Lost Kingdom: A History Of Russian Nationalism From Ivan The Great To Vladimir Putin by Serhii Plokhy

The Blurb On The Back:

An astonishing wide-ranging history of Russian nationalism from a pre-eminent scholar of Eastern Europe.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and attempted to seize a portion of Ukraine.  While the world watched in outrage, this violation of national sovereignty was in fact only the latest iteration of a centuries-long effort to expand Russian boundaries and create a pan-Russian nation.  In Lost Kingdom, award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy argues that we can only understand the merging of imperialism and nationalism in Russia today by delving into its history.  Spanning over two thousand years, from the end of the Mongol rule to the present day, Plokhy shows how leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin have exploited existing forms of identity, warfare and territorial expansion to achieve imperial supremacy.  A strikingly ambitious book, Lost Kingdom chronicles the long and belligerent history of Russia’s empire and nation-building quest.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order LOST KINGDOM: A HISTORY OF RUSSIAN NATIONALISM FROM IVAN THE GREAT TO VLADIMIR PUTIN by Serhii Plokhy from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Serhii Plokhy is Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University, director of its Ukrainian Research Institute and a leading authority on Eastern Europe.  This book, written after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Donbas and Luhansk, examines Russian history to explain its nationalistic view of Ukraine but although it’s informative, you need a background in the subject to keep up with Plokhy’s arguments and at times I was left confused.

I picked this up because I’ve read two other books by Plokhy – FORGOTTEN BASTARDS OF WORLD WAR II and CHERNOBYL – HISTORY OF A TRAGEDY – both of which I very much enjoyed but also because the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year made this book, which looks at Russia’s nationalistic ambitions and view of Ukraine, particularly interesting.  The book itself was written in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, Donbas and Luhansk in 2014, but if you want to understand Russia’s continued ambition and view of the region then it still has use today given that Russia’s “justification” does build on and refer back to historical attitudes and arguments described in the book.

Plokhy takes a linear approach to the historical background here, starting with the first Tsar of the Rus, Ivan III.  He packs in an awful lot into the book in terms of territorial growth, the differences between the Kyivan Rus and the Muscovite Rus, the historical claims for legitimacy of rule, the lingual differences between the various peoples and their systems of government (I had not realised that Novgorod had essentially been a democratic republic until Ivan III conquered it) and then the interactions with the Orthodox Church and the politics at play there, including the links to the Byzantine empire.  All this is not to forgot the rivalries and territorial clashes with Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later the Hapsburg Empire and Germany.  

There are common threads as he canters through Russian history in terms of how Russia’s attitude to Ukraine and Belarus (which comes across a lot as an afterthought throughout the book) reflected its then political priorities.  This is particularly interesting when it comes to the chapters featuring Catherine the Great and Nicholas II and later in relation to Stalin and the Communist Party aims.  However, I found myself a little loss at times in the discussions relating to Ukrainian versus Russian language and the role of this in national identity.  Plokhy clearly knows a huge amount about these subjects and while he does convey a lot of information, if you don’t have the background and aren’t as steeped in this as he is, it is easy to lose track of who is who and which group/individuals have which agendas.

The final chapters, which track the transition from Gorbachev to Yeltsin to Putin were probably the most interesting to me, partly because I’ve lived through these times so had more familiarity with them, but also because they did help to shape my understanding of what is currently happening between Russia and Ukraine.  Given Plokhy’s argument when the book was published in 2017 that the annexation of predominantly Russian-speaking and ethnic areas were design to boost statists and nationalists within the Russian government but had the effect of booting and reinforcing Ukrainian multi-ethnic identity, I’d be interested to read an update of the book to see what Plokhy thinks the impact of the invasion is – especially on the Russian domestic front where conscription has been brought in.  Plokhy finishes the book by saying that it remains to be seen whether the impact of the annexation would be to either force Russia to adjust its imperialist views and form a modern, civic nation or to force a return to a Cold War scenario.  Given Putin’s nuclear bluster and doubling down of what has – so far – been a failed military strategy, it doesn’t look like reality is going to engage with the Russian political elite any time soon.

All in all, I did find this an interesting book, but it’s not as smoothly written and easy to follow as the previous works that I’ve read and events subsequent to its publication means that it is in need of a further update (which is obviously not the author’s fault).  On that basis, I think this is an interesting book that’s worth a look if you’re looking for background on Russia’s motivation as regards Ukraine but it’s one you’d get more from if you’re already familiar with the country and its politics, linguistics and history.   

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