The prize-winning Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy—born in Russia, raised in Ukraine—published The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine in 2015, seven years before most Americans were paying much attention to events in that country. In the final chapter, Plokhy briefly described Russia’s then-recent annexation of Crimea and infiltration of the Donbas. Few readers at that time would have endorsed his concluding warning: “Whatever the outcome of the current Ukraine Crisis, on its resolution depends not only the future of Ukraine but also that of relations between Europe’s east and west—Russia and the European Union—and thus the future of Europe as a whole.”
Today, Ukraine’s position at the “gates of Europe” seems all too obvious, and Plokhy is back with a new book, The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History. Written between March 2022 and February 2023, it is one of the first attempts to recount the war’s first year. Plokhy, who lost a cousin in the defense of Ukraine, concisely identifies the motives that drove him to write: “shock, pain, frustration, and anger.”
The Romantic poet William Wordsworth famously claimed that poetry emerges from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” A similar description might suit the historian’s effort to retell the very recent past. Doing so is always difficult because we lack sufficient distance to identify the truly consequential events, and frustration and anger no doubt make the task even harder. To his credit, Plokhy avoids polemics and achieves a certain objectivity in his account of the war’s origins and development. Not that he is simply a neutral observer: It is clear, in his telling, that this is very much Vladimir Putin’s war and an instance of unjustified aggression.
After chronicling the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin’s rise to power, and Russian-Ukrainian relations following the Cold War, Plokhy marches through the important developments that have brought us to the present: Russia’s move into Crimea and the Donbas; the 2022 invasion; Ukraine’s successful resistance and eventual counteroffensive; the revival of the Western alliance in support of Ukraine. While this account will be familiar to close watchers of the war, recasting events as a single, unified narrative provides a different type of clarity than daily news coverage, less sensational but perhaps more sobering.