Mar 2, 2014

Shall We Read About Ukrainian History?

Given the current crisis between the Ukraine and Russia, is there any interest in reading a book about Ukrainian history as our next selection. Here are a few possibilities:

Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation by Serhy Yekelchyk (2007, more than 4 stars, 320 pages)
In 2004 and 2005, striking images from the Ukraine made their way around the world, among them boisterous, orange-clad crowds protesting electoral fraud and the hideously scarred face of a poisoned opposition candidate. Europe's second-largest country but still an immature state only recently independent, Ukraine has become a test case of post-communist democracy, as millions of people in other countries celebrated the protesters' eventual victory.
Any attempt to truly understand current events in this vibrant and unsettled land, however, must begin with the Ukraines dramatic history. Ukraine's strategic location between Russia and the West, the country's pronounced cultural regionalism, and the ugly face of post-communist politics are all anchored in Ukraine's complex past.
The first Western survey of Ukrainian history to include coverage of the Orange Revolution and its aftermath, this book narrates the deliberate construction of a modern Ukrainian nation, incorporating new Ukrainian scholarship and archival revelations of the post-communist period.
Here then is a history of the land where the strategic interests of Russia and the West have long clashed, with reverberations that resonate to this day.

Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid. (2000. almost 4 star average rating, 272 pages) We have an outside recommendation for this book from a good source.
Borderland tells the story of Ukraine. A thousand years ago it was the center of the first great Slav civilization, Kievan Rus. In 1240, the Mongols invaded from the east, and for the next seven centureies, Ukraine was split between warring neighbors: Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Austrians, and Tatars. Again and again, borderland turned into battlefield: during the Cossack risings of the seventeenth century, Russia’s wars with Sweden in the eighteenth, the Civil War of 1918–1920, and under Nazi occupation. Ukraine finally won independence in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bigger than France and a populous as Britain, it has the potential to become one of the most powerful states in Europe.In this finely written and penetrating book, Anna Reid combines research and her own experiences to chart Ukraine’s tragic past. Talking to peasants and politicians, rabbis and racketeers, dissidents and paramilitaries, survivors of Stalin’s famine and of Nazi labor camps, she reveals the layers of myth and propaganda that wrap this divided land. From the Polish churches of Lviv to the coal mines of the Russian-speaking Donbass, from the Galician shtetlech to the Tatar shantytowns of Crimea, the book explores Ukraine’s struggle to build itself a national identity, and identity that faces up to a bloody past, and embraces all the peoples within its borders.
 Black Sea by Neal Ascherson (1996, 4 stars, 320 pages)
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History
In this study of the fateful encounters between Europe and Asia on the shores of a legendary sea, Neal Ascherson explores the disputed meaning of community, nationhood, history, and culture in a region famous for its dramatic conflicts. What makes the Back Sea cultures distinctive, Ascherson agrues, is the way their comonent parts came together over the millennia to shape unique communities, languages, religions, and trade. As he shows with skill and persuasiveness, Black Sea patterns in the Caucasus, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, and Greece have linked the peoples of Europe and Asia together for centuries.

2014 Ukraine and Crimea Crisis: The Crimean Tatars and Their Influence on the Triangle Of Conflict - Russia - Crimea - Ukraine, History of Crimea, Sevastopol, Russian Black Sea Fleet (2008, unrated, 161 pages) (This book is available from Amazon on Kindle for a fee, or to sample for free on the Internet.)
This study of the conflict over the years involving Ukraine, Russia, and the Crimea is particularly interesting and relevant in light of the ongoing crisis in 2014. The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought about multidimensional problems to the former republics of the USSR and their inhabitants. In 1990s Ukraine, Crimea became a center of conflict between Ukraine and Russia over the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet and Crimea itself, perceived as historically their own by both sides of the conflict. Local Crimean authorities took advantage of the specificity of a demographic situation in Crimea were Ukrainians, the titular nation, are in minority and considerably Russified to claim for autonomy. Later, they attempted to secede from Ukraine. At the same time, the Crimean Tatar influx from exile, orchestrated by the Stalin regime in 1944, further exacerbated the 'triangle of conflict' between the dyads Russia-Ukraine and Crimea-Ukraine. The Crimean Tatars, currently 12 percent of the Crimean population, proclaimed Crimea the national territory of the Crimean Tatar people, on which they alone possess the right to self-government and claimed greater rights for themselves as allegedly the most indigenous peoples in Crimea, while the rest are colonizers. The explains the historical developments in Crimea and attempts to draw implications to the Ukrainian government in dealing with Crimean Tatar nationalism which seems to be overcoming the problems within the 'triangle of conflict' that was so sharp in 1990s. 
Please Comment!

  • Do you think it is a good idea to read a book on Ukrainian History? 
  • Do you have any suggestion in addition to those listed above for us to read on the Ukraine?
  • Which if any of these books interest you?
  • Do you like the idea of everyone choosing their own reading and having a more general discussion on Ukrainian history?
As a result of a request from a member, I have added a couple of new books to the list of possibles:

The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation by Andrew Wilson (unrated, 416 pages, 2009)
This book is the most acute, informed, and up-to-date account available today of Ukraine and its people. Andrew Wilson brings his classic work up to the present, through the Orange Revolution and its aftermath, including the 2006 election, the ensuing crisis of 2007, the Ukrainian response to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, the economic crisis in Ukraine, and the 2009 gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine. It looks forward to the key election in 2010, which will revisit many of the issues that were thought settled in 2004.

Russia, Ukraine, and the Breakup of the Soviet Union by Joseph D. Dwyer. (3 stars, 438 pages, 2000)
Focusing on the critical relationship between Ukraine and Russia, renowned scholar Roman Szporluk chronicles the final two decades in the history of the Soviet Union and presents a story that is often lost in the standard interpretations of the collapse of communism.

This is not exactly history, but it might be worth reading:

Return to Ukraine by Anie Savage (4 stars plus, 272 pages, 2000, only available in hardback, but available at paperback prices from other venders)
Nearly fifty years after fleeing Ukraine during World War II, Ania Savage returned with her mother and aunt—their first trip back to their homeland. In this riveting account of the journey, she records both the changes they found in Ukraine in the early days of postSoviet existence and the memories they had gone to seek.
Savage, a journalist traveling to teach at Kyiv State University, records in vivid detail her experiences in her homeland, including the political turmoil that gripped Ukraine as it struggled to establish a democracy. In a moving subtext, Savage also describes the intense emotions she felt traveling with her mother, who at age seventyfour was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
Savage skillfully threads these personal themes into narratives of Ukraine's larger history, events that include stumbling upon the excavation of a mass grave from the Stalinist era. She moves through the discoveries of her trip with an honest and passionate voice as she witnesses the rebirth of a nation and as she and her family reconnect with their past. Savage also describes the experience of working in Kyiv and speculates on how her Ukrainian heritage and American youth and education combine to shape her view of the people and places she encounters in Ukraine.
This story will prove fascinating to historians, sociologists, and general readers alike, especially those with an interest in the rise of democracy in Eastern Europe, life in those troubled countries, or personal struggles with memory and its loss. In addition, Ukrainian immigrants and those of Ukrainian heritage will find Return to Ukraine a moving account of their homeland and what it has become.
The cemetery is a desolate, forgotten place. My mother’s face has turned white. She clutches at her purse and is whispering to herself. "This is not the cemetery," my mother says. "We had a beautiful cemetery."
"Of course this is the cemetery," Katia cries. "No one moves cemeteries, not even Communists."
I’m the one who finds the double grave of my grandparents near the center of the cemetery. A rough concrete cross rises above the graves, paid for with money my mother and Katia had sent to the village a few years into Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost. A metal plaque bearing my grandparents’ names hangs from the cross.
We place the gladioli we have brought with us at the foot of the cross and bend our heads in prayer. Our tears mingle with the raindrops falling on the graves.—from the book
Still more books to consider (added 3/10/2014)

Ukraine: The Search for a National Identity edited by Sharon Wolchik and Volodymyr Zviglyanich (unrated, 338 pages, 1999, expensive but available at lower prices used)
This comprehensive book focuses on the challenges facing Ukraine as a newly emerged state after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like all countries with no recent history of independence, Ukraine had to invent or recreate effective political institutions, reintroduce a market economy, and reorient its foreign policy. These tasks were impossible to accomplish without resolving the question of national identity. In this balanced and clear-eyed assessment, a team of U.S. and Ukrainian specialists explores the external and internal dimensions of national identity and statehood, providing a wealth of information previously unavailable to Western scholars.
Arguing that the search for national identity is a multidimensional process, the authors show that it reflects the realities of the dawning twenty-first century. Paradoxically, this quest must cope with the both the weakening of state boundaries caused by globalization and the strengthening of the national model as new countries emerge from the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
After providing the historical context of Ukraine’s international debut, the book analyzes the complexities of constructing a national identity. The authors explore questions of ethnic relations and regionalism, the development of political values and attitudes, mass-elite relations, the cultural background of economic strategies, gender issues, and the threat of organized crime to emergent civil society.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder (4 stars plus, 580 pages, 2012)
Americans call the Second World War “The Good War.” But before it even began, America’s wartime ally Josef Stalin had killed millions of his own citizens—and kept killing them during and after the war. Before Hitler was finally defeated, he had murdered six million Jews and nearly as many other Europeans. At war’s end, both the German and the Soviet killing sites fell behind the iron curtain, leaving the history of mass killing in darkness.
Bloodlands is a new kind of European history, presenting the mass murders committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as two aspects of a single history, in the time and place where they occurred: between Germany and Russia, when Hitler and Stalin both held power. Assiduously researched, deeply humane, and utterly definitive, Bloodlands will be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the central tragedy of modern history.
Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt (4 stars, 960 pages, 2006)
World War II may have ended in 1945, but according to historian Tony Judt, the conflict's epilogue lasted for nearly the rest of the century. Calling 1945-1989 "an interim age," Judt examines what happened on each side of the Iron Curtain, with the West nervously inching forward while the East endured the "peace of the prison yard" until the fall of Communism in 1989 signaled their chance to progress. Though he proposes no grand, overarching theory of the postwar period, Judt's massive work covers the broad strokes as well as the fine details of the years 1945 to 2005. No one book (even at nearly a thousand pages) could fully encompass this complex period, but Postwar comes close, and is impressive for its scope, synthesis, clarity, and narrative cohesion.
Judt treats the entire continent as a whole, providing equal coverage of social changes, economic forces, and cultural shifts in western and eastern Europe. He offers a county-by-county analysis of how each Eastern nation shed Communism and traces the rise of the European Union, looking at what it represents both economically and ideologically. Along with the dealings between European nations, he also covers Europe's conflicted relationship with the United States, which learned much different lessons from World War II than did Europe. In particular, he studies the success of the Marshall Plan and the way the West both appreciated and resented the help, for acceptance of it reminded them of their diminished place in the world. No impartial observer, Judt offers his judgments and opinions throughout the book in an attempt to instruct as well as inform. If a moral lesson is to come from World War II, Judt writes, "then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation. 'European Union' may be an answer to history, but it can never be a substitute." This book would be an excellent place to start that lesson. --Shawn Carkonen 


  1. One member shared this:

    I've read "The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation", though my copy is somewhat
    old, and only goes up to the Kuchma government (the one prior to the
    "Orange Revolution"). I got it after traveling there about a dozen years
    ago. There's a newer edition out, but it looks like it doesn't extend
    much past 2004-05. Still, it's an adequate history of
    Scythia/Transcarpathia/Ruthenia/Galicia/Ukraine. And there really aren't
    too many of those, in English.

    Honestly, if we want to make sense of what's going on now, I would
    consciously AVOID any English language text that purports to explain the
    last, say, 5-9 years. From what I've seen of the American & BBC news
    coverage (and parallel to that, the coverage of the Sochi Olympics), I
    think the number of prominent, trustworthy English-speaking observers
    might be in the single digits. (So far my absolute favorites are the
    Beltway "experts" who continually refer to Ukraine as "the Ukraine". It's
    only been Ukraine -- no "the" -- for 20 years now, so I can see how they'd
    have a hard time keeping up.)

    My two bits.

  2. Here are some more. Response 1: Reading Ukrainian history seems as good as anything; I'm game. I would prefer something truly historical, going well back to its earliest settlers, as Reid's and Ascherson's works purport to do. Perhaps the others do so as well, but I do not perceive that in their publishers' descriptions.

    Response 2: I think a book on Ukraine would be a great idea right now. One reason we read history is to better understand current events in different parts of the world. It's an area I know nothing about and I'd have to defer to Sam's expertise. Maybe there's a book that could bring some of us up on the learning curve.

    Response 3: Are there any books that are a post WWII history of the entire area?

  3. A couple more members have responded positively to the idea of reading a book on Ukraine now.

    IN response to the last item in the previous comment, a member wrote:

    "Bloodlands" covers central and eastern Europe just before and just after the war, but its focus is, well, blood, purges, and genocides and such -- probably narrower than what you want.

    Tony Judt's "Postwar" is a very good, sweeping history of postwar Europe, but the EEC/EU fills much of its text, and the whole thing is longer than a typical monthly selection.