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Timothy Snyder about history, Church, and Ukraine

07.07.2017, 13:28
Timothy Snyder about history, Church, and Ukraine - фото 1

He is deservedly called one of the brightest Ukrainian lobbyists. He reminds that Ukraine should be seen as one of the centers of European history, as well as important for today. He is Timothy Snyder, famous historian, Professor of History at Yale University (USA) and IWM Permanent Fellow (Vienna, Austria). RISU caught him in Vienna and talked about past, future and the place for the church in it.

Тімоті Снайдер

I was impressed by your speech in Bundestag about the role of Ukraine in II World War. I wanted to ask you – is there any way to bring Ukraine back to the popular culture? And how is it possible to switch to another historical mode in Ukraine?

It is very unpredictable what will happen. I have my own ideas about Ukraine and history. My own idea about Europe is that you cannot understand European history without Ukraine, because Ukraine was in the center of the main themes of European history in the modern period. It was in the center both in Soviet and German attempt to establish colonial regime in the end of the long history of European imperialism, as I see it. Indeed for me the great question is how Europe comes back from the world to itself. Ukraine is also for me the key to understand world history, because people see European history as one thing and world history as another and define Europe as colonial and the world as anti-colonial: but it is not that simple. Anti-colonialism actually begins in Balkans against Ottoman Empire and so is always a European and well as a non-European phenomenon. So for me putting Ukraine in the center is the way to connect European and world history. But Ukrainians will say – that is all fine, but we are tired of suffering so that you can understand the world. And we want to figure out our own national history. One of the most interesting recent approaches to Ukrainian national history was Serhii Plokhy’s book “The Gates of Europe” (https://www.amazon.ca/Gates-Europe-History-Ukraine/dp/0465050913). I think he is right about North-South orientation of Ukrainian history, not East-West. So that Byzantium influence and going back to Kyiv, Kyiv up to the great Lithuania. It is very interesting way for Ukrainians to get out from this East and West division, as it is not the best way to think about your history.

But if you talk about typical kind of division, Ukrainian scholars will tell you that there are much more regions, than just East and West. Talking more about new Ukrainians, how do you think is it possible to build the new identity? Especially when people do not know, what to believe in.

Nations always say that they are old. But they are always new, right? It is opposite to what people do – they always want to look younger than they are, but nations want to be older. The most useful definition of a nation is the group of people, who share a common vision of the future, not of the past. So the building of the nation depends on whether people can see their future together. It is like a relationship – you can have a good one with good memories, but it will only last if it involves about some common sense of the future.  And when you have the vision, the institutions have to be built that lead you towards that future – that is all about national identity and its construction. History is interesting, but at some point it can be distracting. But much more important is to think “okay, we want to be in Ukraine and in 20 years it should look like this”. Which is why for me the Maidan will be a positive development, because Maidan was not about Catherine the Great or Roman Shukhevych, but it was about chiefly what kind of Ukraine will be a better Ukraine. That is where the nation comes. There can be Ukraine, but there will not be old Ukrainian nation, you have to be new all the time.

And you need to change all the time. This is quite serious topic for all the citizens who are tired of changes and not willing to move. For example, where can some motivation be found? Because Ukraine was under 20 years of reforms and it is still not stable. This is one kind of rhetoric that people want – stability. What can be solution for that?

The broad question for Ukraine must be: is there a rule of law? If you are saying that there was twenty years of reform, I would say there were 20 years of discussions about reforms, only a few of which have been implemented. The rule of law is the crucial issue – culture does not decide whether Ukraine closer to Europe or to Russia, but the rule of law will. If Ukraine remains essentially kleptocratic, then it will be in a world of Russia -- and, sadly, America, if present trends continue. If Ukraine becomes a rule-of-law state, then it will move towards Europe. This it does have to come from people, not just from government. When I gave a lecture in Kharkiv, a young man came afterwards and said “if you grew up here, you would learn how to give bribes and take bribes”. He is right. I do not want to lecture Ukrainians about how to live. But in general the culture of rule of law has to come from above, but also from below. There must be more institutions that work in a clean way. And it also has to come from aside, from universities, from businessmen, else. Individuals can make a big difference. And I believe that it is going to happen.

Maybe after the last years of the rise of the civil society, but it is not that simple. I wanted to ask about de-politization of history – is it possible at all?

No, it is not possible for history to be unpolitical. What is important for history – is to be historical. We need to work hard to keep history historical, which means having access to archives, giving researchers independence, not penalizing people who are making arguments that are different from what society or government believes. Memory politics in some form are inevitable, but it is important for history not to become that kind of politics. It is important for historians to share the moments which they find interesting with others. In my country the question of slavery is still controversial, we have not had the slavery for more than 100 years, and we still have people flying confederate flags. I saw American in subway in Vienna, wearing the T-shirt with a confederate flag three days ago. We apparently are still in disagreement about slavery – is it a good thing or not. In countries like Ukraine, where there was so much suffering, most recently, it is not surprising to have disagreements. The important thing is for history to have its own autonomy, because then historians can come and at least say: “well, one side is not exactly right but neither is the other side exactly right”.

Is it possible to build the truth? I am asking about that in the frames of Ukrainian-Polish relations, about Volyn’ tragedy memories. What do you think was the main reason of Volyn’? Is it possible for Ukraine and Poland to build up some new relationship after national memories?

I wrote an article on Volynia long time ago, which was just translated to Russian (https://scisne.net/a-1329). This is also one of the sebjects of my book The Reconstruction of Nations, which was published in Ukrainian. The main cause of that events was the triple occupation: first the Soviet occupation, the destruction of Poland in 1939; and then the German occupation beginning in 1941; and then in 1943 the anticipation of a return of the Soviet regime by Ukrainian nationalists. The second main cause will be Ukrainian nationalism, particularly the OUN-B notion of how to build a state. An underlying cause will certainly be the Polish colonialism, the long history of building up Ukraine in hierarchical system. The irony of the current debate Volhynia is that everyone is happy to see it as the clash of Polish and Ukrainian nationalism, which, of course, did play a certain role in it. But nothing of that could happen without overlapping totalitarianisms.  It is true that there were people with extreme ideology, it is true that Ukrainians killed Poles on the scale of tens of thousands. But that will not have chance to happen without warming power of totalitarian regime. It is a good example how history can come in to correct national memory.

National memory will always emphasize how we are not responsible, it is not entirely our fault, which is becoming something like the official Ukrainian position. The very use of the term term “tragedy,” which predominates now in the Ukrainian language, suggests that there is no human responsibility.  In Polish side there is also the position, that we are absolutely innocent, and of course this is not entirely true either. I mean it was not good idea to close the last Orthodox Church in Lutsk in late August 1939. After the UPA started murdering Poles in summer 1943, Poles in Soviet, German, and Polish Home Army formations committed atrocities among Ukrainians as well. The problem is that if memory is closed only on memory, you will not go anywhere.


I think it is extremely important in such discussions to have some formula. Long ago there was meeting called “Difficult questions” (Тяжке питання), where Ukrainian and Polish historians met and had the papers under the same titles. So they would write about, for example, events in Kholm. The fact that they were writing about the same topics kept them honest. They did not agree, it was really hard, but they had some common set of sources and common references. If there is going to be a serious Ukrainian-Polish discussion of Volhynia, there needs to be some reasonable formula and some cooperation of institutions. Without this the extreme voices from both sides will rise, end up controlling the situation. It is perfectly fine for Poles to remember Volhynia, just as it is as for Ukrainians to remember Stalin’s repressions, the Holodomor, German occupation, psychiatric hospitalization etc. But you have to remember it with someone else. If you are doing this alone, you will be make mistakes about the history.

Taking into account reconciliation on French-German or in German-Polish case, it would not be possible without formula “I am sorry and waiting for you to forgive me”. Can it be the same in Ukrainian-Polish situation?

I think it is very important formulation, because it requires you to take responsibility. If you are asking for forgiveness, it means that you’ve done something wrong. And you give to the other side a power not to accept it. In 1960’s that was a surprising position from the Polish Church to Germany, because it was easy for Poles to ask "But what have we done?” The sheer horror of the German occupation, and communist propaganda about the German occupation, could seem to prove that the Germans deserved everything that happened to them after the war. It was courage for Polish bishops to ask for forgiveness.  It is not a magic formula, but it is a way to start.

Do you see the reconciliation role of church and religion at all? And talking more in the frames of clash of civilizations concept, what’s the place for religion today?

It is a very big question. For me in the situation in Central or Eastern Europe, and for that matter in the USA, is whether people are talking about Christianity or Christendom. If we are talking about Christianity, then we are talking about principles, and if about Christendom, then about territory. When a lot of Americans talk about Christianity, they mean about Christendom, and this allows them to behave in a more unchristian way, on the false logic that a Christian nation can do no wrong. The idea of America or Hungary or Russia as Christendom is not about what we do, but about who just we are. For me, that is the question, if the Christianity means you to do something, or just claim virtue automatically.


Churches can do what government cannot do. When functioning as Christian, but not Christendom, church can come back to the principles. For example, forgiveness is one of the key ideas. Church can do that, and they can also refer to the history of suffering. The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church can use its own history as a source of credibility.

Focusing more on Orthodoxy, now Russian Orthodox Church is the part of Russian world (“Russkiy mir”) concept. Is it possible to deconstruct its influence, if we take it to account as transnational project, bigger than geographical limits?

I should really ask you this question. I will answer in a broader way.  What is special about Russia is that the nation is not defined in terms of the borders of the country. There is no "Polskii mir," at least not any more. There is the so-called “Russkiy mir” has nothing to do with the borders of Russia, but also nothing to do with the principles of Christianity.  It is a vague and malleable idea of a civilization, subject to the momentary impulses of Russian leaders. In this space between the particular and the universal, it is not only about Russia, but it is not universal also, because it defines others as “aliens” – decadent, homosexual etc. This middle range which is not defined, which is neither "us" nor "everyone," is particularly dangerous. It is a situation, as we have seen during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where churchmen can bless aggression.  It puts the church in a situation where it becomes imperialist. “Russkiy mir” makes it impossible for the church to national and it makes it impossible for the church to be universal universal (as Orthodox).

How we can deal with this?

Churches should have universal aspirations but function within and according to the laws of states. The history of churches in Ukraine is a rather unusual situation that you have three different representations of Orthodox Churches and it cannot go on forever.

Having three different Orthodox churches, two Catholics and a lot of other denominations is quiet unusual.

The presence of the two Catholics churches is not so unusual, since ther have different rites. The presence of three Orthodox churches that differ mainly in institutional hierarchy is a bit unusual.

And in everyday practices, using language and etc. Actually there is a high demand for one National Orthodox Church; still activists are trying to require a law, which recognizes UOC Moscow Patriarchate as “foreign religious organization” with the center in Moscow. Can it be good instrument for resolution?

I don't want to be too specific about matters which are for Ukrainians decide.  So just one remark.  When I go from Orthodox church to another Orthodox church in Kyiv, it is not clear for me which church belongs to which hierarchy. And I believe it is not obvious for many Ukrainians as well. It should somehow be clear, to which church you are going.

For me that is more question about governmental involvement in the situation. But talking widely about Europe and Russia, is it possible that they will have some civilizational dialogue in future? Or it will be more like two different worlds?

The civilizational dialogue there is a series of meetings of Vladimir Yakunin (Russian public figure, businessman – ed.). I do not like the idea dialogue about "civilization," because it assumes that you have some essential Russian and some essential European character, which is not true. Then the game starts, when you try to figure out how many are there civilizations in the world, which becomes ridiculous quite quickly. The reason why the notion of civilization is so comfortable in Russia is precisely because it is static, it removes the possibility for change. In domestic politics the discourse of civilization means that instead of talking about reforms you talk about virtue.  And it is always easy and comfortable to talk about how virtuous the nation is.  This discourse of civilization means that no one has to talk about how Russia can be richer and more comfortable its citizens.  Instead Russian leaders speak about how virtuous Russian civilization is under threat from terrorists, Americans, Europeans, etc.

I think there will come time in Russia, where the structure of the state will change, where it will no longer be a kleptocracy, gas and oil will not be the main sources of state wealth. Right now the official relationship between Russia and Europe is based on the Russian desire to weaken the European Union and that will continue as Russia will have that kind of regime.

Now the question about Crimean peninsula. Is it possible to get back to Ukraine and can it be cultural autonomy again? Will it be like “Islamic island” in Christian world or not, talking about Crimean Tatars?

In a long-term very many other things will happen, and they every time intervene, so for that time a lot of things will change too. If we make predictions today, we imagine that whole the world will remain constant, but the rest of the world will change. When I think about Crimea and Donbas, I use the analogy of West and East Germany. I think that it is possible for them to come back, but not because of the war of even because of Russian collapse. It can come back when Ukraine will be a more functional state with a more prosperous population. East Germany came back to West Germany, because after 45 years West Germany seemed to be a better and stronger country.

As for the idea of an "Islamic island": no, I don't think so.  The vast majority of the population of Crimea are not Crimean Tatars.  And since the Russian invasion a lot of Crimean Tatars are in Galicia now, their children are growing up there. It would be good to think up models of autonomy, because it is so different from the other parts of Ukraine. It would be wise idea to show that Ukrainian politicians are thinking about Crimea.

Might I ask more personal question? How has your position against Trump had an influence on your everyday life?

There are moments in life when you need to decide what important things you need to do. The risks that Americans take are not high, at least not yet. Americans act while the costs of doing are limited. We are still in country where people can say what they think.

Don’t you think that situation with Trump can be lesson for America, like possibility to change for better?

That could be.  Trump is an extraordinarily flawed human being.  And he would not have been elected without Russian help.  But it is we as a nation, who have to take responsibility.  If we are vulnerable for fake news, that is our problem; and if we have too much economic inequality, that is something we need to fix. People have to learn that democracy is about what you do every day.  Democracy is not something given for you, but it is actually you and what you choose to do every day.  You need to choose to rule or someone else will rule for you.


Tetiana Kalenychenko