Although larger than France and as populous as Spain, Ukraine has long been something of an empty space on the Western mental map. Living in the newly independent country in the early 1990s, I often had to explain to friends where it was. Even foreign secretaries were prone to calling it ‘the Ukraine’, as though it were still part of somewhere bigger. All this changed two years ago, when mass demonstrations ousted a corrupt pro-Russian president, prompting Putin to invade first Crimea and then, covertly, the eastern rustbelt known as the Donbas. Suddenly, Ukraine found itself the football in a new Cold War-style contest, with touchline commentary ranging from Churchillian calls to arms to denials that it is a proper country at all.
All three of these books usefully help fill the blank. Most comprehensive is The Gates of Europe by Ukrainian-born Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy. Starting with the ancient Greeks’ settlement of the Black Sea coast, he guides the reader through the Viking-descended princes who converted Kiev to Christianity, Mongol invasion and withdrawal, and then five hundred years’ worth of parcellings-out between Russia, Poland, the Ottomans and Austria-Hungary, before finally arriving at Ukrainian statehood with the collapse of the Soviet Union.