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13 November 2018

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Lost Kingdom

Lost Kingdom, by Serhii Plokhy (Basic Books, $42)

Serhii Plokhy (Basic Books, $42)

In February 2014 the future was so tantalizingly near. The Sochi Olympics closed to fanfare and acclaim. Despite the naysayers (and the budget-busting construction), Russia had pulled off a first-class spectacle, hosting one of the world’s most important international events.

And then, four days later, masked Russian troops bearing no insignia occupied Crimea. Less than a month after that, Russia claimed the Ukrainian peninsula as Russian territory, ignoring international outrage. Hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine followed, and Russia’s relations with the West headed into an ever-deepening abyss, culminating in the election meddling scandals and, most recently, tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.

If we want to understand what is going on, argues Plokhy, we need to look at Crimea and Ukraine in the context of the longer sweep of Russian history. We need to understand what it means to be Russian, what the difference is (for Russians) between national borders and national identity.

One might question whether one should turn to a Ukrainian-born historian for an understanding of Russian foreign policy and national intent. But, on the other hand, one could argue that this is exactly the sort of writer one wants to hear from these days, that is, if one seeks a balanced understanding of what is going on in Russia’s borderlands. Plokhy is a gifted historian and he retells this history in a very engaging style, which helps one easily grasp the through-lines in history he wants to illuminate.

And his point is this: Russia will not find security or prosperity through territory or ideology. Instead, it must “adjust Russia’s own identity to the demands of the post-imperial world. The future of the Russian nation and its relations with its neighbors lies not in a return to the lost paradise of the imagined East Slavic unity of the medieval Kyivan state, but in the formation of a modern civic nation within the borders of the Russian Federation.”

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2017