Understanding Ukraine Mini Reviews

Part of understanding what is happening in Ukraine right now, obviously involves understanding the shared and heavily intertwined history of Ukraine with Russia over time.

After reading Sheila Fitzpatricks’s great catch-up book, The Shortest History of the Soviet Union, I went back in time to the Russian Revolution, October (see below) followed by another shortest history style book that encompassed the entire history of Russia as we know it. With both books, I was paying particular note to any reference to Ukraine, but I was also looking for what Mark Galeotti referred to in his Introduction about the changing/evolving origin myths.

Time and again, Russia’s rulers would edit the past in the hope of building the future they wanted….the aim of this book is…to explore the periodic rises and falls of this extraordinary nation, and how Russians themselves have understood, explained, mythologised and rewritten this story.

All nations do this, we even apply this same kind of editing and reshaping to our own life narratives. However part of the fascination for me was to also look in the opposite direction – for the ways that the Western world, Europe and Asia have redefined their understanding of Russia over the years. It would appear that Russia has spent a large part of its history, defining itself against what it is not. But how do we see Russia?

Some of the things I learnt from this book:

  • Kiev was the first capital of Rus (Scandinavian Vikings took over the land from the various Slavic tribes in the ninth century. The Slavs called them the Rus).
    • The origin story, in which vulnerability is spun as agency, sets the tone, especially as this is not simply a story of weakness, but of embracing conquest and creating something new from it….the constant struggle between centre and periphery...and that Russia was forever doomed to be surrounded by mighty powers who at once threatened and yet impressed.
  • In the tenth century Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity.
  • Sophia (regent to Ivan and Peter) signed the Eternal Peace Treaty with Poland (1686) which resulted in ratifying Russia’s possession of Kiev.
  • In 1783 Catherine the Great annexed Crimea for Russia from the Ottoman empire. She also took southern Ukraine.
    • Peter the Great had tried to force modernisation from above….Catherine the Great had tried to inspire modernisation from above….It was to become clear that real change would have to come from below.
  • The Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1917) to end their involvement in WWI surrendering much of their land in the west and south, including the rich farmlands of Ukraine.
  • The end of the Civil War (1918-1922) saw them reclaim these regions, but at a terrible cost (famine in particular).
  • Stalin collectivised the countryside. When the farmers resisted “Ukraine was brought to its knees by the engineered famine in 1932-33 that killed more than three million.”
  • Thanks to Gorbechev, nationalists in Ukraine and other regions began to look for independence from Russia.
  • Putin believes that Russia “is strong when it is united, prey when it is divided.
    • Russia is no aggressor but a forminable defender….defending the Motherland and the natural order.”
    • its social conservatism is simply a refusal to cater to degenerate fads and post-modern moral subjectivism.”
    • Russian exceptionalism, the notion that its history grants it a special and heroic role in the world.”

Ultimately, these books were more about how the Russians viewed themselves and their own stories, through the lens of two Western writers and historians. One writer was avowedly in the socialist camp and the other has a career in researching Russian security issues and transnational crime and terrorism. I’m left wondering how accurate these histories can really be? What stories will histories written by Russians reveal?


Midway through the First World War, as Europe shuddered and bled, an American publisher released Alexander Kornilov’s acclaimed Modern Russian History.

October promised to be THE STORY of the Russian Revolution, but in the end, it was not much more than a roll call of main players and key events. A handy catch-up or a short history approach would be a better description (except that it wasn’t short!) I grant you that Russia in 1917 is not an easy year to capture in any format, but I had hoped for something new or different with this book.

The only positive thing was being reminded how hopeful the whole socialist revolutionary dream was at the start. The terror of Stalin was still in the future. For a brief time a brave new world seemed truly possible.

These days I prefer my history to be more about the everyday folks and what they experienced, not another book about the leaders and their endless meetings. There was, however, a fabulous list of Further Reading options in the back that I will be looking into.

Title: October: The Story of the Russian Revolution 
Author: China Miéville 
ISBN: 9781786634504 
Imprint: Verso Books 
Published: 9th May 2017 
Format: Paperback 
Pages: 369

The oldest book in Russia does not speak with one voice. It roars and whimpers, mutters and moans, laughs and whispers, prays and brays in progressively quieter tones.

Mark Galeotti understands narrative non-fiction; he knows how to tell a story.

A Short History of Russia is truly a short book with just eight, easy to read, entertaining chapters. His one chapter on the Revolution and Soviet era was far more succinct and insightful than Miéville’s entire book!

Out of the sprawling chaos of Russian history, Galeotti manages to present a coherent picture of a country constantly in search of its identity. Obviously their are omissions and the details are light on. Much is glossed over for the sake of brevity, but for anyone who wants to get started with the basics, then this is the book for you.

Each chapter concludes with a Further Reading note (October did not rate a mention at the end of chapter seven) that I plan to trawl.

Epigraph: Russia is a country with a certain future; it is only its past that is unpredictable | Soviet proverb

Title: A Short History of Russia: From the Pagans to Putin
Author: Mark Galeotti
ISBN: 9781529106381
Imprint: Ebury Press
Published: 28th January 2021
Format: Hardback
Pages: 191
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.

14 thoughts on “Understanding Ukraine Mini Reviews

  1. I think it’s very valuable to read up on the histories of nations that are demonised as inherently evil. (Iraq, N Korea, Iran to name just a few.) I’ve just been reading Kevin Rudd’s The Avoidable War, and chapter 2, which is basically a short history of China, is a revelation to those of us who grew knowing nothing about China except for its Communist era.
    Alas, the book is many pages long, and it has to go back to the library when I’ve only read two chapters of it. I’ll have to get my own copy when I’m next in a bookshop.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve probably read more books about Chinese history than Russian, especially in the lead up to my trip there in 1996. But both countries have always fascinated me.
      I’ve wondered about Rudd’s book, but I’m being strong and staying focused in my Ukraine/Russia reading project!

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      1. LOL It’s the reverse for me because I read up on Russia before going there… though truth be told, I read more fiction than NF.
        It’s one of the things I love about travel, the reading beforehand…

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        1. Truth be told, I probably read more fiction than non-fiction about China too! I still love reading books set in China, and I hope to get to Mary Gaunt’s travel book about her travels through these regions soon.

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      1. I want to agree – and I do, mostly – but invading another country is hard to look past? Maybe it’s a case of all countries are bad, but some are badder than others!! I am terrified of countries where citizens have no rights, where you fear to speak anything that doesn’t agree with the prevailing regime, where you can be arrested and not “fairly” tried. No country is perfect in this way but in democracies you do tend to have protections. I don’t think I’m being naive here … but …

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        1. I do agree, it is hard to look past but also tricky because we don’t see it perhaps equally condemned in every instance around the globe. And then there’s also the question of external intervention to restore peace/human rights which again is selective and at a basic level does cause loss of life and damage. Then one is forced to consider whose definition of greater good we need to adopt or enforce; whether these can be different for different situations and such. And if certain acts are inherently wrong then why are we condoning/accepting in some situations vis-a-vis others. Hard to answer really since most of our systems are far from perfect and all talk of human rights seems almost a farce at times.

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          1. Yes, agree with all that – and particularly with the whose definition question. The thing that bothers me most is whether there are absolute rights and wrongs versus what’s relative to people, places, cultures. No easy answer, as you say.

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  2. You raise some good questions about the inherent truthfulness of history. I am adding the Galeotti book to my TBR. Thanks for the suggestion!

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    1. It’s one of the things I really enjoyed about Galeotti’s book, is that he started each chapter with a story or myth, then used the chapter to explain what ‘really’ happened. I used inverted commas because all historical record is open to interpretation and the discovery of new facts, but he explores the known facts and shows how they could be construed in different ways. I find it to be a fascinating process.

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  3. I am currently reading The red famine by Anne Applebaum, afraid it seems to reinforce the idea that Russia has had a colonist attitude to Ukraine for quiet some time and subjected the country to a history of abuse and exploitation. Interestingly the author points out that it is only since Ukraine emerged as an independent nation that much of the documented history of the holodomor, in terms of primary documentation from the period has begun to emerge.
    Russia certainly seems to have a long history of wanting to crush nationalist sentiment in the Ukraine.

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    1. Yes, the history I’ve read shows this desire to keep, bring back, take Ukraine going back to the time of the Tsars. The Shortest History book explained that the early days of Rus had Kiev as their capital city, but by the time the Mongols invaded, they had ‘broken’ Kiev, and ‘humbled’ Novgorod (the other main city in the time of the Rus). It was from this time forward that Moscow ‘thrived’ as their princes seems to be the ‘quickest and most effective at understanding the new rules of the game.’
      Somewhere in here, Kiev dropped out of the narrative.

      And now I’m curious to know what happened at this time. Is this when Ukraine became a separate state/provence to Moscow/Russia, with different localised interests/culture? Did the Mongols treat this area differently or divide it up? I obviously need to find a book that deals more directly with the history of Ukraine/Kiev.

      Thank you for your thoughts Sharon 🙂

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  4. A fascinating country with a fascinating history. I have not read these short stories but other books on Russian history. Although Ukraine is often connected to that history, it would be interesting to read up on Ukraine itself. Thank you for the tips.

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