Snyder speaks on Ukraine’s history, role in global affairs

Ukraine is situated between Europe and Russia, but Timothy Snyder said it might be easier to understand Ukrainians’ predicament as being caught between “two ideas.”

Snyder, the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University, gave the morning lecture Friday in the Amphitheater. It was titled “Ukraine: The End of Europe?” and concluded Week Seven’s theme of “Redefining Europe.” Snyder is also the author of eight books, and his ninth, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, is set for publication in September.

Snyder’s goal with his lecture was to tie together the themes of the week around Ukraine, the European Union and Russia and bring them into the future, he said. Ukraine, he said, is the one place in Europe where people are risking and losing their lives for the value of political unity.

The Ukraine of today is a country of 50 million people. To its east is Russia, which has fierce nationalistic pride and little to no connection to Europe, Snyder said. To its west is Europe, a cauldron of fomenting change and democracy. Unlike Russia, Ukraine has long been attached to the latter. It is a bilingual country with Ukrainian and Russian as the primary languages.

“So we have a bilingual society, which is hard for Americans and Russians to understand because, whatever our differences might be, we have one thing in common, which is that we celebrate the fact that we only have one language,” Snyder said.

The Ukrainian dream of transformative political change was so important that it drove the populace to revolt in February 2014. Unfortunately, this grassroots movement was drowned out by Russia’s subsequent invasion, he said.

“It’s not every day that people take to the streets, it’s not every day that people manage to overturn a regime, and it’s not every day that this leads to a war, which is where we are now,” Snyder said.

Snyder went back in time to properly explain Ukraine’s political and cultural dichotomy.

Its capital city, Kiev, is one of the oldest settlements in Eastern Europe. Originally a trading post between Vikings and its original inhabitants, it was the last conquest of the Mongol invasion in 1241. Quite by accident, the Mongols then turned back to attend the funeral of a leader and later lost much of their captured territory.

During the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation, Ukraine was tolerant of religious plurality. As a country, it was historically diverse with populations of Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

“[This time] demonstrates what I think is an important psychological difference in the historical memory of Ukraine today and Russia today,” Snyder said. “From the point of view of Ukraine, Europe isn’t necessarily nice. All kinds of troubling things came like feudalism and serfdom, as well as promising things. But they have no other option. Ukrainians can’t look at their own history and say, like Russia, ‘Oh, we can go somewhere else, like Asia.’ ”

The 19th and 20th centuries saw what Snyder called the first globalization effort, roughly between 1870 and 1945. He said it was even more intense than today’s globalization because it was based on imperialism, colonialism and empires.

The nationalist movements of the early 20th century begot World War I and the collapse of the “nation-state.” Ukraine had been “left out” of sovereign governance and was instead caught between the Hitler’s rising Nazi Party in Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union regime in Russia.

Both tyrants sought control of Ukraine as a “breadbasket,” Snyder said. It was central to Stalin’s goal of modernization and a key reason why Hitler later invaded the Soviet Union. Consequently, while Hitler only invaded 5 percent of Russia, his forces occupied the entirety of Ukraine. It had the single greatest civilian mortality rate during the war, he said.

Today, the worst of Stalin’s reign is whitewashed by the current regime — hard times under Soviet rule are barely a memory. But that is impossible for Ukrainians because many of them have grandparents who starved under Stalin, Snyder said.

“It helps us to see why Europe, at least the Europe of the European Union, would seem attractive to Ukrainians,” he said.

From Ukraine’s perspective, Europe was an escape from war and Soviet oppression. The EU was the answer to their question: How to become a sovereign state? What that entails, Snyder said, is the predictability of the rule of law — something sorely missing from the country throughout its history.

“If you’re a civil society and you’re bumping up against a corrupt authoritarian regime, where do you go? What do you do?” he said. “The answer for Ukrainian activists was to go around or over the state to the EU.”

Today’s current crisis can be traced back to Ukrainian desire to join the EU and Russia’s desire to prevent it. A tentative trade agreement was first supported then scuttled by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. This change of heart was due to Russia putting pressure on the president, Snyder said. This occurred in late 2013, precipitating the revolt in February 2014.

Ukraine’s quest for “rule of law” was a threat to Russian leadership, which remains inextricably linked to a history of totalitarianism, Snyder said. Their goal is the end of the EU.

Russia is pursuing this goal through “strategic relativism,” contradictory propaganda and support of European right-wing nationalist groups. The term “strategic relativism” means making broad statements to justify specific action, such as Putin suggesting he is compelled to protect Russian speakers everywhere. These statements are slippery slopes that threaten to “breach legal norms,” Snyder said.

“The point is not that Russia is offering an alternative to Europe,” he said. “The point is that Russia is trying to break Europe down into smaller pieces, which it will find easier to deal with.”

Their propaganda is well targeted but “fearless” in its inherent inconsistency, he said. For example, they will stoke fears of Ukrainian nationalism in one place while denying Ukraine is a nation in another.

Nothing is automatic about world order and globalization. Snyder has seen a tendency for the American government to assume Europe can handle itself, whether it’s Democrats who think too long-term or Republicans who think too short-term, he said.

“Ukraine is not just a problem. It’s also a solution,” Snyder said. “It can help us to see how global history makes more sense once you put the ideas of colonialism into Europe. It can help us to see that European order is not just a matter of what happens automatically. Ukraine is the place where people are actually willing to take risks to try to join this order. It is the place where they are willing to literally put their own lives at risk. People like you and me were willing to put their lives at risks in order to try to move their country closer to Europe.”