With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Yale University historian Timothy Snyder has become one of the unexpected "celebrities" of the conflict in Ukraine

Yale University historian Timothy Snyder has become one of the unexpected "celebrities" of the conflict in Ukraine. 

He has written a string of articles and given dozens of lectures in which he offers his correctives to narratives about the history of Eastern Europe that have emerged from Vladimir Putin's Russia. In particular, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin, has waged a one-man campaign against Russian claims that Ukraine is not, to use Putin's words, "a real country."

Snyder spoke recently with RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yaroslav Shimov about the roles the interpretation and reinterpretation of history are playing in the current conflict in Ukraine and about the dangers of the Russian government's attempts to "obtain a monopoly…on historical interpretation."

RFE/RL: Your book is about how the struggle between Russia and the West played out in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Are we seeing something of a repetition of this now?

Timothy Snyder: The book is not so much about Russia and the West. If anything, the Soviet project was a kind of Western project because it was about modernizing a huge country that its leadership saw as backwards. So I wouldn't want to say Bloodlands was about Russia and the West.

Bloodlands is much more about a competition of two colonial projects -- where the Soviet project aimed to take land and people and force them into the future and the Nazi project aimed to conquer land and people and force them into the past. What is special about the region that I call "the Bloodlands," which is western Russia, the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine, and most of Poland, is that these were the lands that were touched by both of these projects. So the question is not West and East or West and Russia. The question is what kinds of projects have contacts with these territories.

And so, the way I see the contest today is a little bit different. As I understand things, the European Union is a way out of colonialism. The European Union is a way out of inequality. The European Union is a way of treating states as equals. States that are able to join the European Union get certain rights. They get access to an internal market. That comes from the West, but it is a very different proposition than other things that have come from the West.

Meanwhile, the proposition that comes from Russia today is not a Soviet proposition; it is not a modernization proposition. It is a proposition that everyone should be a nation-state and we should all compete to see who is stronger and who is weaker. That proposition opposes Ukrainian independence because Ukraine, by this definition, is a weaker country than Russia so it should subordinate itself to Russia. It also opposes the European Union. It says the European Union is decadent and fundamentally false because the only real things are the nations.

So it is a little bit like the book in that you have two different propositions, one coming from the West and one coming from the East. But they are different propositions than we had in the 1930s and 1940s. And the fundamental difference is that Ukraine -- despite the fact that Russia has invaded part of the country -- Ukraine has the possibility to choose between one and the other. ...

Read entire article at Radio Free Europe