Your book charts the current war, and the ways in which it’s informed by the past. How did the origin stories Russia tells about itself feed into this conflict?

History is written all over this war, starting with the way it was justified by Russian president, Vladimir Putin. In summer 2021, he published his article ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, pushing an argument that goes way back to the Kyivan Rus’ [the Slavic state that dominated north-eastern Europe from the 10th century, with its capital in Kyiv, and from which both Russia and Ukraine claim descent].

  • On the podcast | Serhii Plokhy on the historical echoes of the Ukraine war

So when I was writing my book, it was important for me to start with the origin myth that links Russia to Kyiv.

Much of the current conflict, and wider Russian-Ukrainian relations, is based on associated mythology. That’s important not just because it shows Putin’s misuse of history, but also because it speaks to the concerns that arose in the 20th century with the disintegration of the Russian empire, and ideas that Putin is now trying to bring back.

Similarly, can we pinpoint the birth of the Ukrainian national project, which is also crucial to understanding this conflict?

Ukrainians also claim the Kievan Rus’ as the beginning of their history – after all, the capital of Ukraine today is Kyiv. But the modern Ukrainian national project comes from roughly the same period as those of most of its neighbours, the 19th century – the idea of Ukraine not as part of the Russian empire but as a key member of the Slavic Federation of Nations. That was the time when language, culture, history and politics all came together in the minds of thinkers, historians and people who collect folklore.

You write that “not until the 19th century did the Russian empire encounter an enemy that it could not defeat – and the name of that enemy was nationalism”. How far did Ukrainian nationalism show Russia that it couldn’t always succeed?

The encounter with Ukrainian nationalism proved hugely challenging for both Russian imperialism and Russian nationalism.

What we see in the current war is not just the Russian imperial project encountering Ukrainian national identity, though. The war was justified by Putin with the claim that Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same people. And that wasn’t just a piece of propaganda – it’s something that Putin apparently continues to believe.

Kyivan Rus’ leader Vladimir I in a 12th-century illustration
Kyivan Rus’ leader Vladimir I (seated), as seen in a 12th-century depiction. Both Ukraine and Russia claim descent from that medieval state. (Image by AKG Images)

One of the reasons for his miscalculations, and why the war has gone so badly for Russia, is the expectation that Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops with flowers. That was based on the idea that Ukrainians were really Russians who had been captured by a bunch of nationalists, Nazis and so on.

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Putin started the war with the imperial notion of a Russian nation including all East Slavs or all Russian speakers. Yet it has not only strengthened Ukraine’s separate identity, but also sent a clear signal in the form of tens of thousands of deaths that Ukraine is not Russia – and that it’s time for Russia to rethink its view of the history and geography of who is and is not Russian.

So you feel that Putin’s misreading of history meant he misread the extent to which Ukrainian national identity is rooted in its history?

Exactly. It’s bad history. Putin’s misreading of history is a major contributing factor not only to the start of the war but also to how the war has progressed. Ukrainians have surprised Russia –and much of the world – with their resistance and resilience.

Is this is a conflict in which history is being weaponised – and are historians crucial in making sense of events?

Yes – and that’s one of the reasons I decided to write this book. Looking at this war from a historical perspective can offer us insights unavailable via any other profession. I write in the introduction that I finally convinced myself that this was a good project to take on by drawing on the old maxim that historians are the worst commentators on contemporary events – except for everyone else. I believe that to be true in this case.

What other historical moments should we study in order to understand this war?

You can’t ignore the Second World War. Per capita, Ukraine suffered among the biggest losses, and its modern borders are very much the result of that conflict.

The next key moment was the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In the referendum of December 1991, a great majority of Ukrainians voted for independence. Within a month, the USSR was over: its leaders didn’t believe there was any sense in continuing the Russian imperial project without Ukraine, the second most populous Soviet republic.

Boris Yeltsin initiated the process of disintegrating the Soviet Union, but also looked for ways to maintain Russia’s presence in and control over the post-Soviet space – and so the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS] was created, dominated by Russia. Ukraine was one of the organisation’s co-founders but never formally joined, instead viewing the CIS as an instrument for what was known as ‘civilised divorce’.

From the beginning, then, there were very different expectations from Russia and Ukraine. Russia looked at the CIS as the instrument to maintain its control, while Ukraine participated in its activities only to the extent that it thought would allow it to negotiate a peaceful exit. That story is very important for understanding today’s war, because it’s the point at which these different visions and expectations clashed.

In April, the German president drew parallels between the Nazi crushing of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Do you think such comparisons are useful?

There is a taboo about comparing Nazi Germany to Russia – or, indeed, to any other country. I certainly understand that point of view. But as a historian, my feeling is that we can’t just ignore the historical parallels. We have to be dispassionate, of course – it’s important not to politicise history. But there are so many parallels between the projects of ‘Greater Germany’ and ‘Greater Russia’.

Ignoring that would be irresponsible and, to a certain degree, betray the principles of our profession. So although I can understand taboos in public discourse, when it comes to historical research those taboos should not be there – because otherwise we’d fail to draw lessons from history that help us understand what’s happening today.


This article first appeared in the July 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine


Serhii Plokhy is professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University

Matt EltonDeputy Editor, BBC History Magazine

Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.