When Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, the world struggled to understand how it was possible that war had once again returned to Europe in the 21st century.
Eighteen months later, the world wants to know how it will all end.
In both cases, historians are needed. And many have looked to renowned Yale historian Timothy Snyder — author of several books on European and Ukrainian history.
His 2018 book "The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America" offers its readers a deeper understanding of why Russia initially annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine back in 2014. The book undoubtedly helps to make sense of the current moment in Ukraine.
Last fall, Snyder published recordings of his course on Ukrainian history, “The Making of Modern Ukraine,” online. The lectures have been watched and listened to by millions.
The Kyiv Independent took a walk with Snyder through Ukraine’s historic Golden Gate neighborhood following the Yalta European Strategy (YES) Conference that took place in Kyiv on Sept. 8-9.
We discussed how and where Ukrainian and world history intersect, Ukraine’s contentious historical figures, and why Crimea has to be a part of Ukraine if the world wants peace in the region.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Kyiv Independent: During your talk with First Lady Olena Zelenska at the YES Conference, you said that one of the reasons your students really like Ukrainian history is not necessarily because it’s Ukraine but because they see world history in Ukrainian history. What did you mean by that, and why do you think Ukrainian history speaks to your students in the United States?
Timothy Snyder: When any country tries to sell its history abroad, it generally tries to create a simpler version of what its people already think.
(People) concentrate on very basic things that they think foreigners can understand. That never works. Partly because it isn’t interesting and also because generally what you think about your own country isn’t true so it doesn't travel very well.
Ukraine has a tremendous advantage in that its history really is connected to almost everything else. It touches all these narratives that people think they know. Nobody thinks of Ukraine and ancient Greece, but, in fact, the whole of Athenian civilization was in a symbiosis with what's now southern Ukraine. The food that Russia is now burning and destroying, those fields fed Pericles, Socrates, and Plato.
Ukraine took part in the Age of Discovery; it was colonized by the Poles while the Europeans were colonizing other people; Ukraine took part in the history of national revivals very early with (Bohdan) Khmelnytsky; Ukraine took part in the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. These big European themes (are present in Ukrainian history), except it's more interesting and more complicated because there are more religions.
So, basically, whatever starting point people have, if they have any starting point at all, Ukraine adds something to it and it makes the whole story make more sense.
But I mean something else by it too, which is that everybody's obsessed now with this North-South, colonial-non-colonial thing. Ukraine, although it's hard to describe exactly how, is in the middle of that. It’s neither Northern nor Southern, it's neither colonial nor non-colonial. It’s a country from which you can understand both. (From which) you can understand that Ukraine has a history of statehood, but it also has a history of being colonized. It has a history of being the center of the slave trade in the world and it also has a history of independence. So it has a connection to what are thought of as these big blocs, the (global) North and South.
The Kyiv Independent: How in your view does the Russian propaganda narrative that Ukraine is full of Nazis or being run by a Nazi government find a receptive audience in the West?
There is a history of Ukrainian fascism and a history of Ukrainian collaboration that should be studied. Nobody should skip it or overlook it. But when you're in a moment like this where many things are possible, it's also important to remember that radical things are possible and to watch out for them.
That said, the facts of Ukrainian collaboration and fascism basically have zero connection to the propaganda reality. People in the West who talk about “Ukrainian Nazis” don't know anything about Ukrainian history. So the problem is not that they have this view of Ukraine, (it’s that) they don't know anything about Ukrainian history. They're working from a Soviet narrative of convenience which was built up after World War II, where collaboration was allocated nationally to the convenience of Moscow.
If Russia needed to discipline the Ukrainian (Soviet) Republic, it would say the Ukrainian (Soviet) Republic was full of collaboration. That narrative of discipline, that narrative of using collaboration was then used after 1991 by Russia as well to say that “we were the ones who won World War II and those guys were the ones who were maybe on the wrong side.”
My view now is that it is important for Ukrainians not to get caught up in that. Ukrainians are stuck on (Stepan) Bandera because Russia wants them to be. You don't want to be talking about the parts of your history that Russia wants you to talk about.
The Kyiv Independent: Every country needs its national heroes, though, right? How does Ukraine deal with these contentious parts of its history and find new national heroes?
I'm not a big fan of the idea of heroes. I understand that we should recognize soldiers and volunteers and other people for their courage, but the idea of a hero means that someone is beyond the human. And nobody's beyond the human.
As soon as you make someone your hero, you expect them to be perfect and you can't revise your view of them anymore at all and someone else will try to make them into a villain.
So I tend to think that looking at history, the better word would be examples. You're always going to find people who are in complicated situations and did something extraordinary as opposed to a hero who was somehow above the normal rules, right?
As far as finding such people, I think it’s much more important for Ukrainians to look around them right now. It’s much easier for Ukrainians in 2023 to understand this war, than it is for them to understand the war of 1939 to 1945 or 1914 to 1918. And this war is full of examples of people who took risks and did good things.
I tend to think that in 50 years when Ukrainians are looking back, they'll be looking back at this war and I think that's rather a good thing.
But as far as looking for these examples, the trick is not to look where your enemy tells you to look. If your enemy is telling you to look somewhere, maybe instead try to think creatively about, (for example), the people in 1918 who were actually trying to found the Ukrainian state, or the people under the Soviet Union who took risks, (or about) Andrei Sheptytsky who saved more than 100 Jews.
There are lots of places to look. You want to be creative about where you're looking and not let other people tell you where you should be looking.
The Kyiv Independent: Is it possible for Ukraine to make peace with countries like Poland or other countries by elevating these controversial figures or having streets named after them?
What Ukrainian streets are named is up to the Ukrainians. I won’t tell Ukrainians what to do, but I can give you an assessment which is that I think that when Ukrainians name things after Bandera and (Roman) Shukhevych, they think it's just us and the Russians in the world and they're not thinking about the Jews and they're not thinking about the Poles. And Bandera, and especially Shukhevych, have a lot to do with Jewish and Polish history.
So I think that when Ukrainians are renaming streets, they should be thinking about Ukraine and the global (aspect) at the same time.
What Ukrainians shouldn't be doing is thinking this is going to make the Russians upset because as soon as you're doing something to make the Russians upset you're just falling into their trap because they've already thought ahead about it. They're happy every time a street in Ukraine is named after Bandera.
Russia doesn't really care about the legacy of Bandera. There is nobody in Moscow who actually cares about Bandera, they just see Bandera as a trap for Ukrainians. So when you name a street after Bandera, there are very few Russians who are upset by it and there are many Russians who are happy.
The Kyiv Independent: As Ukraine is experiencing a national revival so to speak, how can the country going forward make sure that this new national identity is inclusive of minority groups and other groups of people that have always lived in Ukraine?
I think rather than thinking majority/minority, the right place to start is from the idea of a political nation. The political nation is created by experience, and inside those experiences, there will be a certain amount of diversity that we have to listen to and not let other people tell us what they mean.
I would formulate the question a bit differently and say, “How do you make sure that the political idea of the nation, which seems to have been strengthened by the war, continues after the war?”
I think Crimea is the most important example of this, both during the war and after the war. Crimea is the test. The Crimeans are more like a nation within a nation and after the war, there will have to be something special done in Crimea.
The Kyiv Independent: Do you still sense that in the West people actually still believe that Russia will never lose Crimea, it's a part of Russia and Ukraine won’t even have the ability to take it back?
There's tremendous diversity among people so I can't say yes or no. But in general, the notion that Crimea is really Ukraine and can be regained, has been gaining adherence rather than losing it.
Obviously, by international law Crimea is Ukraine. And obviously, this idea that it was always Russian is only there because it was never Russian.
Crimea being Russian is an artifact of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars and if you go into the deep history, you know that the Crimean Tatars were there for half a millennium.
If you're serious about this war, just in terms of the strategic logic, Ukraine has to get Crimea back. They need to win the war, but also if you're in the West and you want there to be peace, you need the Ukrainians, not the Russians, to control Crimea.
Because the Russians will militarize it and start more wars, whereas the Ukrainians, inshallah, will create national parks and demilitarize it and create cultural autonomy for the Crimean Tatars.
The Kyiv Independent: In one of your recent posts on Substack you talk about the fatigue of time and the current trend of people calling the war in Ukraine a stalemate and that it’s going nowhere, but history shows us otherwise. So which examples in history can we reach to in order to explain this moment?
In the West, we have two ideas about how long wars last: that they last for one minute and that they last forever.
For most Americans anyway, a war lasts as long as the last scene in a Marvel movie and if it lasts longer than that, then we immediately go into forever.
A stalemate is something that goes on forever and when a journalist writes stalemate, what the journalist is really saying is, “Since it's going to go on forever and nothing's ever going to change, I don't have to figure out the details.”
Secondly, historically speaking, wars are both unpredictable and they tend to be long. Hitler's Blitzkrieg involved victories but it also involved a war that lasted for almost six years. World War I (lasted years); the wars that America has lost recently and the one in Syria—into the decades. If you think about wars, this has actually been a very short war so far.
Oleksiy Sorokin contributed to this interview.