Jan 18 2011

Borderland: Journey through the History of Ukraine

Published by at 1:32 pm under Books

by Anna Reid

I knew almost nothing about the Ukraine, but had a slight interest since my maternal grandparents reportedly emigrated to the US from there about a century ago. When I read or heard a short piece on this book, I decided to pick reserve it at the library. Its title is apt in that it is a journalistic mixture of relatively current (1990s) travel based observation of the Ukraine and accounts of historical periods and events. The book positions the Ukraine as a fought over frontier land for over a millenium. Over that time, its people have been pushed this way and that and often massacred in huge numbers with Stalin’s starving of the countryside possibly the worst.
This history begins with the settlements created by the Rus (vikings) who ventured down rivers to trade with and raid on the Muslim empires to the south of the Ukraine, Subsequently, the territory was split up and fought over in various ways by many neighboring empires; Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, Turkish, Viking, Lithuanian and Polish. Geographically, the Ukraine is similar to the midwest: huge expanses of fertile land originally seen as ‘seas of grass’ which were turned into farm land when sufficient social stability was achieved.
The book offers some lovely examples of capriciousness of history and how seemingly small, local decisions entrain major consequences.
+ An early Rus king chose Christianity over Islam when he decided he needed a ‘modern’ religion for his kingdom. He went looking, but his fondness for wine and pork led to Christianity (or so the story goes). Whatever the reason the choice set the border between Christian Europe and Islamic areas to the east and south which persists even today.
+ A major cossack revolution against the poles ultimately lead to a union with Muskovy. The revolution grew out of an attempt by a local cossack chieftain to redress a personal feud with a Polish neighbor. The Polish rulers wouldn’t redress his grievance and the dispute escalated to a revolt which failed after some successes, and that failure pushed the cossack’s faction into a treaty with Muskovy from which a long and close association with Russia developed.
The book is now a little out of date, but it does go through Chernobyl (a very sloppy test gone badly awry) and the break up of the Soviet Union. All in all it paints an intriguing picture of a country that hasn’t been independent for so long that the people who live there are technically independent but don’t really believe it. Some want to join Russia, some want western Europe, but for both groups the economy is a shambles.

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