The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion You can’t understand the war in Ukraine without knowing history

Women walk by a memorial wall for the fallen defenders of Ukraine in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 7. (Daniel Cole/AP)
6 min

Timothy Snyder is the Levin professor of history at Yale University and the author of “The Road to Unfreedom” and “Bloodlands.” His updated audio edition of “On Tyranny” includes 20 new lessons about Ukraine.

Teaching a lecture class on Ukrainian history last fall, I felt a touch of the surreal. The war in Ukraine had been going on for half a year when I began. A nuclear power had attacked a state that had given up its nuclear weapons. An empire was trying to halt European integration. A tyranny was attempting to crush a neighboring democracy. On occupied territories, Russia perpetrated genocidal atrocities with clear expressions of genocidal intent.

And yet, Ukraine was fighting back. Ukrainians resisted the nuclear blackmail, scorned the vaunted empire and took risks for their democracy. At Kyiv, Kharkiv and, later, Kherson, they beat back the Russians, halting the torture, the murder and the deportation.

We were at a historical turning point. But where was the history? The television screens were full of Ukraine day in and day out, and the one thing any viewer could say with confidence was that the commentators had never studied Ukraine. I heard from my former students, now in government or in journalism, that they were glad to have taken Eastern European history. They said that they were a little less surprised than others by the war; that they had more reference points.

The contrast between the historical importance of this war and the lack of coursework in history reveals a larger problem. We know too little history. We have designed education to be about technical questions: the how of the world. And solving everyday problems is very important.

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Opinions on the war in Ukraine after one year
One year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Post Opinions is marking the anniversary with columns looking at all that has transpired and what may lie ahead.
Post Opinions partnered with the Brookings Institution to visualize the war’s effects on Ukraine’s economy, immigration trends and more. Together, these indicators suggest the fighting is unlikely to end anytime soon, write Michael O’Hanlon, Constanze Stelzenmüller and David Wessel of Brookings.
The Editorial Board looked for solutions, calling on the United States and its European allies to intensify their military, economic and diplomatic support for Kyiv. Vladimir Putin hopes for a stalemate, the Editorial Board writes, and the West needs to fuel a game-changing shift in momentum.
In an op-ed adapted from her Feb. 9 speech at the “Rebuilding Ukraine, Rebuilding the World” conference at Harvard, Oleksandra Matviichuk writes that it is not only wrong but also immoral not to provide weapons for Ukraine.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling describes the Ukraine war as a slugfest, not a stalemate. He outlines five phases of the war and predicts that Ukraine’s forces will ultimately prevail.
Columnist Jason Willick looks at the war through the lens of U.S. politics. President Biden, he says, is positioned to take advantage of divided government by using as his foil Republicans who oppose continued support for Ukraine.
Antony Beevor, a former tank commander with the British Army, says the Ukraine war has revived the role of the main battle tank.
Columnist David Ignatius examines three main characters of the war: Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden. A year into the war, Ignatius writes, Putin’s staying power begins to seem questionable, while Zelensky and Biden have never looked stronger.
Columnist George F. Will discusses the importance of continued support for Ukraine, writing that Putin can win only if Ukraine’s allies neglect to maximize their moral and material advantages.
Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard, reconsiders what it would mean to win in Ukraine. A new Cold War, he writes, might not be the worst outcome.


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But if we deprive ourselves of history, everything is a surprise: 9/11, the financial crisis, the storming of the Capitol, the invasion of Ukraine. When we are shocked out of the everyday but have no history, we grope for reference points, and become vulnerable to people who give us easy answers. The past then becomes a realm of myth, in which those with power generate narratives most convenient to themselves.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told a story about the past that had nothing to do with history. Russia and Ukraine, according to him, were conceived together in a ruler’s baptism a thousand years ago. They shared the same culture, and therefore should be ruled by the same person. If anything else seemed to happen, it was not really history. Should Ukrainians not believe that they were Russians, this was the nefarious work of outsiders. Putin not only said such things; he had memory laws passed to prevent Russians from being challenged by history, and even had the word “Ukraine” stricken from textbooks.

As logic, this is circular; and as politics, it is tyrannical. If I can claim that Canadians are Americans because they speak the same language, or because we share a common history, that would strike us as an idiotic reason to order an invasion. When a dictator claims the power to define other people’s identity, then the question of their own freedom never arises. If identity is frozen forever at the whim of a ruler, citizens soon find themselves without choices.

As we observe where this logic led Russians, we begin to question the validity of such stories. But it shouldn’t have taken such an obvious atrocity for us to doubt. Until recently, far too many commentators were happy to go along with Putin: Russia and Ukraine were somehow eternally alike, people who spoke Russian were somehow Russians, culture as defined by a dictator was destiny.

See more charts on the war in Ukraine

It was surreal in a different way when millions of people joined my class online. Americans had recognized that something was wrong with the Russian myth but did not know how to fill the gap. It was heartening to hear, in the thousands of emails I received, that the gap could be filled by history. It was a lively semester; history was getting the students thinking. When we think historically, we recognize that political communities rise and fall, and that human choice — including the perverse choices of militarist tyrants — is always part of the story. We get better at taking in events as they come. We are awakened to the experience of others. For me personally, it was touching to hear from Ukrainians, including soldiers on the front line, who were listening to the class online.

Ukrainian history makes today’s world make more sense. Our entire Western civilization trajectory, from the Greeks forward, is clearer if we understand that Athens was fed by what is now southern Ukraine. The fantastic history of the Vikings becomes still more so when we understand that they founded a state in Kyiv. The age of exploration takes on a new dimension when we recognize that Polish and Russian powers made their empires by pushing east into the Eurasian landmass, where they ultimately met in Ukraine. The age of empire is completed by Nazi and Soviet neo-imperial projects, both of which had their focus in Ukraine. That horribly bloody confrontation made Ukraine the most dangerous place in the world during the totalitarian era of 1933 to 1945. That and the Russification that followed have made the story of Ukraine difficult to tell, including for Ukrainians.

Until now, that is. Practically everything I said in my lectures came from the work of Ukrainian historians. Yaroslav Hrytsak, one of the best of them, has said for decades that Ukraine will survive once a new generation comes into its own. This has now happened, not only in my own field, but in journalism, civil society, business and politics. Ukraine is different from Russia thanks to its distinct history, including the history of these past 30 years, since the end of the Soviet Union. While Putin has pushed his country into the quicksand of myth, Ukrainians — with their votes, their protests and their defiance — have pushed their way into a confident sense of who they are.

As they make history, they remind us that we need history to understand them better, to understand this war better — and also understand ourselves better. Like the Ukrainians, we are living through a historical turning point. Like them, we will need to learn history and defy myth to make it to a democratic future.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.