Review of Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (Perseus Academic, 2015).
It is hard to get objective information about Ukraine. This isn’t just because the initial frame through which most of us encountered Ukraine presented her as a territory of Imperial Russia or the Soviet Union. Nor is it simply a result of the confusion about facts and intentions that always exist when one country invades or annexes part of another. Both of these certainly come into play, but they are exacerbated by Moscow’s aggressive information strategy that is as much directed toward undermining Western ideological hegemony abroad as it is at reinforcing its own at home. The fact that the West is trying to do the same thing in reverse and that both Moscow and the West define Ukraine in a way that bolsters their own cause means that Ukraine is rarely seen on its own terms.
Moreover, both Russia and the West propagate their own self-reinforcing stories and facts, making it impossible for all but the most dispassionate and dedicated analysts to find the truth about who Ukraine is and what it has been through. Discussions about Ukraine’s proper identity often end up serving as a shibboleth for one’s preference for traditional values (allegedly represented by Russia) or freedom (allegedly represented by the West)—frames that are constantly reinforced by the leaders and propaganda industries of both sides.
The complex border, as well as cultural and identity issues that define Ukraine and its people are ignored in favor of stereotypes, Soviet-style agitprop and manipulation.
This is why Plokhy’s book The Gates of Europe is so useful. The Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University, Plokhy has been studying Ukraine his entire career, writing about its religion (e.g. The Cossacks and Religion in Early Modern Ukraine, Tsars and Cossacks: A Study in Iconography and, with Frank Sysyn, Religion and Nation in Modern Ukraine), and how its relationship with its neighbors has shaped its identity (e.g., Unmaking Imperial Russia: Mykhailo Hrushevsky and the Writing of Ukrainian History; The Origins of the Slavic Nations: Premodern Identities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus; Ukraine and Russia: Representations of the Past and The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires).
As a result of Plokhy’s objectivity and willingness to go where the facts lead him (vs. finding the facts to support a given position), Russophiles, Ukrainian nationalists and American ideologues of all stripes will find things that both reinforce and challenge their assumptions. This is not to say that Professor Plokhy is completely objective; he clearly wants to see Ukraine—with its current borders and mix of languages, religions and identities—free of foreign (and especially Muscovite) domination. It is also clear that he believes Ukrainian independence requires a Western orientation and the concomitant commitment to diversity and liberal democracy. However, the primary lesson of Plokhy’s Gates of Europe is that no orientation is enough on its own; what is really required is that Ukraine adeptly play neighboring powers against one another and that its allies follow through on their promises. A second set of lessons is that the requisite diplomatic skill is rare, it is hardly ever enough, allies are seldom reliable and freedom is hard to earn and even harder to hold on to.
The book begins with an account of the succession of peoples from the Neanderthals (45,000 B.C.) through the Cimmerians, Scythians and Sarmatians, and the effect of being at the edge of the Greek and Roman Empires. One theme that comes out of this treatment is that political divisions tend to follow the necessities of the local geography; hence the metaphor of Ukraine being “The Gates of Europe.” However, the most important part of this section is its description of the settling of the area by the Slavs (in the sixth century when they moved south from what is now northern Ukraine and Belarus), the founding of Kyivan Rus’ (in the ninth century, under the varangian Rurik dynasty), its Christian baptism in 988, the subsequent creation of the Metropolitanate of Rus’ (under the Patriarch of Constantinople), the “Golden Age” of Kyivan Rus’ and Kyivan Rus’ disintegration and dislocation due to struggles over succession and the Mongol invasion (1240).
It is in this section on the dissolution of Kyivan Rus that Professor Plokhy asks the critical question for those interested in the politics of contemporary Ukraine: “Who is the legitimate heir to the legacy of Kyivan Rus’, and who holds the proverbial keys to Kyiv?”
Those of us who studied Ukraine through Imperial Russian (or Soviet) lenses have been given one unambiguous answer to that question: Russia, to include the Russian nation, the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church, is the only legitimate heir of Kyivan Rus’. This claim is based on the fact that in the 13th century, notable titles and personalities (to include the seat of the Metropolitanate of Kyiv) moved east from Kyiv into what is now Russia. This move allowed for the eventual creation of the Orthodox Russian Empire and provided the factual basis for the current “Russki Mir” mythology that the Russian Orthodox Church uses to legitimize Moscow’s ecclesial, ideological and diplomatic (if not imperial) claims over Ukraine (and Belarus). Note that part of this claim for legitimacy is distinctly religious: other heirs to the Kyivan dynasty are dismissed because Russophiles deny their Orthodoxy (e.g., due to the Union of Brest), often referring to them as “schismatics” and “heretics.”
It is true that part of Kyiv’s authority and culture moved northeast to what is now Russia, but this is not the whole story; Kyivan Rus’ also moved west into what is now Central and Western Ukraine. Many historians of Ukraine (and both Catholic and Orthodox Ukrainian nationalists) point to this western heir as the legitimate cultural claimant to the legacy of Kyivan Rus’. Few nonUkrainians are familiar with King Danylo, the master politician who unified Galicia and Volhynia into the Kingdom of Rus’ and whose rule over that kingdom was legitimized by no less than the pope of Rome. This story is paradigmatic for Ukraine: he used diplomacy to carve out a space for his nation, but his inability to consolidate enough power to maintain independence without help left it vulnerable to the fickleness of its supposed allies. In the case of King Danylo and the Kingdom of Rus’, it was the Holy Roman Empire that did not deliver the support Rus’ needed to maintain an uneasy peace with the Mongols; in later cycles it would be other names (e.g. Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Russia and the PolishLithuanian Commonwealth; Hetman Ivan Mazepa, Russia and Sweden; various communist and nationalist leaders and forces, and communist Russia; Stepan Bandera and Andrii Melnyk, Nazi German and the Soviet Union), but the outcome was always the same: a diminishing of Ukrainian independence (usually to Russia).
As far as religious legitimacy goes, there are currently four Ukrainian Churches that explicitly trace their history back to Kyivan Rus’: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP, currently the largest by popular support); the Ukrainian Orthodox Church– Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP, the largest in terms of priests and parishes and the only one recognized as canonical by world Orthodoxy); the Ukrainian Catholic Church (UCC, in communion with Rome since the Catholic version of the Council of Brest in 1595–1596) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). All of them consider themselves both Ukrainian and Orthodox, but the UOC-KP, the UCC and the UAOC explicitly set themselves against Russian imperialism and its version of Ukrainian history, while the UOC-MP has found itself in the difficult situation of trying to assert its credibility among Ukrainians while also supporting (and being part of) the Russian Orthodox Church. Pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian administrations have tried turning the UOC-MP and UOC-KP into defacto state churches (as was done with the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia), but these efforts, as Plokhy writes, have only served to reinforce the need for pluralist solutions in Ukraine.
The Maidan, a popular uprising that led to the resignation of the pro-Russian president in 2014, brought the UOC-KP, the UCC and the UAOC together in support of the protestors (their protest was largely against the pro-Russian orientation of the president and in favor of the pro-European orientation he had promised and then forsaken), but polarized their relationship with the UOC-MP. During this time the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyivan Patriarchate became the most popular church in Ukraine.
There have been serious attempts to reunite various pairs of these churches (most recently the Kyivan Patriarchate and the Autocephalists; their split dates back only about 20 years), but none have been able to overcome their differences. Many of these differences are intensely personal. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church anathematized Patriarch Filaret, the current leader of the Kyivan Patriarchate, for his attempts to free the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow’s ecclesial control. He famously reacted that this put him in good company; the Russian Orthodox Church had previously anathematized another Ukrainian independence leader, Ivan Mazepa, in the 18th century for his failed effort to free Ukraine from Russian control. Dialogue between the churches continues and there is always hope for their reconciliation, but in the meantime, a western orientation provides a more supportive framework for the legitimacy of the status quo (and thus, the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state).
If the best way to predict the future is to look to the past, it’s hard to doubt that Ukraine will once again fall under the dominion of Moscow. Ukraine’s leaders have squandered the opportunity provided by its 25 years of post-Soviet independence to consolidate its power, reorganize its economy and craft a unifying identity. As a result, independence-minded politicians must play Kyiv’s relations with an increasingly Imperial Russia, a country that has already annexed part of its territory and is waging a special war in another part, off against its alliances with Western states, NATO and the EU. It’s a tall order and their efforts to date hardly inspire confidence.
Again, history may not repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme.
Rev. Anthony Perkins is a priest in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and a professor at St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary.