History and Historians in the Ukraine Crisis

Studying Ukraine is not for the faint of heart, nor for those seeking comfort about the current state of geopolitics. Hearing from historian Kate Brown at AHA Session 12, “History and Historians in the Ukraine Crisis,” that “we’re spending more on nuclear weapons now than we did at the height of the Cold War” could unsettle the most sanguine student. Likewise those seeking a story with unambiguous heroes and villains. As the University of Chicago’s Faith Hillis said yesterday, to understand the roots of this crisis requires acknowledging that “victims can also be perpetrators” (this in reference to Poles in Ukraine, who have been both an oppressed minority and historically complicit in oppression). The crisis in Ukraine has seen thousands of people killed and millions displaced, but humans are not its only victims. As panel chair Jeffrey Mankoff (of the Center for Strategic and International Studies) put it, in this conflict “truth itself is a victim.”

Thus, the heightened role for historians, whose job it is to dig up the truth and piece together those layers that have been obfuscated or denied. In a region where many of the 20th century’s most painful episodes were wiped clean from collective memory (not least the Holodomor, the man-made famine of 1932-33 in which Stalin allowed millions of Ukrainians to die from starvation) the historian’s task takes on at once added difficulties and significance.

Studying Galician Jews, for instance, as does Brown University’s Omer Bartov, requires unearthing the past of a people no longer present. What remains, Bartov said yesterday, is “anti-Semitism without Jews.” This was a region that traded one oppressor for another throughout the 1930s and 1940s, from the Soviets to the Nazis and back again. When the Red Army returned in 1944-47, the few Jews remaining saw it as a liberator; Ukrainians as an occupier; and Poles as both. This is thus a history from which competing populations can draw whichever lesson they find politically expedient.

Enter President Vladimir Putin, that master manipulator of past narrative. “Though he’s an awful historian,” Columbia University’s Tarik Amar said yesterday to welcome laughter, Putin nevertheless “makes constant reference to the past,” establishing “guilt by association or analogy” of those who would resist his imperial reach. The struggle over terminology in Ukraine is, according to Amar, a struggle over “truth claims.” What is a coup for one side is for the other a revolt; a terrorist by one reading is a rebel by another; a conflict cannot be termed a “civil war” if it’s due entirely to an outside force.

Getting mired in an arcane linguistics spat is only one hazard for historians participating in open, politically charged debates. As one attendee put it in the animated question period: “the less nuance the wider the audience.” In other words, historians entering the fray of an ongoing political crisis with far-reaching results are asked to do two things simultaneously that can seem irreconcilable: to voice an argument with clarity and courage while at the same time remaining true to stubborn facts and moral complexity. They must be scrupulous and precise without losing the forest for the trees (or for that matter, without losing their audience).

I’m happy to report that this high-wire act was achieved yesterday with impossible aplomb, which is perhaps why as I left the session in a hurry for the next, I had to wend my way through small knots of people carrying on intent conversation, reluctant to leave such a bracing session. It might also explain why a panel that could provide no comfort could nonetheless be as enlivening as the brisk wind whistling at my back outside the midtown Hilton.

Sarah Fenton

Contributing Editor

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