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LMC 2024

Lennart Meri Lecture 2024: Ukrainian History and the Future of the World by Timothy Snyder

Transcription from the video recording.

Timothy Snyder

Levin Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University

I am delighted to be able to speak to you, and I appreciate your patience and persistence in coming to a lecture that is going to be about history when you’ve already got your minds all keened-up and exhausted about the present and the future.

I hope this will be rewarding. The basic idea here is that, in a long war, we are going to need a longer story; a story which is true; a story which opens our imagination to possible outcomes; and a story which is faithful to the basic reality that there are many things that we just don’t know about the past. And those things that we don’t know about the past might be some of the things we need to understand, to see where we might get to in the future.

In the spirit of not despairing, I’m not going to be speaking chiefly about the sorts of things that President Ilves (introducing T. Snyder at the conference, ed.) signalled — the 20th century. What I’d like to do instead is talk about the deep past of the lands that are now Ukraine. And I’m doing this for a number of reasons. One is that it helps us to understand why this particular conflict is unsurprisingly of global significance.

Another thing that it helps us to do is it helps us to see what these possible futures, these undetermined futures, might be. Because I think part of our problem is that we’re struggling all the time with a determinist story, which is Russia’s story, Putin’s story, that this was always Russia and therefore always must be Russia, which is not only stupid, but it’s also the wrong way to think about the relationship between the past and the future.

The right way is to have as broad an understanding of the past as possible, and then to see where all those lines might possibly go. Because there are always more possibilities for the future than we think, both for the good and for the bad.

I’m going to try to teach you some things that I myself have learnt about the history of Ukraine. And I’m going to try to lead you through them and then back to the present, and hopefully in a way which will be refreshing.

One of the things which is very interesting about Ukraine is that Ukraine, the lands of Ukraine. I’m not, by the way, like ethnic Ukrainian enthusiasts out there, I’m not actually saying that there were Ukrainians on these territories thousands of years ago? That would be absurd. What I am going to be saying is that there’s a huge amount of very interesting and dense human history on these lands, which in general, we don’t know about. And if we did know about them, the things that we argue about would probably seem less interesting.

One of the things that people generally don’t know is that the oldest human cities — the oldest cities that we know of — are on the lands of today’s Ukraine, older than the cities in Babylon. And more interesting: these cities, which are about 7000 years old, were set up in a different way than the cities of ancient Mesopotamia were. The cities of ancient Mesopotamia — as you know if you had some kind of civilisational education — had big walls; they had temples; they had concentrations of financial, religious, and political authority.

The old cities in Ukraine, Nebelivka, Mahnetske, Talianky, and a few others (these are the names we give them) — these places did not have centres of financial, religious, or political authority. They were in concentric circles, suggesting an entirely different way of living, right? One that makes (this is not really a left-wing anarchist crowd, I don’t think. I’m seeing a couple of exceptions) the left-wing anarchists among us very happy because they suggest cooperation. These cities also left a very light ecological footprint, partly because of the fertility of the land around them, the famous black earth, but also partly suggesting that there might be a more human way of interacting with the environment.

The second thing [is] that people generally don’t know about these lands, which has been pretty well established. By the way, although this is a very high-tech talk, it may seem like I’m just a guy in a vyshyvanka talking to you about things that happened 5000 years ago. But many of the things we now know about the ancient past have to do with very useful kinds of new technology: having to do with radar, having to do with improved forms of carbon dating, or especially having to do with ancient DNA. So, one of the things which now seems pretty well established is that about 5000 years ago, pastoralists in what is now southwest Russia and what is now Ukraine began to spread Indo-European languages around Asia and around Europe.

I realise I’m in Estonia, and there are some exceptions to this, but roughly half the world now speaks Indo-European languages. Most Europeans speak Indo-European languages. I’m speaking one of them now. And insofar, as your native language or one of your major languages is an Indo-European language, you are in a world which was created in large measure by horse pastoralists coming out of the territory, the steppe of what is now Ukraine beginning about 5000 years ago. Whether you’re a fan of ancient Greek or ancient Icelandic, pretty much whatever tradition you’re coming from, if it’s European, it ultimately goes back to these territories.

And this is also, by the way, a point about technology. I’m going to take this slowly. The big technological leap was that these people learned that you can ride horses. We overestimate how smart we are in general as humans. That’s the premise of every conference, right? There’s a certain overestimation of ourselves. But, for most of the history of human beings, what we did with horses was that we ate them. And only quite recently did it occur to us that we could ride them.

But once that occurred to people, it created a much more profitable version of farming — pastoralism. But it also created tremendous military advancement advantages, which allowed these people from the steppe to spread out again and again and again into Asia and into Europe.

Third point is the rise of Greece. If you come from some kind of Western civilisation background, you probably think that 4th century Athens is an important place — and of course, it is. But the interesting thing about 4th century Athens — and that whole thing: the math, the myths, the architecture, the history, the literature — is that it did not arise in isolation. 4th century Athens only existed as 4th century Athens because of Scythia. And Scythia, of course, is another name for the territories of what’s Ukraine, and the Caucasus, and also going further east.

As the Greeks began to colonise the north of the Black Sea, the Scythians began to settle what people then called the Pontic Steppe. And that was no coincidence. The Greeks and the Scythians, from the very beginning in this part of the world, existed in a synthesis. Those colonists could exist because of the fertile Hinterland. And the most important thing those colonists did was ship grain back to Athens.

So, you probably wondered — or you’re about to —why the Greeks could just live on olives, right? And wine. And the answer is that they systematically imported wheat from the black earth of what we now call Ukraine, especially from a land which was called the Kingdom of the Bosphorus. The Kingdom of the Bosphorus, of course, was on both sides of what we now call the Straits of Kerch. And when the Greeks first explored this region in the 6th century BC, the very first thing they did was sail through those straits into the Azov Sea. And their most important ally — I’m going to say it again — was this Hellenistic kingdom called the Kingdom of the Bosphorus, which was part Scythian, part Greek, and which allowed ancient Athens to become what it was.

All this ancient Athens that we correctly understand as being part of a larger civilisation is dependent on the Scythians, not just economically but also, to a profound degree, culturally. I could go through the list, and my Georgian friends would say — well, of course — that was Georgia.

We can debate where Prometheus was actually bounded, but Iphigenia in Tauris is uncontroversially in Crimea. And more than that, one of the greatest themes of Greek art, the second most popular, is, of course, the theme of the Amazons. And the Amazons were — and again, this is something we now quite straightforwardly know because of the ancient DNA evidence — the Amazons were really existing mounted female Scythian archers. And the reason why they appear in Greek mythology over and over again with Heracles, with Theseus, with Achilles is because Greeks did, in fact, have regular encounters with armed women. Okay, so Greece exists because of the steppe. Point three.

Point four. The transformation of Rome. There’s this nice idea of the fall of the Roman Empire, which everyone who is from this part of Europe will respond to by saying that it didn’t fall, at least not until the 15th century. That’s all true, but the transformation of Rome about 1500 years ago has everything to do with things that happened in Ukraine. The people who succeeded the Scythians and dominated the territory of Ukraine for a while were the Goths, a German-speaking people. And, by the way, I’m going to forget to say this as I go on, but every time a people arrives in Ukraine, it’s always a kind of return because they’re always bringing back an Indo-European language to where Indo-European languages came in the first place.

So, the Goths were Germanic people who arrive in what’s now Ukraine in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. They are at the source of the oldest Germanic or north-European stories, which we still have thanks to Icelandic literature. They were, in their turn, driven out by the Huns in the 4th century; in 376 AD, they crossed the Danube; some of them converted to Christianity. But those Goths — and Goths who came afterwards — were very much involved in the dissolution of Roman power in the west: sometimes with the Huns, sometimes against the Huns.

These are the people who become the famous Visigoths and the Ostrogoths — I’m not going to tell you that story. And they were also people from Ukraine who converted to Christianity. Many of the Goths who stayed in Ukraine — or what’s now Ukraine — had already converted; in 376, a major people from Ukraine converted to Christianity. And, of course, in 988, another Germanic-speaking people are going to convert to Christianity — and that’s the Vikings, which will be point five.

So, we’re now about 1000 years ago. And if you think I’m going to bring you up breathlessly to the present, you’re going to be really disappointed. Because I’m not. About a thousand years ago, another Germanic-speaking people, the Vikings, the Varangians, the Scandinavians — or if you want to be a little bit anachronistic: the Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes — made their way — I’m tempted to say — back again. Because again, every time you come to Ukraine, almost whatever language you’re speaking, again, with exceptions for our Finno-Ugric friends, you’re bringing something back which originally came from there; which, I think, is just an interesting thing to keep in mind: every time you go and give a lecture in English in Kyiv, you’re actually bringing back a linguistic tradition that came from there, whether you know it or not.

Anyway, around the year 1000, the Vikings, the Varangians, these north Europeans, made their way to what’s now Ukraine. The first thing they did, though, was they tried to get down the Volga. They had a long encounter with the Bulgars, a long encounter with the Khazars which livened up their culture considerably, I’ve got to stay. If you have Swedish friends who you think are incredibly fun at parties, it’s because of these things that happened in the 8th and 9th centuries. The culture of the Vikings that they brought was, interestingly, the old Germanic stories, some of which actually arose from events in Ukraine. 600 years later, they have these stories, and they’re bringing them with them. And interestingly, if you read the Icelandic poems, they know this. They know they’re going back to, so to speak, where they came from. They know these Gothic references, which is interesting. But the livening-up part is from the other pagans.

The Viking story is usually told in the most boring possible way. It’s exciting no matter how you tell it, but it’s usually told in terms of going west to Greenland and Iceland, you know, which is fun, but there weren’t that many people there. Or going south and encountering the Christians, the Franks. But it’s the eastern part, which is the most interesting because then it was that the Vikings encountered other pagans and got their own paganism refreshed.

The reason why Thor and Odin become such interesting figures is because the Vikings encounter similar gods — probably the same gods but similar gods among the Slavs and the Khazars. It’s at this point that you get a newer level of North European myth, literature, and poetry which involves these fascinating characters: Thor and Odin (otherwise known as Perun and Volos). And I want to stress this because it’s not just that Vikings moved from the north and ended up in Kyiv, which is how it turns out. But they were circulating the whole time. And when they circulated, they brought their poets with them — the same way that you bring your phones, for much the same reason, although I would argue that bringing a poet with you is actually much cooler. (Addressing audience: I’m just seeing if there’s anybody here who has a poet. We’re all for poets, I think. Okay, raise your hand if I’m wrong.) But the point of this is that you can see how this encounter with the east, and with the Slavs, and with the Turkish-speaking peoples gets into the stories which are only about northern Europe.

The most famous story, which is The Völsunga Saga, involves Brynhild saying at one point: “I can’t lose my virginity to you because I’m a ferocious warrior who bloodied her sword in Rus.” Right? So, Rus has worked its way back into the story. At other points in the Völsunga saga, a character called Yedeslev turns up. And in other Icelandic stories, there’s a character called Valdemar. And if you’re an East Slavic sort of person, you know these people by the slightly anachronistic names of Volodymyr or Vladimir or Yaroslav, which are Slavic names which were made up later to describe Scandinavian people. Right?

There’s this really interesting moment of Viking state creation which ranges, of course, from North America all the way deep into Eastern Europe. It involves these three kingdoms in Scandinavia; it also involves Normandy; it involves Sicily. Right? And this is a moment of the year 1000 when Europe really becomes Europe. But there is one more thing I want to say about Rus before I move on.

Rus is the state founded in Kyiv by Vikings under the influence of Khazars, with Slavic and other subjects. But Rus is Rus because of the new connection that the Vikings make by the Dnipro River, which, by the way (I’m just going to make this point again), the Goths called Denauper. And when the Vikings get to the river, they know it’s the same river. They recognise the terrains from their own literature, which I think is kind of fascinating. But the Vikings make the state by turning the Dnipro into a commercial route. That’s what they do. They connect the Baltic to the Black Sea. And their chief commercial port was called Tmutarakan, and Tmutarakan was on what we now call the Kerch Straits. When Rus lost access to the Kerch Straits, that’s when they started to weaken as a state; there’s a pretty simple geographic and economic explanation for that.

The very last point is the present. I’ve been trying to load this lecture up with things that I have learned and that hopefully not all of you knew because I think it’s really important, in the spirit of not despairing, to realise there are new things to be learnt. And the point of history isn’t that people keep fighting each other all the time. Nor is the point of history that empires have always existed. Nor is the point of history that ethnicities have already existed. Right?

Ethnicities have not always existed. Empires have not always existed. And this is one of the conclusions. It’s an early one — there’ll be more. But in none of what I’ve talked to you about so far in this territory has empire really been very important.

There’s been recorded human settlement in this part of the world for about 40 000 years. When modern humans made their way to Europe, they made their way by way of Crimea, as far as we know. And there have been cities, of one kind or another, on and off for 7000 years. In all this history that I’ve talked to you about — coming up to about 1000 years ago or even 500 years ago — empire is not really very important. There are forms of political organisation, but you wouldn’t really want to characterise them as empires. This is not a site of empire until we get to the sixth and last stage: the 500 years ago to the present, which you can call an age of discovery or an age of empire, or, if you like, an age of globalisation. It’s at this time when the fertile black earth of Ukraine becomes instrumentalised in larger plans, which in one way or another have to do with the whole world.

In 1569, when most of Ukraine falls under the Polish crown, you get this very interesting moment where a lot of European high cultural tendencies — Renaissance, Baroque, Latin, and Polish itself — literature, printing are brought into Ukraine. At the same time, you also have the exploitation by Polish, or self-Polonising, landlords of vast plantations (or latifundia) of Ukrainian-speakers as serfs. That moment is the same moment when other Europeans are going around the world. And what the Poles are doing, among other things, is they’re selling the grain from Ukraine as a cash crop for gold and silver, which is coming from the new world, in this new interconnected world.

Likewise, Russia, right? When Poland breaks apart, and the Russian Empire begins to dominate Ukraine, it’s very important that Russia controls this fertile territory. In 1720 or so, they ban exports from other than Russian ports. And this global project of Russia is very much dependent upon control of the steppe — control of the black earth.

Likewise, in a different way, the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union presents itself, of course, as a counter-empire, but it exists in the world of empires. And one of Stalin’s lessons from the world of empires is that if you can’t beat them, you have to join them. That is, the whole Soviet project was based on the premise that we are going to accelerate our way through every step of capitalist history, including the imperial stage; we have to imitate capitalism right down to imperialism. And this includes exploiting peripheries like Ukraine in order to finance the project of industrialisation in the rest of the country, which is another way of talking about the experience which Ukrainians remember as Holodomor.

Likewise, Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany also existed in a world of empire. The Nazi leaders also thought of themselves as a counter-empire meant to destroy, or at least rival, the Brits and the Americans. And in the Nazi version of all of this, it was going to be the Germans who controlled the black earth, the Germans who controlled the steppe, the Germans who took over the Soviet collective farms and then diverted all of that foodstuff back to Germany so that it could become a self-sufficient empire.

So, that’s a very brief version of the history of the world and the history of Europe as seen from this territory. By it, I don’t mean to say that I can draw all the exhaustive conclusions from it. These are things that I’m learning, and I don’t know where all the arrows point, but I would draw a few more tentative conclusions.

One would be — if we think, as I think many of us do — that world order is going to depend on what happens in Ukraine. This is maybe less surprising if we have a sense of this history of Ukraine, because Ukraine has had a great deal to do with world order a number of times before. If we think of, for example, the foundation of the city, or the creation of the language spoken by half the people in the world, or the agricultural foundation of a number of civilisations — local, regional, and global. If we think those things are of world significance — and they are — then we’re less surprised that a war in Ukraine could be something like a war for the future of world order.

Likewise, the shape of Europe. If Ukraine shows various kinds of non-imperial political models, we’ll be less surprised that today a Russian — there have been others, but today a Russian — imperial attempt to control Ukraine would be decisive for the future of European order. There are other ways to talk about this, of course, but my view is that the European Union is essentially a post-imperial order, created by states which are no longer empires, but which had been for hundreds of years. And therefore, the crucial issue is whether empire continues to survive in Europe or not.

A slightly lighter point to make about all this would be how it would have to do with popular culture. I’m going to risk this. You can pretend not to know what I’m talking about — it’s fine. Or if you’re young, you can pretend to know what I’m talking about. That’s also cool. But if you think of, let’s put it this way, the non-Christian popular culture that we have, it leans really heavily on a Greek pagan and a Viking pagan tradition. And that Greek pagan tradition wouldn’t exist in the same form without the Scythians and without Ukraine. And certainly, the Viking pagan tradition wouldn’t exist in the same form. Or to put it very specifically, we wouldn’t have Wonder Woman without the Amazons. And the Amazons were real, and they were from Scythia. Right? And if they hadn’t been real, they wouldn’t have been in myth. And if they hadn’t been in myth, they wouldn’t be in stories, they wouldn’t be in a film. And the same goes for the entire Greek pantheon. All these things which we like to apply.

But then, making the final and most serious points, let me make one more point about popular culture. Ukrainians today refer to Russian occupiers in a number of different ways. One of them, as I’m sure many of you will know, is ‘orcs.’ And so, you can say: oh, well, orcs — that must just come from those Peter Jackson movies about The Lord of the Rings. And of course, that’s true. But every time a word, including an English word, comes to Ukraine, it’s actually a return. So, the word ‘orc’ Tolkien has from Beowulf. And Beowulf, of course, is a riff on Scandinavian legends, right? So, the history of the word ‘orc’ actually goes back to Ukraine itself. Right? It goes back to the Goths and to the Scandinavians, and then, we have this kind of complicated triple landing where it arrives in Ukraine again. Right? But everything that arrives in Ukraine is actually — or almost everything — is some kind of return.

But now, to the more serious conclusions. If you look at this history, this 5000 or 7000-year history. There are a few big conclusions that kind of narrow down, I think, the way we should be talking about this war.

One which I should have stressed more is climate. The migration into Europe 40 000 years ago — where this all begins — had to do with climate change. And the war that’s going on now is being fought by the world’s leading hydrocarbon oligarch. And if hydrocarbon oligarchs win wars, we’re not going to make transitions to green energy.

A second big point — so obvious that I’m sure I don’t have to stress it — is that the second big step in the story has to do with technological change. I made fun of how easy it is to ride a horse, but it’s actually not such a simple thing. It’s a pretty incredible achievement, actually. And the fact that the Scythians could get the horses to bow down to them, for example, gave them a tremendous advantage over the Greeks, who didn’t know how to do that. But this war too, I think, shows us (I’m not going to be specific now about what kind of technology I have in mind, although it starts with ‘D’) this war may also be one where we’re at a major technological shift. And the winner is going to be the one who’s on the right side of that shift.

Then, a third big conclusion one can draw from all of this — and it’s a very old-fashioned, conservative conclusion — has to do with land. We tend to talk about this war in psychological terms. We tend to talk about it in terms of how people are feeling. We tend to set aside some of the basic things which have been crucial to conflict and the movement of peoples in this part of the world for literally thousands of years. And if one takes a broad sweep of this history, one sees: Ah, okay… It matters who controls that Dnipro River all the way down to the Black Sea; it matters that this terrain is fertile and can feed ten times the number of people who live on it. It matters deeply, and it has always mattered. And people have known this for at least 2500 years. It matters deeply who controls the Strait of Kerch, or what we now call the Straits of Kerch.

Everyone who has fought a war in this zone — from the Greeks 2500 years ago to the Germans and the Soviets in the middle of the 20th century — has understood that. And for me, that’s an example of how we’ve lost sight of terrain and how a very big view can bring us to what I think is a very, in this case, specific conclusion about what has to be done to win a war. Thank you.