Serhii Plokhy is the author of the new book The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. His other books include The Last Empire and The Cossack Myth. He is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, and he lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.
Q: You write of The Gates of Europe, “The title of the book…is of course a metaphor, but not one to be taken lightly or dismissed as a marketing gimmick.” Why did you select this title for your history of Ukraine?
A: There is a long tradition in historiography to treat countries in Eastern Europe as bulwarks against the East—anything from the Mongols to the Russians. I appreciated that this metaphor was there.
I look at this region not only as a battlefield…but also as a contact zone, an area where different ethnic groups lived together and cultural exchanges were taking place. Gates can serve as a perfect metaphor. Also, it’s a battlefield occasionally and the gates are closed. But through most of history, they’re open, and that’s where I hope the future of the region lies.
Q: Describing the situation today in Ukraine, you write, “For Ukraine, Russian aggression raised fundamental questions about its continuing existence as a unified state, its independence as a nation, and the democratic foundations of its political institutions.” What do you see looking ahead?
A: Some elements of the story are very familiar with historians-- starting in the early modern period you see an interregnum and a neighboring state acting as a perpetrator [who] tries to use the confusion and grab some territory and gain some political advantage. In a sense it’s as old as the world itself.
But there are elements that could only occur in modern times—the justification of aggression with the claim that there are minorities in need of protection. Russia gets in with the idea of Russian-speaking [people in Ukraine against] the alleged threat of nationalism. The idea of the definition of the Russian world against the decadent West is very prominent…
What is challenging for Ukraine is that most of the country belongs to the Orthodox Church and a good part of the country speaks Russian. The aggression has as its goal to mobilize the Orthodox and the Russian speakers and split Ukraine in half. It worked in Crimea only after Russia took over. It became a contested issue in Donetsk.
The majority of Ukraine opted for a different idea of nationhood, not the model of equation of language and identity and nationhood, but a political model of nationhood where nationhood is about dedication to certain values, democratic values, identification with Europe, patriotism to the place you were born, identity that crosses religious and cultural lines. That’s what happened in 2013-14 in response to aggression.
In terms of the future, it looks like it’s born out of history and recent history—the political Ukrainian nation has a future, it showed its ability to defend itself against a stronger neighbor, and [has shown an] idea of what a nation is and isn’t.
Q: In the book, you locate Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine not so much in its imperial history as in the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Why do you see it this way?
A: In a sense, that was a claim I was making in my previous book, The Last Empire. What I was doing was saying that the Soviet Union was a continuation of Russian imperialism, and its disintegration was part of that history.
What I didn’t realize when I was writing The Last Empire and I realize now is that the fall of the Soviet Union wasn’t the absolute last page of the imperial story.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union continues to a degree. One person who helped me come to this conclusion was President Putin—in his speech on the annexation of Crimea, he pointed to injustices done to Russia in the process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
That is a sore point for him and his generation of Russian rulers. They don’t consider the page to be closed. They used the newly acquired might of Russia, from the high price of oil and gas, and a rebuilt military to rewrite the history of the Soviet collapse.
They go back to the Russian imperial heritage. A special medal that was struck in 2014 at the annexation of Crimea [is the model of] an image struck with Catherine II in the annexation of Crimea.
When they wanted to divide Ukraine, there was the idea of a buffer state that would be called New Russia---the name comes from an imperial province. There are a lot of parallels as they are trying to change and rewrite the history of the Soviet collapse.
Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Ukraine, especially here in the United States?
A: One thing that certainly is very much there is that most educated Americans, especially the more mature types, people who got their educations before 1991, think in terms of the region as Russia. The Soviet Union was known as Russia. In that sense, there is little knowledge or expertise allowing for a differentiation between the different parts of the Soviet Union.
There is a readiness to think that Russians think this is part of the Russian sphere of influence and maybe they have a good point in saying that. Most of that comes out of the traditional thinking [about] Great Powers.
That I see as a major challenge, a kind of legacy of imperial thinking about history. When you look at American history and the history of Ukraine and Eastern Europe, there are certain parallels between American and Russian history, but there also are parallels between America and the countries trying to get out of [the control of] an imperial power.
The U.S. came into existence trying to get out of an imperial power, Britain, and trying to defend its independence against an imperial master with help coming from France.
If you look at the story of disintegration of empires, nations trying to set themselves free, a lot can unite [U.S.] history with Ukraine [and Eastern Europe].
There’s a desire to suggest to American readers another way to look at the region, and connect through certain elements of American history. I hope the book will help bring that about.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: There is another project, probably what will come next is to be titled The Man with the Poison Gun. It is a Cold War thriller. I’m a historian, so it’s all researched, partly archive-based. It’s about the Soviet assassination in Munich of one of Ukraine’s nationalist leaders abroad.
He was assassinated with a specially designed poison gun. It was difficult to figure out if it was a heart attack. It made such a splash it ended up on one of the James Bond novels…
We know a lot about the story. The assassin eventually fell in love with a German woman and together they escaped to the West…he confessed and went on trial.
Q: What year was the assassination?
A: It was in 1959. Then in 1961 he escaped, and went on trial in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. It’s an interesting story in itself—a love story, espionage, remorse—and also in the bigger context of the Cold War, the Soviet empire trying to save itself by killing an opponent abroad. That also resonated with certain things that happen today.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: When I was doing research, I didn’t realize [some things about] the fictional character Conan the Barbarian. I had an idea he was leader of the Cimmerians, the first group of nomads from Ukraine that came in contact with the Greeks.
The Black Sea border was the ultimate frontier of the Greek world. In that sense, Herodotus turned out to be the first historian of Ukraine, and Ukraine enters the annals of world history early on.
I kind of knew that, but I didn’t pay much attention. There were some surprises, and that was one of them!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Serhii Plokhy, please click here.