Timothy Snyder discusses WWII precedent and future of Russian-Ukrainian conflict
Historian, author and Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder spoke at Brandeis last Wednesday in a lecture titled “Ukraine: The War for History.”
Snyder is one of the most prominent historians of modern Central and Eastern Europe and an expert on the current Ukrainian crisis, having reported widely on the conflict since its outbreak and testifying to the U.S. Congress regarding the issue.
After a brief introduction by Prof. Chandler Rosenberger (IGS), Snyder began his lecture, in which he discussed the history of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the Russian interpretation of World War II and how Russia justifies the continuation of the current war.
Snyder began by discussing World War II and its relation to both Russian memory and the Ukrainian war today.
Snyder quoted Polish writer and Gulag survivor Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski’s writings on his time in the Gulag, a narrative discussing death, humanity and totalitarianism.
Snyder chronicled how Grudzinski was captured by Soviet police trying to cross the border to fight the Nazis and was deported to the Gulag and interrogated. The charges listed against him included “illegally crossing the border to fight the Soviet Union.” When Grudzinski pointed out that he was off to fight the Nazis, the interrogators told him “it comes to the same thing.”
“At the deepest level, what that reminds us of is that the Soviet Union began the Second World War in an alliance with Nazi Germany,” he said.
He also mentioned that there is only one monument to the Gulag in Russia today, the Perm-36 Gulag Monument near the city of Perm, and it is currently being dismantled, which Snyder said is an “initial suggestion of what is happening to Russian political memory today.”
However, Snyder said that the most important marker of Russia’s changing political memory is President Vladimir Putin’s “rehabilitation”and defense of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact—a Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact signed in the beginning of World War II—in November 2014.
“What does it mean [for Putin] to rehabilitate a Soviet-Nazi alliance in the middle of a war?” Snyder asked. “What does it mean to say it was fine to be a German ally and to say it was fine to be a German enemy at the same time?”
According to Snyder, Russia’s current foreign policy has tried to seek an alliance with the European far-right in order to weaken the European Union, which is exactly what the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact tried to do politically back in 1939.“The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is the beginning of the Second World War,” Snyder said. “To rehabilitate this [pact] is to rehabilitate the beginning of the Second World War.”
Snyder also drew parallels between the aftermath of the pact in World War II and the present-day conflict with Ukraine and the justifications for both given by Russia. “This responsibility [for World War II and the Holocaust] is seen to exist [in Russia], but it is exported,” Snyder said. While Russia recognizes there was Soviet responsibility for the Holocaust, the guilt is “exported onto other groups,” so as to not claim full responsibility.
According to Snyder, Russia has “extended this approach” to talk about its invasion of Ukraine—one common Russian justification for the invasion is saying that Ukrainians are fascists, a highly disputed claim, but one claimed by Kiev nonetheless.
Again, Snyder claimed, the Russians are attempting to justify their actions through exporting responsibility. “The Soviet myth of the war in 1945 is being transformed … from a justification of a defensive war then to a justification for an offensive war [today],” Snyder said.
Snyder claims that these myths and contradictions within Russian political memory are particularly dangerous because they are being “shared” with the rest of the world through Russian propaganda, which has been allowed to circulate without question despite the blatant contradictions it poses. This, Snyder said, “leads us back to the notion of totalitarianism.”
“The moment that we can no longer tell what a contradiction is, that’s the moment when our personalities have been decomposed … and it has been happening with this war,” Snyder said.
Snyder said that the war itself may have its “greatest consequences outside of Ukraine,” including the extreme Russian propaganda being imposed on Russians and the rest of the world and the potential end of the European Union as Russia aligns with the European far-right.
Snyder also shared his fears for the future of Russian foreign relations, questioning what it means for Russia to essentially be celebrating both the starting and the ending of World War II. “I fear that what is [going to be celebrated] is not going to be a defensive war against Nazi Germany,” Snyder said, “but what’s going to be celebrated is war itself.”
Snyder is currently the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University, where he teaches modern East European political history. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1997 and was a Marshall Scholar. Snyder was also a visiting professor at the London School of Economics from 2013 to 2014 and traveled to Ukraine to report on protests in Kiev. He has authored five award-winning books on modern European history.
The International and Global Studies program, the Center for German and European Studies and the Department of History were co-sponsors.