Historian says Russia needs to lose its war in order to become a ‘normal’ European country – and stopping destruction of Ukraine’s power grid is essential
Yet he soon decided that a fundraiser for a library would be “kind of morally self indulgent”. When he asked his friends in Kyiv what was most urgently needed, nobody hesitated: anti-drone defence. “I thought I should do the thing which is most urgent now,” Snyder told the Guardian in a phone interview from the Yale campus. “The ruins of the library are going to be there. I can raise money for that later. But right now, what’s happening is that the Russians are trying to freeze millions of people out by destroying the power grid. And so what I should be trying to do is try to stop that.”
So this is how the professor came to be leading a crowdfunding campaign to raise $1.25m to fund a “Shahed hunter”, an anti-drone system to detect enemy devices and jam signals, with the aim of destroying the weapons in the sky. For months, Russia’s Iranian-made Shahed drones have sown terror in Ukrainian towns and cities, killing civilians, destroying homes and power plants.
Snyder joins celebrities such as the Star Wars actor Mark Hamill and the singer superstar Barbra Streisand, who have embarked on separate crowdfunding campaigns for drones and medical aid respectively, via the Ukrainian government-backed group, United24. By 22 November, around one eighth of the money for the Shahed-hunter had been raised, through “lots and lots and lots of small donations”, Snyder said.
Ukrainians struggling with blackouts and bombardment are also helping, including with a fundraising run on Sunday in Kyiv – a race anyone can do in their own country. “They’re the ones who have no electricity. They’re the ones have no water. And yet, they’re organising a race.” Thinking of Ukrainians’ extraordinary “physical courage and ethical commitment”, Snyder recalls the definition of an ethical act proposed by the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski as “something which is more than anyone could have expected of you. And I think about that with respect to the Ukrainians over and over.”
Snyder met Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in September during Ukraine’s stunning counteroffensive in Kharkiv. “He didn’t feel any need to boast about what was happening,” recalls the historian. Instead the pair talked mostly about philosophy, specifically the meaning of freedom.
As Snyder recollects, Zelenskiy said that freedom and security go together, a view that differs from the Anglo-Saxon sense of these two values often in conflict. The Ukrainian leader also said that freedom sometimes means having no choice, when he reflected on his own decision to stay in Kyiv when the invasion began in February 2022. Zelenskiy said that if he had left, “‘I wouldn’t be able to respect myself any more, I wouldn’t be the same person,’” recounted Snyder.
Before the war, Snyder was well known in Ukraine for his books on eastern Europe, including Bloodlands, which charts how 14 million innocent men, women and children were murdered between 1930 and 1945, in the territory between the Baltic and Black seas, where Hitler and Stalin’s regimes overlapped. More recently he has brought the history of Ukraine to a broad public, by making a lecture course for Yale undergraduates available online. The series, The Making of Modern Ukraine, has had more than 4.6m views on YouTube from nearly 70 countries, with more than 921,000 people having watched the first lecture.
The course was devised after the February invasion, “because I had this idea that there just isn’t enough broad knowledge of Ukrainian history”.
Years before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin had dismissed Ukraine’s existence as a real country. The Russian president has long been rewriting history, culminating in a 5,000 word essay published last July that was described by one commentator as “one step short of a declaration of war”. Riddled with myths and inaccuracies, Putin’s article said there was “no historical basis” for a Ukrainian people and that Russia had been “robbed” of people and territory.
People may have a sense that the Kremlin narrative is not quite right, suggests Snyder, but “they don’t really know how to answer it”. His lecture series is not a direct answer to Putin’s “ridiculous fantasies”. “When you directly answer propaganda – sometimes you have to – but you get into a kind of unpleasant dance with the propagandists. It’s much better to just fill up the space with the history, because the history of Ukraine is actually so much more interesting than the propaganda about it.”
Rather than start with the Euromaidan protests in 2013, Snyder winds the clock back to when the lands of modern-day southern Ukraine were the breadbasket of ancient Athens, moving forward with the Vikings, Byzantium and forgotten kingdoms such as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, once Europe’s largest state.
Yet the Russian imperial idea that “Ukraine is not quite real” had permeated into western thinking, Snyder suggested, which helps explain why so many expected Ukraine to collapse within days after Russian tanks rolled in. “Things which seem the most technical and objective, like the evaluation of a war, can often depend upon the things which are most subjective, like do we really believe that a country deep down is real,” he said.
Probably as a result of these lectures, Snyder found himself among 200 Americans banned from visiting Russia, under sanctions announced by the Russian government earlier this month. He feels sad, not in the mood for sarcastic jokes. “The standard answer is ‘there goes my vacation in Siberia’, but I don’t feel that way.” He hopes one day to visit again, to study the archives, to be in a different Russia.
That only happens if Russia loses the war. “Russia wins by losing. Russia really needs to lose this war, and to lose it decisively,” he said. “The whole colonial move towards Ukraine is a distraction, a substitute for the internal changes which Russia really has to make.”
It would also be good for world peace if Russia lost, he said, sending a signal to other powers with imperial ambitions. “Russia losing this war makes it much less likely that China will try something adventurous in Taiwan.”
“What European history really shows, and quite powerfully, is that in order to become, quote unquote, a ‘normal’ European country, you have to become post-imperial [meaning] you have to lose your wars.”
For this reason, he thinks meaningful negotiations can only take place once Ukraine has won the war. Russians are already signalling that negotiations are only a means “to regroup and attack again. And so I think we should probably listen to them when they say that.”
Negotiations after a Ukrainian victory is the “common sense” position, he said. “If you want negotiations quicker, then you have to help the Ukrainians win more quickly, by, for example, giving them longer-range weapons.” While he does not want to comment on reports about the White House apparently urging Zelenskiy to signal openness to talks with Moscow, he thinks the US government position is not so different from his own. “It’s not like you’re sitting in a restaurant and you can either order more war or more negotiations,” he said.
So the fundraising goes on. People, he said, are “pleased they can do something directly to respond to what’s obviously an atrocious action on the part of Russia”.