”Ukrainians and Europeans must prepare to win the war alone.” A conversation with historian Timothy Snyder about war, culture and the past (a little less upbeat than usual)

Kateryna Kobernyk
”Ukrainians and Europeans must prepare to win the war alone.” A conversation with historian Timothy Snyder about war, culture and the past (a little less upbeat than usual)

Historian Timothy Snyder.

Tom Dulat (the Sam Holden Agency) / Photographs provided by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation

On November 27, at the British Museum in London, historians Timothy Snyder, Serhii Plokhy and Yaroslav Hrytsak presented the project "Ukrainian history: global initiative". It is designed to last three years. Ninety scientists — historians, archaeologists, paleontologists — will work on 70 topics from Ukrainian history and, as stated in the project presentation, will seek answers to the global questions "Who are Ukrainians?" and "How did the Ukrainian nation become possible?". Businessman Viktor Pinchuk will finance these studies. Together with well-known Ukrainian and international public and political figures, he is a member of the board of directors of the project. A few hours before the presentation, Babelʼs editor-in-chief Kateryna Kobernyk met with the curator of the project, Yale University professor Timothy Snyder, to find out what he and his colleagues plan to rethink in the history of Ukraine and why they decided to do it now. And, of course, there were questions about Ukraineʼs allies in the war, which are becoming fewer and fewer.

At this stage, the description of the initiative, on the one hand, is quite large in scope, on the other hand, it does not contain many specifics. Some comments, in particular by Viktor Pinchuk that the result of this project will be numerous refutations of Russian lies about history, suggest that maybe this will be counter-propaganda?

No, this is definitely not a response to Russian propaganda. Discussion of the project began four years before the full-scale invasion. For me, it is fundamentally important to clearly separate history from propaganda. If you want to engage in counter-propaganda, do it, but where the counter-propaganda begins, history ends.

What exactly will you and other historians reinterpret in the history of Ukraine, which was written after 1991 — in independent Ukraine, not in the Soviet Union?

This is a scientific project. I canʼt say now exactly how it will end. History is a bit like lab research. If you give people resources, three years of time and topics, they get unpredictable results. This, by the way, also applies to your first question — propaganda and counter-propaganda are very predictable, but history is not.

The goal is to make a large-scale scientific project. To explore Ukraine not only before and after 1991, but also to touch on ancient history. Because if you seriously want to ask the question "Who are we?", then you cannot start with the 19th century. You have to go back and say who were the first people in this area? You should consider everything that happened in these territories, and not just choose the periods you like.

Another feature of this project is that we are interested in things related to Ukraine, but not limited to it. A good example is the Viking age. The Vikings who turned Kyiv into a big city are part of a much larger phenomenon of the 8th-11th centuries, when people in search of profit migrated from Scandinavia and established political systems not only in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, but also indirectly in England, Normandy and Sicily. If you consider Kyiv and Rus in this context, you will have a different view of Europe, where Kyiv and Rus is perhaps the most interesting example of a Viking state. We will try to take as many such important global topics as possible and show Ukraine in a global context.

I understand that according to your plan, one study will probably provide material for the next one and it is impossible to predict everything at the start, but perhaps there are already the first announced topics?

We are currently inviting researchers to participate in the project. Currently, there are at least nine people, including myself and Professor Serhii Plokhy, who have agreed to write parts of the project. There are about 70 topics that we coordinate with historians, archaeologists, paleontologists, and literary scholars. Once we identify all the topics and the scientists who will work on them, we will have three years [of research], three major conferences, and probably dozens of smaller workshops to link these topics together. The goal is to transform peopleʼs view of world history. There will probably be a book or something grander at the end of this project.

Businessman Viktor Pinchuk, historians Yaroslav Hrytsak, Serhii Plokhy and Timothy Snyder before the presentation of the project at the British Museum.

Tom Dulat (the Sam Holden Agency) / Photographs provided by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation

The war in Ukraine demonstrated once again that historical manipulation can be quite dangerous — it can justify mass murder and make ignorant people believe that they have a legitimate right to kill others. When launching this global project, did you think about how to interest ordinary people in history? How to teach them to distinguish a lie from a story?

There are two answers to this question. Every far-right movement, from Putin to [Donald] Trump, relies on the same legend — of a past where we were always innocent and then some evil came from somebody outside. For Putin, it looks like this: everything was started by a person he calls Vladimir who baptized Rus, and since then there have been indivisible Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Everything that contradicts this comes from the outside, and you need to get rid of it. The problem is not history, but the legends and myths of innocence that lead you to destroy other people. There are two ways to solve this problem. The first is to say "Letʼs completely forget the past, we are all normal people, we need to think about the future." They did so after 1989, but it did not work and actually opened the way to the myth of innocence.

Because instead of history, people need to be given something else.

Exactly. And therefore, answering your question: you can fight against myths and aggressive legends by telling a real story full of surprises. It is much more interesting than political myths.

But real history is sometimes difficult for people to understand, unlike historical myths, it is more complicated.

The problem with the Putinʼs or Trumpʼs history is not that itʼs simple, but that it is false. You have to do a lot of research first, so that you can tell the story simply and truthfully. I cannot teach Russians history, but free societies can create more interesting history and try to create the habit of thinking historically.

Do you think that the Ukrainian authorities should more often appeal to history and use it as a tool of communication with the world in order to strengthen their position or explain some things?

I would like to repeat once again that our project is not a government project and is not counter-propaganda. It is not our task to find some facts about the past that will help the Ukrainian government in the present.

But if we talk in general about whether Ukrainian history can help Ukraine communicate better with the world, then of course it can. For example, Ukraine played a huge role in the Second World War, but almost no one in the world knows about it. If you show that Ukraine was a subject of German colonization, you can draw a parallel with Russian colonization, which in some cases are very similar. Now it is important for Ukraine to know not only its history, but also the history of its allies, it is necessary to understand what they believe in and what they know about the past.

Ukraine and the world have allegedly already agreed that the fate of the war will largely be decided by the elections in the USA. It happens in history when there is some turning point that everyone is waiting for with bated breath. But maybe Ukraine can still do something so that Trumpʼs victory, if it happens, does not become a disaster for us?

In fact, until now, Ukrainians led the Americans in this war, not the other way around. The Americans did not think that Volodymyr Zelensky would stay in Kyiv, that the city would not fall in a few days. Ukrainians did things that surprised Americans and ultimately determined US policy. Ukrainians fought independently of American aid. They were struggling, and so the Americans helped them.

The politics of your allies will always be unpredictable and painful, and you will not be able to control them. Your attitude should be: We really need your help, but weʼre going to keep fighting whether we get it or not. It is important for both Ukrainians and Europeans to prepare for the elections in the USA and have backup plans. You must prepare to win alone, although it will be difficult.

Is Europe able and willing to seize the initiative in the war from the US if the new administration begins to withdraw its support?

As an American, I have a hard time answering this question. From my point of view, Europe should now be much more strategically independent from the US. Europe is much more interested in Ukraineʼs victory than the United States. Therefore, it is important that Trumpʼs victory does not become for Europeans an excuse for their powerlessness. But this is an intra-European story that they have to deal with. The Germans are doing pretty well at the moment.

Now the population of many European countries sees this picture: the collective West was able to stop and even significantly weaken Russia. It circumvents sanctions, its planned economy runs on defense, and its allies — China and North Korea — supply weapons and many other necessities. Will this not convince voters in the West that democratic regimes are not effective enough?

I donʼt believe that this war proved the effectiveness of the Russian system. Their offensive was not nearly as successful as most people thought. China, I think, also missed its chance in this war, because it could have prevented it and looked like a really great power that could do it. Instead, it blamed everything on the Americans — itʼs convenient, there are many do it, but not really the great powers.

I donʼt think that the last two years have made Russia and China stronger, I think they have become weaker. People in the West look at it somewhat differently — Russia can throw an absurdly high percentage of its economy into war needs, can mobilize people with threats, which Ukraine and the West cannot do. In fact, the West learned a good lesson — a great economic advantage does not automatically translate into a military one. We need to work on this transformation.

Tom Dulat (the Sam Holden Agency) / Photographs provided by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation

However, Ukraine is losing allies. Poland is blocking the Ukrainian border and hitting not only the economy, but also the army. Slovakia joined the blockade. There is a triumph of the right in the Netherlands. Doesnʼt this look like a negative trend that will deepen later?

In fact, the situation is constantly changing. If we look at Slovakia four years ago, things there were also going very well and relations with Ukraine were good. And Brexit, I think, is a very bad thing, but the British prime ministers attach great importance to the Ukrainian issue, more than could be expected. Sometimes it seems that things are really bad, as they seemed to be with Italy, and then it turns out that everything is fine.

We can sit and think about modern European political trends, and I do it with pleasure, and we can shape the perception of Ukraine among Ukrainians and other people. And this representation will be resistant to changing events around. If you look at the history of political struggle, it is culture that ultimately matters. It allows people to understand each other, to objectively evaluate things. Culture has long-term value — this is what our project is about.

In the end, I wanted to ask a question that is being actively discussed in our social networks. Is it important for people in the West what language Ukrainians speak? Do Russian-speaking Ukrainians confirm Putinʼs thesis about “one nation”?

[Switches to Ukrainian] Ukrainians think that it is necessary to speak Ukrainian because...

In particular, because it is important to prove to the world by all means that Putin is lying. That Ukrainians are a completely separate nation with their own language and culture.

I am not a typical Westerner to answer this question.

But you are a person who studied Ukrainian.

I am impressed by this transition to Ukrainian, and it is really easier to explain to people that Ukraine is a separate state if Ukrainians speak their own language. Although in reality it is not fair. America does not have its own language at all, English is also spoken in Canada, German is spoken in Austria, but no one says that Austria is Germany. But there are many objective advantages of this transition to Ukrainian — it enriches Ukrainian culture and literature. Another nuance that I noticed: over time, there are fewer brilliant Russian public speakers and more Ukrainian ones. In 2014, it was different. And now this trend makes Ukraine really closer to the West. And if itʼs not obvious yet, with time the results will be more and more eloquent.