- - Monday, February 29, 2016



By Serhii Plokhy

Basic Books, $29.99, 395 pages

In geopolitics as well as real estate, location can be everything. Consider the case of the long-suffering Ukrainians. The very name of their country means “frontier” or “borderland” and the fact that it sits on a geopolitical fault line — periodically invaded or occupied by Poles and Turks, Russians and Mongols, Austrians and Swedes — has dictated its grim history. The problem goes back at least as far as the mid-13th century when Kyivan Rus, a prosperous, Christianized empire founded by Viking invaders in the 10th century who intermingled with local Slavic tribesmen, was obliterated by the Mongol Horde. Erased as a nation it would leave a golden legend with many rival claimants, including the arriviste dukes (later czars) of Muscovy who, after collaborating with the Mongols, would gradually fill the power vacuum in the vast, devastated territories left behind as the Mongol threat receded.

Eventually, the Muscovites even co-opted the name “Rus” from the Ukrainians. When the reforming Muscovite Czar Peter the Great successfully concluded the Great Northern War, which toppled Sweden as the dominant regional power in 1721, he declared himself “Emperor” of a “Russian” — not a “Muscovite” — Empire. To Peter, and to succeeding Romanovs until the end of the monarchy in 1917, “Russia” was a blanket term including Slavic subject lands well beyond the borders of today’s Russian Republic. These included much of the Ukraine (“Little Russia” under the Empire) and Belarus (“White Russia” under the Empire), which explains why the Romanovs called themselves “Autocrats of all the Russias,” using the plural rather than the singular. Once Stalin consolidated his grip, the Soviet Union, an empire in everything but name, picked up where the Romanovs had left off. All that seemed to end with the dissolution of the USSR. Former Soviet republics from the Baltic to Transcaucasia, from Soviet Asia to Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine in the Soviet heartland, all declared their independence.

Unfortunately, few of them have lived happily ever after. This is especially true since the rise of Vladimir Putin as Russian strongman. For all his toughness, Mr. Putin has a strong sentimental streak, a nostalgic yearning for the days when Russia was an imperial superpower. He is even reported to have had a portrait of Czar Nicholas I, the most militaristic and autocratic of the 19th century Romanovs, hung in his Kremlin offices. More significantly, Mr. Putin has steadily increased pressure on former Soviet states and satellites, most flagrantly with armed interventions in Georgia and the Ukraine, where Russian-supplied and -led rebels control a large chunk of those countries today.

All of which makes the publication of Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy’s concise, highly readable history of Ukraine especially timely. While a serious scholar, Mr. Plokhy writes 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. Running through it all is the tragedy of the Ukrainians themselves, mostly peasant farmers and, later, urban laborers, doomed to alien rule and, under Stalin, genocidal purges. While most of the world has forgotten it, thousands of Ukrainians, mostly of humble origins, waged guerrilla warfare against the Nazis and then continued their freedom struggle into the 1950s against the Soviets, a heroic chapter in Ukrainian history that Mr. Plokhy tends to gloss over.

I became vividly aware of it when I helped to edit the fifth edition of “The Winding Path To Freedom: A Memoir of Life in the Ukrainian Underground” by Roman D. Mac (published by Xlibris Corp.), a moving, eyewitness account that lends a human dimension to the big, mostly tragic picture of modern Ukrainian history. One short, eloquent passage from Mr. Mac says it all:

“A single fact from my own personal history demonstrates the kind of world we Ukrainians were part of in those days: I was a soldier before I was a Boy Scout. At the early age of 12 I was already carrying a gun. It wasn’t until five years later, as a member of an emigre Ukrainian troop in [West] Germany, that I had the chance to become a Boy Scout.”

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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