This week, we’re bringing you a vital history lesson that might not have made it into your high school textbooks. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in its second month, Yale historian Timothy Snyder joins to share much-needed context that often gets overlooked in coverage of the war. Hear the complicated legacy of the Nazi charges from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, how Ukrainians came to think of themselves as a nation, and whether Timothy Snyder thinks this is a war that can be won.
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
Timothy Snyder: If the Ukrainians don’t win, like win in the classic Clausewitzian sense of determining the politics of the other side, like if the Ukrainians don’t win, if pressure is not exerted on Putin personally, then the war goes on indefinitely, indefinitely.
Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me your host, Chris Hayes.
Well, we have made it through our future of series. I hope you, folks, enjoyed that we enjoy putting it together. Of course, one of the things that happened was we put a lot of work into lining it up, rolling it out over March. And then it meant that during this period in which this seismic world event happened, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we were doing those shows. And there’s so much I’ve been wanting to talk about for the podcast on the war there, partly because it’s one of those issues and one of those news topics where there’s a real need for context and history and background.
And I’ve been doing a lot of reading and corresponding with different people, different experts. There’s all kinds of aspects of the conflict that are fascinating to me, obviously, deeply upsetting and horrifying in many respects. But I do think that one thing that I think has been pretty clear is that part of the world, the part of the world from basically Eastern Europe, places that speaks Slavic languages, places adjacent to what is now Russia, that were previously part of the Russian Empire, that have moved back and forth under the domain of many different kingdoms and empires and duchies over the years, I don’t think we get a great grounding in the history of those places in American history.
I think there tends to be like in the American history curriculum, there’s U.S. history, there’s European history which often very much focuses on the U.K., and then also France. And I think there’s obviously tremendous amount of really important historical context to deal with here, when thinking about what is happening in Ukraine and with Russia.
And so I’m really, really delighted today to have an incredible historian on the program. Dr. Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale. He’s the author of several books, one of which, which is incredible, which is called “Bloodlands,” which is about precisely that part of the world, the area around Ukraine, between sort of Austria and Russia, the area of the world that was once called the Pale of Settlement, where many of the American Jewish diaspora were living before they left. His book about that part of the world and just the horrifying bloodshed that it witnessed between Hitler and Stalin. Bloodlands is an amazing book that I recommend.
He’s also author of the book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” And then later in April, that book is being released as an expanded audiobook edition, and it’s going to feature both the stuff from the book and also 20 new lessons on his insight on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Dr. Snyder is someone that I’ve really followed and learned a lot from. That “On Tyranny” book is New York Times’ bestseller. It had a lot to say in the era of Trump, but he’s been a historian of this part of the world for many, many years. So it’s a great pleasure to have Dr. Snyder on the program.
Timothy Snyder: Glad to be with you.
Chris Hayes: I want to start specific which is Ukraine and your interest in it, because it’s a longstanding academic interest for you. And just tell me a little bit about, I mean, all of us are coming to know more about Ukraine, think more about Ukraine. I don’t think it’s a place that is generally front of consciousness for Americans in “normal times.” I think to the extent people think of it, I think of it is a large country with an adjacent relationship to Russia and a sort of complicated relation with Russia.
And then I think of it, frankly, as a New Yorker, with friends from the Jewish Ashkenazi diaspora as the site of the part of the world from which many American, what would become American Jews emigrated. Those are the two main things I think about it. What drew you to study and think about Ukraine in a serious sustained fashion?
Timothy Snyder: Yes, it’s nice that you mentioned the American Jews. I just wanted to, before I answer the question, just mention something that’s been touching for me the last couple of weeks, which is that American Jews who know perfectly well just how difficult history of Ukraine has been for Jews at many points, have been calling me up and asking me what they can do to help. And like amidst all this horror, that’s been something which has been really nice.
I feel like I’m really fortunate as a historian to have found my way into Ukraine, because I do think it’s the most interesting country in Europe. I think it’s a place where most of the things that we’re interested in, in European history appear, but just in a starker, and so therefore, a more interesting form. It’s a place that I found my way to sort of on both sides, and I learned Russian first and then I learned Polish. And then as I was trying to understand Polish history, I realized that a lot of Polish history actually played out in Ukraine. And from there, I tried hard to understand Ukraine from its own point of view and understand how Ukrainians came to think of themselves as a nation.
And then the next part after that was the book you were kind enough to mention which is Bloodlands. Bloodlands is about all of the mass killing policies carried out by the Germans and by the Soviets in the ‘30s and ‘40s. And we generally think about this killing policies, in terms of names, like we might say Holocaust or great terror, or we might think about ideologies, Stalinism, Nazism, but we don’t generally think about territory. And I think that’s partly because the territory, just in a way, it’s too hard to look out. It’s very hard to look at Ukraine, keep your eyes focused on Ukraine, as there’s a sequence of mass starvation in their early ‘30s and then terror in the late ‘30s, and then Holocaust and starvation of Soviet prisoners of war during the Second World War. It’s hard to take all of that in.
But at the end of the day, if you do, you end up not only seeing this place, but this is the last thing, this is the thing that kind of fascinates me now, you see how this place is really central to major trends of world history. Like there’s a big question of world history, it’s who’s the colonized and who are the colonizers? And we think of that as a Europe and the rest of the world question. They can also be an intra-European question.
What Putin is doing now with Ukraine is he’s reintroducing a colonial language, talking about how these people have no state, they have no language, they have no nation of their own, “I’m going to decide who they are and what’s going to become of them.” And that theme of colonization is actually central to Ukraine. So this sort of bridge between European history and the history of the rest of the world, and allows us to see this colonization question as a universal one.
Chris Hayes: Yes. And I think that’s a great place to start some of the history here, which I think is really important. And this is something I was really driven home by the first chapter of Tony Judt’s amazing book “Postwar,” and I know he was a collaborator and a friend of yours. The first chapter of Postwar is about the movement of people at the war’s close in Europe, and the way in which different populations that whose sort of nationality and language didn’t match the territory they were in, were often forcibly relocated, so that they became coterminous with the boundaries and borders of the “nation.”
And I was thinking about this because just this weekend, I was talking to a family member of mine through marriage, who was a refugee, who came here when he was 7. His people were German speakers for centuries in Romania, where they had been part of a kind of Austro-Hungarian Empire homesteading project, that it sought to send the German speakers into Romania, that was part of their territory to kind of seed it with Austrians basically.
I didn’t realize these people are there for centuries, speaking German, living in these sort of German encampments, and then at the close of World War II, were sort of driven back to Austria and made their way to the U.S. And there was a ton of that, and so I think just as a table-setting measure, when we think about like language and nation, are the Ukrainians a nation or not, maybe just talk a little bit of the broader context of Europe as a set of extremely contested nationalities, peoples, ethnicities, linguistic groups, for a very long time before the rough borders that post ‘45 get established?
Timothy Snyder: Right. That’s a great question. And I mean, I’m going to start with it, philosophically, a nation is a group concerned about the future that likes to talk about the past. So once you have a nation, once there’s a confidence that you belong to a nation, or once there’s a national pedagogy, once you have schools and so on, then you have a set vision of the past. Like Americans have a sense of the past which, of course, can and should be contested, and there’s instant ways in which American contestation of the past is actually kind of like Russian and Ukrainian contestation in the past.
But my basic idea here is that once you think you belong to a nation, you also have a version of the past where things are pretty much fixed. So Putin has a really exaggerated version of this. He’s talking about how a thousand years ago something has happened, the baptism of a certain Viking prince, and ever since then, things have just kind of been flat and static, and there’s always been a Russia. And that’s the opposite of the truth, right?
I mean, the truth is that over the course of the last couple a thousand years of European history, there have been tremendous population movements. Most of the time, Europe has been governed not by national states that comes very late. It’s been governed by empires, either land empires which are multinational, or maritime empires that rule lots of people over the seas.
And the national question, whether it’s Russia or Spain, it doesn’t really matter where, Ukraine, Belgium, Holland, Poland, the national question only really comes about in the 19th century. And at that time, people have to work very hard to make sense of all the chaos that you’re talking about. And they come to solutions like, “Well, maybe we were always here on this spot,” or maybe the people who speak the same language constitute the nation, like various kinds of end runs around the complication of history.
And once you settle on those kinds of end runs, and then you’re confronted with the problem of actually creating the state, you realize, as you say, and as Tony Judt points out at the beginning of that wonderful book Postwar, there is no way to actually match lines on the map to people.
Chris Hayes: Exactly.
Timothy Snyder: We’re complicated. Like, even who one person is, is complicated, let alone saying these 40 million people are Polish and then let’s draw a line for the next 50 million Ukrainians. Let’s draw a line to the next 100 million, or whatever, are Russians. So it’s normal that there would be a disagreement among Polish and Ukrainians, or among Germans and Polish, or among Russians and Ukrainians about where you stop and where you start, because in some sense, that’s always arbitrary.
I think what’s unusual about the present situation, or what’s imperial about it, let me put it that way, is when you have one nation that tells another nation, “You actually don’t have a voice at all. I’m going to tell you the answer to all of these questions.” Right? “So I have a view about the past.” This is Putin, right, who I’m imitating here. “I have a view about the past and that’s the only view.” Right? “There’s not actually contestation. It’s just that I’m going to return to this imperial view where I have a monopoly on the truth about all these questions.”
Chris Hayes: Yes. And again, all of these contestations, even the most terrific, reverse-engineered pedagogies of the nation, are often grounded in some kind of historical antecedents because the history is complicated enough that you can pick stuff out, right? It’s like there’s a lot of mythmaking. But there’s also like, in Hitler’s case, like it’s true, the Austrian spoke German, like that was true. And that he then took that in all kinds of directions.
In the case of Ukraine and Russia, like there is a really fascinating, complicated history there about the relationship between these two peoples, and it’s too complicated to like synthesize in five minutes. But I guess, how would you go about to someone who’s like landing from Mars, right, like how to think this through.
Timothy Snyder: Right.
Chris Hayes: The closest that I’ve come and I’ll give my version of it, which is I think bad for lots of reasons. But the closest is like, if the U.S. went to war with Canada, now, this is very different because Canada and the U.S. are both sort of produced by settler colonial sort of nations. They don’t have like thousands of years of history. But it’s the closest I could come to the sense of like, if you live in U.S., in the U.S., like you run across a lot of Canadians who like live here and move here. And there’s a fair amount of shared reference.
And we all know Canada is a different country, but there’s a pretty shared cultural milieu across that border, even though we know there are different policies and different nations and all that stuff.
Timothy Snyder: Right.
Chris Hayes: And that’s the closest I can kind of come to for an American, at least, to think this through this relationship.
Timothy Snyder: Yes. So I’m going to try to answer that, but a number of things come to mind that we could say. I mean, number one is that if you’re Canadian, you’re going to be a lot more attentive to these questions.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: Right. Like, if you’re an American, it’s a lot easier say, “Yeah, there’s some Canadian scattered out here and there, and who knows where they are.”
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: But the Canadians damn well know where all the Canadians are. They know who all the Canadians are.
Chris Hayes: That’s right.
Timothy Snyder: And the second thing that I was thinking about is, yes, it’s exactly true what you’re saying, Chris. But if we invaded Canada, if we really invaded Canada, I mean, I realize it sounds like a fantasy, but let’s just imagine that we were bombing Ottawa, the way that Russia is bombing Kyiv, and that we had destroyed Toronto, the way that they’ve destroyed Mariupol, the way the Canadians think about us would change really actually. And that’s an important part.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: So like, we can talk about the previous hundreds of years. But what happens now tilts you like the previous hundreds of years very, very dramatically, right?
Chris Hayes: Well, and in some ways, that’s why I think that again I don’t mean this in any like literal sense, but just as a conceptual tool.
Timothy Snyder: Yes.
Chris Hayes: That’s actually one of the reasons I think it’s a sort of useful conceptual tool for Americans precisely for that reason, right, which is that like —
Timothy Snyder: Yes.
Chris Hayes: — yes, it would really break everyone’s brains and hearts and souls and conception of the people across the border to have hostilities like that.
Timothy Snyder: Yes. Yes. Well, I mean, what it’d do the Canadians? And also, what would it do to us, right? Like, if we became the people who said, “Actually, we insist that you’re Americans. And if you don’t agree, we’re going to kill your elites and we’re going to grind you down until you agree.” What does that do to us? I mean, of course, we’ve done lots of terrible things and that has left its legacy. But I’m just following that example.
So with Ukraine and Russia, the important thing for me, before we go into like these historical dispositions, is to say that it’s not the historians who get to decide, it’s the people who get to decide. Like, if historians had to predict it, let’s say it was 1900 and historians had to predict who the nations in the 20th century were going to be, they would have gotten a lot of it wrong. I think we would have been able to say, “Yes, modern nationalism is coming. Nations are coming,” but which nations were actually going to populate the European map, like that Scandinavia would be a number of different nations, or that there’d be a Slovakia.
These kinds of things are very hard to pin down. And so I just say that because I think national self-determination, it’s about the future, right? Like, it’s about saying, “I want to be with these people in the future. And so no matter how much better my argument might be than Putin’s, it doesn’t mean that I actually get to say, right?”
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: But anyway, so with all these, like all that stuff behind us, the starting point of all this difference is the city of Kyiv, which is now the capital of Ukraine, which is an old city. It’s 500 years old than Moscow. And it comes into history when a group of Vikings called the Rus convert to Christianity. And they can create really an interesting sort of kingdom pagan for a while, that Christian for a while, which controls roughly was medieval Rus, much of Ukraine, a little tiny bit of European Russia. It exists. It’s messy. There’s a lot of civil strife until the Mongols finish it off in the early 1240s.
Now, that territory then largely goes into Lithuania, and then it goes into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And for about 500 years, Kyiv is part of these European states, where it passes through the Renaissance and the Reformation. Meanwhile, Moscow comes into existence. Moscow throws off what they like to call the yoke of Mongol successor states. And Moscow becomes the center of an Asian Empire.
The Russians go across Asia at an incredible rate, reaching the Pacific in the middle of the 17th century. And it’s at that point, having become this huge Asian country, that they come back to Europe, and they win some wars against Poland. And over the course of about a century, they bring Ukrainian territory into their own territory.
And at that point, there aren’t any nations yet, right? The word Ukraine exists. There were Ukrainian rebellions against Poland. The idea of Ukraine exists, but there aren’t any nations yet. Where this stuff actually starts to get contested is in the 19th century, where you have a kind of rival Polish version that “We used to control this territory,” which again a Russian version, which is increasingly national, rather than imperial, which says increasingly, “These Ukrainians are Russians,” and you have a pretty typical Ukrainian national movement.
Now, the Ukrainians themselves are kind of interesting because those of us who are not big fans of ethnic nationalism would like to think that the world isn’t going to end in a bunch of like ever smaller, ever more homogeneous states, right?
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: Like, we have to believe that if you’re in America, you do exist, right?
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: We have to believe that’s not our fate. And with Ukraine, you’ll never actually get to that point, where there’s like a monolingual elite, which is trying to make everybody monolingual. It never happens and it’s probably never going to happen, which is interesting.
For centuries, the elite in Ukraine was bilingual in Polish and Ukrainian, sometimes other languages. In the 19th century under the Russian Empire, that generally turns to Ukrainian and Russian. But there’s never a moment when it’s just a monolingual country —
Chris Hayes: That’s right.
Timothy Snyder: — and just never a moment where very many people think that’s actually possible. And so the Ukraine we’ve had now has actually kind of evaded that trap. I mean, not without lots of bloodshed and horror along the way, which we’ll maybe talk about, and not without there being plenty of Ukrainian nationals who had that idea, but the country never actually had that phase.
And that’s why the difference in Russia today has to do with the fact that, I mean, Zelenskyy, the President is symbol of this. You have a Jew, who’s Russian is better than the Ukrainian, who’s bilingual, who’s running the country. That’s a symbol of what kind of state it is, that they’re trying to make this multicultural bilingual thing work. And that makes them confusing for us because we talk a lot about this stuff, but we don’t have any bilingual cities.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: And we go to places where like I speak Spanish and you switch to Spanish. We don’t have any places like that, whereas they do. And we’ve never had a Jewish President and I’m going to say with categorical certainty, we’re never going to have one with 73% of vote. Like, that’s not going to happen. And so they’re in this interesting zone, and we don’t really understand it and the Russians definitely don’t understand it.
And what Putin is trying to say is that Russia is a larger civilization and Ukrainians are just a part of that, right? “And so I have the right to absorb you.” So it’s like it’s not a fight of equals exactly. It’s more like two different conceptions of what’s going on.
Chris Hayes: That’s interesting. Well, let’s focus in on this and I know you spoke a little bit about this area with Ezra and a great conversation on his podcast that people should listen to, so I don’t want to like repeat it. But I think this is adjacent to some of the point you’re making there.
To circle back to your question about, like, who gets to say, right? Vladimir Putin doesn’t get decree who’s not a nation and Timothy Snyder or any historian doesn’t. But once you start zooming in on who does, it does get a little tricky, right? Because there’s got to be some polity, that’s the unit of self-determination. And the unit itself is contested, right? So there are the contentions in Crimea, right? I mean, of course, that was ridiculous. It was an occupation and appropriation by the Russians, but then they had this like ersatz, ridiculous plebiscite, do we want to join Russia, right?
But there is this question of like how small is the unit. Prior to the hostilities, if you took up free and fair election in the Donbass, I don’t know what the numbers would have been in Donetsk or Luhansk, in terms of what people’s determination is. And maybe if you zoomed in even smaller, right, like one part of Donetsk or one part of Luhansk, like, there’s this sort of chicken and egg problem with national self-determination, which is what is the unit of polity that’s self-determining? And that, of course, is born by borders, war, history, language, all these contingent things that then you end up with certain people in a certain place, you say, “This is our collective fate together.”
Timothy Snyder: Yes. No, that’s totally right. I mean, and I really like the spirit of the question because it corresponds to historical reality. You may end up in a state where you think your presence is a complete injustice.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: And you may end up in a state where you find that you are the highest caste and you’re completely in control, right? And then most of us will probably be in some much broader zone in the middle, right? So in the U.S. and this is something you’ve written about, the political legitimacy of institutions for African Americans are probably going to be much lower.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: In fact, the polls do show that.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: On a different vector, if we don’t ask the Crimeans, but we asked Mississippi or California, do they want to secede? Well, on Thursdays, maybe they do, right? So there is a sense in which the politics is accidental, and therefore unfair.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: And then the question is, at what point is it so unfair that you side with the people who are trying to break it up? And I admit there’s no mechanical way to answer that question. In the case of Ukraine, there has obviously been a kind of like a dialectical thing, where the state was not created as it stands. The state was not created by the people who live in it. The state was created by various kinds of agglomeration of territory.
There’s been a long-running Ukrainian movement. The idea of Ukraine goes back centuries. But the borders that Ukraine has were inherited in 1991, just like the borders of Russia, right?
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: No Russians made those borders either. They were all inherited in 1991. But then you get to this question of, how do you then make the state your own? In 1991, 90% of Ukrainians, including majority in every province, including Crimea, although admittedly, there was a very small majority —
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: — who said, “Yes, we want independence.” But that’s just a referendum. What does it mean to actually make a country, right? And over the succeeding 30 years, with lots of misdirection and false moves and mistakes, but nevertheless, they have managed to kind of create a sense of a civic nation, right? They’ve moved in that direction, such that the nation is unproblematic. Let’s put it this way for younger people, right?
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: So for people under 45 now, like it’s unproblematic. And so these questions that you raise, although they’re perfectly legitimate, in an abstract way, they can also be worked out in practice, when the state is somehow responsive to the people who live in the state.
Chris Hayes: Yes. And to be clear, again, a very different circumstance, but to circle back, like I don’t know how much people have paid attention to Canadian history. But like, Canada had like a very intense, like national, almost quasi divorce. They had a separatist movement. They had amazing constitutional acrobatics they had to perform to synthesize a nation of two different linguistic groups.
I mean, now, we don’t sort of think of that as this existential question. But they went through periods of time where they did, and there were all kinds of negotiations, accommodations, political fights that had to happen around that to produce basically a settled national compromise, right? That all did develop inside the Canadian framework of the polity. There are other bilingual states. There are other places that have to have these processes. They’re just different in every place, but it’s not like completely without precedent to work through these issues.
Timothy Snyder: Yes, yes, yes. No, I was in the high point of like called separatism. I was living in Boston and I was working partly as a translator from French to English. And I somehow got friendly with the Quebecois consul and I was going to other cocktail parties, and so I was kind of got caught up. But the point is, like, you’re right that it’s real. I mean, this passion is for real and the Quebecois history is real. And of course, the language has its own beauty. And then you stop and think, well, wait, Canada is kind of a good country. And Switzerland is also kind of a good country.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: And Belgium, although everyone makes fun of it —
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: — is also not a bad country at all. And for that matter, Finland, where Swedish is an official language, it’s actually kind of a great country.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: And then you start and think, well, wait, like this whole goal of getting everything into one culture —
Chris Hayes: Exactly.
Timothy Snyder: — may not have been the right goal the whole time. And I have to say, like, this is one of the things that I love about Ukraine is the code switching. People, they don’t just switch from one language to another, like they’ll switch in the middle of a sentence, or they’ll consciously mush stuff together. And so they understand Russians —
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: — but Russians don’t understand them, not just because they can fall back at Ukranian, but also because like that whole way of seeing the world, where you switch from one thing to another thing is special, right? It opens your eyes.
Chris Hayes: It’s been an amazing thing to watch Zelenskyy do it. I mean, it’s been a key part of his —
Timothy Snyder: Yes.
Chris Hayes: And I want to talk a little bit about what I think makes him distinct and fascinating particularly as a 21st century figure. But when he goes back and forth, because he is from eastern Ukraine, is that right?
Timothy Snyder: Southeastern Ukraine, yes.
Chris Hayes: When he said like, “What do you mean?” The speeches when he goes into Russian, he addresses in Russian. He switches back and forth. When he talks about his memories in those places that are under siege, in the Donbass, the place where we celebrate our World Cup victory, I think, or Euro Cup finals victory. What do you mean? The bar that I was in with my friends, like that’s what you’re going to denazify? Like, what are you talking about?
Again, I’m not the intended audience at all. I’m reading it through translation. And even through those prisms of refraction, it’s incredibly compelling and profound to me.
Timothy Snyder: Yes, absolutely. That’s the flatness of Putin’s idea, that “First, we have to make everybody who’s a Russian speaker, realize they’re Russian, and go through all the violence and homogenization that’s necessary for that. And then once we have that, then we can talk about life itself.” But of course, then you never get through life itself, right? All you get is the homogenization and vine was – I mean, it’s sad, like we’re seeing it now.
I mean, they’re deporting. They’re making the elites disappear in the territories that they occupy. They’re making the elites disappear. The mayors, the journalists, the relatives of the journalists, the civic activists, everybody who’s interesting, like everybody that we’d be friends with. I mean, literally, they’re making those people disappear. And that’s in the service of this idea, that you have to, like, make everything as boring as possible and then life itself. Whereas what Zelenskyy is saying that, “No, I just grew up like this.” Right?
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: I grew up, I spoke Russian. Like, I speak Russian with my family, but there are people who spoke Ukrainian. And it’s a mix and that’s like the way things are, right? And like you see him now, the stuff he does now, where he was given an interview, a fantastic interview, the three Russian journalists, which was, of course, all in Russian. And then he did this thing where he turned to some of his aides, like pretended to need to ask them, like what a Ukrainian word was in Russian, which was totally for the performance, right? Like, there’s just no way he didn’t know the Russian word. Like, that’s impossible. But the very fact that the bilingual audio of the country meant that he could like pretend.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: And then just the ability to kind of switch it in over speech and change to whom you were addressing the speech, like now, I’m talking Ukrainians. Now, I’m talking to Russians. But I’m talking to Russians in a language, of course, my Ukrainian audience can also understand. Like, there’s something marvelous and interesting about that, which enables kinds of performance, which wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
So, yes, I mean, but I like the thing that you said the most, which is that it’s the particularity, like you grow up in this and this is the way things are and you don’t necessarily need to have it all smoothed out by somebody else.
Chris Hayes: Yes, that’s right. And particularly with the very kind of sledge hammer fascistic revanchist rhetoric of Putin, which is so just textbook blood and soil, kind of the simplicity of all this, “And one people and this is the land and I will never back down from this.” And that compared to, right, that the texture of the reality which again, to me, at some level, not to get like too ethereal here, but like to me, this is the story of Europe, right? It’s the story between these two competing imperatives, between like the sort of vision of a cosmopolitan, multilingual place where people travel over the short distances on a relatively small piece of land and interact with each other across amazing lines of difference and create all sorts of great stuff.
And then, literally, the most blood-soaked continent on Earth, the site of some of the, if not the greatest human atrocities, all of which are born about the exact same blood and soil vision of homogenization. That is the vision that’s being articulated here and as the bloodiest possible history.
Timothy Snyder: Yes. I mean, I completely agree with that sentiment. And I also think that Ukraine is kind of Europe in a microcosm, and not just symbolically, but also existentially. I think that if Europe is going to survive in some form, it’s going to be with Ukraine.
If they’re going to make it as the European Union, like their project of scooping up the failed bits of empire, which is what they really are, and putting them together in some kind of new form, which is not a nation state, but which is something else. Like that has to include this place, Ukraine, which was most harmed, along with Belarus, but most harmed by the European new imperial projects of the 20th century.
But yes, I mean, at the level you’re talking about, when I think of Kyiv, right, I mean, Kyiv is this amazing European metropolis, even if you just want to have a good time. It’s like not real time, of course.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: But in the last 20 years, especially in last 10, it’s just one of the coolest places to go. I mean, fantastic music, fantastic art, fantastic literature, but also just really fantastic young people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, 21st century people. But also Kyiv is the site, notoriously, of Babi Yar and Kyiv is also the site or close to Kviv, the site of all kinds of Stalinist terror. And it’s like one or the other, as you say.
But what I would add to that, and this is the 21st century thing too, is the conspiracy theory. Hitler thinks that Jews are in charge of everything. Stalin thinks that there are capitalist plots. When Stalin starves Ukraine, he claims that its Polish espionage is really behind it. And then there’s a conspiracy theory in what Putin says too, because what Putin’s view of Ukraine is, they really are us. And if they don’t think that they’re us, it’s because the West has done this sneaky conspiracy and persuaded them that they’re part of this cosmopolitan thing that you’re talking about, right?
And so everything, like all the complication in people’s lives, is dismissed as a foreign conspiracy. And so the more the Ukrainians say, like, “No, we’re just different. Like, there’s just this thing. There’s this other thing you understand,” Putin just brushes that aside as part of this Western conspiracy, which has been going on for two centuries, and which disqualifies Ukrainians from having a view about who they really are.
Chris Hayes: Yes. That vision of everyone is manipulable and this sort of very dark like, bleak, bleak cynicism of everyone is a patsy for someone else is always some puppet master pulling his strings, which again, like, I know nothing about putting it all. It seems to me like if you gave him a lie detector test or truth serum, that’s the way he really views the world. That’s not a bit. Like, it seems to me that that is actually how he sees, which I think is actually in some ways scarier, right? Because it’s, I think, harder to separate him from that worldview.
But that does seem like there’s this hall of mirrors feeling about this conflict and about that part of the world. And the way it’s played out in American politics, and Burisma, Hunter Biden and the first impeachment, and like, just who is playing who, who’s the secret agent for who, that just hangs over this entire conflict, and the way that it’s splashed back onto America too over the last five or six years.
Timothy Snyder: Yes. There’s a slightly tricky thing here, which I want to try to explain, which is why the Russians, or why Putin doesn’t really think he’s a liar, or why they can combine lying all the time about everything, with saying that we’re the ones who are always lying all the time about everything. Whereas, like, we lie some of the time about some things.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: Like, I know a few Americans who are capable of lying all the time, right? Whereas the Russian elite and especially Russian television, that’s just what they do. I mean, 24/7, five channels wrap around reality line all the time, right? They really make some of our channels look like they’re just like trying out.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: Like, they’re just like teenagers. But what Putin would say is something like this, “We admit that we’re lying all the time. And what we’re trying to say is that everybody does, right? And so, in that sense, you’re hypocrites. You’re worse than us, because you say that there’s this true thing. You say that they’re values. You say that there’s democracy. But we know that all that is a lie. And we’re honest enough to say that is all a lie. And therefore, we’re not hypocrites, because we’re always evil. And if you’re always evil, you’re not a hypocrite, right?”
And so in some sense, by being always evil, you’re good because you’re consistent, not a hypocrite. That’s where they rest, right? So there’s a strange way in which this terrible cynicism becomes this kind of terrible naivete, where I think Putin believes, just as you say, I mean, he believes that it’s all cynical. It’s all conspiracy. It’s all like mirrors upon mirrors upon mirrors. But deep down inside, I think there is this notion that Russia is different, that Russia is innocent, because in Russia, we don’t fool ourselves —
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: — about all of this stuff, right? And it’s very hard to break that down, right, because that does become a kind of closed system. So that’s tempting, right? Like, it’s tempting if you’re a postmodernist on the left, because you’re like, “Yes, I’ve always been challenging truth and the structures. And here are these guys who tell me that it’s really all a lie.” And so, well, that’s kind of attractive, that’s kind of seductive.
And then if you’re on the right, you can say, “Look, these guys have proven that if you have an army and oligarchs, you can basically abolish truth and make the status quo permanent. And I like the status quo because I happen to have some wealth myself.” And so it’s a very strong, like even stronger, of course, magnetic pole for the American right, like, “We could do things that way. We could do things the way Putin has done them.” And Trump just kind of pulled the lid off of that and celebrated it, right, and said, “Yes, this is of course what I’m doing.”
Chris Hayes: We’ll be right back after we take this quick break.
Chris Hayes: It’s been fascinating to watch the processing of this war in those quadrants of the Internet and the ideological spectrum that were – you really saw it with Syria, like that’s where it first manifests itself to me where these people ostensibly on the left, repackaging. There’s just gross essentially blood libel against Syrians, gassing themselves, staging chemical attacks. I mean, I said, I joke this on Twitter, this very dark joke of like, the poor Russian army has had this the terrible fate to run into one enemy after another, so desperate and nihilistic enough to like stage atrocities on themselves.
And they’re using the same language time and time again, it’s just like so brain breaking and cynical. But there’s also something about it. I mean, I guess when you talk about how this is a breaking point. Obviously, there’s no going back from this moment I think for Ukrainian sense of nationhood. I wonder if you could just step back because you mentioned it a few minutes ago and I think it’s worth just taking a second history lesson here about the famine in Ukraine, which is, again, one of the great atrocities in human history, depending on how large you calculate it.
I think people know about it, maybe they know a sentence or two sentences worth. But not much more than that, to be totally honest. And so if you could just explain what happened during the Great Famine and why it happened, and what Stalin – how much of this was intentional and engineered, how much of it was accident and what the legacy of it is.
Timothy Snyder: Yes. I’m going to say this right up top in case I don’t get to it at the end. The famine is awesome example of what you were just talking about, because part of the propaganda about the famine at the time, which was truly horrible, it’s just some of the worst propaganda in the history of propaganda. But one of the things they said was these people are starving themselves.
Chris Hayes: Oh, Jesus.
Timothy Snyder: And they’re doing it on purpose. And they’re doing it to discredit the system.
Chris Hayes: That’s real continuity.
Timothy Snyder: And so, yes, so like that line goes deep back, deep, deep, dark back. So history of famine and the Ukrainian famine fits into the history of, let’s call them colonial famines. Amartya Sen has a very important little book about famines and empires, in which he argues that famines are not about the lack of food. They’re about politics and the ability to make political choices to distribute food.
Chris Hayes: It’s a really important book, a great book.
Timothy Snyder: Yes. But he doesn’t deal with the communist cases. Basically, Ukraine fits into that beautifully. So what happens is this, you have to imagine there’s a state, Soviet Union, which is undertaking under Stalin, the project of imitating capitalism, but much faster. So the Stalinist regime thinks that there’s one future and it’s the future of industry. And there’s one way to get there, and basically, that’s to follow capitalist history.
But since we’re a backward country, we have to run through capitalism as quickly as we can, and then we’ll get to socialism on the other side. That’s the economic program of Stalinism. And so from that, it seems to follow that you have to take all of your agricultural territory and transform it somehow, so that you can dig the mines and the canals, and build the big cities and build the factories. Stalin calls this internal colonization. He doesn’t shy away from that. He says, “The British have their maritime empire, they exploit the periphery. We’re going to exploit our periphery too.” And of course, it’s justified because at the end of it, we’ll get socialism is the idea.
So in the first five-year plan, 1928 to 1933, the notion is that agriculture is going to be collectivized. So everywhere where people owned land, that land is going to be taken over by the state. Many of the people who worked on it will be sent to – well, they’ll be sent to the Gulag first, if they resist or if they’re deemed to have too much land. But they’ll also be sent to the cities, the factories to work. A smaller number of people are going to work on larger state farms.
Now, if you imagine announcing that project in, say, Nebraska or Ohio, where I’m from, you basically got the same reaction. And people don’t like the idea of losing all their property to the state. There was a certain amount of resistance, Stalin doubles down, it’s carried out by force, and it doesn’t work very well. So in 1931 to 1932, not surprisingly, you get a much lower yield than you’ve gotten the previous years, as you would in Ohio and Nebraska, if you do the same trick there.
And then you get to the political part. And the political part is where rather than saying, “Okay, we’re doing this very difficult thing. It’s not surprising that yields in Ukraine are lower.” Stalin interprets it, this is summer of 1932, politically, and says, “No, no, this is the fault Ukrainian Communist Party. They’re lying to me about all this. If they tell me yields are down, that means that they are traitors. They’ve been recruited by the Polish Secret Service.”
And from that point forward, he doubles down and there are measures that are passed specifically about Ukraine, which guarantee that millions of people have to die, who wouldn’t otherwise have had to die. The most important of this is that requisitions continue. They just keep taking grain, a lot of it for export. So the whole time the Ukrainians are starving to death, the grain ships are leaving from the Black Sea ports and people elsewhere eating the food that could have kept the Ukrainians alive.
The second one is that they banned Ukrainians from going to other parts of Soviet Union to beg for food. Then they banned peasants from going to the cities to beg for food, because the peasants are actually starving in this famine more than everyone else because of the requisitions. They put your community on a blacklist if you don’t make the requisitions target, which means you’re cut off from trade with the rest of the Soviet Union.
And finally, this is all stuff that will make more sense to people who are from farms. But finally, there’s something called the meat penalty, which is if you don’t make the targets, they kill the last sheep, they kill the last goat. Like, there’s not so much sheep. They kill the last goat. They kill the last cow. And then they also take the seed corn, I mean, another farm concept. But the seed corn is the bit that you keep the plant for next year.
So all these specific things, it’s all about the detail, but like a political decision is made to blame the Ukrainians for what’s happening. And that decision means that, in 1933, when nearly 4 million people die, who don’t have to die. And along with this comes a lot of anti-Ukrainian propaganda. Along with this comes a purge of the Ukrainian national intelligentsia. And along with this, of course, becomes comes a kind of horrible trauma, because 4 million people dying by starvation involves – it’s a very long process and it involves people turning against other people. It involves all social structures breaking down. It involves generations of traumatic memory, so.
Chris Hayes: Yes. To circle back to what you’re saying before about a nation is sort of a group of people that tells itself a story about its past. Like, what role that will come to play in the national memory of the Ukraine that will bubble up and then ultimately become an actual state in 1991?
Timothy Snyder: I mean, it plays a role at that time. I mean, in the 1920s, in the Soviet Union, there was actually encouragement of Ukrainians. There was a kind of policy of affirmative action, where Ukrainian speakers actually had advantages. And so the ‘20s in Soviet Ukraine was the most interesting periods of Ukrainian culture ever. And so those people then were caught in this, right? And they were themselves killed because Ukraine culture have been defined now as dangerous or some of them committed suicide.
Outside of Soviet ring, there’s a very large Ukrainian diaspora, who then were caught up in trying to tell the world that this was happening, right? So for example, there was a Ukrainian national activist, a very interesting person, a feminist called Milena Rudnytska, actually of Jewish background, who tried very hard to explain to Europe what was happening in Ukraine. And she was called a Nazi. And everybody who did this was called a Nazi. And I just mentioned this because this is also a kind of foretaste of the kind of propaganda that we’re getting now.
Everybody who said correctly, in 1933, that Ukrainians are starving, so we’re probably going to call them Nazis, regardless whether they were archbishops, Jewish women, you name, it doesn’t matter. They were all Nazis. And so, like, that experience itself was already formative of what some Ukrainian saw they were up against.
But, I mean, it has to be made really clear that for about 50 years, the experience of the famine was not nation creating, it was nation destroying. It destroys the village, right? It destroys traditional hierarchies. It destroys traditional authority. It killed a lot of the very best people who would have been sustaining the Ukrainian nation in one way or another. It’s only as a retrospect, beginning in the 1980s, that people can start to pull together the evidence and start to construct what we would think of as a narrative, a history of what happened. That happened under Glasnost in the ‘80s, in the late Soviet Union.
And it’s only really in the ‘90s, in the 2000s, that Ukrainians have been able to put the story together and the first decent books have been written about it. Really, in the 21st century, right, we’re now putting it together. And so, yes, it matters for the nation. Now, I just want to stress that it matters in retrospect. At that time, it was really nation destroying.
Chris Hayes: It was just an obliteration. I mean, it was literally an extinction level event at the village level, right? I mean, just —
Timothy Snyder: Yes, absolutely. Yes, yes. But now, I’m sorry, it took so long to get to answer your question —
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: — but we need to do the history part for the memory. Now, of course, it is an important difference between Ukrainians and Russians. Because Russians are taught that, yes, the 1930s were tough, but they were tough for everybody. And if you say they were tougher for you than for other people, then you’re just a whiner. Then you’re just a nationalist. Whereas the Ukrainians, not only from school, but also just from family history, they know that something distinct happened in their country.
Chris Hayes: Let’s talk a little bit about the Nazi charge because that’s central here. And it’s again, a complicated history, some of which is in your incredibly masterful book Bloodlands. It’s been funny to watch people, if you talk to American Jews, generally, Ashkenazi from the Pale of Settlement, from the part of the world that we’re talking about, there’s not a lot of national affinity, right?
People are saying, like, “I’m Ukrainian,” “I’m Lithuanian.” “My people were from this some town, and then they were forced out because of either persecution program,” in some cases the more “normal means of emigration for economic opportunity.” But often they were under the thumb of a regime of state-backed prejudice, discrimination, and in many cases, violence.
I think that American Jews don’t tend to have particularly good feelings about like nationalism in Eastern Europe, because they tended to be on the wrong side of the definitional question. There’s something about Zelenskyy’s Jewishness that has confounded and changed all that in a fascinating way. You’re seeing American Jews feel this affinity towards Ukrainian nationalism, which is a kind of interesting phenomenon because of the history of nationalism and the history of Jews in that part of the world. Zelenskyy’s Jewishness is doing something to kind of bridge those divides.
But it is also the case that, like, there have been obviously really nasty right wing versions of Ukrainian nationalism, as there are many, many nationalism, many places that are nasty right wing versions. And that’s the one, obviously, that Putin wants to focus on, and sort of propaganda focuses on. But maybe you could talk a little bit of how you think about that lineage.
Timothy Snyder: Yes. So number one, it’s a West Ukrainian phenomenon, the ethnic nationalism. The ethnic nationalism comes from the part of Ukraine that wasn’t in the Russian Empire and then wasn’t in the Soviet Union. It’s largely, or this is obscure, I know, but it’s largely a result of disappointment when Ukrainians who have been in the Habsburg monarchy found themselves with fewer rights in Poland in the 1920s than they’d had before in the Habsburg monarchy.
Even in Poland, Ukrainian nationalism was not that important. I would characterize it as a kind of mid-sized terrorist movement. They were underground. They were banned. They were illegal. They carried out a certain number of assassinations. Like nationals will do, they provoked repressions from the Polish state, and that got them a certain amount of support. But they were never really very important until the Second World War.
The Second World War destroys the Polish state. And the Second World War also gives them certain kinds of opportunities, because they think Germany can destroy both Poland and the Soviet Union. And then when the Soviet Union invades the eastern part of Poland, the Soviets destroyed all the other political parties, while the national surrender ground. And so you have this odd situation during Second World War, where the nationalists suddenly become much more important than they had been ever before.
And during the Second World War, the nationalists do collaborate with the Germans in an active way. I mean, they’re thinking they’re trying to establish Ukrainian state, where the Germans are never going to go along with. But they joined German Police formations, and some of them are fairly important perpetrators in German war crimes. So just to finish their story, I mean, they leave German collaboration when it suits them to do so in the middle of the war. They set up a partisan army, and they tried to fight for Western Ukraine against the Soviets.
And in an insurgency, which ties down a huge number of Soviet forces and leads to roughly a quarter of a million deportations and roughly 200,000 deaths, they’re eventually defeated. And then after that, they’re part of Ukraine. Western Ukraine is incorporated into the Soviet Union. And the people who come from those families then generally go through a kind of rethink under the Soviet Union, into a conversation, which in the ‘70s, not everybody, but for a lot of them ends up in this kind of human rights consensus, where we’re going to rethink all this, “I’m going to try to talk about Ukraine in terms of a civic definition.” And that’s a very interesting thing.
And like that human rights of the ‘70s, which is a legacy, which people sometimes minimize, it opens the way for a conversation about what a civic identity would be. Now, everything I’ve just said is about a small portion of Ukraine. The vast majority of Ukraine in the 20th century, there isn’t and can’t be any kind of nationalist movement, because it’s the Soviet Union.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: It’s just not possible. And one thing that I want to stress about this is on the collaboration Nazi question. Stalin tried very hard and people echoing Stalin tried very hard to do this now too. They try very hard to say that those nationalists were the collaborators. And it’s absolutely true that there were some West Ukrainian ethnic nationalists who actively collaborated.
But the vast, vast majority of collaborators in Soviet Ukraine and the Soviet Union, in general, were not nationalists. They were far more communists because collaboration and Nazi occupation touched everybody, every ethnicity. And they basically use people who had pre-war authority when they could, which meant communists very often. And that whole part of the story gets lost. And we tend to associate the nationalist with the Nazis because that’s a trope, which Stalin pushed very hard. And so I’m trying to be clear about this. It’s not that there’s no truth to that.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: But the whole story is much more complicated. And Putin’s idea that the Russians didn’t collaborate, but the Ukrainians did, that’s also a Stalinist inheritance and it’s totally false. The Russians were just as likely to collaborate as Ukrainians were. And the propaganda world they’re in now, where everything we do is innocent because we’re on the right side of the war; and everything Ukrainians do is guilty because you’re on the wrong side of the war, that has zero historical basis.
Chris Hayes: I mean, that’s a useful simplification because that’s really what it is. I mean, that is exactly the story. Like, we were on the right side of the Great Patriotic War. We defeated Hitler’s armies in one of the most brutal battles in human history, siege of Stalingrad. We rolled back the forces of fascism. It is our destiny now to do it once again. That’s a huge part of the Putin message, right? And not just the Putin message, but the propaganda that has flowed out from it through the channels of disinformation.
And look, I don’t think it’s got a lot of track outside Russia, to be honest. Like, it doesn’t seem to be particularly effective propaganda, particularly compared to, say, The White Helmets of Syria or actually jihadi which was equally audacious, equally false and far more effective. That the Nazis were hiding at the maternity ward that we bombed the Mariupol. I don’t think is has legs. But that continuity line, it’s very useful and clarifying to hear you talk about this, because it gives a prehistory to what we’re hearing now, that makes it snap into focus, in a way, it hadn’t from you before.
Timothy Snyder: Yes, it’s exactly what you say. It’s a progression. During the war, it’s more complicates. During the war, Stalin starts out as an ally. Of course, as it’s a crime now to say in the Soviet Union. Actually, you’ll be criminally penalized if you say that in Russia now. And then Stalin doesn’t understand what’s happening. He misdiagnoses the whole thing. He’s not actually such a great manager. The German Spanish invade, without him being prepared for it.
And then once you’re in that disaster, suddenly Ukrainians are important. And so during the war, Ukrainians get talked up quite a bit by Stalin. But once it’s over, he turns on a dime and says, basically, “The Russian nation is great and innocent, and people who are under German occupation are now suspects.”
Chris Hayes: That’s interesting.
Timothy Snyder: So you have introduced this idea of the good nation and the bad nation, which then over time, clarifies itself. And when Ukrainian periphery has to be dominated by the center, in the Soviet Union, the story of collaboration can always be trotted out and used. And then when the Soviet Union breaks up, the idea that the Soviets are the good guys becomes the Russians are the good guys, right? Like, that’s Putin inheriting Brezhnev’s call to the Second World War.
And I think he, up to some point, really believes this, insofar he believes anything. And then as you say, it becomes a limitless rhetorical weapon where, because we were on the right side of the war, we can then say who a Nazi is.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: Even when we’re the Nazis, I mean, even when we’re the ones who are saying that we have to attack another country on the basis of a racial idea and undertake an act of like cleansing violence and for what it’s worth, even when we’re acting like the fascists, we still have the right to say who the fascists are.
Chris Hayes: That precise thing has been such a tough thing to get your head around. You’re listening to, frankly, obviously, like fascism 101 rhetoric, directed at the project of suffocation. And it’s just like the whole thing doesn’t quite compute. It’s such a strange combination, the Putin rhetoric, which is so manifestly fascist on its face, and this is all being done to denazify this country.
Timothy Snyder: Yes. And there’s certainly a 21st century postmodern aspect to that. But there’s also the claim that the tyrant gets to define the word, right?
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: There’s no link between signifier and signified, like I decide what every word means. And that’s actually something which is very serious about all of this. Like, this is a war for territory, but it’s also a war for reality. And so if you lose this war, you’re losing to a guy who says that he can carry out fascist acts in the name of the anti-fascism. And so if you lose the war, to this guy, you’re also losing your language, you’re losing your concept.
So like, there’s I think a material sense in which the Holocaust itself is also at stake. When they bomb burial sites and memorials, that kind of comes clear when you think of Zelenskyy, and remember, he’s a Jew, it comes clear. But like, there’s actually something deeper going on, which is that they were attacking the whole inheritance, right? They don’t care about the Holocaust as such. Like, this is just stuff that they mess around with.
But if they win, then they undo our ability to talk about all of these things. So it’s weird. It’s like discomforting, but there’s also a serious side to it. And the other serious side to it is, I mean, what denazification means in practice is, I get to destroy your state, because a Nazi is just somebody who resists me. And so, so long as people are resisting, I have the right to call them Nazis and deport them, kill them, and so on, until it’s over. And that’s what it really meant. So it does mean something serious in practice, even though as you say, it’s totally contradictory and weird.
Chris Hayes: You just talked about the war and in terms of victory, winning, losing the war, and maybe a final place to end and no one knows the future. I mean, I feel like things are about as uncertain as they’ve ever felt for me in my adult life right now. Do you think it’s a war that can be won?
Timothy Snyder: I think it has to be. I think that’s the only way to think about it. I think it’s very important, and no one speaks well of us, that we’ve been able to react to this war in the way that we can. Like, people have been able to identify the Ukrainians as being on the right side in some fundamental ways. Like walking to work, there’s a house in my neighborhood which has a big Black Lives Matter sign and then has Ukrainian flag hanging over it. And every time I see that, like, yes, new haven, like, you’ve understood some things.
Like, it speaks well of us, but we want to be on the right side. But this one is not just about being on the right side. It’s about winning. It’s about you got this. We have to win. And even if you just think this is about minimizing the suffering, the only way to minimize the suffering is for the Ukrainians to win. If the Ukrainians don’t win, like win in the classic Clausewitzian sense of determining the politics of the other side, like if Ukrainians don’t win, if pressure is not exerted on Putin personally, then the war goes on, indefinitely, indefinitely.
So I mean, I can’t say confidently that it can be won. But I think like this is the way we should be thinking about. This is not about putting up a good fight. It’s not about letting them lose honorably. Another important thing here is, they think that they can win. Often when I listen to Americans, Ukrainians talking about this war, it is as though our cities are being bombed and not theirs. Like, we just sound much more fearful. And we keep saying, “We got to bring an end to the suffering.” But it’s the Ukrainians who are suffering and dying.
And I’m talking to Ukrainian friends every day, and I’m looking at the opinion polls, and the last one I saw, 93% of them think they’re going to win. And maybe they’re wrong, but that’s where they are. And I think that the thing they have right is that they have to win. There’s no midway scenario for them. If Russia controls territory, Russia deports people. If Russia controls territory, Russia installs television.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: It purges teachers. It gets rid of elites it. I mean, I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but those are genocidal actions. They’re nation-destroying actions, which will happen everywhere that Russia controls. And the Ukrainians get that, which is why they feel like they have to resist.
So I think the right way to think about it is that it will be a disaster if we lose. But we have to try to win this thing. And it’s strange for the left, because the left – I mean, to be frank, we’re used to be on the right side and losing, right? Like, we’re not we’re not that big on winning. Like, if somebody says winning, then we start thinking about Trump, right?
But, like, sometimes you got to be on the right side and win, and you got to win quickly. And this is one of these times, and it puts us in a strange position because for Ukraine, this can only be one militarily, like here are a lot of other things we can do. We can show solidarity.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Timothy Snyder: We can march. All those things are really important. We should give money. A lot of my friends are helping out refugees right now, hosting refugees. That’s all really important. But like it has to be won as a war.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Timothy Snyder: And like, in that sense, I appreciated your monologue the other night, where you’re making these historic comparisons, because in many ways is different from ‘39. But one way that it’s similar to ‘39 is that you got to win. Like this is a war where you actually have to be thinking about winning and thinking through to the end, like what would it mean to win? If we’re going to win, what do we have to do now? Because just holding on isn’t going to be enough.
Chris Hayes: Dr. Timothy Snyder is a Levin Professor of History at Yale. His latest book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century will be coming out with an expanded audiobook edition in April, very soon, with 20 new lessons and insight on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That was immensely clarifying and edifying, Professor. Thank you.
Timothy Snyder: So glad to do it. Thanks for having me.
Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Dr. Snyder. We’d love to hear your feedback. You can tweet us with a hashtag WITHpod, email email@example.com. And before I do this final tag, in which I mentioned the music to this program which is written by Edie Cooper, I want to mention that his band Tempers has a new album out that you should check out. You can go wherever you get your streaming music, Tempers music online. If you like the music here, you might like to check them out.
“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.