Dec 11, 2006

Book Review: A History of Ukraine

A History of Ukraine Magocsi PaulMagocsi, Paul R.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 784 pages

Magocsi earned his doctorate from Princeton University in 1972, and was a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He has been a professor of history and political science at the University of Toronto since 1980 and was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1996. A History of Ukraine is a synthesis that provides a chronological narrative of the Ukrainian people from prehistory through the rebirth of the nation of Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ukraine, in Magocsi’s words, is a land that lacked geographical barriers, and that “has historically been open to all peoples, friendly or unfriendly, who might wish to come there.”

Designed as a classroom text - or perhaps as an introductory text for the non-specialist - the book contains a wealth of maps, tables, and charts that assist readers in grasping material that is not text-friendly. Magocsi included a 40-page annotated bibliography for further reading, which is broken up into relevant sections by period and thematic interests. The cross-referenced index is quite thorough, and the author saw fit to include alternate spellings for many place names and historical figures. The text has few footnotes, and those that are included provide only citation information. Magocsi separated sidebar topics and relevant primary source materials by creating shaded text boxes, and readers unfamiliar with the particular tangential material gain from the inclusion of these subsections.

Throughout the text Magocsi includes sections that examine historiographical debates on issues pertaining to Ukrainian history. Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian historians, for example, have offered competing views over the historical origins of the Ukrainian nation, all of which contain an element of political bias. Traditional Russian historians have emphasized the “Little Russia” or “Little Brother” views, in which Ukraine was merely a component of the greater eastern Slav empire under Russian rule.

Polish historians have often highlighted the fact that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth annexed portions of northern and western Ukraine in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and that events such as the Khmelnytsky Uprising were “little more than barbarian outbreaks caused by destructive elements among the uncivilized Ukrainian masses” that removed lands from the Poles. Ukrainian historians, not surprisingly, stress the historical continuity of language and customs among the people of the Ukrainian plains and plateaus as evidence of the validity of Ukrainian history.

Map of Kievan Rus realm, 11th centuryExtent of realm of Kievan Rus' in 11th century

Another historical debate that Magocsi addressed was that of the origin of the Kievan Rus’ dynasty. In early accounts, such as the Novgorod First Chronicle and the Rus’ Primary Chronicle, there are references that a group of Nordics called the Varangians received an “invitation” to rule over the East Slavs; anti-Normanists dispute the Normanist argument that the imported Kievan Rus’ dynasty – if indeed this group did migrate from Scandinavia – was the primary impetus behind the rise of Kiev as the center of regional power in the tenth century. As with the debate over the legitimacy of Ukrainian history, this question has political ramifications in the modern world. Traditional Russian historians have used the personage of Rurik and the Kievan Rus’ lineage to justify the aristocratic Muscovite claims to power, while Ukrainian historians view this belief in an imported monarchy as a device for non-Ukrainian writers to undermine Ukrainian history.

The author presented an account of Ukrainian hetman Bodhan Khmelnytsky and the Khmelnytsky uprising that avoided the demonization and mythology found in many texts; Magocsi’s Khmelnytsky was shrewd, charismatic, but ultimately a man whose movement spiraled out of his control. Khmelnytsky, argued Magocsi, was an “aspiring country gentleman” who had been “wronged by local rivals,” but was far from the politically aware, proto-Marxist revolutionary as depicted by Soviet historians. Nor was the Cossack leader a virulent anti-Semite who led a brutal campaign of genocide against Ukrainian Jews. Instead, the author painted Khmelnytsky as an opportunistic leader with a sense of nationalism who sought the protection of a larger state, making overtures for alliances with the Swedes, the Ottomans, the Prussians, and finally the Muscovites.

Bodies of victims of Holodomor1933 photo of Holodomor victims

Magocsi presented the horrors of the Soviet-induced Great Famine of 1933 - also known as the Holodomor - in dispassionate terms, avoiding anti-Stalinist rhetoric in favor of a careful examination of the death toll among Ukrainian peasants:
The most conservative estimate of the number of famine victims, either from starvation or disease related to malnutrition, is 4.8 million people. This figure represents 15 percent of Ukraine’s population at the time. Even according to conservative figures, this meant that during the spring and summer of that fateful year of 1933, 25,000 people died every day, or 1,000 people every hour, or 17 people every minute.
The author, however, included primary source material that documented the observations of Wasyl Hryshko, a Communist Party activist who was sent to assist in the collectivization effort. Hryshko described life in the spring of 1933 among the starving peasants in an eastern Ukraine village, and her stark imagery recreates the ghastly scenes of human despair in a way that statistics cannot:
It was when the snow began to melt that the village was up to its neck in starvation. The children kept crying and crying. They did not sleep… People’s faces looked like clay. Their eyes were dull and shrunken. They went about as though asleep… No dogs and cats were left. They had been slaughtered. And it was hard to catch them, too. The animals had become afraid of people, and their eyes were wild. People boiled them. All there was were tough veins and muscles. From their heads they made a meat jelly… And the peasant children!… their heads like heavy balls on thin little necks, like storks, and one could see each bone of their arms and legs protruding from the skin, how bones joined, and the entire skeleton was stretched over with skin that was like yellow gauze. And the children’s faces were aged, tormented, just as if they were seventy years old…
Magocsi left to the reader to determine the extent to which Stalin and the Soviets were responsible for the cause of the famine, but noted that there are historical debates on the subject. Some historians, he noted, argue that the starvation was caused by “bureaucratic bungling” during the efforts to collectivize, while others believe the famine to have been a deliberate effort by Stalin to “eliminate national opposition” or – in the eyes of some pundits – an “act of genocide directed specifically against Ukrainians.”

Map of Chernobyl radiation hotspotsMap of Chernobyl radiation hotspots

The text, now in its third printing, would benefit from an update, especially given the magnitude of events such as the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko and the 2004 Orange Revolution. The addition of visual images would improve the aesthetic appeal of this text, and would provide readers with additional materials to aid comprehension. Though a minor point, the inclusion of a transliteration guide would help readers unfamiliar with Slavic pronunciation. Finally, this reviewer was surprised that the Chernobyl disaster merited a mere paragraph in the text; surely the world’s deadliest nuclear accident – which has left nearly 200,000 acres of formerly fertile acres a radioactive wasteland – should receive greater attention than Magocsi has provided for readers. Known as the Zone of Alienation, the area will continue to be unfit for human habitation for another 24,000 years.

A History of Ukraine is an impressive text, and should be found on the shelves of every European scholar. Magocsi succeeded in his attempt to gather a wide variety of historical research – much of which has not been previously available in English – in the production of what must be considered the definitive general history of Ukraine. The author’s writing is clear, and the text is accessible to general readers in addition to those with scholarly interests in Ukrainian history.

1 comment:

Roland Hansen said...

How interesting -- and how coincidental!
I just made a blog entry about my family ties to Ukraine before wandering over here to catch up on the historymike blog.