The European destiny of Ukraine

The long history of Ukraine is that of a nation turned towards Europe, having built, over the centuries, a strong identity and having suffered for too long imperial oppression against which, today, it fights with all its strength.

Europe is a tremendous hope, a shared destiny, an ambition for all. This formula from Pascal Lamy is reminiscent, with a certain emotion, of the excitement felt at the time of the first Eastern European enlargements, which occurred following the fall of the communist regimes during the astonishing autumn of 1989. After more than fifty years of unfortunate division, everything bore believe that Europe would definitively reconnect with its history and geography. As deep as they were, these convictions remained for many with no future. Despite these promises, Europe, which wanted to be radiant and fraternal, is in search of meaning but above all of borders. If the integration of the countries of Central-Eastern Europe had been able at the beginning of the 2000s to give rise to lively debates and indictments, testifying to a certain Western navel-gazing having given rise to mutual incomprehensions, some of which are still alive today, it remains more burning than ever at the time of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Indeed, more than committing to fulfilling its world order obligations, Europe now finds itself confronted with this war an unprecedented moral challenge.

For more than 9 years now, Ukraine has been engaged in direct confrontation with Russia. Courageously paying the price of blood every day in the face of an invader as devious as it is cruel, Ukraine aspires to much more than the reconquest of its territory occupied since 2014. This is a carnal struggle. Indeed, Ukraine is not only a country of the formerUSSR which intends to definitively extract itself from the influence of its Russian neighbor. It is also a nation in search of freedom and democracy. The aspirations of the crowd massed on Independence Square (Madan Nezalezhnosti) in November 2013, or even the intention of President Volodymyr Zelensky to want to celebrate May 9 no longer as Victory Day, but as that of Europe, showed this perfectly. It is now a modern nation, looking towards the future and towards Europe. But before thinking about the fight for democracy, the opacity claimed by Ukraine is expressed through a history that is difficult to ignore.

In any case, this is what the work At the gates of Europe proposed by the historian Serhii Plokhy intends to emphasize.

A necessary and expected work

Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Center since 2013, Serhii Plokhy very early dedicated himself in his writings to the popularization of historical knowledge of a land once relegated to Russian-Soviet intrigues. Questioning through the force of testimonies, the excavation of archives and the skillful and critical use of historiography the depths of a tumultuous history, the work of Serhii Plokhy aims to be canonical for those interested in Ukrainian studies. If we especially remember his works Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (2018) Or The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (2014), the book in question here is intended to be just as fundamental. Initially published in English by Penguin in 2017 before appearing in France in the fall of 2022, At the gates of Europe delivers a general history of Ukraine in the form of a fresco that stretches from Antiquity to the thrills of a contemporary period marked as much by the awakening of a nation as the uncertainties that await it in the East.

However panoramic it may be, Serhii Plokhiy's work cannot be considered as the simple fruit of a historian keen to offer, like so many others, a general history manual intended for the greatest number of people. The intention is not there and goes far beyond the idea that one can have of the book by leafing through its table of contents and a few chapters. Certainly At the gates of Europe has everything to establish itself, through the thoroughness of its approach at the intersection of several disciplinary fields, as a reference in France, a country hitherto lacking in academic work dedicated to the Ukrainian question, but the interest of the work does not lie in this contribution.

The European epic of Ukraine

It is with great modesty, allowing him to brush aside possible suspicions as to the laudatory character of his story, that Serhii Plokhy delivers a fundamentally European story from Ukraine. Even though this country is located on the edge of the continent, and is now the center of attention, Ukraine has always been one with the history of Europe and its peoples. Serhii Plokhy is only emphasizing an evidence that has long been hidden due to lack of sufficient knowledge, not to mention interest in a small nation most often crushed under the weight of surrounding powers and cultures. Whether understood in a strictly geographical or cultural sense, Central-Eastern Europe constitutes a synaptic space between two worlds, a civilizational crossroads underlying exchanges and reciprocities but also rivalries and conflicts to which Ukraine belongs. Serhii Plokhy never ceases to remind us of this throughout his work.

From the first Indo-European migrations to the colonization of the Pontic steppe by the Greek cities, passing through the Vargians of the far Scandinavian north having shaped the powerful Rus facing the distant and Christian Byzantium, the roots of Ukraine intertwine and take root with those of this Europe crossed by a sum of peoples and cultures. The imprint of this past cannot, however, be limited to the oldest centuries. Indeed, like other European nations, Ukraine witnessed the rise of empires during the Great Century and the modern era. Sharing between Poland, Austria and Russia, the so-called nation ruthne transforms as it timidly becomes aware of itself in the plurality of these political systems imposed on it. The Cossack epic and its multiple revolts in the service of a libertarian ideal defying Polish and Russian domination are only the first manifestations. If these are strongly repressed, they are nevertheless engraved in the collective memory and famous through literary, philosophical and scientific works which will never cease – before appearing much later in the Ukrainian national panthon – to affirm before their time, like watchmen, the political and cultural singularity of this land is arbitrarily considered as a march of empire. Rise of nationalism during the end of the XIXe and the beginning of XXe will represent with the outbreak of the First World War an unexpected opportunity to accomplish this goal.

Ukraine thus accompanies and participates in the fall of secular empires, but narrowly misses the full realization of its independence unlike the other nations of central-eastern Europe. Considered by many as a true parenthesis, the Interwar period and the Second World War are nevertheless presented with hindsight and reflection, not as a break but a continuation of the fight for independence. The latter taking, as Europe experiences several upheavals, several paths, some of which are marked with the seal of infamy. This subtle analysis of the middle of XXe century thus offers all the necessary space for Plokhii to present, in the last part of his work devoted to the independence of 1991 and its challenges, the issues of Ukrainian national construction. Very quickly we realize perfectly that Ukraine is in no way, as some may claim, a project or a artificial entity. The contrasts and differences present in this country at the level of inhabitants and regions are in no way dead ends but on the contrary a sum of opportunities resulting from one and the same history: that of Europe.

This Europe that we must see

The work by Serhii Plokhy, lives up to its name perfectly. Over the centuries, Ukraine and Europe have forged unbreakable links, forged by a long and often difficult history reinforced by their geographic proximity. If Ukraine is often considered as a bridge between East and West where the most diverse influences intersect, it is also a symbol of European union and diversity, where cultures and languages, religions and traditions mingle. traditions. In this sense, Serhii Plokhy makes clever use of the notion of border by showing that Ukraine has always constituted, despite its plurality, a limes definitely European. This idea, sweeping away any form of mythical or dualistic interpretation making the East either a periphery or a separate European space as the late Milan Kundera could propose, seeks to show by the force of historical facts that Ukraine is fully part of this universal and bubbling Europe throughout. throughout the centuries. By shaking up our perception of the history of this country, this work is an invitation to review our certainties by changing the scale of our reasoning regarding the very limits of Europe. If thinking about these borders remains complex, because it requires thinking about the meeting of Ukraine in a democratic space, it is now possible to do so thanks to At the gates of Europe who proves it in the most beautiful way.