot has been written about their appearance, but they’ve been described in contemporary writings as tall, ruddy in complexion, and “neither very fair nor blond.”
The Slavs frequently raided Byzantine outposts and became a nagging problem for Emperor Justinian. It wasn’t long before more tribes and more warfare arrived. Perhaps most notable was the Turkic-speaking tribe known as the Khazars, who arrived at the end of the seventh century, made a treaty with the Byzantines, and established a period of relative peace.
The Khazars established their westernmost outpost in what is now Kyiv, on the banks of the Dnieper. Some Slavic tribes continued to live in the area, under Khazar control, while Eastern Slavs began to settle down and build fortified villages, raise farm animals, and take up agriculture.
Then came the Vikings sailing down the Dnieper, representing the king of Rus’.
The Rus’ Vikings were a mix of Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns. While they were known for their ravaging and pillaging, they were also eager to trade. But that meant taking out their main competitor in the region, the Khazars – which they did when they took control of Kyiv. This in turn led to a fruitful alliance with the Byzantine Empire in 911.
The Rus’ firmly established themselves in the region in the tenth century. They used Kyiv as their capital, put a Rus’ prince in charge, and created what is known as the Kyivan Rus’. While the leaders would go on to embrace their Viking heritage, the population and culture of the Kyivan Rus’ was a Slavic majority mixture.
A succession of Kyivan princes followed, but it was Prince Volodymyr and his son Yaroslav that forever changed the culture and status of their burgeoning state. Volodymyr did it first by embracing the influence of Byzantium and converting to Christianity in the late tenth century. Yaroslav then went on to build churches and citadels in Kyiv that echoed the grand architecture of Constantinople. Yaroslav also created a code of law known as Rus’ Justice and promoted literacy based around the language of Church Slavonic, which uses an alphabet created for the specific purpose of translating Greek texts. For these reasons, he became known as Yaroslav the Wise. And by marrying his sisters and daughters to other European leaders, he earned another nickname: “the father-in-law of Europe.” Thanks to Volodymyr and Yaroslav, the Kyivan Rus’ became a legitimate, thriving state, woven into the fabric of Europe. But, of course, following in such footsteps is never an easy task for future generations.
The Cossacks managed to create an independent state between two growing empires.
We all know how the story goes: A beloved patriarch is nearing his end. And while he tries his best to establish a peaceful line of succession, once he passes, his dynasty ends up falling into a chaotic mess of family rivalries.
So it went after the passing of Yaroslav the Wise in 1054. Initially, a triumvirate of three out of five of Yaroslav’s sons ruled the Kyivan Rus’. But then, between 1132 and 1169, no less than 18 different rulers claimed the throne. In the end, the army of the Rus’ prince Andrei Bogoliubsky plundered the city and emerged victorious. What made Bogoliubsky different was that he moved his base of operations outside of Kyiv, to the eastern city of Vladimir – which is in modern-day Russia.
We can see this eastern move of the capital as the first step in what would become a lasting legacy in Ukrainian history: the east-west divide, which is generally denoted by the banks of the Dnieper. Certainly, when the Mongols arrived on the steppes and conquered the city of Kyiv in the middle of the thirteenth century, they noticed two separate centers of rule: the eastern one and the central-western one. So, when they took over the Rus’ they divided it into two principalities.
This division was also recognized by Constantinople and would have a long-lasting effect. The eastern region would end up under Mongol control all the way through to the end of the fifteenth century. In the eyes of most historians, another independent state within the lands of Ukraine wouldn’t appear again until the arrival of the Cossacks. We’ll get to them in a minute.
First, we need to mention an important development that occurred in 1569. This was the year of the Union of Lubin, an agreement that saw the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
At this time, nobility was on the rise in Europe. This was certainly the case in the Kingdom of Poland. Here you had an especially volatile mix of Polish Catholic nobility and Ukrainian Orthodox serfs. It’s safe to say that the serfs were resentful of the ruling class, but they were also vulnerable. The Ottoman Empire grew in power in the sixteen and seventeenth centuries, and Ukrainians in the steppes north of the Black Sea were frequently kidnapped and sold into Ottoman slavery.
Enter the Cossacks.
The Cossacks were nomadic people who came in from the north and settled on the steppes. They fished and hunted, and sometimes, when they engaged in banditry along trade routes, they freed enslaved people that were being transported. Despite their pillaging ways, the Cossacks’ fearlessness against the Ottomans, the Tatars, and the increasingly powerful Muscovite Russian forces, made them exceedingly valuable to the Commonwealth. And, in order to avoid serfdom and slavery, enough Ukrainian peasants and townsfolk joined the Cossacks until they made up the majority of their ranks. In the 1570s, they became official military personnel, tasked with protecting the borderlands. But it wasn’t long before those resentful members within the Cossacks began to rise up against the noble class.
There were so many Cossack uprisings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that we can’t cover them all. So we’ll jump ahead to the Grand Revolt of 1648, which began when the Commonwealth refused to meet the Cossacks’ demands to be considered part of the noble class.
When this happened, an alliance was made with the Tatars, giving the Cossacks the strength to essentially wipe out the Polish army. But here’s where things got messy. The Cossack leader, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, was seemingly dumbfounded by his success and retreated to his home to consider the next move. With this lack of leadership, pandemonium ensued. Peasants and townsfolk attacked landowners and Catholic priests, and killed an unknown number of Ukrainian Jews, who often served as middlemen between the nobles and the peasants.
Following this bloody rampage, the Cossacks were given three eastern palatinates to rule independently from the Commonwealth. This region was known as the Hetmanate – “hetman” being a term used to designate a Cossack leader – but it would eventually be known as Ukraine.
During the Age of Reason, Ukraine was repeatedly torn between the Commonwealth and Russia.
Unfortunately, the independent Cossack state didn’t last long. Part of the problem, and one that wasn’t going to go away any time soon, was geographic in nature. The Hetmanate was caught between the Kingdom of Poland and the Tsardom of Russia. Attempts were made to make peace with both sides, but, in 1667, the region was once again split in two along the Dnieper. The western half aligned itself with Poland, the eastern half with Russia.
The other problem was, despite their violent uprisings, the Cossacks had a democratic way about them. The hetman was an elected position, and the membership had the right to remove and even kill that leader if he wasn’t fulfilling his job. But during the age of reason, democracy wasn’t en vogue. Instead, it was all about absolute monarchy. Catherine II of Russia, Frederick II of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria – these rulers weren’t about to support a nation-state that was going to hold unpredictable elections. That wasn’t considered rational, or reasonable governance. So the Cossack Hetmanate was ultimately doomed as a protectorate of Russia, which canceled the hetman elections more than once. Another period of enserfment followed, where peasants were made to perform free labor.
Meanwhile, on the western side of the Dnieper, things got riotous once again with another uprising against nobles, Catholic priests, and the Jewish people. This particular event also found Russia mobilizing its troops, crossing the Dnieper, entering Commonwealth territory, and pushing the Ottomans out of Crimea. New treaties were signed, and, in 1783, Russia formally annexed Crimea, which caused further conflict between the Ottomans, Russia, and Austria. In the end, Russia gained control of Crimea as well as the region north of the Black Sea that is now Southern Ukraine.
And so it was that the Commonwealth began to fall apart at the seams. Two rounds of partitions took place, where the troubled Poland-Lithuanian alliance was divided up among Russia, Austria, and Prussia. The first took place in 1772 when Russia added Belarus and Lithuania to its empire. Then, in 1791, the imperial border moved so far west that Austria and Russia became neighbors. By 1794, Poland had been erased from the world map and Russia had essentially absorbed the majority of the old Kyivan Rus’. This fact wasn’t lost on Catherine and the imperial authorities. On their new maps, they made a point of highlighting the fact that they’d “restored what was torn away.”
The twentieth century saw some of the worst devastation in Ukraine.
It’s hard to talk about European history and not mention Napoleon. The man made quite an impact. For instance, as a result of Napoleon’s many campaigns across the continent, the Kingdom of Poland was restored around 1815, during the Congress of Vienna – albeit under a special arrangement with its neighbor Russia.
The Napoleonic Wars also had the effect of stirring nationalistic feelings in many European people, including Poles and Ukrainians. In fact, this is the time when Ukrainian writers began to publish works written in their own language. Literature, folklore, songs, history – these became the bedrocks of national and ethnic identity. For Ukrainians living in Russia, Poland, or Austria, these were the things that spoke to who they really were and the independent statehood that they longed for.
During the first years of World War I, Ukrainian nationalists within Russia and Austria-Hungary remained on edge and weighed their options. Some in Austria-Hungary had managed to become active politicians and the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine was formed in Vienna. In 1917, the Romanov dynasty finally came to an end, the Bolshevik-led October Revolution began, and the Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets was created.
But the end of World War I only led to more immediate wars, including an ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Poland for control of the Galicia region. Once again, as it was during the days of the Hetmanate, it proved difficult to find a consensus on which direction Ukraine should go. Under the thumb of Soviet Russia, Ukraine was once again being turned into a Russified serfdom. Some eastern Ukrainians saw Poland as a potential ally against the Bolsheviks, but many in western Ukraine were staunchly anti-Poland, while others felt close enough to Russia to join the Red Army.
By the end of 1920, Poland would try to create a buffer state that stretched to Kyiv, and the Red Army would try to push back all the way to Warsaw. Polish and Ukrainian soldiers were able to defeat the Soviets in what is known as the Miracle on the Vistula. But the result was a Polish-Russian treaty that ended up dividing Ukraine even further between Romania and Czechoslovakia. Ukraine, such as it was, became part of the official Soviet Union in 1922.
That was also the year Joseph Stalin came to power. Ukrainian nationalism went underground. And in the years leading up to the next world war, a new level of extreme serfdom was placed upon the farmers and peasants in the steppe region. Forced collectivism was the policy. Seventy percent of all arable land and 70 percent of all Ukrainian households were collectivized and made responsible for 38 percent of the state’s grain production. Stalin literally worked the Ukrainian countryside to death. No grain was left for the people, nor were their animals. The Union took it all. Within a matter of a couple of years, by the spring of 1932, thousands were dead or dying of starvation. Around 4 million people would end up perishing due to the terror of Stalin’s collectivism project.
And then came Adolf Hitler. Hitler had the idea of Lebensraum, which basically meant that the Aryan people needed more “living room” in Eastern Europe. With control of Germany and this concept in mind, Hitler proceeded to rid Eastern Europe of people in the most systematically horrific of ways. In Ukraine, this meant the killing of 7 million people, around 1 million of them Jewish, in order to make way for his expansionist dreams.
Towns and cities were also subject to scorch-earth policies during the war whenever Soviet armies were forced to retreat. But ultimately the Soviets were able to claim victory, along with the Ukrainian territories that had been part of Czechoslovakia prior to the war and a portion of Eastern Poland. Poland was granted a portion of Eastern Germany as recompense.
Ukraine lay in ruins, devastated by the war. While much of its old homeland was now united, it was back under the thumb of Soviet Communism. It was an arrangement that would last decades, and it would take another tragedy before it finally came to an end.
Post-Soviet Ukraine has had to continue dealing with Russian influence as it strives for EU membership.
It may have been just a matter of time before the Soviet Communist experiment ran its course. But there was one event in particular that led to Ukraine forcing its way out of the Soviet Union. That event happened on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, located in the northern Ukraine city of Pripyat.
To sum it up as briefly as possible: when a nuclear reactor exploded, the Ukrainian workers and leaders in the area weren’t allowed to warn the people or even explain what happened. Ukraine couldn’t help itself under the rules of the Communist Party. Instead, they could only look on as millions of people were poisoned. It was, in many ways, the final straw. After the Chernobyl disaster, Ukraine demanded to be in control of its own fate. And like a chain reaction, the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, piece by piece. In the summer of 1990, at long last, Ukraine became a sovereign nation. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was officially a thing of the past.
But it was far from smooth sailing afterward. In fact, throughout the 1990s, Ukraine was mired in a recession and plagued by corruption. But all the while it was the intention of Ukraine to become part of Europe. In 1994, Ukraine and the EU formalized a cooperation agreement, making Ukraine the first post-Soviet nation to do so. They also joined a Partnership for Peace alliance with NATO that year. All signs suggested that the country was on its way to becoming part of the European Union.
There was the setback of Kuchmagate in 2000 when President Leonid Kuchma was caught on tape accepting bribes and threatening journalists. Then, in 2004, presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who oversaw some important aspects of the economic recovery in the early 2000s, was poisoned right before the elections. He recovered, but the election results were then found to be tampered with in favor of Yushchenko’s rival, Viktor Yanukovych. The ensuing protests became known as the Orange Revolution, and they led to another round of voting and Yushchenko winning.
The rivalry between Yushchenko and Yanukovych, and the conflicts with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, went on and became a major distraction and a detriment to EU integration. Still, after Yanukovych was elected in 2010, an EU signing event was scheduled in Vilnius for November 28, 2013. Remarkably, Yanukovych went to the event, but he refused. Another massive protest unfolded, this one known as the Revolution of Dignity. It ended when Yanukovych was removed from office and a new provisional government was put in place.
One of the forces preventing Ukraine from joining the EU was Russia’s continued influence. Russian president Vladimir Putin has long held the collapse of the Soviet Union as a colossal tragedy. And even before 2012, Putin made restoring the Soviet bloc part of his main agenda. In trying to keep Ukraine close, Putin has used both favors and threats. He backed Yanukovych in both the 2004 and 2010 elections. And one of the things he really wanted was for Ukraine to join his Eurasian Customs Union. If Ukraine joined the EU instead, it had the potential to be disastrous for Russia’s trade project.
When Yanukovych appeared ready to sign the EU agreement, Putin responded with a trade war against Ukraine. But he also held out the promise of a $15 million loan if Yanukovych ultimately refused to sign. It looked like the plan was going to work, but then the subsequent Revolution of Dignity had the effect of uniting just about all of Ukraine’s political parties. Especially when it was found that Russia had sent snipers into Kyiv to shoot protestors.
So, instead, on February 26, 2014, Putin decided to take matters into his own hands and invade Crimea. With much of the police and military forces still leftover from Yanukovych’s administration, the new Ukrainian government was ill-prepared to respond. A pro-Russian leadership was installed, a referendum was carried out, and Crimea was annexed to Russia under the guise of righting a historical wrong that had occurred when the Soviet Union had collapsed.
Putin has since turned his attention to the eastern and southern areas of Ukraine. He has proposed a “federalization” plan, which would give every region in Ukraine the power to sign its own agreements with Russia. If that effort fails, the other option he’s mentioned is to once again divide Ukraine and turn eastern and southern Ukraine into “New Russia.”
While there have always been more pro-Russian citizens living in eastern and southern Ukraine, polling has consistently revealed that the majority of the people living in these areas continue to identify as Ukrainian, even if they tend to primarily speak Russian.
As we’ve seen throughout the nation’s history, Ukraine has always been a mixture of languages, cultures, and ethnicities. It comes with being positioned on the border between Europe and Asia. But throughout history, even when their homeland was being divided and passed back and forth between empires, the Ukrainians have always found common ground in their desire for independence.
Ukraine, with its position north of the Black Sea, sits in a unique position. Even ancient Greek writers saw this region as one that separates Asia from Europe. In that sense, it can also be seen as the land that sits on the border between East and West. This geographic location has meant that Ukraine has been home to a great many nomadic tribes and cultures. But it’s also meant that the region has been fraught with warfare and suffered from the expansive ambitions of competing empires on both sides. Ukraine has often ended up being divided in half and partitioned off to neighboring powers. But throughout all of this turmoil, the people in the region have been steadfast in holding on to their own culture and keeping the flame of independence alive.
About the author
Serhii Plokhy is a world-renowned expert on the Cold War and the history of nuclear proliferation. He’s also a professor of history at Harvard University and the author of the award-winning book Chernobyl.
Serhii Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard and the director of the university’s Ukrainian Research Institute. The author of numerous books, including the award-winning The Last Empire, for which he received the Lionel Gelber Prize, and Chernobyl, the recipient of the Baillie Gifford Prize, Plokhy lives in Burlington, Massachusetts.
Europe, History, Politics, Cultural
Table of Contents
I. ON THE PONTIC FRONTIER
1. The Edugeo f the World
2. The Advent of the Slavs
3. Vikings on the Dnieper
4. Byzantium North
5. The Keys to Kyiv
6. Pax Mongolica
II. EAST MEETS WEST
7. The Making of Ukraine
8. The Cossacks
9. Eastern Reformation
10. The Great Revolt
11. The Partitions
12. The Verdict of Poltava
III. BETWEEN THE EMPIRES
13. The New Frontiers
14. The Books of the Genesis
15. The Porous Border
16. On the Move
17. The Unfinished Revolution
IV. THE WARS OF THE WORLD
18. The Birth of a Nation
19. A Shattered Dream
20. Communism and Nationalism
21. Stalin’s Fortress
22. Hitler’s Lebensraum
23. The Victors
V. THE ROAD TO INDEPENDENCE
24. The Second Soviet Republic
25. Good Bye, Lenin!
26. The Independence Square
27. The Price of Freedom
Epilogue: The Meanings of History
“An exemplary account of Europe’s least-known large country” (Wall Street Journal) by an award-winning historian.
Ukraine is currently embroiled in a tense fight with Russia to preserve its territorial integrity and political independence. But today’s conflict is only the latest in a long history of battles over Ukraine’s territory and its existence as a sovereign nation. As the award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy argues in The Gates of Europe, we must examine Ukraine’s past in order to understand its present and future.
Situated between Central Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, Ukraine was shaped by the empires that used it as a strategic gateway between East and West—from the Roman and Ottoman empires to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. For centuries, Ukraine has been a meeting place of various cultures. The mixing of sedentary and nomadic peoples and Christianity and Islam on the steppe borderland produced the class of ferocious warriors known as the Cossacks, for example, while the encounter between the Catholic and Orthodox churches created a religious tradition that bridges Western and Eastern Christianity. Ukraine has also been a home to millions of Jews, serving as the birthplace of Hassidism—and as one of the killing fields of the Holocaust.
Plokhy examines the history of Ukraine’s search for its identity through the lives of the major figures in Ukrainian history: Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kyiv, whose daughter Anna became queen of France; the Cossack ruler Ivan Mazepa, who was immortalized in the poems of Byron and Pushkin; Nikita Khrushchev and his protege-turned-nemesis Leonid Brezhnev, who called Ukraine their home; and the heroes of the Maidan protests of 2013 and 2014, who embody the current struggle over Ukraine’s future.
As Plokhy explains, today’s crisis is a tragic case of history repeating itself, as Ukraine once again finds itself in the center of the battle of global proportions. An authoritative history of this vital country, The Gates of Europe provides a unique insight into the origins of the most dangerous international crisis since the end of the Cold War.
This revised edition includes new material that brings this definitive history up to the present. As Ukraine once again finds itself at the center of global attention, Plokhy brings its history to vivid life as he connects the nation’s past with its present and future.
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“[An] exemplary account of Europe’s least-known large country… one of the joys of reading the The Gates of Europe is that what might seem a dense account of distant events involving unfamiliar places and people is leavened by aphorism and anecdote.” – Wall Street Journal
“An assured and authoritative survey that spans ancient Greek times to the present day.” – Financial Times
“Readers can find no better place to turn than Plokhy’s new book…. Plokhy navigates the subject with grace and aplomb.” – Foreign Affairs
“Elegantly written.” – New York Review of Books
“The timeframe and subjects covered here are extraordinary…students, academics, and readers with a general knowledge of Ukraine will appreciate. Alternatively, chapters can be read independently, allowing those with a strong interest in the subject to focus on a specific era of Ukraine’s history.” – Library Journal
“Injecting appropriate nuance and complexity into a single-volume overview of 2,000 years of Ukrainian history is no small task, but Plokhy approaches this charge with dexterity and skill…. Plokhy’s work serves as a welcome introduction to Ukraine’s ethnic and national history.” – Publishers Weekly
“[A] concise, highly readable history of Ukraine…a lively narrative peopled with a colorful cast of Norse and Mongol marauders, free-booting Cossacks, kings, conquerors and dictators, and conflicted 19th century intellectuals who believed fervently in a Ukrainian cultural identity but were fatally divided as to how that cultural identity could evolve into national entity.” – Washington Times
“A masterly surveyor of Ukrainian history.” – Independent (UK)
“A sympathetic survey of the history of Ukraine along the East-West divide, from ancient divisions to present turmoil…. A straightforward, useful work that looks frankly at Ukraine’s ongoing “price of freedom” against the rapacious, destabilizing force of Russia.” – Kirkus Reviews
“[An] admirable new history…. In his elegant and careful exposition of Ukraine’s past, Mr. Plokhy has also provided some signposts to the future.” – Economist
“A sympathetic survey of the history of Ukraine along the East-West divide, from ancient divisions to present turmoil…. A straightforward, useful work that looks frankly at Ukraine’s ongoing “price of freedom” against the rapacious, destabilizing force of Russia.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Complex and nuanced, refreshingly revisionist and lucid, this is a compelling and outstanding short history of the blood-soaked land that has so often been the battlefield and breadbasket of Europe.” – Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
“This is present-minded history at its most urgent. Anyone wanting to understand why Russia and the West confront each other over the future of Ukraine will want to read Serhii Plokhy’s reasoned, measured yet passionate account of Ukraine’s historic role at the gates of Europe.” – Michael Ignatieff, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
“For a comprehensive, engaging, and up-to-date history of Ukraine one could do no better than Serhii Plokhy’s aptly titled The Gates of Europe. Plokhy’s authoritative study will be of great value to scholars, students, policy-makers, and the informed public alike in making sense of the contemporary Ukrainian imbroglio.” – Norman M. Naimark, Stanford University
Injecting appropriate nuance and complexity into a single-volume overview of 2,000 years of Ukrainian history is no small task, but Plokhy (The Last Empire), the Mykhailo Hrushevsky professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, approaches this charge with dexterity and skill. Plokhy’s analysis is a comprehensive narrative, touching upon the myriad factors that figured into the establishment of the Ukrainian state and a Ukrainian national identity. He also introduces readers to the seemingly endless barrage of threats to both of these constructs, from without as well as within. Plokhy’s strongest inquiry may well be in his epilogue, where he engages the forces of history at play regarding the most recent bout of political instability gripping Ukraine. He asserts that the Russian “annexation” of Crimea, as well as Russian support of so-called separatist movements crippling the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, are continuations of a centuries-old narrative, the roots of which are evident throughout his discussion of the tenuous historical relationship between the two countries. Though interested readers must look elsewhere for deeper examinations of Ukraine’s role in European and world history, Plokhy’s work serves as a welcome introduction to Ukraine’s ethnic and national history. Maps. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim, Williams, and Bloom. (Dec.) – Publishers Weekly
At different points in its history the Swedes, Hapsburgs, Vikings, Huns, Mongols, Russians, Germans, Poles, and the Ottoman Empire ruled parts of Ukraine. Plokhy (history, Harvard Univ.; The Last Empire) expertly covers the complicated and dizzying history of Ukraine, starting when Neanderthals first arrived in the area, and discusses what it means to be Ukrainian. The early beginnings of Kyivian-Rus can be difficult to follow, featuring an ever-changing group of players and territory; an included historical time line provides perspective. Religious, linguistic, and cultural influences that impacted the development of Ukrainian identity are explored, as are the devastating famines, atrocious wars, and politics that influenced everything from independence to the Orange Revolution and the recent Revolution of Dignity. VERDICT The timeframe and subjects covered here are extraordinary; although this is more an overall survey than an in-depth resource, students, academics, and readers with a general knowledge of Ukraine will appreciate. Alternatively, chapters can be read independently, allowing those with a strong interest in the subject to focus on a specific era of Ukraine’s history.—Zebulin Evelhoch, Central Washington Univ. Lib. – Library Journal
A sympathetic survey of the history of Ukraine along the East-West divide, from ancient divisions to present turmoil. That the Ukrainian national anthem begins with the words “Ukraine has not yet perished” is a telling depiction of the country’s riven history, as patiently, chronologically delineated by Plokhy (Ukrainian History/Harvard Univ.; The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, 2014, etc.). The author balances a sense of the diversity and richness of the Ukrainian heritage—the remarkable comingling of early nomads and barbaric invaders through the lands north of the Black Sea—with the later appropriation by Russia. The early migrants who stayed were the Slavs, whose tribes settled along the rivers Dnieper, Dniester, and others and formed the predecessors of today’s Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians. The Vikings named the land Rus’, giving way to a new relationship with its southern neighbor, the Byzantium capital, Constantinople, and beginning the long process of embracing Christianization. Political consolidation from the 10th to the mid-13th centuries was shattered by the Mongolian invasion in 1240, which underscored for the first time the tension between choosing the East (Byzantium) or the West (the pope). With the rise of princely kingdoms, Plokhy emphasizes the significance of the Cossack raids in the 16th century, leading to an alliance with Muscovy princes in 1654, a watershed moment that would henceforth see the division of Ukraine along the Dnieper between Muscovy and Poland. The rise of Ukrainian nationalism grew in the 19th century, and the author explores the industrial age and its concomitant revolutions, pogroms, dictators, and world wars. The Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986 underscored discontent with Moscow. This awakening of national sentiment would snowball over the years until independence was officially established on Dec. 1, 1991. Plokhy also includes a helpful historical timeline from 45,000 B.C.E. and a “Who’s Who in Ukrainian History.” A straightforward, useful work that looks frankly at Ukraine’s ongoing “price of freedom” against the rapacious, destabilizing force of Russia. – Kirkus Reviews