UKRAINIAN HISTORIAN SERHII PLOKHY: ‘THIS MAY NOT BE THE LAST CHAPTER OF THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE, BUT IT’S AN IMPORTANT ONE’
12 May 2023
Before my first reporting trip to Ukraine, one of my seasoned war correspondent colleagues had two pieces of advice. First, not to miss the delicious coffee and pastries you can find in Kyiv (which is a wonderfully reassuring thing to hear as you head off towards a conflict). Second, that it was absolutely necessary to read Serhii Plokhy’s 2015 book The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. I did, and it unwound 2,500 years of complex, fascinating and often tragic events, all the way from Herodotus’s accounts of the ancient Scythians to the Maidan protests in Kyiv a decade ago. Now Plokhy and I are speaking by Zoom – me from London, he from his home near Harvard, where he is professor of Ukrainian history. He’s in his study. There are globes on every surface, and antique maps of Ukraine hang on the walls.
Plokhy, 65, is a genial presence – calm, expansive, gently humorous, not given to grandstanding – exactly how you might imagine and want a history professor to be. However, his latest project is anything but conventional historiography. He begins The Russo-Ukrainian War, his new book, by recalling the moment he picked up his phone and checked his emails, early on 24 February last year. He was in Vienna. One email from a Harvard colleague, with whom he’d been discussing the prospect of an all-out invasion, hoped he was OK. “I was not OK,” he writes. Aside from anything, his sister and her family were in Zaporizhzhia, the south-eastern city where he’d grown up. By the time he called her, she could already hear the pounding of Russian artillery. He describes how he dressed carefully, that first morning, putting on a shirt and a blazer for a visit to some archives – “to show that I was collected and prepared to carry out my duties, whatever they might be”. The book ends with an afterword that pays heartbreaking tribute to his cousin, killed in October near Bakhmut.
History is normally written from the calm, distant purview that a scholar attains when chaotic events have resolved themselves into some recognisable shape or pattern. It is not usually interrupted by grief for a family member killed as a result of those still-unfolding events. At first, he says, he resisted the idea of a book about the invasion, produced during the invasion. To write such a volume would be “to go against the basic principles of the profession”. “Our wisdom as historians comes from the fact that we already know how things turned out,” he says.
But soon he began to change his mind. History, after all, is a weapon in this conflict. Vladimir Putin’s justification for his aggression towards Ukraine is rooted in his (twisted and faulty) understanding of the past. He even wrote a sprawling, inaccurate essay laying out his views in 2021, titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians. Plokhy began to feel compelled to fight the Russian president’s terrible history writing with good, solid history writing of his own.
“I found myself in the same situation as a lot of Ukrainians,” he says. “After the shock passes, you ask yourself: ‘OK: how can I help?’ And actually a sense of being involved helps you to survive emotionally. Then you think about the kind of help you can offer. You think about [rock musician] Slava Vakarchuk who goes and sings to the troops. You think of the guy who goes to the army recruitment office, takes a rifle and goes for training. You think of the person who buys used cars in the European Union and brings them to the frontline. These people are all part of the war effort. And I felt I could be part of it by utilising the skills that I have as a historian.” I wonder how on earth he has managed to be the dispassionate scholar amid the intense, personal turbulence that the Russian invasion of his country has brought. Because he has had to be, he says. “Being a good historian requires me to control my emotions, otherwise I would not be doing my job according to the standard of the field and I would not fight back as effectively as I could,” he says.
As soon as Ukraine survived the initial assault, Plokhy knew exactly how to approach the new book: “As a historian, I knew the answers. I mean: I can’t tell you – and I don’t say in the book – what will happen tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. But the frame that I’m using is to look at this as one of many wars of the disintegration of empire, and from the perspective that the great powers have lost every single war that they have been fighting since 1945, from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan.”
So has Russia essentially already lost? Is the full-scale invasion of Ukraine a convulsion of a dying empire? “Yes, exactly,” he says. “We just don’t know how long it will go on, and what the price will be.” Death throes, he points out, can go on for a pretty long time. Russian imperial disintegration began in 1914, he argues, with the outbreak of the first world war – and he points out that “the Ottoman empire, for example, has been in the process of disintegration since the 17th century”, with the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the rise of Islamic State, he says, being a part of that slow-flowing story. “So, I’m not prepared to jump to the conclusion that the invasion of Ukraine is the absolutely last chapter of the Russian empire. But I have no doubt that it is an important chapter.”
I wonder whether he can foresee the disintegration of the Russian Federation as it is currently constituted – especially in a context where Russia is seemingly recruiting its military disproportionately from its Muslim peoples and peripheral autonomous republics. “The process of disintegration has already started,” he replies. “Already Russia doesn’t control its constitutional territory” – by which he means that some parts of Ukraine that were formally adopted as part of the Russian Federation last autumn in the wake of the full-scale invasion, such as Kherson, have already been liberated and restored to Ukrainian hands. But yes, he says, republics on the edges of the federation – such as Tuva, Buryatia and Sakha, not to mention Chechnya, are vulnerable. “The longer the war goes on, the stronger the narrative that Russia is using them as cannon fodder.”
It is a cruel game to ask a historian to look into the future. But here we are and, as Plokhy himself says, rephrasing Churchill, historians are probably “the worst commentators on
contemporary events except for all the others”. So what about the Ukrainians’ spring counteroffensive, I ask – which, when we speak in the last days of April, is expected any day.
He is not prepared to predict the outcome of that – but whatever happens, it will be crucial, he says. At the extreme end of the spectrum of what the Ukrainian military might achieve is the retaking of the Crimea, about which he seems a great deal more optimistic than many observers (the Russians have built mighty defences on the peninsula, and will surely fight harder for this territory than any other part of illegally annexed Ukraine). If it were achieved, he says, “it could send a shock wave into Moscow in political terms. It would have a major impact on the Ukrainian morale, on Russian morale, and on the morale of Ukraine supporters in the west.” On the other hand, if the counteroffensive completely collapses, “the more likely scenario would be a sort of armistice, with Ukraine losing additional territories. That wouldn’t mean the end of the war, but it would mean a very different outcome.”
Either way, “a lot depends on it”. This year started, he says, with “the realisation that things will be decided on the battlefield more than they will be decided at the negotiating table. On the battlefield there were two questions: the outcome of the Russian winter offensive; and the outcome of the Ukrainian spring counteroffensive. We have the answer to the first question. Nothing came out of the Russian offensive.” Now the second question is about to be answered. It may prove a turning point for the whole war.
I’m curious about how he sees his book in relation to journalism. “One way to look at it is that a journalist is someone who takes a photograph,” he says. “Then along comes the historian and creates a frame, and makes a different kind of meaning from that snapshot of reality.” By contrast to the way in which a journalist would approach writing a book about the war, Plokhy takes a good 150 pages to get on to the events of 24 February 2022. Instead, he walks the reader back to 1991 (and even earlier), teasing apart the parallel stories of Russian and Ukrainian post-Soviet politics – and in the process, answering some key questions about the past 30 years: why did democracy “take” in Ukraine but not Russia? Why does Ukraine have a post-Soviet history of mass protest and Russia not? How has Ukraine reacted at different times to the pull of Moscow on the one side, and of Nato and the EU on the other?
I tell him about an encounter I had in a bookshop in Kyiv, in which the bookseller told me the most common question she has from customers is: “Can you recommend me a book that’s not about Ukrainian suffering?” Plokhy laughs, and tells me that Volodymyr Vynnychenko, the first prime minister of Ukraine in 1918-19, said that it was impossible to read Ukrainian history without taking bromide (once used as a sedative) because it was so “painful, horrible, bitter and sad”. Is Ukraine condemned to be a buffer state, trapped between east and west, destined for more and more suffering? “You can’t change geography,” says Plokhy. “You can’t change your neighbours. But you can change yourself, and that seems to me what is happening now in the middle of this war.” In other words, Ukraine can choose – and is choosing – not to be a no man’s land. “When you knock on Nato or the EU’s door and it doesn’t open right away, it doesn’t matter so much if you are prepared to come back and knock again,” he says. “That was the case with, say, Poland. It’s just a matter of time.”
He’s on Ukraine’s side, without ambiguity or equivocation: is that OK for a historian? Should a scholar be more even-handed? “I don’t have a problem being on the side of the country that is trying to save its democracy from the aggression of an increasingly authoritarian, dictatorial state,” he tells me. “I don’t have a problem being on the side of a victim attacked under a false pretext and a misinterpretation of history – and history is something that I understand. Yes, I am on one side. But it’s a no-brainer.”
He moves his camera to show me one of the maps on his office wall, made in 17th-century Italy. Above the Black Sea there’s an inscription. It translates as “free Ukraine”. And he gives me a big, optimistic grin.