d r a f t
Timothy Snyder, “Timothy Snyder on the Myths That Blinded the West to Putin’s Plans,” interview by Ezra Klein, The Ezra Klein Show, New York Times, March 15, 2022 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/15/opinion/ezra-klein-podcast-timothy-snyder.html
So the way we tell the Second World War is completely inside out, you know, Western Front rather than Eastern Front. And in the Eastern Front, we don’t really understand what Hitler’s ambitions were. So I guess in the broadest possible way, it’s important to understand that in a colonial paradigm, Ukraine is going to be central. Ancient Greece got grain from Ukraine. In the 16th century, Poland effectively colonized Ukraine during the Age of Discovery and sold grain from Ukraine around the world for gold and silver that came from Latin America. In the 20th century, Stalin also colonized Ukraine. And he actually used that language.
He talked about self-colonization, internal colonization, the notion being that if you’re going to imitate capitalism, which is what Stalinism was all about, if you’re going to imitate capitalism at an accelerated pace, you have to go through all the stages of capitalism, including the imperial stage. You have to exploit yourself because you don’t have distant Maritime colonies like the British do. And Ukraine was the main thing to be exploited because of the fertile soil. Hence, collectivization of agriculture, hence a famine that kills 4 million people.
And I have to say all that because it’s prelude to the Germans. Hitler is looking at Ukraine as a breadbasket. Hitler is looking at Ukraine as the last best opportunity for the Germans to create a colonial system, which he sees as like that of other countries, but coming in later, coming in harder and allowing Germany to catch up and become a superpower, like the British are, like the Americans are from his point of view.
And so his war aim, his central war aim is to destroy the Soviet Union and to control the oil fields in the Caucasus, but above all, to control the rich soil of Ukraine, from which most of the population is going to be expelled or starved. A small group of Ukrainians will be allowed to survive to work the collective farms that Stalin has left. And all the agriculture will be diverted West to Germany to allow Germany to become a kind of balanced economy and this great empire.
So it’s all about Ukraine. The Second World War, in Europe at least, is all about Ukraine. If not for Ukraine, if not for that vision, which we under the heading of “Lebensraum,” there wouldn’t have been a war. I won’t narrate the whole business. But the Poland, the France, the Britain, those are distractions on the way to what Hitler is really trying to do, which is get to Ukraine.
So I first want to say something about how language can be positive. Because I don’t want us to come away from this with the impression that all that’s happening is that people in Ukraine are moving away from Russian. They slowly are. But it’s not an either-or thing. Basically, everybody still speaks both languages.
And it’s an interesting — the day that the Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, I was doing a doctoral defense in Ukrainian of a dissertation. And everybody who was there in the room spoke Russian. But they were all Ukrainians, right? And the dissertation was about a Ukrainian who, among other languages, knew Russian.
And there’s a richness there, right? Like one of the things that I find important about the Ukrainian case is that I tend to think that if we’re going to make it in the 21st century, it’s going to have to be with national identities or some kind of identities which are a little bit more ramshackle, a little bit less homogenizing, you know, and which probably involve in practice more of the kind of daily code switching that the Ukrainians do all the time.
So people don’t necessarily notice this, but the Ukrainian soldiers fighting this war are speaking Russian. And this leads to these really interesting situations because Russia has now invaded a country whose inhabitants can yell at them and protest in their own language, but who also have a language in reserve. I mean, there was a film there’s a moment ago that I saw a little girl singing in a bunker. She was singing that song, which I’ve never liked at all, the “Let It Go” song from the “Frozen” movie. But she’s singing it in Russian, right, because she saw the movie in Russian probably.
And everybody claps. And that’s totally normal. So I think that kind of bilingualism and code switching will survive this war. And I think President Zelensky will continue as long as he lives, you know — and may it be long — he will continue to speak Russian with his family and Ukrainian with his people. Because those are the rules of linguistic engagement in that country.
I think the identity that’s being created doesn’t really have to do with that. I think the identity that’s being created has to do with action. It has to do with having done something, right, where the meta example is Zelensky’s choice to stay in Kyiv and risk his own life, right? I think the national identity is being formed has to do with that. It has to do with being there, with helping one another out, with having some kind of a common cause.