Pressed against the gates of Europeby Annabelle Chapman / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
In Ukraine, the pull of Europe works in curious ways. When I first moved to Kiev in 2012, the metro was plastered with adverts offering to “euro-renovate” my Khrushchev-era flat, install “euro-windows” or even treat my nails to a “euro-manicure.” There is even a Ukrainian Wikipedia entry for “euro-renovation” (yevroremont), which defines it as “renovation to European standards.” The prefix acquired new significance in November 2013, when it gave its name to the “Euromaidan” protests that broke out in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), prompted by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a trade deal with the European Union.
In Ukraine, long caught between east and west, something had stirred. I returned to Kiev early on in the protests, equipped with working Ukrainian and a bag of warm clothes. Nobody suspected what lay ahead: three months of protests culminated in a crackdown in which at least a hundred protesters died and many more were injured. The following month, Russia annexed Crimea. But out on the square, in the maze of army surplus tents and hulking field kitchens, a carnival-like atmosphere reigned. One group invited me to join them by a homemade stove with a vertical metal pipe as a chimney, which they christened their “steam train to Europe.” It was a winter of great possibility; naivety, others would say.
Two years on, those hopes seem far away. Russia has no intention of relinquishing Crimea, which it annexed in March 2014. An uneasy ceasefire holds with the separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. Membership of the EU is not on the cards—and never was. Meanwhile, Brussels has worries of its own. In a sense, Ukraine has never been closer to Europe, and yet so far.
Ukraine’s relationship with Europe is the thread running through The Gates of Europe, a new history of the country by Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard. The tumultuous events which began in late 2013 took the west by surprise, revealing how little it knows about this country of 45m people. As Rory Finnin, head of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, noted a few months before the protests, Ukraine is Europe’s “terra malecognita.” Since then, the conflict in the Donbass and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014 have made obscure cities in eastern Ukraine household names. Even so, knowledge of Ukraine’s past remains patchy, and much writing about it lacks a long-term perspective.