The Gates of Europe | Serhii Plokhy

Summary of: The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine
By: Serhii Plokhy


Embark on a captivating journey through the deep-rooted history of Ukraine, as reflected in Serhii Plokhy’s ‘The Gates of Europe.’ The book navigates the complexities of Ukraine’s past, starting with ancient Greek accounts and traversing a diverse landscape of invaders, heroes, and significant milestones. Discover how Ukraine faced a plethora of challenges, from European power struggles to internal ethnic and regional disputes that fueled the nation’s burning desire for independence. Prepare to be enlightened by this riveting account of Ukraine’s storied past and gain a deeper understanding of the crucial events that continue to shape the country today.

The Untold History of Ukraine

Discover the origins of Ukraine, from ancient Greek historian Herodotus to the Roman Empire and beyond. The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy provides a dramatic account of Ukraine’s history, revealing how it became a dividing point between East and West. The region’s black nutrient-rich soil earned Ukraine the title “breadbasket of Europe,” but it has also been home to nomadic tribes, including the Cimmerians and the Scythians. As the Roman Empire expanded, it became familiar with the region, and the two rivers – the Dnieper and the Don – became crucial for trade. Explore the fascinating history of Ukraine, where Europe meets Asia.

The Rise of Kyivan Rus’

In the sixth century CE, the Slavs arrived in the Balkans and settled in the Volhynia and Pripyat regions of northern Ukraine. They were described as tall and ruddy in complexion. The Slavs raided Byzantine outposts and became a problem for Emperor Justinian. In the seventh century, the Khazars arrived and brought peace to the region. The Vikings also sailed down the Dnieper, representing the king of Rus’ and took control of Kyiv. The Rus’ established themselves in the region in the tenth century, using Kyiv as their capital. They embraced Christianity and built structures modeled after those in Constantinople. Yaroslav the Wise promoted literacy and created a code of law known as Rus’ Justice. Thanks to Volodymyr and Yaroslav, the Kyivan Rus’ became a thriving state in Europe.

The Origins of East-West Divide in Ukraine

The story of Ukraine lies in the turbulent past of the 16th and 17th centuries with various uprisings of Cossacks. This article provides insight into the division between Eastern and Western Ukraine and the emergence of independent Ukraine after years of Mongol rule.

When Yaroslav the Wise died in 1054, his sons ruled the Kyivan Rus’. However, after Yaroslav’s passing, the dynasty fell into a chaotic mess of family rivalries. Between 1132 and 1169, 18 different rulers claimed the throne, and the army of Rus prince Andrei Bogoliubsky emerged victorious, moving his base of operations to the eastern city of Vladimir. This move marked the first step towards a lasting legacy in Ukrainian history: the east-west divide generally denoted by the banks of the Dnieper.

When the Mongols arrived in the middle of the thirteenth century and conquered Kyiv, they noticed two separate centers of rule: the eastern one and the central-western one. They divided the Rus’ into two principalities, which had a long-lasting effect. Constantinople recognized this division, and the eastern region remained under Mongol control until the end of the fifteenth century, after which another independent state within the lands of Ukraine wouldn’t appear until the arrival of the Cossacks.

In 1569, the Union of Lublin was created, leading to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s formation when nobility was on the rise in Europe. The Polish Catholic nobility and Ukrainian Orthodox serfs created an especially volatile mix, and Ukrainians in the steppes north of the Black Sea were frequently killed and sold into Ottoman slavery.

Enter the Cossacks. They fished and hunted, freed enslaved people being transported on trade routes, and were fearless against the Ottomans, the Tatars, and the increasingly powerful Muscovite Russian forces, making them valuable to the Commonwealth. Ukrainian peasants and townsfolk joined the Cossacks to avoid serfdom and slavery, until they made up most of the ranks. The Cossacks became official military personnel in the 1570s, tasked with protecting the borderlands, but some resentful members rose against the noble class.

The Grand Revolt of 1648 began when the Commonwealth refused to meet the Cossacks’ demands to be considered part of the noble class. The Cossacks formed an alliance with the Tatars, wiping out the Polish army. However, with Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky retreating to consider the next move, pandemonium ensued. Peasants attacked landowners and Catholic priests, killing an unknown number of Ukrainian Jews. After this rampage, the Cossacks were given three eastern palatinates to rule independently from the Commonwealth. This region was known as the Hetmanate, but it would eventually be known as Ukraine.

The downfall of the Cossack Hetmanate

The Cossack Hetmanate was caught between the Kingdom of Poland and the Tsardom of Russia, leading to its ultimate downfall. Despite violent uprisings, the democratic nature of the Cossack Hetmanate clashed with the age of absolute monarchy. Russia cancelled hetman elections, leading to enserfment. On the western side, another uprising occurred, and Russia annexed Crimea and Southern Ukraine. The troubled Poland-Lithuanian alliance fell apart due to two rounds of partitions, ultimately erasing Poland from the world map. Catherine and the imperial authorities made a point of highlighting that they had “restored what was torn away.”

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