Accessibility links

Breaking News

Historian Timothy Snyder: 'History Is Always Plural'

Timothy David Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, has waged a one-man campaign against Russian claims that Ukraine is not "a real country.

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.

Bloodlands is 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.

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.

RFE/RL: Ukraine has embarked on a fairly radical process of decommunization in a bid to shed its Soviet communist legacy. What are your views of this process? Is it likely to bolster Ukrainian national identity or fragment it?

Snyder: Let me start in a slightly different way. Ukrainian national identity isn't going to be built by the state or by its history laws one way or the other. Ukrainian national identity is a result of the experiences of Ukrainians. And much more important than the past -- even the recent past -- is the present.

I think all memory laws are a bad idea.

The main factor in Ukrainian political identity today is the experience of the Maidan and the second factor is the experience of Russian invasion. Those two things have consolidated what was already present -- namely, a pretty widespread sense of belonging to the Ukrainian nation as a political nation. And that's how nations are really built. They are built as a matter of experiences and you can't fake experiences by passing laws from above.

The main thing I'd want to convey is that these laws -- whatever one thinks about them -- are not really going to change Ukrainian identity one way or the other.

Now, you want to know what I think and I'll tell you. I'm against them. I think things like this are a bad idea. I think all memory laws are a bad idea -- I'm even against the German one. I think that as soon as you take anything out of debate, you are compromising the principle that open debate is normal in a civil society. As soon as you pass a history law, all that happens is that your neighbors pass history laws that from your point of view are worse. So I'm against these sorts of things. In the particular Ukrainian case -- the problem in Ukraine is not national identity.

The problem in Ukraine is the state. So I worry a little bit that when the state passes memory laws or decommunization laws, what it is doing is turning the wrong way. Because culture is not the problem in Ukraine. Administration is the problem in Ukraine and the state has an unbelievably difficult task -- and a task it can't avoid -- which is anticorruption, antioligarchy, and the creation of a functioning bureaucracy, and the rule of law.

"The destruction of cities in western Russia has something to do with the destruction of Warsaw. There is a way to bring this all together."
"The destruction of cities in western Russia has something to do with the destruction of Warsaw. There is a way to bring this all together."

RFE/RL: The interpretation of history -- particularly the interpretation of World War II -- has flared up as a major area of contention between Russia and the countries of Eastern Europe. Is this an inevitable, eternal conflict? Are the national histories of the region fated to be in conflict?

Snyder: There are some differences between Russia and its neighbors that are not just differences in historical interpretation. Poland and Lithuania also have very different understandings of World War II. But in Poland and Lithuania, historians are free to use archives. They are free to say what they want. No one is going to claim they are falsifying history. Which means that, even though they have differences, they can also have conferences where meaningful views are exchanged and, perhaps, minds are changed.

This doesn't mean that everyone has to agree with each other. But the possibility of free discussion of history means that sometimes problems can go to a higher level -- that you can find something that is not a compromise, but that you can at least find some way of talking about history not just as national history but as European history, as something that exists beyond the nation.

What is special about Russia is the extent to which the central government tries to obtain a monopoly on historical interpretation.

What is special about Russia is not that Russians think differently about history than other people. That is totally normal. Americans and Canadians also think differently about history. What is special about Russia is the extent to which the central government tries to obtain a monopoly on historical knowledge, historical interpretation. The way in which they use the word "falsify" -- by which they mean anyone who says anything different from what they think today (because what they thought yesterday and what they'll think tomorrow is probably going to be different). That makes Russia different.

Another thing that makes Russia different is their, I think, unprecedented claim to control the interpretation of the past -- not just in the sense of disregarding other interpretations, but of creating their own and then creating television documentaries and so on. For example, the idea that the Prague Spring was a Western plot and that the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 in order to stop a Western invasion. Here you have the current Russian government legislating that what the Soviet Union did was good in a way that even the Soviet Union didn't really claim at the time. The Russian propaganda about 1968 goes well beyond even what Soviet propaganda said.

Other events in the past -- I'll just give you one more example. When the Soviet Union was founded in 1922, even Soviet propaganda didn't claim that Ukraine didn't exist. Everyone agreed that Ukraine existed. The hope was to find some political conception -- i.e., the Soviet Union itself -- in which Ukraine and Russia could exist side-by-side. Now Russian propaganda is much more radical than Soviet propaganda was because they are trying to go back through 1,000 years and show that Ukraine never existed. This is different and it creates situations where it is not a matter of discussing different perspectives. It is a matter of Russia having a whole different political apparatus which other countries don't have.

RFE/RL: Imagine for a moment that Russia experiences a major political shift. Would it be possible sometime in the future to develop common approaches and views to the history of the "Bloodlands"?

Snyder: Yes, I think that's possible. It won't happen today. It won't happen tomorrow. It won't happen in five years. But I do think it is possible. Russia has a lot in common with its neighbors -- especially with Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland, for that matter. It is possible to have historical consciousness that is not just national. Even Poles and Ukrainians sometimes both use the term "Bloodlands," even though they have their own national differences, their own differences of interpretation. But they can share this larger historical experience in which their histories were touched both by a Nazi project and by a Soviet project.

Russians have that too. It is not all they have -- they are a much bigger country and they have Asian history. They have all kinds of things that Ukrainians and Belarusians and Poles don't have. Their history will always be different. But they do have that experience of being touched both by Stalinism and by National Socialism. The siege of Leningrad has something in common with starvation in Kharkiv and Kyiv. The destruction of cities in western Russia has something to do with the destruction of Warsaw. There is a way to bring this all together.

But in order to do that, you have to accept that there is something in the world beyond just your own national experience. The way history is legislated now in Russia, there is Russian history and then there is a plot of everyone else against Russia. Which is very tempting, because it is very simple and very elegant, but that is obviously not the way history works.

History is always plural. It is not just a matter of you and everybody else; it is a matter of a whole bunch of nations, a whole bunch of societies having very complicated relationships. But, yes, I do think it is possible. Russia is a very sophisticated country. There are wonderful Russian historians. There are magnificent materials in Russian archives that are still to be used. I think something like that could happen -- yes.

RFE/RL: One final question about the future. How is the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia likely to shape the future of these countries and the region? Do you worry about the creation of a new Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe?

Snyder: What I worry about with Russia is not so much an Iron Curtain, but self-isolation. If you learn that history is just everyone in the world working against you all the time, without cease, for 1,000 years -- if that is the history that you learn, it is very hard for you then to cooperate with the rest of the world. The war propaganda that you hear in Russia -- and this is what you hear -- is that everyone is in a conspiracy against Russia and Ukraine is just a tool in this world conspiracy. I worry not so much about an Iron Curtain. I worry that Russia has created a situation from which it will be hard for Russia itself to escape.

In a way, I worry more about Russia than I do about Ukraine.

The direct human suffering in Ukraine is of course much greater. In Russia you have hundreds -- or more likely, thousands -- of soldiers that are dead in Ukraine. In Ukraine, you have the dead soldiers, you have the dead civilians, you have 2 million refugees [and displaced persons]. But in Ukraine, at least you have a free society. You have elections. You have disagreements about everything, including about whether the war is a good idea. You have these discussions going on in Ukraine. So I'm not so worried about the long-term consequences for Ukraine as I am for Russia.