|Ukraine: which narrative?|
How do current events in Ukraine look to historians? Historians are often reluctant to commenting on fast-moving crises, because we are trained to sit back, ponder, cogitate and reach conclusions slowly and carefully; it’s not a natural reflex to offer instant verdicts. So far, Timothy Snyder – author of the seminal Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus, 1569-1999 – has appeared on BBC’s Newsnight, and he’ll be talking in Oxford next week on ‘Poland, Ukraine and the Politics of History’. Tarik Cyril Amar, from Columbia’s History Department, has written a column on the crisis in the Guardian.
How do events in Ukraine and Crimea look to a historian of early modern Central Europe? If you want to tell a story of Ukraine as a long-standing, contested borderland, there is plenty of material at your disposal. At the end of the 14C, Poland’s last Piast monarch, Kazimierz the Great, conquered (annexed) the Orthodox principality of Halych (a chunk of present-day Ukraine) and made it part of the Polish kingdom. In the 15C, when Ottoman janissaries and Tartar forces molested Poland with increasing regularity, it was this area which felt the full force of their raids – Polish nobles saw what we call western Ukraine as a useful buffer, which might absorb the military shocks coming from the south-east, and keep raiders far from Cracow and Poznań. In 1494, Grand Duke Ivan III of Muscovy invaded the Grand Duchy of Lithuania without warning, and he gave as his reason the alleged mistreatment of Orthodox believers in that polity, presenting himself as their protector and saviour.
There are many competing narratives on offer about current events in Ukraine. A narrative of democracy versus autocracy; narratives of a greater Russia, or of a greater EU. In these grand narratives, Ukraine itself tends to be portrayed as a passive subject – as a borderland, a buffer zone, a geopolitical frontier, a place to be rescued, a place characterised above all by the very fact that it is endlessly contested, and thereby endlessly destabilising. Anna Reid, for example, gives her history of Ukraine the title 'Borderland'. Perhaps that is just a reflection of historical reality itself since the 14C. There is, however, a risk that at this juncture we look back into Central European history and find the stories we expect to find – that the persistent tropes of Ukraine as a doomed, fought-over borderland risk becoming self-fulfilling. There is nothing inevitable about what happens next in Ukraine, bordered by EU Poland and Putin’s Russia: there is everything to play for. If European history tells us anything, it is surely not that the same pre-ordained stories will play themselves out time after time, but that anything can happen.