Serhii Plokhii on The Frontline: Author Q&A

October 18, 2021
Serhii Plokhii and the Frontline book mockup

The Frontline by Serhii Plokhy coverThe Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present, published by HURI in September, is the latest book from acclaimed historian Serhii Plokhii (Plokhy). The collection of essays represents the breadth of the author’s research over the past decade and a half, while also offering in-depth explorations of specific themes and events.

The Frontline presents a selection of essays drawn together for the first time to form a companion volume to Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe and Chernobyl. Here he expands upon his analysis in earlier works of key events in Ukrainian history, including Ukraine’s complex relations with Russia and the West, the burden of tragedies such as the Holodomor and World War II, the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and Ukraine’s contribution to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Juxtaposing Ukraine’s history to the contemporary politics of memory, this volume provides a multidimensional image of a country that continues to make headlines around the world. Eloquent in style and comprehensive in approach, the essays collected here reveal the roots of the ongoing political, cultural, and military conflict in Ukraine, the largest country in Europe.

Here, we offer a closer look at the book and its insights through an interview with the author. For more conversation on this collection, watch the recording of our October 13 Seminar in Ukrainian Studies on YouTube.

HURI: Your book appears in the midst of an international debate provoked by the recent essay by Vladimir Putin on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians. Are there any key aspects of Ukraine's history that are relevant to the ongoing discussions today but are not well known to the academic and general public?

serhii plokhiiPlokhii: The part of the story that is well known but poorly understood is the type of relationship that emerged between Russia and Ukraine, as well as the historical importance of Ukraine for the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. That perceived importance influences policy in the region to a great degree. 

I recently attended the YES (Yalta European Strategy) conference in Kyiv and was on a panel with Masha Gessen, Olha Stefanyshyna (the Ukrainian vice premier in charge of European integration), and Tim Snyder, with Niall Ferguson as moderator. Overall, panelists were in agreement that Putin’s essay should be taken very seriously. It was important not in terms of new ideas or intellectual breakthroughs—in that sense it is quite pedestrian and echoes centuries of historical interpretation—but in the sense that it reflects the belief of a very powerful person in Russia, whose decisions can cost tens of thousands of lives. This loss of life is, of course, already happening in Donbas. From that point of view, the essay is very worrying. 

Serhii Plokhii speaks on panel at YES conference
Serhii Plokhii speaks on panel at YES conference. Photo by Emily Channell-Justice.

What’s interesting is that Putin's essay was met with criticism not only outside of Russia, but also within Russia itself. Dmitry Trenin, a well-known political commentator and international relations expert in Russia, wrote an article which appeared on the Carnegie Moscow website that, without directly mentioning Putin’s essay, actually proposes an alternative interpretation of history. He argues that the actual importance of Ukraine to Russia is exaggerated, both historically and politically. Russia can survive and thrive without controlling Ukraine. His argument is not unlike the argument that I am proposing in the chapter “The Russian Question”: Russia has a much better chance of succeeding as a new nation and as a society without pursuing this mirage of the “lost kingdom.” 

What that means is that the importance of history in Russian-Ukrainian relations is certainly recognized by Putin, it's recognized by Trenin, it's recognized in Ukraine and in the West. But the question is: What is the meaning of that history? What do you make of it? I hope that my collection helps to answer those questions, providing not only facts and figures from history, but also an interpretation that corresponds to our contemporary knowledge of the subject and doesn't allow old mythology from the 17th century, or 19th century, to dominate our lives today. 

HURI: Your collection is presented as a companion volume to The Gates of Europe and Chernobyl. What makes it a good companion? How does the content differ from that in the monographs?

Plokhii: Most of these articles came into existence as a result of research for larger projects, so the collection reflects the topics that were explored in one way or another in the monographs. 

Although the books differ from each other in terms of topics and time periods, there are common threads. Gathering these articles into a collection, organized in an intentional manner, allows these common threads to show through and provides interesting context for each topic. As a sampler of what I’ve been working on in the past 10-15 years, the collection highlights Ukraine not just as the central focus but also as part of a broader world, and it proposes a larger time frame than just pre-modern, modern, or twentieth century history. It also goes beyond history per se to discuss current developments in Ukraine. Contemporary Ukraine is a subject that is present only in this collection. 

Plokhii Frontline book mockup in 3DHURI: Did you make any changes to the articles as you brought them together into this volume? 

Plokhii: Sometimes when I was working on a particular research project, there was the opportunity (or demand) to drop everything and write an article for a conference or presentation. It would be part of the broader project I was working on, but not the whole picture. Working on this collection gave me the chance to bring together bits of writing that were published in different places. 

The majority of the articles originally appeared in different types of publications, from academic to more popular. Therefore, the challenge for me as I was preparing the essays for their new life as a collection was to create a sense of unity and combine the two: the precision of the academic articles and the writing style that would appeal to a broader audience. 

In addition to stylistic consistency, which was achieved with the help of Myroslav Yurkevich, and the insertion of background information, I needed to revise some of the articles to avoid repetition where the topics overlapped. In other cases, I decided to merge two essays into a single article. 

HURI: How is this collection greater than the sum of its parts? What new themes or insights emerged as you assembled the book?

Plokhii: While putting together this collection, I was surprised to discover common threads that connected the different projects in ways I didn’t think about when I was initially writing the articles. This is especially true for the connections between history and historical memory: the majority of articles deal not just with the historical subject itself, but discuss how it relates to mythology and the creation of ideas about history. The articles may be about 16th and 17th century history, but they are connected to the present through how that history is perceived and instrumentalized today. 

One of my articles is on Leninopad—the removal of Lenin statues—which is about historical memory in Ukraine. This article was part of the MAPA project on the Revolution of Dignity. However, a different article that was originally written for a conference is called, “When Stalin Lost His Head.” This chapter gives additional insight into the Leninopad phenomenon. Without understanding the cult of Stalin, the return of the cult of Stalin, and the reaction to this cult in Ukraine, an important part of the Leninopad story is left untold. And vice versa.

Fallen Lenin statue in Kyiv Dec 9
Fallen Lenin statue in Kyiv on Dec. 9, 2013, the day after it was pulled down. Photo by Emily Channell-Justice.

Another theme is Ukraine’s relationship to Europe and Russia. The question of Ukraine's position between East and West, Europe and Russia, and the complexity of relations that comes with that history is a thread that runs through the collection, in one way or another. Pulled together, the articles offer the opportunity to view these themes from myriad perspectives as well as through an in-depth look at particular issues or moments that help to illuminate the larger picture. 

Those are the themes I discovered while working on the collection and tried to highlight through its structure, but what I can say from previous experience is that authors can be quite blind not just to the weaknesses of their work but also to the insights that it can offer. When we pre-published a couple of the chapters in open access on the HURI Books website, I was quite surprised to see which topic got the most attention. One of the chapters deals with the Russian Question and gives an overview of Russia's relations with Ukraine, and the other is a more niche subject, looking at the mythology of the Pereiaslav agreement of 1654. I expected the chapter on the Russian Question to get more attention, but based on Facebook activity, I see that I was absolutely wrong. The greater interest was in the Pereiaslav agreement article, which wasn’t written for a broader audience. 

Chapters Available in Open Access

Bohdan Khmelnytskyi statue in Kyiv by Mykhailo Mikeshyn (1888; bronze, stone, brick). "Anti-Globalism, anti-Islamism, Nationalism." Inscription on a banner at the Nationalist March in Moscow
Russia and Ukraine: Did They Reunite in 1654? The Russian Question

HURI: Some of these articles have been around for a few years, and you’ll surely continue to publish more in the years to come. Why do this collection now?

Plokhii: I wish I could say that I planned the publication to coincide with the recent events that put Ukrainian history and the history of Ukrainian-Russian relations at the center of political, not just academic, debate. But that wasn’t the case.

Rather, not having published a collection of articles since 2008, I suspected that there were new themes in my articles that should be put in dialogue. Most of the articles were written in the last ten years, during which key events in Ukrainian politics and history took place. Decommunization, for example, is part of Ukraine’s reckoning with its history and its place in the world. The publication of the volume ended up being timely given that Putin's essay put Ukrainian history at the center of what could be called an international political scandal, for lack of a better word, but that’s rather a coincidence.

As we discussed already, this type of collection is more than just the sum of its parts. In a sense, this volume is a collection of the articles not just by the same author, but written during a specific period. 

HURI: You mentioned previously that it was an interesting journey to look back on your own work, that this collection is representative of the work that you’ve done since you started at Harvard. Were there any perspective changes or evolution in your interests that stood out to you while you were working on this project?

Plokhii: With my move to Harvard, my focus expanded to include modern history and international history, while building on the themes of my previous work on the early modern period. For example, since moving to Harvard, I took up an interest in the United States. One of the articles in the collection specifically deals with FDR and Stalin in the Second World War and advances the argument that Eastern Europe was at the core of disagreements and tensions between the two emerging superpowers of that time. I believe that bringing in the Ukrainian perspective on history tells us something about the history of the Cold War and the end of WWII that is often overlooked.

Soviet women interact with American soldiers. Image source: Jason Almendra, Quora.There is also an article in the collection called “The American Dream,” which takes an in-depth look at a specific story covered more broadly in my book Forgotten Bastards. The book is about American Airmen in Ukraine during the Second World War; the article tells the story of a woman who fell in love with an American soldier, how their marriage never happened, how their life together never happened, and how the Soviet police state played a role in what went wrong for them. 

Overall, from my original focus on the early modern history of Ukraine and the region, I moved to the study of the modern era, the Cold War, WWII, and the United States as important elements of Ukraine’s story. I believe my work shows how Ukraine is an essential part of understanding those global events and histories.

HURI: Your books always have such interesting and thoughtful covers. What was the reasoning for choosing this artwork for The Frontline

Plokhii: This cover was particularly tricky to design because the book covers roughly 500 years, and topics as diverse as the Pereiaslav agreement of 1654 and a World War II relationship between a Ukrainian and an American. I want to thank HURI Publications Manager Oleh Kotsuyba and the artist Mykola Leonvych for the great design of the cover. We wanted something that would complement the title of the book, The Frontline. This image by Kazimir Malevich reflects the complexity and multilayered nature of the collection of essays. The visual elements—both in terms of the horizontal lines and the charging horses—also work nicely with the idea of a frontline.

Red Cavarly. Kazimir Malevich

The painting has an interesting story of its own. It’s titled Red Cavalry and dated 1918, so on the surface it seems to honor the Soviet regime. However, this painting, like many Ukrainian modernist pieces, has a subversive side. Malevich painted it in Ukraine in the 1920s, a period of Ukrainization. The painting is indicative of the working conditions for Soviet artists, who had to present their work in such a way that it would be acceptable to the government, while maintaining their artistic integrity in perhaps a subversive way. Thus, the horsemen in Malevich’s painting are being appropriated as a work of Ukrainian art, presenting an important page of Ukrainian history. The reappropriation and reinterpretation of Ukrainian history is also a main theme of my collection. 

HURI: What are you working on now?

Chornobyl images in a radiation themePlokhii: I’m working on one of the themes represented in the collection—a history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This spring, Kostyantyn Bondarenko, Nataliia Levchuk, and I launched the Chornobyl/Chernobyl Project of MAPA: Digital Atlas of Ukraine, which allows researchers and other users to map different variables related to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The data we’re interpreting by using this technology relates to consequences of the explosion, such as radioactive contamination, irradiation, population dynamics and resettlements, and population health. Researchers can investigate correlations in data sets as well as see changes over time. More information is available on the MAPA website and in video form on YouTube