Timothy Snyder on the History Behind the Ukraine War

In his book, The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder intends to warn us about the threats to ‘freedom’ in America, Europe, and Russia.  He reminds us that the war really started on February 24, 2014, not on February 24, 2022!  And he tries to explain something about the ‘Christian fascist’ ruling ideology of ‘Holy’ Russia.

Timothy Snyder may be “. . .the Richard C. Levin professor of history at Yale,” [as stated in the book jacket] but he is also a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and his main expertise is in 20th Century Eastern Europe.  He claims to speak five European languages and read ten.  He gave lectures in Ukrainian [not exactly a lingua franca] in 2015 in Kyiv, Dnipro, and Kharkiv.  In March 2022, he was interviewed on The Ezra Klein Show, discussing “the myths that blinded the West to Putin’s plans.”

Historically, ‘Russian’ civilization did start in Kiev.  Its Slavicized princes of Swedish descent chose the Eastern Orthodox faith over Latin Catholicism or Islam shortly before the year 1000.  And for a while the ‘Principality of Kiev’ stretched far up enough to include the area around Moscow and Vladimir.  Then it broke up into smaller pieces.  The Mongols sacked Kiev in 1240, and then the Kiev area and the Dnipro corridor were recovered from the Mongols around 1362 by the last officially pagan [but tolerant of both Catholics and Orthodox] empire in Europe, Lithuania.

In 1386 the prince of Lithuania, Jogaila, married the queen of Poland, and became known as Jagiello.  Poland-Lithuania remained a large state, much larger than any other nation west of ‘Muscovy’.  The events of the 14th century led to the ‘Russian’ patriarchate being relocated, first to Vladimir and then to Moscow, while the dialect of that region became known as the ‘Russian’ language.

[Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian differ from each other about as much as German, Dutch, and Swiss.  The liturgical language of the church, or what you might call the ‘King James Slavic’, remained an older language actually closer to Bulgarian than to any of the three ‘Russian’ languages.]

By 1521 Moscow united all the other independent Russian states under its rule, and in 1547 Ivan IV the ‘Terrible’ assumed the title of Tsar as we know it.  In 1667 the growing Russian empire was able to take from the weakening Polish royal republic the area east of the Dnipro, along with a small enclave that included the city of Kiev on the west bank.  They did not take any territory further west until 1793.  Also, during the years 1768-1792, the Russian empire secured control of the Black Sea coast, including Crimea and Odesa.  Kiev may have been a backwater during those years.

When Russia [which had just been taken over by Communists] dropped out of World War I in March 1918, the Germans occupied what is now Belarus and Ukraine, while the Ottomans occupied Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.  After these powers collapsed in October and November of the same year, ultimately the Communist regime won these areas back and in 1922 organized them as constituent ‘republics’ [states] belonging to an entity called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

‘Russia’, formally known as the ‘Russian Soviet\Federal Socialist Republic’, greatly outweighed the rest.  By 1936, when the second Constitution of the USSR was adopted, more ‘republics’ had been created in Central Asia.  As World War II ended, and the United Nations was getting organized, Stalin argued that all the ‘republics’ were in fact distinct nations and should have seats in the United Nations.  He conceded two:  Ukraine and Belarus had separate seats at the UN, along with the satellite nations, until the USSR dissolved at the end of 1991.  When this happened, all the ‘republics’ did in fact become separate countries.

I am filling in all this history, which Snyder only sketches in one chapter, because I’m not sure that most people understand it.

Snyder’s book was published before the start of the current phase of the continuing war that began February 24, 2022.  As noted above, the war, in a more limited way, actually began on February 24, 2014 – probably the reason February 24 was chosen for the beginning of the wider war.  At that time  Russia bloodlessly took over Crimea, using its agents and a ‘motorcycle club’.  They then proceeded into Donetsk and Luhansk, where real fighting and shelling broke out; it was as severe and destructive as that which we have seen in today’s wider war.

We might recall, that on July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was flying over the disputed Donetsk region and was hit by a ground-to-air missile.  All 298 people aboard died.  Russia claimed that a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile had done this.  However, the evidence is pretty clear that the missile originated from pro-Russian forces.

Snyder’s book contains a lot of political polemics.  He acquaints us with three Russian fascist political philosophers: Ivan Ilyin [1883-1954], Aleksandr Dugin [1962-], and Vladislav Surkov [1962 or 1964].  The Russian form of fascism is a form of ‘Christian’ nationalism in which ‘Holy Russia’ aspires to dominate Eurasia and be the light of the world.  Because Russia is ‘holy’, it can do no wrong [and we think American ‘Christian nationalism‘ is bad!!].

Snyder also includes material about Russia’s relationship with Donald Trump.  He claims that Russians had bailed Trump out of some bad real estate deals, and that Trump was indebted to Russia.  He makes too much of Russian ‘bots’ and social media sabotage in ensuring Trump’s victory in 2016.  Now, I’m sure Putin and his philosophers wanted Trump to be President, but the influence of Russian ‘bots’ is a bit overstated.  And, if Russia is trying to destabilize us [and I’m sure they are], Snyder doesn’t address the possibility that Russian ‘bots’ and ‘disinformation’ may have been encouraging the extremes of ‘wokeness’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the other side, as well.  The Communists would have done that, so why not the Christo-fascist ‘holy’ regime?

Snyder intends this book to cover anti-‘freedom’ efforts both in Europe and America.  But I have chosen, in this review, to highlight the portions relevant to today’s current Ukraine War.

More Posts