While I have long heard that the maternal side of my family came from Ukraine in the 1930s, I was not old enough to ask the poignant questions to those who made the journey while they were still alive. While it is not entirely necessary to understand the political and social rationale, my curiosity has always been quite high to better understand what led these people to flee and settle throughout Saskatchewan, in Canada’s Prairie West. A recent topic in my reading challenge pushed me to explore some of my ancestral roots, which paved the way to better understand Ukraine as a country, a political entity, and a society. While I may not discover all the answers I seek, Serhii Plokhy wrote a fairly comprehensive history of the region, giving me a greater understanding of my ancestral homeland, leaving me many new questions that will have to be answered through further research. Plokhy begins his exploration by discussing the territory that would eventually become Ukraine as being vast and open, unbordered in the modern sense. Various groups settled in the region, leaving their marks, including: Neanderthal mammoth hunters, the Norsemen (Vikings), Cossacks, and various others. These groups sought not necessarily to overtake the territory, but to offer influential marks in defence, arms, and primitive political assembly. Plokhy pushes through the centuries quite effectively, with the Ottomans entering the fray, as well as an early Russian Empire, both squeezing the land that would be called Ukraine in a time. Interestingly enough, the influence of these outsider empires helped formulate a cultural mix and a people who referred to themselves as the Rus’, though a number of other names have been given to these people, as Plokhy discusses for the interested reader. Plokhy goes into much greater detail in the early part of the book about many of the cultural and social entities that wove the early fabric of the Rus’ people, should the reader wish to indulge in this discussion. With politics and geography always evolving, the Rus’ found themselves influenced by these two strong-willed groups as the Hapsburgs came along and laid claim to other European neighbours, adding new and flavourful influences to the region. A seminal event in Ukrainian—and world—history would have to be the Great War, where empires fell and territory was handed out like sweets at a party. The Rus’ people, now seeing themselves as Ukrainians, saw the potential to seek independence during a movement of removing past shackles. Interestingly enough, as the Russian Revolution came to pass, Ukraine sought to declare itself autonomous as well, but did not have the military or political might to stand entirely alone, as they soon discovered. Rather, they had the ever-powerful Bolshevik Russia breathing down their neck and quashing any hopes of independence. Plokhy explores an interesting perspective at this point, with army general Stalin wanting Ukraine to fall under the Russian umbrella in this new collective, but Lenin felt it better to make them a Ukrainian people, developing the (other) USSR, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. As part of this vast republic, Ukraine became the second largest of all the republics, even as other countries began eating away at their borders—namely: Poland, Russia, and Czechoslovakia—in the inter-war years. Stalin’s rise to power saw him flex his muscle and turn to the Ukrainians, punishing them by taking all their agricultural offerings and starving them out. A pogrom if ever there was one, this Great Famine was Stalin’s way of turning Ukraine into a great republic, though one can only imagine how beating them down would help them. Plokhy notes that the Ukrainian lands were also quite sought after when the Nazis arrived in the early 1940s to invade Russia. Hitler spent significant time in Ukraine, laying the groundwork for a key cog in the Nazi wheel, with its plentiful fields and the like, though many readers will know what happened to the Nazis. They did, however, leave their mark, alongside Stalin, in ridding the region of Jews, carting them off to camps and luring robust Ukrainian men away from the country to work in Germany. By the Cold War years, Ukraine was a staple part of the Soviet republics, but after Stalin’s death, the bloodletting seemed to taper off, as numerous other leaders utilised Ukraine as one of the key pillars in keeping the region afloat. Soviet Party influence waned for the latter years of the USSR and was completely obliterated with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire in 1991. On wobbly legs, Ukraine emerged as independent for a time, supported by democratic elections and recognition around the world. Plokhy offers an interesting narrative about some of the revolutionary elections that led Ukrainian politicians to push back. However, with Putin sitting in the Kremlin, Ukraine was soon being meddled with once again. Putin pushed for Russian-backed parties to win elections and went so far as to overturn elections in the Crimean Region, installing a party that had not garnered much support by the people—surely more blatant and doable, as social media and collusion tactics were not needed, as in North America. Plokhy leaves open the possibility that Russia and Ukraine with lock horns again over a variety of issues, including the latter’s ability to remain independent. He asks the curious reader to keep an open mind as things progress politically, hoping that the world will not let a Russian fist erase democracy. However, if they can put a Russian agent into the White House, one can only imagine they can do so anywhere. A brilliant piece of writing that gives the reader a great overall view of the region’s development and casts light on some of the current skirmishes with Russia over the Crimea, sure to be a highly controversial battle for years to come. Recommended to those who wish to learn more about Ukraine without getting bogged down in the minute history of the region.
As I mentioned before, I wanted a little something that would open my eyes to some of my ancestral roots, as well as offer me the history and politics of a region about which I know so little. Plokhy does this in an even-handed manner, mixing social, cultural, and political history together in an easy to digest format. The book tries not to skim, but it is almost impossible to delve in too deeply and still offer up a book that can be carried from one place to another. Plokhy’s arc of Ukrainian history opens the discussion, but never does he profess to having all the answers or to be the final word on the matter. While I refuse to call it a primer, this book does lay some basic foundations for those who want to learn more. Plokhy’s writing style is also easy to comprehend, offering readers lots of information in a relevant format. Depending on the topic at hand, chapters can be short or more detailed, permitting to reader to extract what they want before moving along. Written in English, there was little I felt I might be missing at the hands of a translator, which helped me feel confident in my reading, though I am sure Plokhy has been able to thoroughly research the topics in their original languages, as well as relying on other historians who have taken the leap before him. While the region may not be of interest to all, I can see many readers learning a great deal, even if they chose only to read key chapters in the book: lead-up to the Great War through the the Cold War fallout. While I never promote ‘parachuting’ into a book, I admit this was the section that interested me most and allowed me to extract a great deal of information to whet my appetite and cultivate a stronger understanding of familial roots. I suppose I will have to see if I cannot better comprehend what led my family to leave Ukraine and settle in Saskatchewan. The Prairie West does have a strong Ukrainian population and Plokhy has given me some good ideas why this might be the case.
Kudos, Mr. Plokhy, for enlightening me on this subject. I feel better versed and am eager to tackle some of your other work, which I see deals with other regional interest of mine!
This book fulfils Topic#3: Show Your Roots in the Equinox #6 Reading Challenge.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons