'A human tragedy at the greatest scale': Lynne Viola on how distorted history shapes today’s war in Ukraine

March 16, 2022 by Josslyn Johnstone - U of T News

As Ukraine faces an uncertain future amid the ongoing invasion by Russia, historians around the world are looking to the past to better understand the motivations of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the future.

Few are as well-placed to analyze how Putin’s interpretation of history is playing into the current war as the University of Toronto’s Lynne Viola, a University Professor in the department of history in the Faculty of Arts & Science, who is cross-appointed to the Centre for European, Russian & Eurasian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. A 20th-century Russian history expert, Viola’s research covers political culture and violence in the era of Stalin.

In an interview with writer Josslyn Johnstone, Viola describes how Putin is using a distorted version of history to justify the current invasion, which she laments as a large-scale human tragedy and a manifestation of “the Russia none of us want to see unfolding.”

Viola also discusses anti-war stances amongst both Ukrainians and Russians, and explores how the invasion could affect access to key historical archives in both countries.

How does Russian President Vladimir Putin’s version of Russian history explain what we see happening today?

Putin has been talking about this mythical Russian world – Russkiy Mir, a Kremlin concept to unite all Slavic people across central and eastern Europe under one Russian culture – for a long time. There’s this idea that he is trying to recreate the historical record and leave a legacy as the great unifier of Russia.

In 2005, Putin said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. So, I think a large part of what we're seeing now is revanchism – the fight to recoup lost territories. While I hesitate to make analogies with Stalin or Hitler, I’d say the closest one is the revanchism of the Hitler regime. For them, the First World War was not yet settled, and they were responding to the Treaty of Versailles and Germany’s supposed losses.

Putin is also what historian Anne Applebaum calls an imperial nostalgist – what you can hear in his words are echoes of 19th-century, far-right Russian nationalists of Imperial Russia. And like most far-right nationalists, Putin distorts the past to provide rationale for the present.

In his rhetoric, Putin denies the distinct identity of Ukraine. How has he reinforced this narrative to justify the invasion?

He’s challenged the idea that Ukraine is a state. He’s said that Ukraine and Russia are one people, a single whole. But then the question for him is: Why didn't they greet you with bread and salt, a traditional welcome? Blaming Lenin for the creation of Ukraine, calling for the “denazification” of Ukraine – those are just a couple of the many historical absurdities to have come out of Putin’s mouth and pen. It almost seems as if Putin is channeling his own inner Stalin, recreating elements of the Second World War in Ukraine, especially with the tank formations and repressing the few brave voices within Russia that oppose him.

Your work has shone a light on social support for Stalinism among the working class. What hold does the figure of Stalin have on the Russian people today?

That is hard to say. A couple years ago the Levada Center did a poll that showed Stalin was the most popular person in Russia, but it’s hard to measure opinions like that. What both former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin tried to do was partly resurrect Stalin in the minds of the population – you know, “He did these terrible things, sure. But he also built Russia, and the Soviet Union, he won the war for us,” and so on. It's a kind of mixed bag in terms of what's coming on down from on high about Stalin.

At the beginning of his political career, we weren’t sure what to make of Putin. There was so much chaos and poverty in the 1990s. It was good to see people’s lives begin to improve. But at the same time there were apartment explosions in the late ’90s, which some say were set up to start the second Chechen war. We know what he did in Chechnya – Grozny, the capital, became famous for just how much you can destroy a city with bombing. We know he took over Crimea, and the eastern districts of Ukraine. And, on top of that, you've got these frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Transnistria and Moldova, where you have little enclaves of Russian-supporting populations. If he wants to go back and open those conflicts again, he's got a way in.

How have stances against this war taken shape amongst those who call Ukraine and Russia home?

We can see how Ukrainians are proving themselves to be a very strong people, and there is this tremendous unity that came out of the Euromaidan revolution in 2014. It’s also worth noting that Ukraine is a multiethnic state – and people are identifying not ethnically, but politically with their state, which is an amazing achievement. So, one of the ironies of Putin’s aggression is that Ukraine is strengthened now more than ever before.

Some Russians, particularly urban and of the younger generation, are certainly against this war. We see some of them bravely confronting the police on the streets. For my part, I just resigned my position at the Centre for Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow because I have no interest in any relationship with the Russian government, which funds the centre. I’ve been in Russian history for a long time. Russia is my second love. What’s happening today is a human tragedy at the greatest scale – it’s the Russia none of us want to see unfolding. Ukraine has also been the site of my research for almost the last 10 years. Almost every city I see in the news, I can attach to the face of one of my students. I worry about how they are doing – I just learned one of my PhD students has made her way from Warsaw to help refugees in her hometown of Lviv.

Your research has taken you deep into previously classified files of the former KGB archives in Ukraine and Russia. What threat is this type of documentary evidence under now?

Putin has been busy destroying Russian civil society for a while now – his latest act was the shutdown of Memorial, an NGO dedicated to preserving the memory of the victims of Stalin, and home to a human rights wing and the largest archive on the Gulag in the world. And the “foreign agent” law he introduced in 2012 means many civil society organizations haven’t been able to continue because they received financial support from outside of Russia.

My work in Kyiv was in the archive of the former KGB – in Ukraine that's called SBU, the Security Service of Ukraine. I know that the SBU buildings are targets for the Russian military, which house the archive in Kyiv. I’m glad we managed to publish our documents and place them in the public domain. And fortunately, many Ukrainian archives have started to digitalize collections to protect them. The future of these archives depends on the fate of Ukraine. They will not be easily accessible if they even remain standing.