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Unveiling the Enigma: A Look at Ukraine’s History and Identity Through the Lens of “Europegate”

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has persisted for two years, with the prospect of peace remaining elusive. The denouement of this strife remains shrouded in uncertainty, casting a pall over the global landscape.

Perhaps recourse to history may furnish insights that contemporary reportage lacks. In the discourse presented herein, Wang Qi, a European media luminary, embarks on an exploration inspired by Serhiy Ploki’s ‘Europegate,’ a treatise elucidating Ukraine’s historical trajectory and dispelling the myths surrounding its destiny.

This quandary bears immense relevance not merely for Europe’s future but also for the trajectory of humanity.

01. Genesis of a Conflict

Let us commence with the eve of February 21, 2022. Mere days prior to the outbreak of full-scale hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, Vladimir Putin delivered a speech of global import. At its essence, his hour-long address sought to impugn Ukraine’s legitimacy as a sovereign entity.

Putin contended that Ukraine lacked a historical pedigree of independent statehood, asserting that its current configuration was a contrivance engineered by the erstwhile Soviet leader Lenin following the 1917 revolution. Subsequently, Stalin annexed territories from Poland, Romania, and Hungary, augmenting Ukraine’s territorial expanse. Furthermore, Khrushchev ceded Crimea to Ukraine.

Thus, the contemporary contours of Ukraine’s territory were delineated through the excision of historical Russian domains. Russia’s present actions vis-à-vis Ukraine ostensibly pivot on a doctrine of ‘decommunization,’ a bid to rectify historical anomalies, reclaim territories lost during the communist era, and restore Russia’s erstwhile prestige.

In the aftermath of this oration, Russia commenced airstrikes on more than a dozen Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, precipitating the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Two years hence, our world is rent asunder. This conflict stands as the deadliest conflagration in Europe since World War II, catalyzing the largest refugee exodus witnessed on the continent post-World War II.

The fulcrum upon which this conflict pivoted was, undeniably, Putin’s discourse. It served to furnish legitimacy to Russia’s incursions: ‘We do not encroach upon our neighbors. Why, you may ask? Because the entity adjacent to us lacks the bona fides of a genuine nation-state; thus, how can our actions be construed as aggression? We merely reclaim what was once rightfully ours.’

I vividly recall the disquietude that enveloped me upon hearing Putin’s pronouncements. At that juncture, my comprehension of Ukraine was rudimentary, yet the exigencies of war imbued me with an insatiable curiosity regarding this distant and enigmatic realm.

Ukraine boasts a rich cultural legacy, having been the muse for luminaries such as Gogol and the backdrop for Tolstoy’s ‘Resurrection.’ Ostrovsky, the author of the seminal socialist treatise ‘How Steel is Tempered,’ which has indelibly shaped the psyche of generations of Chinese, hails from Ukraine.

Nonetheless, contemporary awareness of its history is lamentably scant. Even within Europe, when the conflict initially erupted, conversations with acquaintances underscored the prevailing ignorance regarding Ukraine’s geographical contours beyond Kyiv.

In the course of my inquiries, I chanced upon the erudite Harvard scholar, Serhi Ploki. The magnum opus that I wish to elucidate today is his seminal work, ‘Europegate.’ Within its pages, Ploki meticulously delineates the historical tapestry unfurling across the Ukrainian landscape over the past two millennia. At its nucleus lies an elucidation of the seminal query: whence derives Ukraine’s identity? What catalyzed its evolution into a contemporary nation-state?

02. The Genesis of Ukrainian Identity

Hailing from Russia, nurtured in Ukraine, and ensconced in the United States, Ploki presently helms the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard University. His oeuvre encompasses a panoply of accolades within the realm of Russian and Ukrainian historiography, rendering him among the preeminent Ukrainian scholars in the Anglophone sphere.

Ploki has probed the disintegration of the Soviet Union (‘The Collapse of the Great Powers: Behind the Scenes of the Soviet Union’s Demise’), the annals of Slavic civilization (‘The Origins of the Slavic Peoples’), and the cataclysm of the Chernobyl disaster (‘Chernobyl: A Tragic History’), each tome resonating with readers transcending linguistic boundaries.

Endowed with prodigious erudition, Ploki effortlessly interweaves grand historical narratives with intimate portraits of individuals. His fascination with the Chernobyl catastrophe stemmed from personal tribulations; reared in a hamlet situated hundreds of miles downstream from the nuclear reactor, he bore witness to the ravages of radiation-induced maladies, enduring a diagnosis of thyroiditis himself.

Upon attaining maturity, his consternation at the pervasive ignorance regarding that seminal chapter in history impelled him to undertake its documentation.

Akin to his opus on Chernobyl, ‘Europegate’ germinated from the crucible of the ‘dignity revolution’ that convulsed Ukraine in 2013 and 2014. Galvanized by their opposition to the pro-Russian regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, throngs of Ukrainians took to the streets, clashing violently with law enforcement. What impelled this mass mobilization? What demarcates Ukrainians from their Russian counterparts? What role does history play in this tapestry of events?

Ploki contends that while the global populace may evince keen interest in the Ukrainian imbroglio, the ceaseless deluge of contemporaneous reportage fails to furnish a holistic understanding. He posits that history, with its long arc, proffers insights eluding the confines of the present epoch.

Notably, ‘Europegate,’ though published in 2015, predates the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that precipitated in 2022. Yet, its relevance endures unabated, offering a panoramic vista of Ukrainian history that serves as an indispensable backdrop for comprehending the contemporary Russo-Ukrainian quagmire.

Indeed, Ploki espouses the notion that history’s potency transcends temporal and spatial limitations, affording perspicacity into the present across epochs.

As to the nomenclature ‘Europe’s Gate,’ Ploki expounds thus: Ukraine serves as the portal to Europe. Far from a mere rhetorical flourish, this epithet bears factual veracity. Across epochs, Ukraine has occupied a pivotal berth in Europe’s annals, its history inexorably intertwined with the continental narrative.

Situated on the western periphery of the Eurasian steppes, Ukraine has served as Europe’s conduit for centuries. While periodic conflicts occasioned the closure of this conduit, Ukraine has perennially facilitated the exchange of peoples, commodities, and ideas between Europe and Asia. Moreover, it has functioned as a crucible for negotiation, a pawn in power politics, and a theater of conflict for empires myriad.

Herodotus, the ancient Greek luminary hailed as the ‘father of history,’ first chronicled the Ukrainian milieu in his magnum opus, ‘Histories.’ Therein, he delineated Ukraine as the nascent frontier of the ‘Western world,’ where Hellenic civilization intersected with its barbaric antithesis.

However, this portrayal, ensconced in Western-centric perspectives, warrants scrutiny. What, then

, is Ukraine’s intrinsic context?

Ploki avers that contemporary Ukraine epitomizes the confluence of two dynamic frontiers: one demarcated by the transition from the Eurasian steppes to the Eastern European savanna, and the other delineating the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity.

The former frontier, segregating sedentary and nomadic populations, constitutes the boundary between Christendom and the Islamic world. The latter harks back to the division of the Roman Empire between Rome and Constantinople, embodying the enduring cultural and political schisms between Eastern and Western Europe.

Simultaneously permeating Ukrainian soil, these frontiers have engendered a profusion of cultural idiosyncrasies over millennia, crystallizing into the bedrock of contemporary Ukrainian identity.

Over eons, Ukraine has weathered innumerable vicissitudes—periods of prosperity, nadirs of desolation, and resurgences from the abyss. From the zenith of Kievan Rus’ to the yoke of the Mongol hordes, from the suzerainty of the Habsburgs to the hegemony of the Soviets, each epoch has left an indelible imprint on Ukraine’s landscape and psyche, molding its unique identity and national ethos.

In summation, while Ukraine’s tenure as an independent polity is relatively nascent, denizens of this realm have long nurtured a distinct identity, characterized by a rich tapestry of culture, language, and mores, distinct from the hegemony of Russia. The ‘Cossacks,’ emblematic of Ukrainian nationalism today, epitomize the crucible of fusion and strife from which Ukraine’s identity emerged.

03. Debunking Other Misconceptions Surrounding Ukraine

Ukraine, having entered the modern epoch, particularly post-Cold War, has perennially grappled with the bifurcation of its destiny: one trajectory veering eastward toward Moscow, the other westward toward Europe. The confluence of these divergent vectors constitutes the crucible of contemporary Ukrainian political discourse and underpins its present tragic predicament.

The esteemed American scholar Huntington expounded upon the concept of “civilizational fault lines” in his seminal work, “The Clash of Civilizations.” Drawing from the geological metaphor of fault lines, he posited that cultural upheavals and conflicts are most apt to erupt at junctures where disparate civilizations intersect and collide. In this schema, Ukraine epitomizes the quintessential representation of a civilizational fault zone.

It is now widely acknowledged that a principal impetus behind the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, which ignited in 2022, stems from Russia’s apprehension regarding Ukraine’s burgeoning alignment with the EU and NATO, apprehensions regarding the imminent loss of control over Ukraine.

If we rewind the chronology slightly to 2014, during the fervor of the “Dignity Revolution” that convulsed Kiev’s Independence Square, incensed Ukrainians, in addition to decrying the corruption endemic within Yanukovych’s regime, sought resolution to an identity quandary that has long bedeviled the Ukrainian populace: Does Ukraine’s allegiance lie with Europe or the vestiges of the Russian Empire? Or is it conceivable that Ukraine stands as an independent entity, beholden to no other sovereign authority?

Delving into history yields scant clarity on this front. Over two millennia, the fate of Ukraine has remained inexorably entwined with its neighbors, encompassing present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Russia. This region, recognized today as Ukraine, has traversed shifting alliances, adversaries, and affiliations throughout its historical odyssey.

However, a retrospective analysis of the past century unequivocally underscores the preponderant influence wielded by Russia, epitomized by Moscow or the erstwhile Soviet Union, within contemporary Ukrainian society. The sway exerted by Europe vis-à-vis Moscow is anything but commensurate.

Ploki contends that for contemporary Ukraine, the mantle of independence has invariably borne a pro-Western hue, an outgrowth of Ukraine’s historical narrative. Ukraine incessantly evokes the rhetoric of independence, but its provenance lies squarely within Moscow’s sphere of influence.

The narrative espoused within the book also dispels prevalent misconceptions. For instance, regarding Crimea, a prevailing narrative attributes its transfer to Ukraine in 1954 to Khrushchev’s personal proclivities. Allegedly, Khrushchev, having hailed from Ukraine, deliberately relinquished this strategically vital Russian territory to Ukraine.

Contrary to popular belief, the upheavals wrought by World War II precipitated Crimea’s economic downturn. Russian immigrants grappled with the unfamiliar terrain, prompting Khrushchev’s belief in the efficacy of Ukrainian agricultural experts in rehabilitating the region.

At that epoch, Ukraine, christened the granary of Europe, boasted a plethora of agrarian talent. Khrushchev reasoned that Ukraine, endowed with expertise in cultivating arid expanses, bore a moral obligation to ameliorate Crimea’s economic plight. Thus, geopolitical and economic exigencies, rather than ethnic considerations, prompted Crimea’s inclusion within Ukraine’s ambit.

Of particular enlightenment is Ploki’s elucidation concerning Russia’s expansionist ambitions. At the juncture of penning “Europegate” in 2014, Kiev’s “Revolution of Dignity” was precipitated by Yanukovych’s bid to circumvent due process and scuttle the EU trade agreement, catalyzing the Crimean and Donbas crises.

While diverse opinions attribute the crisis in eastern Ukraine to domestic political machinations or the European Union’s vacillation, Ploki adamantly underscores the imperative of contextualizing Ukraine’s contemporary conundrum within the crucible of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Though multifarious factors precipitated the crisis, the seminal impetus emanated not from the European Union or Ukraine but from Russia’s yearning for its erstwhile imperial glory in the post-Soviet realm.

Since the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia has grappled with an entrenched imperial mindset. In the Soviet era, the expansive USSR served as the torchbearer of Russian imperialism. Though the Soviet Union’s dissolution in the early 1990s transpired relatively peacefully, its reverberations endure.

According to Ploki, post-Soviet Russian nation-building coalesced around the aspiration of forging a cohesive Russian ethnicity, uniting East Slavic peoples predicated upon the Russian language and culture. Ukraine emerged as the primary crucible for actualizing this paradigm beyond the Russian Federation’s confines.

In closing, Ploki directs his gaze inward, towards Ukraine itself. Geographically poised at the juncture of East and West, Ukraine straddles the schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, between Central European and Eurasian empires, and between disparate political and social mores.

This liminal position renders Ukraine a nexus of convergence, where Ukrainians of myriad persuasions endeavor to coexist. However, this milieu engenders regional fault lines that can be exploited by vested parties embroiled in the ongoing conflict. Ukraine’s societal hybridity, once lauded, now poses existential quandaries in the crucible of hybrid warfare.

It is noteworthy that contemporary Ukrainian identity is not only ethnically nuanced but also intergenerational. As globalization blurs national boundaries worldwide, today’s young Ukrainians, unencumbered by memories of the Soviet era, harbor aspirations for a more democratic and law-abiding Ukraine. However, the specter of the Russia-Ukraine war looms large, irrevocably altering the fabric of Ukrainian society and portending repercussions whose magnitude remains shrouded in uncertainty.

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