”Itʼs hard to say that Iʼll be writing about this [war] in 20 years, when Iʼll have access to the archives, know the end of the story.” Historian Serhii Plokhy — about how to write about the war during wartime

Maria Zhartovska
Dmytro Rayevskyi
”Itʼs hard to say that Iʼll be writing about this [war] in 20 years, when Iʼll have access to the archives, know the end of the story.” Historian Serhii Plokhy — about how to write about the war during wartime

Getty Images / «Babel'»

In May 2023, the American publishing house “W.W. Norton & Company” published a new book by the Ukrainian-American historian Serhii Plokhy "The Russo-Ukrainian War. The Return of History". In the book, Plokhy explores the historical reasons for Russiaʼs invasion of Ukraine in 2022, describes the various stages of relations between the two countries and the formation of the Russian myth of a "one nation". We have already written about the main theses of the book. Serhii Plokhy is a leading specialist in the history of Eastern Europe, professor of the Department of Ukrainian History at Harvard University, author of many books and scientific works. On November 4, 2023, a public meeting with Plokhy was held in Toronto, organized by the Kyiv-Mohyla Foundation of Canada. During the meeting, those willing could ask the historian questions. The event was moderated by Marta Dychok from the University of Western Ontario. We made a short synopsis of the meeting. And before the meeting, the Babel correspondent Maria Zhartovska spoke with Serhii Plokhy about criticism of his new book, attitude towards Russian historians and interest in Ukrainian history in the West.

You have said that the new book is a breaking of patterns, because historians usually deal with finished processes. Some people criticize you, saying that this is not the time to write history books during the war, and thatʼs how you want to make money. How would you respond to such criticism?

My main complaint with myself is that I dragged my feet with this book. When it appeared on the bookshelves in May-June, many works about the war had already been published. It was important to me to write this book as soon as possible, because its purpose is to form a certain idea about this war. The outcome of this war depends, in particular, on how much the Western reader and voter knows about it and how he understands it.

For me, as a historian, it was difficult to write about the events taking place now. I took a risk, because here the historical tools are limited. A historical approach to some event is important — it needs to have a long duration. You insert an event into the historical trajectory, and you suddenly have an understanding, a vision, a meaning that was not there before. I finished the book, convinced that the modern so-called contemporary history has the right to exist — because it allows us to reveal some things that we did not see before.

In the book, I paraphrased Winston Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all others. I have identified historians as the worst commentators on modernity, apart from all others. And it partly gave me confidence that journalists approached me. I thought I could say something useful that people donʼt know and offer a perspective that is needed to understand [the war in Ukraine].

Readers also say that the book is too personal. Your sister lives in Zaporizhzhia, your cousin died in the war. To what extent were personal experiences superimposed on the work?

I look at this book not just as an academic summation, but as an opportunity to influence the course of events. Itʼs hard to stand aside when such things happen. And itʼs hard to say what I will write about this in 20 years, when I will have access to the archives, will know the end of the story, will be smarter and take no risks. But if I didnʼt write now, it would mean that I stayed away and didnʼt participate in the processes that are important to me personally.

It is important to find a balance between objectivity and a moral position. I honestly start the book with where I am, who I am and from what point of view I look at these events. In my opinion, this is also an element of academic culture and honesty. After I declared that I consider this war a crime on the part of the aggressor, a completely different switch is turned on — if you want to influence [the events], you must do it according to the standards of your profession, which involves objectivity. For me, the works of Western historiography about the Second World War, where there is a clear moral position and professional objectivity, were my role models.

Is the main audience of the book a Western reader?

I counted on a Western reader and hoped for a Ukrainian one. The book "The Gates of Europe" was also intended for a Western reader, but it was positively received in Ukraine, which was a surprise for me. I also have positive feedback about the new book. And this is extremely important for me, because after all, I wrote while being outside of Ukraine.

You came to Ukraine at the end of August 2023 — for the first time since the beginning of a full-scale war. How important is it for a historian to be at the scene of events?

This is important, but I have nothing to change in the book [after the visit to Ukraine]. Ukrainian society has become for me... I still canʼt find the words to describe it. On the one hand, this is heroism, on the other hand, something related to the trauma. Maybe thatʼs a topic or feeling for another book. As a historian, specific people and circumstances are important to me. It is difficult to write about events, about real people, whose relatives can read about them. Youʼre not sure if you got it right. Apparently, here historians need to learn from journalists, because usually we write about events that have ended.

In 2021, in one of your interviews, you said that "Ukrainians are not the most unhappy people in the world. But if you look at our sense of well-being, it is hard to believe this. I think that has to change." What should change?

I think thatʼs already changing — the idea of yourself as a perpetual victim. In 2022, Ukrainians refused to be victims, they began to defend themselves. What is important to me is what society will be like after victory. The formation of a nation and society is a process associated with war, crisis, and conflict. And this is the moment we are experiencing now. The crisis is so serious and deep that society is being transformed and has already been transformed by this war. And there is simply no going back. There is a clear guideline — to be a successful nation at the level of our EU neighbors.

But, for example, the governments of Hungary or Slovakia are now using anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. Has Europe managed to transform itself?

Societies are constantly transforming, there are no complete processes. There is a position of the Baltic countries, Poland, the countries of the so-called old Europe. What is happening to Germany today was unimaginable at the beginning of the war. Some of the things that happen to France, were hard to think about too. The process continues and can take place in different directions, but what we have seen in the last 1.5-2 years in the context of this war is a serious transformation. And it was created by the Ukrainian resistance. After all, according to Putinʼs plan and according to Western observers, this war should last no more than two weeks. And such a war would not have changed much.

The following are your words: “I know how the war will end — itʼs a classic war of the collapse of empires, but I donʼt know how long it will last. And even if I knew who to ask about it, Iʼm afraid to hear the answer to this question." What answer are you afraid to hear?

The answer I donʼt want to hear is measured in years.

The key ally of Ukraine is the United States. In your opinion, what mistakes do they continue to make regarding Russia?

They are trying to predict the so-called red lines in Putinʼs head. Because of this, the delivery of weapons is delayed. And this is the main mistake.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi and Joe Biden in the White House, September 21, 2023.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

The war will affect the 2024 US presidential election in one way or another. Is there a rollback and the return of Donald Trump?

Chances [for his return] are high. The key is the mood of voters in the USA. Trump could not stop the supply of Javelins to Ukraine, because the Congress, which is largely oriented towards American voters, voted for it. And for me, the biggest threat is a change in attitude toward war among Americans.

Are Russian historians being canceled in the world now? Is it necessary to do this?

The number of Russian historians at the conferences I attended dropped to almost zero. But here it is extremely important not to throw the baby out with the bath water. I will give an example that is closest to me and, I think, most understandable in Ukraine. There is Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva from St. Petersburg, who was into Ukrainian history, defended her thesis in Ukraine, her works were published and are being published now. She left Russia, declared her [anti-war] position. And in fact she lost her job, she was fired and now she is in exile. Can I cancel her? Do not think so. For me personally, the question lies in the position of the historian and the quality of his or her work.

Are American students more interested in Ukrainian history now?

Last year, the number of people studying Ukrainian history doubled in my classes. This year, the number dropped, but due to the fact that at the same time Harvard Kennedy School is teaching a course on the Russo-Ukrainian war and history. Some students went there.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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