To help provide important context and framing for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which approaches its fifth week, the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy interviewed three historical observers on its podcast, “Then & Now.”
“The situation in Russia and Ukraine seemed to many to come out of nowhere. But in fact, there is a long and complicated history between Russians and Ukrainians,” said David Myers, director of the Luskin Center for History and Policy and host of the podcast. “We endeavored to unpack that history with scholars who could explain with both depth and lucidity how we got where we are.”
Myers, who is also UCLA’s Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History, interviewed fellow history faculty J. Arch Getty and Jared McBride, as well as Benjamin Nathans, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In the two episodes, they traced the age-old relationship between the two nations, which dates back more than 1,000 years to the formation of Kievan Rus, a state widely regarded as the origin of Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian national identity.
“Ukraine was always on the border between Russia and Western Europe,” said Getty in the episode he was featured in. “Its misfortune is geography. It is a big flat place, offering no natural barriers to invasion,” said Getty in the episode he was featured in. It has always been a contested point. Ever since Catherine the Great annexed it officially and formally in the 18th century, it’s been regarded by Russians as kind of a buffer zone.”
In each episode, Myers and his colleague discussed the development of Ukrainian national identity throughout history, which was both intertwined with and distinct from the development of Russian national identity.
“A Stalinist version of Ukrainian culture was not only permitted, but was promoted by the Soviet state, out of a belief that national differences were only ephemeral,” Nathans said.
In the episode he appears on, McBride also detailed Ukraine’s bloody history during World War II and the right-wing nationalist sympathies that arose at that time, which provided explanatory context for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertion that he is “de-Nazifying” Ukraine.
According to Nathans: “World War II was more than 75 years ago, and it’s a very different thing for Putin to say that Nazi or neo-Nazi forces are on the rise in Ukraine today [from] the truly delusional assertion that they control the levers of today’s Ukrainian government.”
All three historians reflected on Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine in light of this history.
“In many ways the war will seem to make all of the preexisting grievances or claims (coming) from Putin and the Russians worse. So it’s been really difficult to understand what the actual goals are here,” McBride said. “History’s not a magic key that unlocks all of the present and future for us... It should be to elucidate the past and help inform the future.”