Q&A: A Ukrainian Historian Looks to History to Explain Ukraine's Resilience Against Russia
Before the war, Yaroslav Hrytsak wrote a history of Ukraine that became a bestseller in the country. Now, it's out in English and uses history as a guide to understanding the war and Ukraine's future.
Yaroslav Hrytsak is a historian and public intellectual living in Lviv, Ukraine and a professor at Ukrainian Catholic University. He is the author of a new book, Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation, which comes out in the U.S. Tuesday. The book is a "global history of the Ukrainian nation," placing the country's emergence in the context of geopolitical events such as World War I, World War II, and the fall of communism. Hrytsak compares the Russo-Ukrainian War to the Greco-Persian Wars, where the democratic Greek city-states defeated the much larger Persian Empire, and led to the "birth of history." Hrytsak has written several books on Ukrainian history and opinion pieces for many publications including The Times, the New York Times and Time Magazine. I spoke with Hrytsak over Zoom this past weekend. Our conversation follows, condensed and slightly edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: Readers should know that you published the book in Ukrainian three months before the full-scale invasion, but it's been updated and translated into English. Why did you decide to write the book, and how did the book's meaning change after February 24?
Yaroslav Hrytsak: I was addressing a problem that emerged before the war: Ukraine is an extremely rich country given its resources, it's a kind of Palestine of Eastern Europe, in the sense that it is a biblical land of milk and honey. The irony is, it’s a rich country of poor people. That is exactly why we have revolutions because people want change.
I believe the answer lies in history, and also the war. The forthcoming book helps to explain what's going on right now with applied history. The approach [of applied history] is to analyze the past in order to better understand the present, and to draw scenarios for the future.
LJ: You argue that the Ukrainian question has become pivotal at the most crucial turns of global history. Can you explain how some of the most critical points in world history have connections to Ukraine?
YH: This war proves this point that Ukraine emerges every time you have a large global crisis. The first, most visible case was World War I. Several years ago, the prominent British historian Dominic Lieven wrote, "As much as anything, World War I turned on the fate of Ukraine." You see the same pattern in World War II: largely, the clash between Hitler and Stalin was about control of rich Ukrainian resources. Whoever got control of Ukraine had a better chance of becoming a superpower in Central and Eastern Europe, and by definition, Europe as well.
The same situation happened in the 17th Century Crisis [also known as the General Crisis], when Ukraine became very important, or the revolutions of 1848 and 1968.
If I can reduce Ukrainian history to one sentence, it would be: "Now you see me, now you don't." Ukraine can hardly be seen in peaceful times. [Mikhail] Gorbachev never believed the Soviet Union would break up because he didn't believe in the Ukrainian nation, but then quite suddenly there was a revolution. The issue is that Ukrainians want to make their own decisions about who controls their territory, and this decision has a major impact on the globe.
LJ: How did this manifest in 1991?
YH:  proved the old point that the Soviet Union could not exist without Ukraine. When Ukraine decided to leave, the Soviet Union collapsed.
LJ: You write that "Violence lay at the heart of both processes of 1914 and 1492." Can you explain that more?
YH: If you look at global history, there are two major topics: violence and power. They go together. There is a big data set called the Correlates of War, and it says that during the last 200 years, in any year, there will be several wars in the world. Violence is always there, but we tend to ignore it, and when we ignore it, it comes back.
If nations were to have passports, the date of birth on Ukraine's passport would read 1914. Ukraine was created by war, revolution, and violence. Therefore, Ukraine has a trauma of violence which has not been discussed. Ukraine's shortcomings following the fall of the Soviet Union have been defined to a certain extent by this trauma. Therefore, the main stage of Ukraine is to leave the past behind, and to overcome it.
This is the crucial difference between Ukraine and Russia. The Russian strategy is returning to history. Ukraine didn't have a golden era, and it has nowhere to return. Unlike Russia or America -- Make America Great Again -- Ukraine cannot afford such a luxury. Ukraine sees its golden age in the future. Largely, this war is about the relation to the past and future.
LJ: In a long 2021 essay, Vladimir Putin said that Ukrainians and Russians are "one people," and there is no historical basis for a separate Ukrainian nationality. Why, in your view, is this wrong? And why is this idea so pervasive? Even in the West, the idea of Ukrainians being a kind of younger brother to Russians was widespread until 2022.
YH: Putin tries to say there is a certain continuity with [Ukrainian] territory from ancient times, which is nonsense. I would say the main feature of the history of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia is discontinuity. No state on this territory existed for more than 300 years; the Soviet Union only existed for [about] 70 years. One of the reasons that the West sees Ukraine as related to Russia is that the Russian factor in Ukrainian history is relatively recent. Russia appears in some territories of Ukraine from the end of the 17th Century, and most territories from the 19th century.
For a longer time before then, Ukraine was outside of Russian territory. It was part of the larger European space with Kievan Rus, but specifically the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. We tend to forget that the Polish factor was much longer lasting in Ukrainian history until World War I, and in some places until World War II. In Kyiv, the main spoken language in the mid-19th century was neither Ukrainian or Russian, it was Polish. The Polish nobility -- which made up maybe five to 10 percent of the population -- had a slogan, "nothing about us without us," which means a civic nation, which is very much the slogan of Ukrainians as well.
The main difference between Ukraine and Russia is not language, which Putin believes, or religion -- they are relatively close. The main difference is political traditions between state and society. In Ukraine, there is no chance of a [figure like] Putin, Lukashenko, or Stalin emerging. Unfortunately, there is a very slim chance in Russia for democracy because history tells a different story.
LJ: You write, “Ukraine was seized with a spirit of initiative and self-organization, [while] Russians…lacked any initiative. President Vladimir Putin interfered in the actions of the Russian army, making decisions at the level of a colonel or brigadier general." How do you explain this?
YH: I will explain from the historical point of view. There is no history of Russia; there is no history of Russian society. There are some attempts, but more often than not, it's the history of the Russian state. [History] is about Russian elites and rulers, like Peter the Great. It's a vertically organized history. In Ukraine, it's much more different because you can read history from below, with the crucial role of the Ukrainian cossacks, which is like a Ukrainian nobility, similar to the Polish [nobility.]
There has been discussion since the beginning of the war [about] what would happen if, God forbid, Zelensky were assassinated by Russian agents. Military experts came to the conclusion that it would be a tragedy for the Zelensky family and for Ukraine, but it would probably not change a lot about the war itself. Every governor and every mayor acts as a Zelensky, without waiting for orders. Self-organization and self-reliance are very much in the blood of Ukrainians. There is [the concept of] path dependency, where you get to depends on where you come from. I believe Ukraine has a very different historical trajectory.
LJ: You write that Ukraine is experiencing a transformation from an ethnic to a civic nation. What are some examples of this?
YH: The most telling example is the Zelensky team itself. At the beginning of the war, there was a viral video of him and his team taken in the courtyard of the presidential office. The message was: we are not leaving the country, we are here and ready to fight. It was an important message, which in many ways defined the morale of Ukrainians.
There are five people in this video. Only two of them are ethnic Ukrainians. Zelensky himself is Jewish, and one is Georgian, Davyd Arakhamia. One who is missing was the Minister of Defense, Oleksii Reznikov, who is a Russian-speaking Jew. he was replaced by Rustem Umierov, who is a Crimean Tatar. The Zelensky team is multiethnic: only a minority of them are ethnic Ukrainians, but they all are Ukrainian patriots. This defines civic nationalism.
LJ: You write that Ukrainian history provides grounds for "limited but defensible optimism." What grounds for optimism do you see now?
YH: First of all, history. History. Ukraine has been in this situation several times before. This week is the 10th anniversary of the most tragic events on the Maidan, when protesters were killed by riot police, but they still managed to win. Ukraine has many examples of persistence, and persistence always wins.
Ukrainians know what the past means. It would pay a heavy price for defeat. Ukrainians had a famine, the Holomodor, which is very much how Jews had the Holocaust. This is their memory. Ukrainians are not willing to pay this price, because liberty is not an abstract notion. It would mean they couldn't live on their land; it's an existential threat.
LJ: You have this view, even though Ukraine's top general, Valery Zaluzhny, has called the war a "stalemate" and the future of American aid is in doubt. In the West, there's a lot of pessimism.
YH: I am following public opinion surveys. Ukrainians are still very much determined to win this war, and are reservedly optimistic -- they have some reservations. The major change is that this war is long. Zaluzhny says it's a "stalemate," but he doesn't mean we have to give up. He says we have to transform ourselves. You may call it a miracle or not. But still, there is an overwhelming feeling among Ukrainians, that we will have to stand to the end, and believe and hope for victory.
LJ: You live in Lviv, which has been spared the worst of the war, but still sees periodic missile attacks. How have you experienced the full-scale invasion?
YH: I am in Vienna right now, because I am teaching here. Vienna is a very good point to go to Italy, Great Britain, and France, because I'm mostly traveling to tell the people and governments that Ukraine should be helped. Let me put this way: [judging] from history, no attempts to fight for independence and liberty were successful without outside support. In Lviv, we do experience the war in that everybody has relatives or friends who have been killed on the front line. If you want to feel the war, you have to go to a military cemetery, and see how it's growing. These are mostly kids, people under 25, and women and men. People can have some kind of regular life and pretend the war is not there. It's very much psychological: how else could you stand these kinds of atrocities? Behind this normality, people do feel the war very deeply. It's reflected by the donations that are given to the army. According to a recent survey, some 60 percent of people are donating. People are running on their savings, and they still give the money away. Ukraine still functions as an organized society. If It was only the state, I would say that Ukraine would have no chance to stand with Russia. But it's the state and Ukrainians' self-reliance that can help Ukraine to withstand all the challenges and make a base for our future.