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Timothy Snyder’s History of Ukraine

Timothy Snyder is a Yale historian whose lectures on Eastern Europe - especially Ukraine - are not only enlightening, but actually fun. I’ve learned a lot.

Audio Version

This Spotify page has all the lectures.

He also has a podcast, which is how I tend to read” his lectures.

Making of Modern Ukraine, Lecture 1

Ukrainian Questions Answered by Russian Invasion

If Ukraine resisted on 24 February 2022, it must have existed the day before. Why has Ukrainian history been so hard to see?

In this lecture, the key question is the relationship between history and myth. I use Vladimir Putin’s notion of historical unity” between Russia and Ukraine as an example of a political myth with political significance. The point is not only to show the problems within a particular myth, but to show the difference between myth and history. Myth closes down the questions that history is meant to ask. And it prevents us from learning almost anything of interest. In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, myth is one cause of a war that is intended to exclude or eliminate the elements of the actual past that do not fit the framework most comfortable to a present-day tyrant.

Making of Modern Ukraine, Lecture 2

The Genesis of Nations

Here the purpose is to investigate the origins of modern nations as such. I review how nations characterize themselves and order the past. I try to make explicit the various forms of the politics of time involved, and how they influence how we see the present and future. Then we shift to scholarly accounts of the origins of nations, which are usually connected to modernization in one form or another. I note how key ideas of these theories themselves arose in a certain time and place, one in which the origin of Ukraine was being debated: the Habsburg monarchy in the late nineteenth century. I try then to show how the emergence of Ukrainian national politics included various competing accounts of the Ukrainian past, and how these affected political choice and vision. I close with the intriguing case of the Rudnyts’kyi family, one of the most important Ukrainian families, one of whose members can take a good deal of credit for the prevalence of the idea of the civic or political national in contemporary discourse.

The Making of Modern Ukraine, Lecture 3

Geography, Language, and Deep History

As promised, I am posting each weekend two of my lectures from my open Yale class on Ukrainian history, with commentary and with a list of terms (the first two were posted last weekend). This is the lecture I gave immediately after returning from Kyiv, Chernhiv, and the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions in September 2022. I was under the impression of conversations in the capital and elsewhere with people who had lost their homes, with people active in civil society, and with the president. I try here to show how language and geography enable us to see historical possibilities, rather than pinning people down in certain identities or destinies. Like the other introductory lectures, this one is about history as such, but edges in to some of the ancient history of the lands that are now Ukraine and its connections to the more contemporary.

The Making of Modern Ukraine, Lecture 4

Before Europe

One of the features of my class on Ukraine is that I dwelled for quite a while in theory of history and then ancient history. One of the reasons for this is that I wanted to get listeners out from under any myth of eternity: that things are as they must be because they have always” been such. Another is that the early history if what are now Ukrainian lands is deeply fascinating. Themes that might be familiar in a western civilization” course, such as ancient Greece, early Christianity, or Vikings, figure here in new forms or with greater prominence. In this lecture I work through the emergence of Europe from the ancient world, but with the Slavs and Ukraine at the center.

The Making of Modern Ukraine, Lecture 5

The Kyiv State: Vikings, Slaves, and Law

Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago on Putin’s claim that Ukraine and Russia, neither of which existed at the time, were somehow eternally unified by the baptism of a Viking warlord more than a thousand years ago. As we know from previous lectures, these sorts of myths of power get in the way of history, and are meant to stop us from thinking historically.

This is a shame, because the history of the medieval Kyiv state is fascinating, as is the larger question of the emergence of states in general. Kyiv, today the capital of Ukraine, was the center of one of the most interesting and important states of the European middle ages.

The subject of this lecture, the fifth in my open Yale course, is the genesis of a state centered around Kyiv around the year 1000. I try to establish some of the fundamental realities of European politics, the basic setting in which any European state emerged at the time: 1. the earlier withdrawal of Roman legions; 2. the spread northward of Christianity (and simultaneous spread of Islam in northern Africa); 3. the political competition in Europe between two models of Christianity, western and eastern; 4. the rise of the Vikings.

In eastern Europe, conversions to Christianity were associated with the end of slavery. The Vikings appear in Kyiv as traders and slavers, seeking a north-south trade route. In northern Europe, they generally built states and converted to western Christianity — but not in Kyiv. There, unlike in lands further west, Vikings faced a choice among three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and then within Christianity between the eastern and western varieties.

These were really two interpretations of the Roman inheritance: in western Europe, there was the idea of a revival of Rome; but Byzantium, in the east, was actually the continuation of the Roman Empire. The Vikings in Kyiv chose Byzantium, and used the tools gained from conversion to build a state based chiefly upon agriculture and taxes. Their own culture approached that of the slavic-speaking people around them, and a distinct new culture emerged, that of the new state Kyivan Rus.

You can find the video for the lecture here and the podcast here or here.

Making of Modern Ukraine 6

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania

In the history of Europe, whether seen from the west or seen from Moscow, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is often a missing piece. Yet it was once the largest state in Europe, and it is was the continent’s last major pagan power. After the coming of the Mongols, Lithuania gained control of most of the territories of old Kyivan Rus, whose peoples in turn transformed the Duchy’s politics and society. (Moscow, meanwhile, remained under the control of Mongol successor states). Many of the civilizational attainments of Kyiv, which became part of Lithuania, were preserved by the Grand Duchy. When the Grand Dukes of Lithuania became Polish kings, this created a new synthesis that would last for four hundred years, and will be the subject of lectures to come.

Making of Modern Ukraine 7

The Rise of Muscovite Power

One way to understand the special trajectory of Kyiv is to compare it to the other outcomes of the Mongol invasions. As we have seen, most of the territory of Rus, including Kyiv, became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The lands of far western Rus, Galicia and Volhynia, remained as states for about a century before being absorbed by Poland and Lithuania. The Crimean peninsula, in the south of what is now Ukraine, was never actually part of Rus, became the site of a Mongol successor state.

The same was true of the lands of the northeast of Rus, centered around the new town of Moscow. While Kyiv yielded its civilization to Vilnius, Moscow was a site of tribute collection for the Mongols, and its rulers were chosen accordingly. Once these rulers were able to assert themselves independently, they quickly established a huge new state, expanding first to the south into largely Muslim territories, then eastward across Asia, mainly in search of furs. Its highly centralized state thus enriched and empowered, Moscow could turn towards Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Making of Modern Ukraine 8

The Jews of Ukraine

This was a guest lecture delivered by my colleague Professor Glenn Dynner, a leading authority on the history of the Jews of eastern Europe. You can find it and all of the other lectures here and the podcasts here or here.

  • Dan Shapira, The First Jews of Ukraine,” in Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern and Antony Polonsky, eds., Polin, vol. 26, 2014, 65-78.
  • Judith Kalik, Jews, Orthodox, and Uniates in the Ruthenian Lands,” in Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern and Antony Polonsky, eds., Polin, vol. 26, 2014, 131-146.

Making of Modern Ukraine 9

Dear Friends, apologies for missing a couple of weekends with the Ukraine lectures. I was in Ukraine for one of them, and have been catching up ever since. This is is about the crucial early modern period, in which various forms of Polish power provoke a distinctly Ukrainian rebellion. In Ukraine in we see a distinct and dramatic conflux of the age of discovery, the renaissance, the reformation, in a setting that is both European and at the same time global colonial. In this lecture we can see both the apogee of a certain Polish-Lithuanian system that included most of what is now Ukraine, as well as the beginning of its decline. 1648 is a crucial moment in Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Russian history, and is also quite important to the Ottomans and the Swedes. As always, there are more factors at play than either a narrow national or an exclusive imperial history would admit. I hope you find it edifying!

Making of Modern Ukraine 10

Here I am taking a big step back into global history. One of the themes of the class is that European history makes more sense with Ukraine. Another and even more ambitious contention is that Ukraine allows us to bring together themes of European and global history. The purpose of this lecture is to bring enough of the global imperial history into focus so that we can both make better sense of Ukraine and see how Ukraine helps us make better sense of Europe and the world.

Making of Modern Ukraine 11

The Triangle: Ottomans, Poles, Russians

For me personally, this is one of the most important lectures. In space, modern Ukraine includes lands that were well beyond the reach of ancient Rus, but well within the ambit of ancient Greek, Byzantine, Ottoman, and perhaps most importantly Crimean Tatar power. The Crimean state lasted for centuries, and is wrongly neglected. In time, we are dealing here with an important moment, the eighteenth century, in which all four alternatives to Russian power in Ukraine — Crimean Tatars, Ottomans, Poland-Lithuania, and various Ukrainian Cossack entities —fade from the picture. This had as much to do with their internal institutional failures and their dealings with one another as it did with the rise of the new Russian Empire. Petersburg would soon create a story in which those prior states did not matter, one which distorts our view of the actual history of the territory to this day. But the doings of the Ottomans, the Crimeans, the Cossacks, and the Poles/Lithuanians are very much worthy of attention on their own, and indispensable for even the most basic understanding of Ukraine.

Making of Modern Ukraine 12

Hapsburg Curiosity

The Habsburg monarchy (Austria) comes late to Ukrainian history, but with a fascinating legacy, and an important contribution. The Habsburgs ruled the original empire on which the sun never set, and were arguably the most important family in modern European history. This lecture summarizes their history before the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century that brought Galicia under Habsburg power. The name Galicia” like so many other things was actually a Habsburg invention; it just designated with slightly spurious Latinate grace the lands Vienna took from Poland. (The Ukrainian name is Halychyna,” which has an ancient source.) The eastern part of these territories was inhabited by speakers of Ukrainian (and Polish and Yiddish and other languages); over the course of the nineteenth century, and especially at its end, it became very important that they were ruled from Vienna rather than from Petersburg. The modern Ukrainian movement, which began in the Russian Empire, continued, after Russian imperial oppression, in Habsburg lands. The liberal and increasingly democratic character of Habsburg rule created a special incubator for Ukrainian politics and culture.

Making of Modern Ukraine 13

War, Republic, Revolutions

This lecture treats the attempts to establish a Ukrainian state at the end of the First World War, under the shadow of the Russian revolution.

Making of Modern Ukraine 14

Poland’s Ukrainian Question

This lecture is concerned with Polish-Ukrainian relations. Much of what is now western Ukraine was, between the world wars, part of Poland. As we know from previous lectures, the connection between Ukrainian lands and Poland is ancient. These connections continue, in various economic and cultural forms, even during the period (1795-1918) when there was no Polish state. We are concerned here with the period 1918-1939, when Poland had been established as a modern nation-state, in which Ukrainians now figured as a national minority. This was a new configuration, and it was much influenced by Ukrainian memory of greater freedom under the Habsburgs and by the contemporary challenge of the Soviet Union, where most Ukrainians now lived. There was a good deal of Ukrainian-Polish strife in this period, but also some important examples of cooperation and mutual learning, some of which are quite relevant today.

Ukrainization to Famine: The Soviet 1930s

Making of Modern Ukraine 15

This lecture treats the central (and, for mainly political reasons, the most controversial) event of the Ukrainian twentieth century: the famine of 1932-1933, which Ukrainians call Holodomor. This is an event I sought to present clearly in Bloodlands. Subsequent research has increased the number of the dead somewhat (to about 3.9 million) but confirmed the main finding: the famine in Ukraine was political, a result of choices made in the Kremlin in the knowledge of their consequences.

Nazi Colonization and Extermination in Ukraine

Making of Modern Ukraine 16

The subject this time is Ukraine as the object of Hitler’s plan to attain Lebensraum. Ukraine was to be the most important colony in the German empire he meant to build. The idea was to exploit the same territory Stalin exploited, but to different ends, and while destroying the Soviet system. As I tried to show here and in Bloodlands, the Nazi aspiration to control Ukraine was one of the necessary conditions of the Holocaust of the European Jews.

This lecture reviews the German factor in Ukraine history broadly before presenting the terrible reality of Nazi occupation. Although Russia tries to claim the suffering and the victory for itself today, inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine were greater risk of death than inhabitants of Soviet Russia. For that matter, more Ukrainians died fighting the Germans than Americans, British, and French taken together.

Ethnic Cleansing and Neostalinism

Making of Modern Ukraine 17

This lecture focuses on the transition from war to postwar in the Soviet Union. The Holocaust, the murder of Ukraine’s Jews by the Germans and by local collaborators, changed the population structure of the country, as did ethnic cleansing by Ukrainian nationalists and wartime and postwar Soviet policies of ethnic cleansing. Territory that had been in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania was annexed by the USSR, creating a larger Soviet Ukraine. The republic as a whole, however, was treated with suspicion by Stalin and the postwar leadership. Although Ukrainians suffered more than Russians under German occupation, and although Russians were no less likely to collaborate than Ukrainians, Stalin defined Russians as the heroes and the Ukrainian republic as a terrain of risk. Although Ukraine was actually Hitler’s main target, Stalin created propaganda stereotypes that could suggest, when politically useful, that Ukrainians had been on the wrong side of the war. Although there were also Russian nationalists fighting on the side of the Germans, Stalin made of Ukrainian nationalism” a weapon for the continued punishment of the republic. The Russians were to be the main victors and the main victims, a stereotype that redounds down the decades to this day. Stalinist russocentrism was meant as a weapon of centralization and the restoration of Stalinism after the war; it is a tool of militarism and imperialism now. No one would recall that more Ukrainians died fighting the Germans than Americans, British, and Frenchmen — taken together. Ukrainian culture was again suppressed; contained as it was now almost entirely in the USSR, it became largely invisible.

Before and After the End of History

Making of Modern Ukraine 18

The theme of this lecture is normalization: how it came to seem that Soviet power in general, and Soviet power in Ukraine in particular, came to seem eternal in the 1970s.

People with connections to Ukraine, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, struggled for power. Having consolidated power in 1964, Brezhnev sought after a formula that would justify a Soviet Union where the Stalinist transformation was complete but nothing like communism had actually been achieved.

Brezhnev (pictured below meeting Nixon) sought a world where the Soviet Union would seem eternal and unquestionable, and where national questions would cease to matter. The borrowing of technology from the West replaced any attempt to reform the Soviet system. Marxism was no longer of serious interest. Political legitimacy was to be claimed form the past: by a russocentric nostalgia for the victory of the Second World War.

Brezhnev, who changed his own passport nationality from Ukrainian to Russian, undertook a new form of russification in Soviet Ukraine. Ukrainian culture mattered as folklore to be kept in private life; Ukrainians themselves were to merge in a larger russophone culture of administration designed to keep the system going.

History, in other words, was over. Although of course it wasn’t! This lecture also describes new forms of Ukrainian dissident politics, the political ideas of the diaspora, and the beginnings of Ukrainian-Polish reconciliation.

Oligarchies in Russia and Ukraine

Making of Modern Ukraine 19

The purpose of this lecture is to evaluate the Ukrainian and Russian states as they emerged after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. I begin though with an excursus into postwar Polish history. It is very important to establish how the Polish factor changed, such that Russia became the most important other” in Ukrainian history. The efforts of Polish thinkers and then Polish diplomats to create a new paradigm in Polish-Ukrainian relations bore fruit in the 1990s; this success was one reason why Poland was able to join NATO and the EU. Ironically, the very absence of of Polish-Ukrainian conflict made it difficult to remember just how important the Polish factor had always been.

Russia and Ukraine both emerge from the Soviet Union, but diverge in their domestic politics. Both suffered from the problem of oligarchy: concentration of wealth and associated political power. In Ukraine this led to a certain pluralism; in Russia, one person eventually became the boss of bosses. By the 2010s, the state and societies were more different than (I think) the people in question sometimes realized; this became apparent during Ukrainian protests for democracy and for European integration, which are subjects of lectures to come.

Maidan and Self-Understanding

Making of Modern Ukraine 20

We are nearing the end of my open course on Ukrainian history, The Making of Modern Ukraine.” The 2013-2014 Ukrainian protest movement remembered as Maidan” was one of the turning points, thus far, of the twenty-first century.

Obscured as it was (like so much in the 2010s!) by propaganda, the Maidan never received quite the attention it deserved. If it was noticed, this tended to be as some kind of exotic and spectacular event, worthy of splashy photographs but to be quickly forgotten.

The Maidan was a reckoning with digital and post-modern politics, a call to the corporeal politics of physical protest to defend basic ideas of truth and decency. It began as an attempt to protect Ukraine’s path to the European Union, and ended with Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine.

In my view, the Maidan and the Russian response are an integral part of a larger story that includes Russian encouragement of Brexit and support of Donald Trump in 2016 — I set out the connections in Road to Unfreedom.

Those wishing to understand both the moral and organizational bases of Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s full-scale invasion of 2022 should start with these events of 2013-2014— presented here in Professor Shore’s guest lecture in the class, as well as in her book, Ukrainian Night.

Comparative Russian Imperialism

Making of Modern Ukraine, 21

This is the antepenultimate lecture in my public lecture class on The Making of Modern Ukraine.” Delivered by my erudite colleague Odd Arne Westad, it begins the last stage of the class, a review of larger themes. No reading was assigned for this class, and there was no term sheet for the guest lecture; I would however highly recommend Professor Westad’s magisterial syntheses of cold war history, which represent the summit of the field. Professor Westad works in Chinese as well as Russian and many other sources, hence my choice of illustration:

Ukrainian Culture in the Twenty-First Century

Making of Modern Ukraine 22

This is one of my favorite lectures, and it is also one that has generated a great deal of resonance. It closes the circle on some of the themes raised in the beginning of the class: how is a nation old; how is it new; what is history; and what is myth. It considers the vexed and important question of the preservation and indeed development of Ukrainian culture under Russian imperial and Soviet rule, as well as some of the fascinating and unpredictable currents of Ukrainian cultural life since 1991. In our technodecadence we sometimes think of culture as something dispensable; this war reminds us of its primacy. However far you are willing to go with me in such claims, I hope you will enjoy the brief introduction to some figures worth knowing about.

The Colonial, The Post-Colonial, and the Global

Making of Modern Ukraine, 23

This final lecture in my public Yale class on The Making of Modern Ukraine” gathers up the major theme of colonialism.

To see Ukraine as a subject in history, we have to understand how others have seen it as an object. This is patently obvious during the present war; but it is also important to the Polish and German factors in Ukrainian history.

The colonial element of Ukrainian history makes of Ukraine a bridge between European and world history.

It also helps us to see through the standard myth of European integration and moves us towards a harder but truer account of how the European Union works, one that Europe will likely need in the years and decades to come.

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