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The real and imagined history of Ukraine

Vladimir Putin says Ukraine isn’t a country. Yale historian Timothy Synder explains why he’s wrong.

The Ukrainian flag in central Kyiv, with the Independence Square statue.
A Ukrainian flag flies before the Independence Monument in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) on February 16, 2022, the Day of Unity in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine.
Anatolii Siryk/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been coy about why he invaded Ukraine: He says it isn’t a “real” country. He claims Ukraine is a fiction, created by communist Russia.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explained, Putin’s central “claim — that there is no historical Ukrainian nation worthy of present-day sovereignty — is demonstrably false.” But “this does not mean Putin is lying: In fact, Russia experts generally saw his speech as an expression of his real beliefs.”

So it’s worth digging into the political and historical ties between Russia and Ukraine to better understand just what’s going on, as Russia closes in on Kyiv.

Ukraine has a long history of what a Poynter fact-check called an “extended tug-of-war over religion, language and political control” with Russia, but starting in 1917 when the Russian empire collapsed, some Ukrainians called for independence. They wanted a republic. And for the next 100-plus years, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine has been marked by animosity over at least some Ukrainians’ desire to be a nation, and Russia’s desire for it ... not to be.

Today, Explained co-host Noel King spoke with Yale historian Timothy Snyder to understand the background that led up to this point in history. A partial transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. (A full transcript of the show is available here.)

Noel King

You wrote an essay recently in which you called Ukraine, over and over again, a normal country. Why did you frame it that way?

Timothy Snyder

When we listen to other people’s propaganda, it enables us to make exceptions in our own minds. Now, if we listen to what Mr. Putin says about Ukraine, we start to think, “Oh, there’s some reason why we shouldn’t be treating the country of Ukraine, the state of Ukraine, the people of Ukraine, like everybody else.”

And my point was to say, “No, it’s a state, it’s a country, it’s a people very much like other peoples.” And if anything, it’s more interesting,

Noel King

The propaganda you’re referring to, in part, is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Ukraine is not a country, that it was entirely created by Russia. What is the argument that he is making?

Timothy Snyder

I’ll address it, but I would first just suggest that it’s much more a framing device than it is an argument. You know, it’s like if I say that Canada is not a country, it’s just a creation of the United Kingdom. It’s going to sound ridiculous.

But [Putin’s] technical argument is that when the Soviet Union was created, a Ukrainian republic was established. In that sense, Ukraine was created by the Soviet Union.

There are three terribly wrong things about this argument. No. 1, the Soviet Union is not the same thing as Russia. It was established deliberately as non-Russian, as an internationalist project.

No. 2, he’s got it completely backward because the Soviet Union was created as a federation of national units. That was precisely because everybody, including internationalists like Lenin, understood in 1917, ’18, ’19, ’20, ’21, ’22, that the Ukrainian question was real. A century ago, this was not actually a big debate, even on the far left. Several years of watching people being willing to fight and die for Ukraine convinced the Communists who founded the Soviet Union that there was a real question here, and they had to have a real answer for it. So in that sense, it would be truer to say, “Ukraine created the Soviet Union,” because without the general acknowledgment of a Ukrainian question, the Soviet Union wouldn’t have been set up the way that it was.

But then the third point, I mean, the third way this is just absurd is that, of course, Ukrainian history goes way back before 1918. I mean, there are medieval events which flow into it, early modern events that flow into it. There was a national movement in the 19th century. All of that is, going back to your earlier question, all that falls into completely normal European parameters.

So Ukraine didn’t get created in any sense when the Soviet Union was created. It was already there, and it already had an extremely interesting history.

Noel King

And during the time of the Soviet Union, was Ukraine allowed to be its own country in terms of language and culture?

Timothy Snyder

It goes back and forth.

When they set up the Soviet Union in 1922, the initial idea is: We’re going to win over Ukraine. And the way we’re going to win over Ukraine is we’re going to have policies of affirmative action where we will recruit Ukrainian elites into the Soviet Union by promoting them, by opening up Ukrainian culture, by opening up jobs in the bureaucracy. That goes on through the end of the 1920s. But then when Stalin comes to power in 1928, he sees the situation differently. He is trying to transform the Soviet Union economically.

He carries out a policy called collectivization, which basically means the state taking control of agriculture. Ukraine is the most important agricultural center in the Soviet Union. It’s the breadbasket of Eurasia, basically. When his collectivization policy fails and starts starving people to death, Stalin says, “No, no, this problem is caused by Ukraine. It’s caused by Ukrainian nationalists. It’s caused by Ukrainian agents funded from abroad,” which is all complete nonsense.

But what it does is that it turns the Ukrainian question around, and suddenly all of these people who’d been promoted through the 1920s are put in show trials, are committing suicide, or executed in the great terror. Suddenly, Ukrainian traditional village life has been wiped out by a famine which was not only entirely preventable but which was basically not just allowed but determined to happen in 1932 and 1933. So Ukraine is allowed to rise in a certain way, and then it’s crushed.

Noel King

Can you tell us about the famine in Ukraine? Give us a sense of what happened and what the outcomes were for people who lived in Ukraine.

Timothy Snyder

The five-year plan from 1928 to 1933 was to turn the Soviet Union, which was basically a country of peasants and nomads, into a country of workers. And an essential part of that was to get agriculture away from private farmers, from smallholders, who were very common in Ukraine, and get it under control of the state because that would allow the state to control a source of capital, which you could then divert toward industrialization.

So the peasants would be put under control, the land would be put under control, the food would be put under control. And the idea was that this would allow the state to divert resources to what it really wanted to do, which was build up the cities, build up the mines, build up the factories.

So that’s 1928, ’29, ’30. It doesn’t really work very well. Collectivized agriculture doesn’t work in general very well, and the transition to it can be particularly horrifying. In 1931 and especially in 1932, there’s a transition to collectivization in Ukraine; there is a bad harvest. And what Stalin does is he interprets it politically.

He says this is the fault of the Ukrainian Communist Party. In other words, he gives a highly politicized interpretation of a failure which is basically about his own policy. And then he tries to make reality match his interpretation. So the famine is not treated as real or it’s treated as the fault of the Ukrainians.

Grain is confiscated from Ukrainians in 1932 and even into 1933, when it’s clear that hundreds of thousands of people or even millions of people are going to die. In November-December of 1932 especially, Moscow pushes through a series of extremely harsh policies — for example, that peasants are not allowed to go to the cities and beg. No one is allowed to leave the Ukrainian Republic. You know, things like this, which basically make a kind of prison of the entire republic so that starving people have nothing to do and nowhere to go.

The result of all of this is the greatest political atrocity in Europe in the 20th century up to that point and a nationally and politically directed famine in which I think, by the best estimates currently, about 3.9 million people die who did not need to die.

Noel King

Oh my God, 3.9 million people die who did not need to die. And at that point is Ukraine essentially beaten into submission? I mean, how do people respond?

Timothy Snyder

It happens over weeks and months. And as it happens, people lose their ability to behave politically or in a way that they could protect themselves. They very often, you know, lose the elemental aspects of what we would think of as human morality and decency. So it’s a very, very heavy weight on Ukrainian society. It’s an unforgettable episode, and it is one of the things that marks Ukrainians now off from Russians. And so if a foreign government, you know, tries to deny [that historical episode] or minimize it or spin it in some way, as the Russian government has been doing, that causes a good deal of resentment and alienation.

Noel King

What happens to Ukraine?

Timothy Snyder

Ukraine is a constitutive part of the Soviet Union from its establishment in 1922 to its disintegration in 1991. The back-and-forth of how the Ukrainian question is treated continues after the Second World War, if in a less violent way.

So during the Second World War, for a while, Ukraine is praised by Stalin, and that’s because the war is being fought largely in Ukraine. And by the way, Ukrainians suffer more than Russians in that war, not just relatively, but also in absolute terms. The civilians suffer more in Ukraine than in Russia. But during the war, because the Germans are trying to control Ukraine, Stalin praises Ukraine. But when it’s over, that all turns around again, and the fact that Ukraine was occupied by the Germans is turned against Ukraine. Now, Ukrainians are suspected of being collaborators. They’re more suspicious than Russians are.

When Stalin dies, there’s a certain loosening, which comes to its apex in the 1960s, where there’s a certain relaxation and Ukrainian culture is allowed to flourish a bit. But when Brezhnev takes control from the late ’60s and especially from the early ’70s forward, you have a policy of a very deliberate Russification in Ukraine.

And it’s that moment — the 1970s — that are so important for understanding the present because that’s when people like Putin grew up. So Putin’s perspective — that everything is basically Russian and like, you know, everyone really speaks Russian, and even if they seem not to, they really want to — that’s a very 1970s perspective on all of this. From the Ukrainian point of view, the 1970s were very much a down point.

It’s really only after Chernobyl, when Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership don’t say anything about the spread of radioactive material, that things start to move in Ukraine. And a new kind of politics emerges in Ukraine, which starts to talk about Ukrainian autonomy or even Ukrainian independence.

The Soviet Union comes to an end in 1991. Contemporaneous with that, there’s a referendum in Ukraine about independence, in which there’s not only a very large majority across the country for independence, there’s also a majority in every region of Ukraine, including the ones that Russia claims, or occupies, or says it’s fighting for right now. So after that, Ukraine has to build everything anew. It has to build a state, it has to build an economy, it has to build a political system. And that’s the phase of history that we’re in right now.

Listen to the full episode wherever you get podcasts. And find more coverage from Today, Explained, The Weeds, and more Vox podcasts on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in this Spotify playlist:

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