The News: History as Distraction


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February 24, 2022

The News: History as Distraction

Wednesday’s Child Is Full of Woe

  • Putin
  • Russia
  • Ukraine

Vladimir Putin’s speech this week focused on the history of the Ukraine as a justification for Russian aggression argued that Ukraine was created by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution as an administrative convenience and that it never was a “real” nation with a deep history of its own. Other heads of state in Europe and elsewhere panned the speech. Ingrida Simonyte, the prime minister of Lithuania, commented that it had “no lows too low, no lies too blatant”. Newspapers and websites all around the world have scrambled to provide explanations of the history designed to refute Putin’s claims and authenticate the historical validity of Ukraine.

The problem is, Putin is not entirely wrong about the circumstances of the creation of the Ukraine as a nation-state. In fact, he’s substantially if narrowly right.

Well, wait. Actually, he’s completely wrong because he’s banally describing the nature of the nation-state everywhere. He’s hideously wrong about what the remedy for any of what he observes might be. That’s the real issue.

Where Putin’s ranting speech is just plain wrong factually is crediting the Bolsheviks for deciding to create Ukraine (they were really more conceding to its existence after a nationalist uprising there at the end of World War I) and seeing its existence as nothing more than a Soviet administrative decision that was then exploited as an opportunity to limit Russian power after the Soviet Union fell apart.

On the other hand, the people living inside the border of Ukraine and the people living inside the borders of Western Russia share a lot of history and culture, especially in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Ukraine is in this sense a very recent creation that doesn’t rest on a single deep history of autonomous statehood or a single coherent national identity that stretches back many centuries. The political history of western Ukraine from the 19th Century back is especially intricate.

But this is true of all of Europe. If Ukraine is a fiction, then so is every nation-state in contemporary Europe. All of them contain communities with different linguistic, cultural and sociopolitical histories that were separate from the current nation’s identities until quite recently, and all of them have gone through processes of forceful, coercive and sometimes violent internal remaking designed to integrate those separate histories into a singular and fictive “national identity”.

If you’ve read Eugen Weber’s Peasants Into Frenchmen, you know that as late as the 1870s, a quarter of France’s population did not speak Parisian French at all, but instead spoke various regional dialects or entirely distinct local languages. The state you see today absorbed and indoctrinated communities in the Alps and Pyrenees, in Brittany and Normandy—and for a time, considered Algeria and other territories to be part of a more expansive France.

Look at Iberia: the recent unfolding of Catalonia’s bid for autonomy shows how alive Spain remains to separate identities and histories contained within its borders. Look at the nominal independence of Andorra to see how inconsistent processes of nation-state formation have been. Look over to the former Austro-Hungarian Empire before and after World War I with the help of the historian Pieter Judson and you can see some of the opposite dynamics to what Weber describes in France: nationalisms that began in small towns and developed an emergent sense of membership in a larger potential nation.

There is not a state in Europe today that couldn’t make some form of irredentist rumbling if it wished, or where some form of secessionist movement is unimaginable, where either or both sentiments would be based in some kind of historically valid claim.

No nation-state is natural or intrinsic. That’s the crippling falsehood that European conceptions of nationalism in the 19th Century inflicted on the 20th and now 21st Century world. There are no people who are where they always have been who have always thought of themselves as a people in the sense of a nation.

There are wrongs to be righted in existing nations: people have a right to seek autonomy, people who have a right to seek restitution or reparation for lost land and lost sovereignty. Often those rights are pursued in the context not just of past injustice but contemporary suffering. Nation-states have to remain open to the peaceful rethinking of their claims and borders because there’s almost always some valid reason for people to think they belong somewhere else, to think that land that should be their sovereign possession is not, or to think that they are getting a raw deal from a majority population who have different cultural and linguistic identities. But of course conversely all nation-states have reason to embrace actually-existing pluralism, to confer equal citizenship on all who live within their borders, and to embrace the mutability of national identity, because that’s what all nations really are. Ethnonationalist purity is empirically stupid even before it is ethically grotesque.

And that of course is where Putin is dangerously wrong. If Russia has a right to use military force to annex (or free or whatever the particular lying phraseology he’s using might be) portions of the present-day Ukraine or the entire country, then all nations everywhere have a right to invade one another. Poland’s got as good a claim in the same destructive and deceptive sense to parts of western Ukraine as Russia might. Russia’s vast eastern domains have as much right to split off as a separate country as they do to remain under Russian sovereignty.

The reason for the rest of the world to defend Ukraine as much as possible without igniting a global war is precisely this thought. It’s not history that’s the issue, it’s aggression. If Russian and Ukraine had open borders, no-visa travel rights for each other’s citizens, open rights for their citizens to migrate freely between the two countries etc., then linguistically and culturally connected communities would remain connected and coherent. The problem of history, if it is a problem, is at that point completely resolved. That this is not even remotely on the table as a solution is a clear indication that history is a red herring and really not worth talking about any further. If Putin believes in the history he laid out, he has an incoherent vision of what nations should be based upon. If he doesn’t, then arguing with him (or any Russians who believe him) is beside the point, because the real drivers of Putin’s aggression lie elsewhere.

Timothy Burke is Professor of History at Swarthmore College.

Image credit: “A View to Volodymyr ~ Kiev” by Matt. Create. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This piece was originally published on Eight by Seven on Substack.


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