wsj.com Will Ukraine become part of the West, like Poland? Or will it be drawn back into Moscow’s shadow, like a larger version of Belarus?
Ukraine is the laboratory for experiments that will determine Europe’s future. Will it continue to exist as an independent, unified country? Or will it split along regional, ethnic or linguistic lines? Will it become part of the West, like a bigger Poland? Or will it be drawn back into the shadow of Moscow, like a larger version of Belarus?
To Europe’s shame, the answers to these questions do not lie wholly in the hands of Ukrainians. As Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy writes in this exemplary account of Europe’s least-known large country, the post-Soviet Kremlin has switched from building a modern state to “the idea of forming a single Russian nation . . . unifying the eastern Slavs on the basis of Russian language and culture. Ukraine has become the first testing-ground for this model outside the Russian Federation.”
The resulting headlines of the last two years—of bravery, brutality, insurrection, annexation, espionage, propaganda, economic sanctions and foreign intervention—all have roots in a story that goes back more than a millennium. In particular, they are about who is the real heir to a long-forgotten superpower—Kyivan Rus—which brought the rule of law, Christianity and nationhood to lands that include parts of modern Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.
This will be baffling territory for many readers. But 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. The Slavic tribes of that era despised bridal virginity, for example, seeing it as evidence of undesirability. The Viking princess Helga, establishing her warrior-trader kinsfolk’s grip over their far-flung conquest, dealt with some of her menacing and filthy Slavic suitors by insisting that they wash before she received them. Locked in her sauna, they were scalded to death.
THE GATES OF EUROPE
By Serhii Plokhy Basic, 395 pages, $29.99
Helga’s Slavic-Viking hybrid realm was the 10th-century proto-state for what later became Kyivan Rus, a country with no precise date of birth but a definite date of death: Dec. 7, 1240, when the Mongol invasion conquered the capital. But the question of who can claim the legacy of Kyivan Rus is vital. Yaroslav the Wise—a remarkably enlightened successor to Helga—appears on both Russian and Ukrainian bank notes, mustachioed in the style of a Ukrainian Cossack on one, bearded like a Russian czar on the other. His bones disappeared in 1944 in Kyiv as the Germans were retreating; they may now, Mr. Plokhy hints, be hidden in a Ukrainian church in Brooklyn.
Ukraine has often been wiped off the geographical map while remaining on the intellectual one. Kyivan Rus, for example, bequeathed its traditions of legality to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (another forgotten superpower) and thence to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Ukrainian national identity awakened in the 19th century in the literary sphere, when the prospects of an independent state were still unimaginably distant. Such stirrings of national sentiment infuriated many Russians then, as they do now. Mr. Plokhy quotes the unthinking imperialism of a poem that Alexander Pushkin wrote after the crushing of a rebellion in Warsaw: “Right of rebellion recognized, / Will Lithuania spurn our rule? / And Kiev, decrepit, golden-domed, / This ancestor of Russian towns— / Will it conjoin its sainted graves / With reckless Warsaw?”
In fact, the heritage of Kyivan Rus is eminently shareable, like Roman law and Greek philosophy. But for the Kremlin to admit that Ukraine is a real country would be to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Russia’s own quasi-feudal statehood.
Ukrainians have often been midwives of their own misfortunes, making it easy for malevolent outsiders to divide and corral them. As Mr. Plokhy notes, Ukrainians are “successful rebels” but “amateurs at building a state.” That weakness was displayed in the shambles that followed World War I, when a short-lived Ukrainian republic flickered and died among sickening bloodshed. It has been even more painfully visible in the years since the Soviet collapse, when the country’s political class, in governments of all stripes, has displayed a dispiriting level of venality and incompetence.
Oddly, one of the relatively bright spots was in the early years of Soviet rule, when the Communist leadership believed that strengthening Ukrainian language, culture and identity was an essential part of building a modern Soviet state. But such hopes were soon shattered. As Mr. Plokhy writes: “The eruption of the Stalinist volcano reduced to ashes the high hopes that Ukrainian nation builders had once cherished with regard to the revolutionary regime in Moscow.” A putative Ukrainian Piedmont had become a Pompei.
After the mass starvation and purges of the Stalin era, many Ukrainians welcomed the German invaders in 1941. That proved to be a tragic mistake. The Nazis persecuted Ukrainian nationalists, and every sixth Jew who died in the Holocaust came from Ukraine. A minor flaw of the book is that it glides over one of the great untold episodes in postwar military history: the Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule, which involved tens of thousands of men and the creation of a parallel underground state, and lasted for more than a decade.
But as Mr. Plokhy rightly maintains, Ukraine is not a country in which it makes sense to draw straight lines or demand clear categories. It was and is a hybrid of overlapping and often indistinct linguistic, ethnic, cultural, historical and religious sub-identities. These are not exactly divisions—certainly the idea of a country cloven between a “Russian-speaking” east and a “Ukrainian-speaking” west is misleadingly simplistic. But the big hope now is that outside pressure may have finally crystallized Ukraine’s identity. It has worked before: The partitions of Poland were the starting point for modern Polish nationalism, and the Napoleonic invasion of Germany gave rise to pan-German ideas. “Invaded, humiliated, and war-torn,” Mr. Plokhy concludes, Ukraine seems to be following a similar pattern. Much hangs on the outcome.
Mr. Lucas writes for the Economist. His latest book is “Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.