Snyder: Europe and Ukraine

It’s difficult to provide a well-rounded history of Ukraine, from Kievan Rus onward, in a few dozen paragraphs. Historian Timothy Snyder does this in his newly published piece, “Europe and Ukraine: Past and Future,” which originally appeared in German in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The piece covers the collapse of Kievan Rus, relations with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Cossack state, the emergence of Muscovy and later the Russian empire, the fall of empires and Soviet revolution, the world wars, and so on. Along the way we get oligarchic pluralism (in the Poland commonwealth, and then again in the last two decades), self-determination (led by the Cossacks), the rise of a nationalist elite that “rebel[s] against [its] own biographies and present[s] the subject of history not as the elites but as the masses,” the twists and turns of Soviet policy, Ukraine’s positioning between Stalin’s “internal colonialism” (as Stalin himself called it) and Hitler’s “external colonialism,” the war in all its messiness, the rhetorical “politics of fascism and anti-fascism” — which in a convoluted way have managed to accompany both Stalin’s and Putin’s courting of the European far right — the Brezhnevian cult of the Great Fatherland War, the fall of the Soviet Union and emergence of independent Ukraine, the politics of hydrocarbons, and the future of the European Union.

Other historians and political analysts might quibble with some of the details and emphases, but for a popular journal article this is as exhaustive an accounting as it gets. In the process, Snyder clarifies many of the foggy areas of what’s conventionally depicted as Ukraine’s history. Its role in world war two, for instance:

“No European country was subject to such intense colonization as Ukraine, and no European country suffered more: it was the deadliest place on earth between 1933 and 1945 [. . .]

“More Ukrainians were killed fighting the Wehrmacht than American, British and French soldiers – combined. In Germany these basic facts are invisible because the Red Army is falsely seen as a Russian army, an identification insisted upon by the propaganda of today’s Russia. If the Red Army is a Russian army, then Ukrainians must have been the enemy. This line of thinking was invented by Stalin himself at the end of the war. The idea of the Great Fatherland War had three purposes: it started the action in 1941 rather than 1939 so that the Nazi-Soviet alliance was forgotten, and it placed Russia at the centre of events even though Ukraine was much more at the centre of the war, and it ignored Jewish suffering completely.”

Another is the role of language both in the Maidan movement and in the country as a whole:

“The Maidan functioned in two languages simultaneously, Ukrainian and Russian, because Kyiv is a bilingual city, Ukraine is a bilingual country and Ukrainians are bilingual people. Indeed, the motor of the revolution was the Russian-speaking middle class of Kyiv. The current government is unselfconsciously multiethnic and multilingual. Ukraine is a cosmopolitan place where considerations of language and ethnicity count for less then we think. In fact, Ukraine is now the site of the largest and most important free media in the Russian language, since all important media in Ukraine appear in Russian, and since freedom of speech prevails. Putin’s idea of defending Russian speakers in Ukraine is absurd on many levels, but one of them is this: people can say what they like in Russian in Ukraine, but they cannot do so in Russia itself.”

Snyder’s conclusions about the current crisis and the danger of Russia, however, are unequivocal and strongly worded, and it’s these that I think are meant to provoke some thinking among liberals and leftists in Germany and Europe as a whole.  

“This is the second thing that goes unnoticed: the authoritarian far Right in Russia is infinitely more dangerous than the authoritarian far Right in Ukraine. It is in power, for one thing. It has no meaningful rivals, for another. It does not have to accommodate itself to international expectations, for a third. And it is now pursuing a foreign policy that is based openly upon the ethnicization of the world. It does not matter who an individual is according to law or his own preferences: the fact that he speaks Russian makes him a Volksgenosse requiring Russian protection, which is to say invasion. The Russian parliament granted Putin the authority to invade the entirety of Ukraine and to transform its social and political structure, which is an extraordinarily radical goal. It also sent a missive to the Polish foreign ministry proposing a partition of Ukraine. On popular Russian television, Jews are blamed for the Holocaust; in the major newspaper Izvestiia, Hitler is rehabilitated as a reasonable statesman responding to unreasonable western pressure. The pro-war demonstrations supporting the invasion of Ukraine are composed of people who wear monochrome uniforms and march in formation. The Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine involves generating ethnic violence, not suppressing it. The man who raised the Russian flag in Donetsk was a member of a neo-Nazi party.”

Snyder reads the growing convergence between Putin’s Russia and the European far right as an alliance of convenience that aims to destroy Europe’s ability to withstand the hydrocarbon blackmail that is all Russia has to offer Europe today.

“A vote for [Austrian far rightist] Strache or Le Pen or even [UK Independence Party leader] Farage is now a vote for Putin, and a defeat for Europe is a victory for Eurasia. The return to the nation-state is impossible, so integration will continue in one form or another: all that can be decided is the form. Politicians and intellectuals used to say that there was no alternative to the European project, but now there is: Eurasia.”

The whole article can be read here.


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