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.