Why should we study history? We all have our personal reasons why we love history; some like reading exciting stories that can be stranger than fiction, others let their imaginations transport them to worlds gone by. There are many reasons for loving history, but in this article I want to explore why history actually matters in the here and now.
Unfortunately, that belief is not universal. Around the world, budgets for social studies and history in particular are cut, and the focus in curricula is shifted to more practical subjects, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in universities, and English and mathematics in schools.
Yet we have to look no further than the top headlines in current affairs to understand why history is extremely important as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can only be understood through the lens of history. The primary reason for Russia’s war is neither economic (as wars so often are) nor religious (as wars so often were). No, it is Putin’s belief that Ukraine is the cradle of Russian civilization and should not be an independent country… especially not one that aligns itself with Europe. We know very well now that apart from dynastic lineage, the Kievan Rus had very little relationship to modern Russia. In the thousand years since the Kievan Rus, Ukraine has been at the crossroads of Poland-Lithuania, Austria-Hungary and Russia.
In the lead-up to the war, Vladimir Putin published a long and somewhat rambling historical essay where he places Russia in direct opposition to its western neighbours (who he blames for estranging Ukraine from Russia). The historian Serhii Ploky wrote that “the Soviet Union was created in 1922-1923 as a pseudo-federal rather than a unitary state precisely in order to accommodate Ukraine and Georgia, the two most independent-minded republics.” Ukraine’s independence has been a thorn in the Russian leaders’ side for a long time, but at the start of the Soviet Union, Lenin sided with the Ukrainians while Stalin was against it but went along anyway. Ukraine’s unique cultural mix was accepted as independent during Soviet times, and by the fall of the USSR, 90% of Ukrainians supported independence. Putin wants to wind back the clock to imperial times, fully incorporating Ukraine (and other regions) into a unified Russia. According to Ukrainian journalist Veronika Melkozerova, many Russians share this view.
Russia’s claim to Kiev is not a new one. The Russian Imperial historian Vasiliy Klyuchevskiy already wrote in 1908 that “the Russian state was formed by the activities of Askold and later Oleg in Kiev.” He refers to the Kievan Rus, after which Russia is named, whose dynasty lasted from the Norse leader Rurik (r. 862-879) all the way to Ivan IV, first Tsar of Russia (r. 1547-1584, also known as Ivan the Terrible). The medieval Tale of Bygone Years (c. 1113) called Kiev “the mother of all Russian cities” – which should be read Rus-sian, not Russian, to be historically accurate. Putin’s “favourite historian” Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) was a fascist philosopher who argued for a greater Russia that included Ukraine. Much of Putin’s rambling historical essay is based on Ilyin’s nationalist beliefs, writes historian Timothy Snyder. Putin’s view completely negates hundreds of years of Ukrainian history, where the region was touched by more Western influences.
If culture is a tapestry, then history is the fabric it is made from. National identities are built upon our understanding of history, which is why in most countries, history has been a compulsory subject in school since the 19th century. Recent legislation regarding how the history of slavery is taught in the United States clearly shows that governments still recognize the power of history to control the national narrative. As the current crisis shows, national identity is a powerful force.
According to Russian historian Dina Khapaeva, “the leitmotif of Russian history [is] a steady fascination with the West, coupled with an urge to excel it in order to escape its influence.” When Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity before marrying the Byzantine Princess Anna in 988, he forced his subjects to be baptized by the river Dnieper in Ukraine, which was associated with pagan beliefs. As a newly Christian state, the Rus needed Christian rules: The Ruskaya Pravda, the first Russian code of laws, was most likely written by Byzantine judges and also forced upon the Slavic population. As such, Khapaeva writes, “people perceived culture and civilization […] as something enforced by foreign rulers.” Later Western reforms by Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and other rulers were always enforced at great cost to the general population. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the promise of democracy and a free market economy brought a short period of hope and expectation of prosperity which was crushed by economic crisis and political instability. This “idealization of the West therefore intensified the national inferiority complex”, writes Khapaeva: While in 1990 over two thirds of Russians considered themselves European, by 2007 only one third did. In the same 2007 survey conducted by Khapaeva, 80% of Russians believed that the history of their country should only stir feelings of pride. It is easy for a canny authoritarian leader to use all of this to his advantage.
In this context, Ukraine looking westward and aligning itself with the European Union is a major affront to Russia’s identity and Putin’s vision. After all, Putin and Russian nationalists see Kiev as the birthplace of the Russian nation. The current war can be seen as a calculated demonstration of Russia’s might and opposition to the West. While this is a risky gamble for Putin (who appears to have underestimated both Ukraine and the West’s response), the historical context gives it a sense of rationality, albeit a false one.
Only through an understanding of history and how it shapes national identities can we begin to comprehend the major events in current affairs. The past is used by politicians to actively construct national identities; it is misused as pretexts for wars; it is abused in misinformation campaigns on social media. History is very much present and it matters for the present, just as much as STEM subjects do, and must be prioritized accordingly in order to shield our democratic culture from such malignant perversions of history.
- Dina Khapaeva in Peter Furtado, Histories of Nations: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0500293007?tag=anciehistoenc-20
- Joshua J. Mark, Kievan Rus: https://www.worldhistory.org/Kievan_Rus/
- Matthew Lenoe, Fact-checking Putin’s claims that Ukraine and Russia are ‘one people’: https://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/ukraine-history-fact-checking-putin-513812/
- Save Ancient Studies Alliance, The Downward Trend: https://www.saveancientstudies.org/the-trend
- Serhii Plokhy in Isaac Chotiner, Vladimir Putin’s Revisionist History of Russia and Ukraine: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/vladimir-putins-revisionist-history-of-russia-and-ukraine
- Timothy Snyder, Putin’s rationale for Ukraine invasion gets the history wrong: https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2022/02/25/vladimir-great-putin-ukraine/
- Veronika Melkozerova, The Western World is in Denial: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/what-if-world-war-iii-has-already-started/627054/
- Vladimir Putin, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181