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Originally published Friday, July 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Red Prince": The amazing life of the self-appointed king of Ukraine

"The Red Prince" by Timothy Snyder tells the tragic true story of a Habsburg archduke who adopted the guises of soldier, spy, leftist aristocrat, international playboy, cross-dressing gay lover and arms dealer in pursuit of his lifelong goal — to become king of an independent Ukraine.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke"

by Timothy Snyder

Basic Books, 344 pp., $27.95

Vasyl Vyshyvani Square lies in a quiet section of the Ukrainian city of Lviv, popular with schoolchildren who clamber about on its unadorned stone plinth. The plinth was intended as the base for a monument, never completed, to the square's namesake, a man of numerous identities, titles and nationalities and the subject of Timothy Snyder's new book.

Vasyl Vyshyvani was born Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg in 1895, a member of the House of Habsburg that had ruled Central Europe for centuries. Raised in a world of enormous wealth and power, he and his family lost everything with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I. For the rest of his remarkable, peripatetic life, Wilhelm repeatedly reinvented himself to fit his fluctuating circumstances — soldier, spy, leftist aristocrat, international playboy, cross-dressing gay lover, arms dealer. Yet it was his dream of becoming king of an independent Ukraine as Vasyl Vyshyvani that defined Wilhelm's life, and ultimately sealed his fate.

Deeply researched and beautifully written, "The Red Prince" captures in shimmering colors the death of old Europe and the continent's descent into barbarism. It abounds with a cast of unforgettable characters, from bloodthirsty nationalist strongmen and shady conspirators to alluring demimondaines and debauched nobles. Snyder, an award-winning historian at Yale University, has written a compelling biography as well as a vivid depiction of an era and offers insightful observations on the mutability of personal and national identity.

Wilhelm ultimately lost his bid for Ukraine's throne. Arrested by Stalin's henchmen in Vienna in 1947 and returned in chains to Kiev, he was convicted of aspiring to be king of Ukraine. Wilhelm died in prison the following year, his only monument an unmarked grave.

Douglas Smith's latest book is "The Pearl:

A True Tale of Forbidden Love

in Catherine the Great's Russia."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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