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How Ukraine's history differs from Putin's version

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to justify the invasion of Ukraine with a number of reasons, but we're going to focus on one with a very deep stem. In essence, he argues that Ukraine has no right to exist, that it is historically Russian land and a fictional country created by Russian Bolsheviks. In a speech earlier this week, Putin claimed that Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood. And last summer, Putin published an essay titled "On The Historical Unity Of Russians and Ukrainians," where he insisted that Ukraine and Russia's shared history makes them one nation.

Historians say Ukraine's actual history tells a different story. To learn more, we called Timothy Snyder. He is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. And he is with us now to tell us more. Professor Snyder, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Very glad to.

MARTIN: As we just heard, President Putin questions Ukraine's very existence. How do you respond to these statements?

SNYDER: Dictators in foreign countries don't get to tell you who you are. So even if it were true that Mr. Putin is - were a historian, which is not, you don't get to tell another country who they are on the basis of reading a couple of books or writing an essay yourself. But in any event, the history that he tells doesn't make any sense. His claim that Russia and Ukraine and others, for that matter, are one country because of something that happened a thousand years ago just doesn't hold up logically. There weren't nations in the modern sense a thousand years ago. And between the thousand years ago and now, an awful lot of things happened in the meantime.

MARTIN: so I wanted to get to both of these things separately. So first of all, can we just take these in two separate parts? First, I wanted to ask is, do you have a sense of how widespread are Putin's beliefs about Ukraine's history among Russians?

SNYDER: I think he is at an extreme. There are certainly lots of Russians, the surveys say about two-thirds, who believe in some version of we are one people. But Mr. Putin's idea, which essentially is that God announced that we are one people a thousand years ago when a certain Viking chieftain baptized himself into Christianity, is an extreme view even in Russia.

MARTIN: So let's flip this now and talk about Ukraine's actual history, recognizing, of course, that you are a scholar with deep knowledge of the region and the history, and we cannot tell a thousand years of history just in our short time together today. Though could you just as briefly as you can tell us, what are the historical foundations of Ukraine as a nation independent of Russia? I mean, the fact that they have their own language is one telling data point, isn't it?

SNYDER: Absolutely. So Russia's mostly in Asia. Ukraine is a small country which is in Europe. Ukraine took part in every European turning point that we can think of - Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment. It's all there. Like most European countries, Ukraine had a national movement in the 19th century which was directed against an empire which, of course, is not true of Russia. Russia was the name of an empire at that point. And then, as you say, Ukraine has its own language, but also a distinct tradition in poetry and literature, which is rather beautiful. And during the history of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union wasn't Russia. The Soviet Union was created in part because everyone understood back in 1922 when the USSR was created that Ukraine was distinct and some kind of special place would have to be made for it. And then inside the Soviet Union, different things happened to Ukrainians. Stalinism was much harsher and more lethal in Ukraine. And all of that goes to make up a different historical memory in Ukraine today as opposed to Russia.

MARTIN: During a Harvard lecture last week, you said that, quote, "Ukraine is a place that helps us to understand other places. It's not just a vacuum. It's not just a place which gets defined by Russia. It's a place which helps us to define ourselves." Could you just tell us a little bit more about what you meant?

SNYDER: Yeah. I mean, Ukraine has been at the center of all of these 20th century and 21st century trends that are essential to understand. Ukraine was at the center of the civil wars after the First World War, when there were a couple of attempts to establish Ukrainian state. But those were put down and failed. Ukraine was at the center of Stalinism. Ukrainians died in the millions in a famine in the early 1930s. Ukraine was at the center of Hitler's planning for the Second World War. His idea was to take hold of the black earth, the fertile soil of Ukraine, and use that to build a German empire.

And those two things taken together mean that Ukraine was the most dangerous place in the world to be in the '30s and '40s. Ukraine was at the center of the end of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is at the center of the problem of inequality, which we are also face in United States. And in the 2010s, Ukraine has been at the center of cyber war and hybrid war and new forms of war. So if you were to pick a place to understand major trends, you know, at least in the northern hemisphere, Kyiv would be a very good place to start.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, obviously many on the political right or the far-right, let's say, are questioning why this matters. They're saying, you know, what's the relevance, you know, to the United States? Why is this in America's national interest? And obviously there are all kinds of issues attached to that. But for someone who doesn't understand the relevance this and why we are spending as much time focusing on this as we are, what would you say?

SNYDER: Well, I think there is a basic human impulse to care when a smaller people is invaded by a larger people for no reason at all. But beyond that, we in the United States, along with our partners and friends around the world, live the way we do things to a certain peaceful order based on law and predictability and our economy, our way of life as well as our freedom - and depend upon that continuing. The single most brutal way to violate that is for one country to invade another country for no reason, which is what is happening here. So if we care - I mean, some people in America don't care about democracy, and I'm not going to reach them. But for those of us who do, democracy rises and falls all around the world, and Ukraine is a democracy that's being attacked by a tyranny.

MARTIN: That was Timothy Snyder. He is a professor of history at Yale and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Professor Snyder, thank you so much for sharing this expertise with us today. Thank you very much.

SNYDER: Glad to be with you. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.