In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine
Allen Lane, £20.00
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine
Allen Lane, £25.00
In her lecture on receiving the 2015 Nobel prize for literature, the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich gave a powerful insight into the present condition of much of the Slavic core of the old USSR, and of Russia in particular. She had lived in a country – she meant the Soviet Union – that had taught death, where human beings existed only to sacrifice themselves for what was perceived as the collective interest. She had tried in her work to reconstruct the history of how people had wanted to build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth but found that in the end all that remained was a sea of blood.
‘We missed the chance we had in the 1990s,’ she said, referring to the break-up of the USSR. ‘The question was posed: what country should we have, a strong country, or a worthy one where people can live decently? We chose the former … a time of hope has been replaced by a time of fear. The era has turned around and headed back in time … I am not sure that I have finished writing the history of the “Red” man …’
Russia today fits this portrait all too well, and Belarus also, perhaps. The Kremlin’s obsession with strength, however illusory, and the perceived need to defend Russia against a West determined to destroy the country, however ill-founded, are at the centre of Putin’s imagination. The latest version of Russia’s National Security Strategy, signed off on December 31, 2015, by the president, is proof of that.
Ukraine, the third Slavic country at the core of the old USSR and also Alexievich’s birthplace, is the subject of two recent books, In Wartime by the journalist Tim Judah, and The Gates of Europe by the Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy. They both record the long-standing Russian assumption that the people of Ukraine, whether Ukrainian-speaking or Russian, but particularly the latter, share the understandings and beliefs of the metropolitan Russians themselves and that their instinctive allegiance is therefore to the interests of Moscow. It follows for Russia’s current leadership that when they do not, it is Russia’s enemies who are responsible. Ukraine is for them the object of a struggle between Russia and the West, not a subject in its own right.
Plokhy sets out in his history, clearly and without polemic, how Ukraine has over the centuries emerged as a nation state with its own traditions, drawing on ideas from both its western and eastern neighbours.
Both Moscow and Kyiv lay claim to Prince Vladimir/Volodymyr the Great, the Prince of Kiev who accepted baptism into the Byzantine Church in 988. But Ukraine was less comprehensively affected by later Mongol rule and no harsh equivalent to the centralizing and ambitious Duchy of Moscow which became the kernel of today’s Russia has ever emerged on Ukrainian territory.
Plokhy’s account is the story of how, like other European countries, Ukraine has built up, against considerable odds, the essential components of a modern national identity.
It was until quite recently a common practice for western accounts of the present struggle in Ukraine to be illustrated by maps showing a substantial slice of the east of that country as not just Russian-speaking but as pro-Russian too. Ukraine is not perfect, and the range of views within it, as accounts like Judah’s amply show, is wide. But one of the most striking facts of the crisis that began in November 2013 has been the resistance to Russian demands and interference that Ukrainian society as a whole has organized and displayed. As Judah was repeatedly told, Ukrainians never expected to have to fight the Russians. They were poorly equipped to do so. But they have fought hard, together with the government in Kyiv, but also very much on their own behalf. In doing so, their sense of Ukraine as a nation with its own destiny and values has been further strengthened.
Judah rightly concludes his book by writing that ‘Ukraine was not just in combat with Russia and the rebels it sponsored. It was in a race against time to save what could be saved and to set the country back on the right path.’ Plokhy in the epilogue to The Gates of Europe describes the current crisis as central to Russia and Europe as a whole.
Putin has not forgotten his ambition of controlling Ukraine. For him, Russia remains not so much a nation in the classic European sense with clearly defined national boundaries, but as the living embodiment of its Soviet past, destined, even condemned, to rely on dominance over its neighbourhood to defend itself against a hostile world. That is Russia’s tragedy. Ukraine’s uncertain triumph has been twice, in 2004 and in 2014, to try for what Alexievich set out before the Nobel Committee as the other answer to the question posed in the 1990s, a ‘worthy country where people can live decently’.
Whatever happens next, and even if the sticking plaster of the Minsk II ceasefire agreement can be made to offer an excuse for western countries to falter in their resolve to help Ukraine, this is a question that Ukraine will continue to pose to itself and to Russia.