Rather than invite Vladimir Putin to take the Amphitheater stage, Sherra Babcock invited Timothy Snyder to discuss Russia, the Ukraine and the future of the European Union at 10:45 a.m. today.
Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education at Chautauqua, characterized Snyder, the Bird White Housum Professor of history at Yale University, as the second-best expert on Russia and Putin — short of Putin himself.
“When we thought about having a week on ‘Redefining Europe,’ that was before or maybe right about the same time that Putin invaded Ukraine last year,” Babcock said. “So one of the questions we knew we wanted to deal with when we were planning this week was Russia’s involvement with the rest of Europe.”
Snyder has written about and studied the Cold War, World War II and modern-day Russia, though perhaps his most famous book is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which examines the mass killings of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler and how the two regimes influenced one another.
Though Russia is technically part of Europe, Babcock said, the country is not part of the EU or NATO, thereby distinguishing it from the rest of the continent. She said if Russia were to invade a country within the EU, there would be a small probability of a third world war, as Article V of the NATO treaty says an attack on one country within the union is an attack on everyone.
For this reason, the future of Russia and the actions of Putin are very important to the future of the EU. She said the American media do not often cover Russia and Putin’s policies very well because many Americans falsely believe the issue does not concern them.
“But it will involve us if we end up sending troops over in support because we’re a NATO signatory,” Babcock said.
Snyder’s understanding of World War II and the Cold War informs and enriches his knowledge of Russia and the situation in Ukraine today, she said. In articles and lectures he has given on the subject, Snyder has drawn comparisons between today’s regime and that of Stalin.
For example, in a March 2015 article in Euromaidan Press, he described Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine as only one example of his many attempts to disintegrate the EU, saying these actions reflect back to Stalin’s desire to disintegrate Europe through his alliance with Hitler during the first few years of World War II. Other examples of Putin’s attempt to takedown the EU include his support for EU separatists, fascists, neo-Nazis and far-right populist parties, such as France’s National Front.
“The reason why Stalin made an alliance with Hitler was to turn European energies against themselves,” he said. “The reason why Putin makes an alliance with the far right is to destroy the EU.”
In a November 2014 article published in the New York Review of Books, however, Snyder pointed out a crucial difference between Stalin in 1939 and Putin in 2014: whereas Stalin was facing a legitimate threat from Hitler, which explains why he made what he thought was a strategic alliance with Germany, Putin is not being threatened by the EU or by anyone in Europe.
“Without any apparent cause, in 2013, for the first time, the Russian government designated the European Union as an adversary,” Snyder said.
Babcock said Snyder’s placement as the final speaker for the week was intentional, as the week’s lectures started in Western Europe and moved east, and they shifted to broader and broader topics.
“Before we talked about the unity of Europe, we need to talk about the divisions of Europe, the different economies and styles of government,” she said. “We wanted to get a real sense of Europe before we start looking at the East coming in. It’s not a story arc that is quite as obvious as where one thing necessarily leads to another, but it just made narrative sense.”