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21 November 2018

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Book Review

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The Gates of Europe

by Serhii Plokhy (Basic Books)

Serhii Plokhy (Basic Books, $29.99)

If you are looking for a book to provide a detailed history of recent events, the war with Russia, Crimea, etc., look elsewhere. If, however you are interested in gaining deep background to understanding the Ukrainian nation, this is it. In fact, you need to read over two-thirds of Plokhy’s book just to get to the end of the Soviet Union. And perhaps that is valuable context, because in the long sweep of history, recent events, no matter how brutal and disturbing, are little more than a blip.

Plokhy begins his history two millennia ago, with the rise of settlements along the “Hospitable Sea” (the Black Sea), with the Scythians and the Greeks (and Ovid, “Ah, how near I am to the ends of the earth!”). And he charts a history that shows how Ukraine has been, as its name asserts, the borderlands between empires and peoples – an object of history and rarely a subject.

It is a fascinating and complex story told concisely.

Still, the last 100 pages do provide context and history for times within our temporal grasp, showing how Ukraine was instrumental (no longer an object) in the collapse of the USSR, how the battle over its borders, over Crimea, are not recent skirmishes, but merely the latest developments in a story that lasts many hundreds of years, and how the country’s vibrant pluralism is both a blessing and a curse as Ukraine, ever a borderland, strives to navigate between Russia and Europe.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2016