The making of modern Ukraine

For most of my adult life, I’ve learned history almost exclusively by reading books. I took American and World history in high school and two quarters of American history in college, but after that, I became a history autodidact. I’ve written several book reviews (and published three of them), but this is the first course review I’ve written.

In a footnote to an article on Ukraine in New York Review of books by British historian Timothy Garton Ash, he mentioned a series of 23 online lectures from Fall 2022 about the history of Ukraine by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. I’m not a big consumer of video content, but I decided to check them out, and in the space of the first afternoon, I’d already watched five 50-minute lectures. I binge-watched all 23 lectures in five consecutive days. I was primed for these lectures by having read “The Gates of Europe,” a history of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, which turns out to be an assigned text for Snyder’s course.

In his first lecture, Snyder discusses what history is and isn’t, emphasizing the role of chance in the sequence of events and the fallacious arguments of Putin that Ukraine is necessarily an integral part of Russia. History isn’t about determinism, iron laws, inevitability of events or progression towards an inevitable destiny, it’s a record of uncertainty and contingency. For example, Snyder makes the point that the Mongols were never defeated on the battlefield and would probably have sacked Paris in the 13th century (which would have transformed history) but for the fact that the relentless progress of the Batu Khan was stopped when he had to return to Mongolia for a succession struggle.

I didn’t know what a critical role slavery played in Eastern Europe in the first millennium. Trade was not only about goods, but also about slaves. He emphasizes that religious conversions of political leaders had far less to do with religious belief than with political tactics. For example, a Christian couldn’t enslave another Christian and a Muslim couldn’t enslave another Muslim, but both could enslave pagans. So a pagan conversion protected the convert from slavery if s/he converted to the dominant local monotheism. Indeed, an important role of a state at the time was to protect the subjects from enslavement. Between the first and second week of the course, Snyder traveled to Ukraine, meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife Olena Zelenska and with soldiers and civilians in Kyiv and surrounding towns.

One of the themes Snyder emphasizes is the establishment of the Ukrainian and Russian states (and states in general) is succession. How does a state perpetuate itself after the founder dies and the founding conditions change? In a hereditary monarchy, succession is reasonably clear as long as bloodlines are clear and there are no assassinations. In a democracy, succession is determined by elections. Snyder’s point is that states without clear mechanisms for succession are weakened by the uncertainty about future control, a weakness that has implications today in Putin’s Russia.

While the nexus of these lectures is Ukraine, the narrative arc of these lectures is immense, as it spans 1200 years and real estate from England and France in the west, through western, central, southern and northern Europe, to the lands bordering the Black Sea and Baltic Sea and into modern Russia. He accomplishes this agenda over 23 lectures by regularly stepping back from the details to remind us of repeated overarching themes, distilling the immensity and complexity into manageable ideas and concepts. Snyder claims that this is the only lecture course on the history of Ukraine being offered at the time. He later clarifies that Serhii Plokhy teaches a course on that topic at Harvard, but begins with 1500 CE, which Snyder doesn’t get to until about lecture 7.

Snyder is an excellent speaker. You can see him referring to notes on paper, but there’s no Powerpoint slides. He makes infrequent use of a chalkboard (IKR?), only to add words and names that he omitted from the syllabus. Unlike a book, which benefits from an editor, the lectures sometimes repeat information given previously, although unlike me, the students weren’t binge-watching, so could probably benefit from reminders. Also, unlike a book, the pacing of lectures is the pace of the speaker. Snyder’s speaking style is brisk and largely free of the sorts of distracting “ums” and “uhs” that impair many less experienced teachers, but he does end up covering an amount of content in his spoken lectures that I could have read in about half the time.

This is the first full-length lecture course I’ve attended since graduate school. There were handouts for each lecture. There were also discussion sections led by teaching fellows that I missed, so I didn’t really participate in the entire course. But on balance, I’m very glad to have watched/listened, and I recommend the series to anyone interested in this part of the world, particularly in light of the current war in Ukraine. If you’re mainly interested in the specific history most directly impacting the war in Ukraine today, start with the last lecture. And for anyone who is hearing-impaired, there are subtitles.

Timothy Snyder: The Making of Modern Ukraine, YouTube