The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy

I’ll be honest, I only found this book after the war in the Ukraine started. I am quite ignorant of the history of this place other than knowing that different ‘barbarian’ tribes moved through it at different times in world history. I started reading this to learn more about the history of Ukraine and try to process this war that is going on.

The book begins in the early, early history of Ukraine and goes all the way up to 2014 with the first invasion of Ukraine by Russia. There are maps in the book but not nearly detailed enough to follow along with the writer as he talks about the different rivers in the area. I am so ignorant of the geography of the area I found myself going to the internet frequently to look at more detailed maps. Do you know the main river in Ukraine? I do now - Dnieper.

Along with rivers as designations of areas in Ukraine, he also refers to the left and right bank of the Dnieper. As I understood it from context while reading, the right bank is actually the West side of the river, while the left bank is the East side. I guess this makes sense because it’s based on looking in the direction of water flow.

So what did I learn about Ukraine? They have a very, very, very, complicated history. There has been many wars, and long running armed conflicts on their soil. Cossacks. Kievan Rus. Barbarian tribes. Russia. Ukraine is located in an area that is a corridor between the Eastern and Western world. It is the area that silk road went through. It is the area through which the Huns went through to get to Europe. Due to the accident of geography, it has been a hotly contested area by many warlords, rulers, and kings.

Along with all this war, it has been attached and cut off from Russia a few different times in its long history. That is to say they share many similarities in language, customs, and culture with Russia but they are a distinct people. It is like China and Taiwan in a way, though China (CCP) has never, every ruled, or set foot on Taiwan.

It was a good read, but very exhausting to read. My unfamiliarity with the area, the rivers, and the names made it slow going for me. The author is obviously very pro-Ukrainian and that shines through in certain points, especially the later part of the book about more events, but that doesn’t detract from the good historical document he has made - a history of Ukraine separate from Russia or any other nearby empires.

If you are being ground down by the relentless media coverage of the war in Ukraine, maybe reading about long ago wars in Ukraine might be more relaxing. It could help put the current conflict in perspective.

Rating: ★★★★

Book #36 in my 2022 Reading Challenge

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