The Ukraine
A History
by W. E. D. Allen

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Cambridge University Press: 1940
404 pages

November 2004

Complex but clearly presented

There are newer histories of Ukraine, but for thorough geopolitical analysis, it would be difficult to surpass W.E.D. Allen's The Ukraine: A History. The book is well written, without journalistic or academic faults. Allen ranges across the region, in late Medieval and especially early modern centuries. Ukraine's development and disputed borders can be understood only by seeing the relations among Scandinavian traders, Lithuania, Poland, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, the Mongol Khanates in Crimea and elsewhere, Cossacks and Hetmans, and of course Tsarist Russia; and more recently Germany and the Soviet Union. It is a very complex history.

The disastrous Mongol incursion devastated Kievan Rus around 1240. After this the centers of Slav power and culture strengthened farther north, eventually concentrating in the expansive Muscovy.

Settling the borderlands

Allen does not delve much into cultural history, but he does show the aspirations and general movements of people, as well as the claims of states. Much of the settlement of both Right Bank (of the Dniepr River) and Left Bank Ukraine, and of South Russia and New Russia, can be viewed as parallel flows of ordinary rural folk to escape Polish and Russo-Lithuanian landlords in the West and North, to find farm and forest lands of their own; and of the aristocracies to appropriate this ownership to themselves.

The agrarian reforms of the year 1557 were based on the abolition of all independent peasant farming and on the absolute regulation of peasant labour. ...

But beyond Volhynia lay the Dniepr region where 'the old Russian order' still continued — admitting free agricultural labour and the free migration of peasants from one place to another. There was therefore a natural drift of the discontented into the Dniepr lands, where there was no authority to ask whether the newcomers were there 'legally' or 'illegally'. In these frontier settlements the peasant way of life was of course less assured, but with the turn of the sixteenth century the Tartar danger had become somewhat less, for protection was afforded by the growing strength of the Cossack communities.

The appearance of the Cossacks was the second reason for the ever-increasing repopulation of the banks of the Dniepr. ... the Ukrainian Cossacks more or less effectively protected the new settlers from Tartar and Turkish raids; at the same time they themselves acted as a magnet to the desperate and the adventurous — to all who were not afraid to try their luck in a new life.

An important and illuminating way to look at Russian history is the shift from meridial to latitudinal. The early development was along the North-South trade routes, following the great rivers. Ukraine first took shape along the river routes from Scandinavia southward down to the Black Sea. Later, the settlers' push was into the broad steppe lands to the East, and Ukraine extended eastward into these new territories.

Nationalities, war, and shifting borders

Allen's history is excellent on the nationalities question, which bedevils all supra-national empires, including all the neighbor-states of Ukraine past and present, and still is a cause of tension within Ukraine today. Can modern free institutions solve the nationalities problem? That was one of Joseph Stalin's early specialties, and the Communist genocide in Ukraine — "the revolution against the peasants" in the 1930s — has not been forgotten.

(Bringing the story up to date are a number of Ukrainian histories or surveys since the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the end of Communist dominion in Ukraine. One standard is Ukraine: A History, by Orest Subtelny; first published in 1988, with subsequent updated editions.)

After Allen's thorough discussion of the formation of Ukraine amidst all the surrounding pressures, Allen discusses the World War I occupation of Ukraine by German forces, and the Soviet reshaping of Ukraine. He wraps up with an overview of all the regions of Ukraine as World War II is beginning in the West.

Intricate geopolitics, thoughtfully delineated by Allen. Highly recommended.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

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