Andrea Graziosi: "Putin's invasion of Ukraine was an act of genocide in the sense that it denied the Ukrainian people's existence"
Our conversation with the Italian historian Andrea Graziosi is focused on the Russo-Ukrainian War and its historical and political contexts. What are the main historical origins of this war? Can the policies of the Russian dictatorial regime be regarded as genocidal in historical and legal terms? How is this war changing the perceptions of the Western public about itself and the geopolitical strategies of the political elites in the West? What are the most likely scenarios for ending the war? The Italian historian has an original take on all these questions.
"I believe that Putin's possible role model is Alexander III"
What reasons could have led the Russian leadership to launch a war against Ukraine?
This is a very complex question with many answers. Certainly, the main reason is that right now, there is a ruling group at the helm in Russia (not an elite because such people cannot be called an elite), which is receptive to a certain Russian traditional worldview. The crux of their beliefs is the idea that Russia is not Europe. Starting with Nikolai Danilevsky, they believe that Russia is a civilizational space, separate from Europe, and that Europe has a negative influence on them. This traditional worldview dates back to the times of Peter I as a reaction to his policies; in a way, perhaps it starts even earlier — with the Old Believers. The rationalization of this worldview system is continued by Danilevsky (who, however, identified as anti-Europe, a Slavdom centering around Moscow), the first generation of Eurasianist authors of the 1920s–1930s (who looked instead toward Asia), and by the second and third generations of the 1960s and 1990s. To all of them, Europe was Russia's enemy. The idea is that Russia is the center of its own world, the Russkiy Mir, the Russian world, according to Vladimir Putin, or Eurasia, according to another narrative. All these formulations reflect, albeit in different forms, one and the same ideas, and it is worth emphasizing that they do not have an exclusively Russian ethno-national coloration. This is a concept of an hierarchical system composed of different peoples, which is structured by Moscow and managed by the "great Russian people." In my opinion, these are the beliefs that are held by the group ruling Russia right now. This group came to power together with Putin but was also influential at the beginning of the 1990s, and Putin was part of it already back then.
Of course, Putin’s views should not be seen as immutable, for his ideas evolved, as do the convictions of the majority of people. If we explore the discourse that was forming in Russia at the beginning of the 2000s, it is clear that this is a very statist discourse. Obviously, at the time, Putin was open to the West, especially because he felt that he was weak and he was aware of his vulnerabilities. Putin is not a pure realist since he is a very ideologically-minded person, but he is a realist nonetheless because he is aware of the potency of power relations. After coming into office, he understood that Russia was weak and the West was strong, and that, therefore, his dream of reviving the Russkiy Mir at that time was unrealizable.
Take the example of the reinterment of Anton Denikin's and Ivan Ilyin's remains in Moscow in 2005. Efforts to repatriate their remains began very early, in 2001 or 2002. It is said that the relatives of these historical figures, as well as [the Russian filmmaker] Nikita Mikhalkov, pleaded with Putin about this. In any case, Putin had Denikin's and Ilyin's remains repatriated, and he organized their splendid burial in Donskoy Monastery. It is hardly possible to do this in the absence of certain ideological beliefs. Ilyin was the "White" ideologist of Russia's anti-Western orientation in the 1930s. He cannot be regarded as a Nazi but as an extreme Russian nationalist. Therefore, from this point of view, the role of ideology in Putin's actions is underestimated, but he does realize the importance of power relations.
Starting in 2006–2007 and especially after 2008, the year of the financial crisis, Putin probably became more and more convinced that Russia's relative strength vis-à-vis the West was growing. Definitely, one of the key aspects of this was the fact that the U.S. had escalated its confrontation with China, which was a political miscalculation, in my estimation, even though, of course, the new Chinese leadership shares a large part of the blame. For Russia, this opened up an opportunity to interact with a different great power. So, I think that Putin was already thinking about the restoration of the Russkiy Mir, although it was not clear what form it was supposed to take. Furthermore, he did not have sufficient ability to turn this plan into a reality. However, opportunities increasingly appeared, and in 2014, this scenario became a reality.
I think that the war began in 2014. Naturally, the scale is now different, but everything started back then. Already then, the war was unfolding around Europe because the question was whether Ukraine would join the Eurasian [Economic] Union (or the Russkiy Mir, as Putin called it) or sign the European Union Association Agreement. Putin could not stand by and watch Ukraine join the European Union rather than the Eurasian one. Additional clarifications can be offered here, but the above-mentioned points were the main problem.
I am convinced that there are a lot of people among the Russian elites who think that Russia is part of Europe. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, for one, talked about the common European home. But a different group of people came to power, and the reason for this lies in the Soviet past. The real split with the West took place as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution; in this regard, the proponents of the first Eurasianism were not mistaken. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did indeed split Russia and the West, as a result of which they developed in two different directions over the course of many decades: just think of Joseph Stalin’s Terror, isolation, the Iron Curtain, and the absence of a common culture. As a consequence, the Soviet world organized itself as an extraordinarily (albeit not totally) isolated system. Unfortunately, the influence of this past turned out to be far stronger than was believed in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, for some time, I thought that Russia and Ukraine would unite once again with Europe on the basis of common principles. But in reality, Soviet history channeled Russians and the Russian leadership in a different direction.
What role might the current imperial view of the historical past have played in Russia's aggressive foreign policy?
Once again, the reason may be found in Putin and his group because we're not talking about a single individual but about a "collective Putin," and this means possibly scores of the most influential people in his circle. Putin is the key figure in this system, and needless to say, the members of this group may hold different versions and interpretations of the Russian imperial idea. Putin, too, has his own personal vision. Yet, they share a view of the past based upon the historically untenable idea of Kyivan Rus′, according to which the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians were always one people, and this will never change. By the way, this is precisely the view of the Russian Orthodox Church. Let's not forget that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, religious schools taught that Orthodox Rus′ originated in Kyiv and continued in Moscow, and it will be thus forever. I think that Putin has a similar belief. The close ties between Church and State are an element of the imperial vision of the past, but it is difficult to talk about the historical substantiation of such views. There also are more sophisticated versions of the imperial vision of the past, which take into account the fact that reality constantly changes.
I suppose that for Putin, a possible model is Alexander III and the Russian imperial ideology of the late nineteenth century, which was also very closely tied to the Russian Orthodox Church. This ideology denied the existence of Ukrainians as such and considered them Little Russians, a minor offshoot of the Russian people. Starting in 1863, the Ukrainian language and culture were persecuted during this period. Russian was considered a "real" language and culture, while Ukrainian and Belarusian were regarded as dialects. Thus, the Russian nucleus of the Russian world, the Russian Empire — or Russkiy Mir, as it is called today — in which the Russians are the dominant force, is a very pressing idea. It appears that such beliefs have become firmly embedded in Putin's mind.
"Putin is a fascist in the sense of his inclination toward an aggressive hierarchy, but not in the traditional understanding of fascism as ethnic nationalism"
We have already mentioned Denikin and Ilyin. There are various takes on these historical figures. Denikin held extreme views, believing that Ukraine and Ukrainians do not exist. This approach is different in that this is no longer an imperial ideology but the idea that everything is Russia. Denikin did not see Ukraine as a "minor" offshoot of Russianness. He believed that the very word "Ukraine" was unacceptable and must not be used. A similar element is present in Putin's historical survey in which he, too, declares that Ukraine does not exist. This is a component of a kind of primitive Russian nationalism.
If we take Stalin for the purpose of comparison, in a certain sense, he, too, was a Russian nationalist, although his background was Georgian, and he professed Marxism until the end of his life. However, Stalin never denied the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians. He was prepared to kill them in the millions, so that just those who submitted to his rule would remain. But he never thought that the Ukrainian Republic must be destroyed and stop existing. From this standpoint, Stalin was also an imperialist, viewing his Soviet Russia as a separate world. But at the same time, he availed himself of Lenin's dictum not to call the Soviet Union Russia. In fact, it was he who secured the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic's seat in the United Nations. Of course, he did this for his own purposes. At the same time, this was a recognition of the fact that Ukraine existed. For Denikin, like Alexander III or Putin, Ukraine had no right to exist. Recently, Vladimir Konstantinov, head of the Russian occupation government of the Crimea, told the media that Ukraine does not exist. This can be viewed as further confirmation of Putin's position.
A more moderate version was developed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the early 1990s. This is the idea of the three East Slavic countries forming the nucleus of a new state. Although Putin had great respect for Solzhenitsyn, the ideological foundation of Russia's current aggressive foreign policy includes other components. Among them is also a certain reading of Stalin, which is a great contradiction because Stalin was a mass murderer of Russian nationalists. He destroyed Russian culture in the 1930s and severely damaged the Russian peasantry by means of collectivization, because not just Ukrainians were being destroyed during the struggle against the kulaks and collectivization, and especially the Holodomor. Russian peasants also suffered. And Stalin destroyed 80 percent of the Russian Orthodox Church. Therefore, he is a contradictory figure for Putin. Let's not forget that Putin attended the unveiling of the monument to the victims of Stalinism in Moscow, which people like Solzhenitsyn sponsored. At the same time, Stalin revived the Russkiy Mir under the name of the "Soviet Union." So, from this point of view, he is someone whom Putin greatly admires. I have offered only a handful of examples about the origins of the ideological beliefs underpinning the Russian Federation's aggressive foreign policy. The main idea boils down to there being a special "Russian world" that lies between Europe and Asia and which is different from Europe. It seems that various visions of imperialism coexist in Putin's consciousness; however, he is more inclined toward the version propounded by Alexander III, Denikin, and Ilyin. Therefore, he is closer ideologically to "White" Russian nationalism. This, at least, is my idea, of which I am not positively sure because I never studied Putin as a researcher.
What place does the memory of the Second World War occupy in these processes?
I answered this question partly when I said that Putin admires Stalin. In 1945, during the celebrations marking the victory [in the Second World War], Stalin raised his famous toast to the great Russian people — not to socialism or the party but to the great Russian people. Stalin brought the "Russian world" to Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, and Bucharest, transforming victory in the Second World War into victory for his “Russkiy Mir.” In Putin's mind, the Soviet Union was precisely a most powerful, albeit imperfect, manifestation of the Russkiy Mir, while the war was the culmination of Russian strength in the twentieth century, which, incidentally, is the truth. At the same time, it should be noted that Stalin banned victory celebrations after 1948. They were revived under Leonid Brezhnev, and after 1965, Victory Day quickly eclipsed the 7 November parade because the war was a very significant experience in people's lives, whereas, at the time, they were separated from the revolution by many decades.
Stalin stopped the official celebration of victory because the war was not solely the triumph of his Moscow: it also was, especially in its first part, a resistance against a horrible, aggressive occupier, in a way similar to what is happening right now in Ukraine. Besides, during the Second World War, it was not just the Russians who mounted resistance to the Nazis but all the other Soviet peoples. There were many Ukrainian soldiers in the Red Army, along with Kazakhs, Georgians, Armenians, and others. The Second World War is and was, therefore, also a symbol of liberation. It is worthwhile mentioning the great Jewish-Ukrainian writer Vasily Grossman, who remarked that until the Battle of Stalingrad, the war was a liberation war also against the Stalinist regime of the 1930s because people were not just fighting against Nazism: they were also restoring their dignity after ten years of Stalinism. This is precisely why Stalin was averse to marking the victory in the war. Grossman also showed in a masterful fashion that the war was oppressive and brutal, especially after it became in 1943-44 a triumphant march of great Russian nationalism. Let’s remember the subjugation of Poland, the humiliation of Prague, the terror in occupied Germany, and what happened in Romania and Moldova, not to mention the Baltics and Western Ukraine. In this way, the war also became a symbol of the oppression of other peoples, and Putin accentuated this during his celebrations.
It would be misleading to deny the fact that during the Brezhnev period, the war cult was always marked this way and that, in connection with the Soviet past, this element quickly re-acquired greater importance already in the early 1990s. For example, after the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the crushing of the "Prague Spring," Brezhnev-era celebrations were tinged with a triumphal Russian-Soviet nationalism. And already during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, the 7 November parade became a pageant in honor of the Red Army and its fight against the Nazi invaders, and ceased to be a parade in honor of the revolution. In other words, the tendency to look at the world in a certain way was there even before Putin, who at the time was a minor official.
An important factor in this was the humiliation experienced by "mighty" Moscow in 1989–1991. The powerful bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, which was also an imperial power, then experienced the dissolution of the USSR as humiliation. They could not admit that the collapse had occurred because of the nature of the system; the Soviet Union collapsed because the system was rotten through and through, and the U.S. and the European Union's attempts to save the Soviet Union could not succeed. The USSR fell apart not because of a Western plot but because the system was simply not viable. However, a large part of the Soviet officialdom and of the population explained the collapse by way of a conspiracy against the Soviet Union, perceiving it as mistreatment and humiliation. In my opinion, this state of affairs greatly reinforced the idea of strengthening the celebration of 1945 as humiliations of others, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians, etc. This became the official meaning of the 1945 victory, and it happened even before Putin came to power.
Of course, Putin made a significant contribution to this. Look at the mosaics in the new church dedicated to the Red Army, which was opened in 2020. I always tell my students to take a look at it online. It is a horrible portrayal of war as a parade of powerful victors and crushers of human beings— all those male generals in high uniform and high boots. There is no humanity in it whatsoever (by the way, at first, the portrait of Stalin hung over those men but was soon removed).
So, can one compare the Russian regime to fascism?
I would say yes and no. Ideologically, Putin is not a fascist, because he is not an ethno-nationalist (think of Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov from his immediate circle). He is not a fascist, because he believes in the Russkiy Mir, not just in the Russian ethnic nation. So, from this standpoint, a comparison to fascism has its limitations. For example, fascism in Italy was an ethno-national ideology that focused on Italians and their greatness and had a very primitive imperial concept. The idea of the Russkiy Mir includes not just the "great" Russians. For example, Kadyrov and his Chechens belong to the Russkiy Mir as a different people subordinate to Moscow. Putin is a fascist in the sense of his inclination toward an aggressive hierarchy, but not in the understanding of fascism as ethnic nationalism.
"I don't think that the absence of stable identification between language and nation in the 1990s was bad for Ukraine"
What is the significance of the Ukrainian language in the confrontation with Russia?
In this context, the language question is very interesting, besides having a tragic past. In my opinion, the war will have a significant impact on the language question in Ukraine, possibly increasing its use and decreasing that of Russian. One could start by noting that, as is well known, Russian and Ukrainian are relatively new languages in comparison with French or Italian, for example, because French and Italian were standardized in the eleventh–thirteenth centuries. Russian, on the contrary, was standardized in the late eighteenth century, during the period between Mikhail Lomonosov and Alexander Pushkin. Ukrainian, too, was standardized in those decades. Before, Old Church Slavonic was the language of ‘culture’, and there was very little written Russian language. That is why it is necessary to consider that we are dealing with two very new languages from the point of view of their formal standardization.
This helps us understand why Russians are so firmly convinced that language can be manipulated; they themselves are accustomed to its manipulation, starting with the definition of Pushkin's role in the language-creating process. The Russian language was finally formalized in the early nineteenth century, and Pushkin, as they declare, marked the end of this process, expressing the most beautiful form of the Russian literary language. At the time, the Ukrainian language was in the process of standardization, having achieved this level in the works of distinguished poets of the mid-nineteenth century. The Russians were very worried that other languages were also developing successfully. That is why, after the Polish Uprising of 1863, the Ukrainian language was banned by the Valuev Circular and the Ems Ukase.
In those very years, at the International Statistical Congress held in St. Petersburg in 1872, language was recognized as the official criterion of nationality, on the initiative of the Germans, backed by Hungarians, Russians (who had just declared Ukrainian and Belarusian simple “dialects” of Russian) and others. France was opposed because of the problem of Alsace, which Germans claimed because the majority of the population was German-speaking. France declared that the people of Alsace were French because they wanted to be so, regardless of which language they spoke. France's position on this question was vanquished by the Russian-German coalition. Of course, Russia knew that not just Russians lived in the Russian Empire and, therefore, implemented various repressive measures, especially against Ukrainians.
This helps us understand the specific features of the Donbas. The Donbas was the most important industrial center of the Russian Empire; the first to be developed and one of the first to be modernized. Many immigrants flocked to this region filled with metallurgical plants, coal and iron ore mines, clay mines, etc. It also was one of the first regions where illiteracy was combated, and the mass education of the population was expanded. But this took place during a period in which the Ukrainian language was officially banned. So, the Ukrainian peasants living there got an opportunity to become literate earlier than in other regions, but this took place in the Russian language. Thus (as well as through immigration), by the late nineteenth century, an ethnically Ukrainian but Russian-speaking region was created. This largely explains the processes that unfolded during the Civil War, where, as is well known, the Bolsheviks from the Donbas were opposed to joining the Ukrainian Republic. It was Lenin who compelled them to take this step. What is interesting in this context is that after Putin captured Bakhmut or, to be more precise, what was left of it, he renamed it Artemovsk, in honor of Artem, the Bolshevik leader of the Donbas who fought against Ukraine. Thus, the anti-communist Putin (whom Western leaders of the early 2000s, including Silvio Berlusconi, loved asl for his anti-communism) is using the name of a Bolshevik leader to rename Bakhmut. This is an example of the contradictions that coexist in his mind, which we discussed at the start of our conversation.
Consequently, the Ukrainian language developed under difficult conditions and repressions. A brief interlude of freedom began in 1905 when the Russian Academy of Sciences recognized Ukrainian as a language. However, real development took place in the 1920s and 1930s during the implementation of the policy of Ukrainization. After being defeated by the Ukrainian peasant insurrection of 1919, the Bolsheviks defeated in their turn Denikin and re-entered Ukraine, claiming to recognize the Ukrainian nationality. Ukrainian peasants suffered greatly during the Civil War. They hated both the Reds and the Whites, but if both of these forces were approaching a village, villagers would first shoot at the Whites because they were not only seizing grain but also telling them that they were not Ukrainians, but Russians. The Reds behaved the same way, requisitioning foodstuff, shooting Ukrainian patriots and perpetrating other horrors. But at the same time, their narrative recognized the existence of Ukraine. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian awareness developed not just among the peasantry but also in the intellectual milieu. That is why Stalin, in responding to the crisis he unleashed with is 1928-29 policies, decided to rout the Ukrainians by engineering the Holodomor and the purges of 1933–1934. But even Pavel Postyshev, the Bolshevik Stalin dispatched to Ukraine to repress it, had to don a Ukrainian embroidered shirt.
After the Holodomor, much effort was devoted to Russifying the Ukrainian language. Dictionaries were removed from circulation, Ukrainian words were replaced by Russian ones; even the meanings of words in Ukrainian-language dictionaries were changed in keeping with Russian dictionaries. Thus, substantial Russification of the Ukrainian language took place short of denying its right to exist. This policy changed after Stalin's death. During the brief rule of Lavrenty Beria and, later, Nikita Khrushchev, the Ukrainian language was granted a little more freedom, although it remained secondary. If people wanted to make a career or attend university, unless they were going to be studying anthropology, ethnic dances, or similar specialties, they had to learn Russian. If someone wanted to become an army officer, engineer, scholar, or Communist Party official, they had to become Russified. But this way, Russian became, for many, a vehicular language, not the language spoken by a specific ethno-national community. In other words, people communicated in Russian without considering themselves Russians. Knowledge of Russian was essential in order to become someone and achieve status and social recognition. Let's remind the Irish, who speak English. If you tell them that they are English, they are offended. The same process is at work here. In this context, language is not just a marker of nationality; it is also something else.
The “soft” Russification processes of the 1960s and 1970s were quite successful. In the 1980s and 1990s, this gave rise to problems that are still with us. I don't believe that those who spoke Russian during this period can be regarded automatically as Russians. The fact that someone spoke Russian was not an indicator that this person considered him/herself to be Russian. But in Putin's imagination, who followed the 1872 line of thinking, that is what he/she was. If we think about the 25 million Russian speakers outside the borders of the Russian Federation in the 1990s, were all of them Russians? Some of them did indeed consider themselves as such, but a great part spoke Russian because they had learned that it was necessary to speak this language in order to live better in the Soviet Union. At the same time, they felt their kinship with a different nationality. This was reflected in Ukraine after 1991 when there were many people who spoke Russian but considered themselves Ukrainians, many who spoke Russian and considered themselves Russians, many who spoke Ukrainian and considered themselves Ukrainians, and many who spoke surzhyk. We cannot define their identity clearly. The situation changed slowly, and the fact that language did not become a matter of compulsion, a “closed identity,” contributed to the formation of an open society in Ukraine. Listening to various reports from the front in late February 2022, one could hear many Ukrainian soldiers speaking Russian during battles against the Russians. Today, things are perhaps changing, but at the time, this feature was perceived as something completely normal.
So, the language question has changed throughout history, and it will continue to do so in the future. Most likely, this war will open up a new path for the further development of the Ukrainian language. But I don't agree that the absence of stable identification between language and nation in the 1990s was bad for Ukraine. It offered more freedom, and the European choice, as a counterweight to the Russkiy Mir, is connected with this. Ukrainians did not want to belong to a monolithic, uniform society.
"The defeat of the Russian troops prevented genocide"
In March 2023, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin. Russian policies in the occupied territories were treated as genocide. In your opinion, can Russia's current aggressive policies toward Ukraine and Ukrainians be interpreted as genocide?
For me, as a historian, it is difficult to use legal categories for interpreting history because legal categories are, by definition, very precise and well-defined, while history is very complicated, even messy. So, I experience some difficulties when I, as a historian, am queried about this. As for the Holodomor, I believe that it was genocide. About current events, I will say the following: I think that Putin's initial invasion of Ukraine was an act of genocide in that it was a denial of the existence of the Ukrainian people. The essence of genocide lies in denying a people's (a group’s) right to exist. This is not a legal definition but the essence of a phenomenon from the standpoint of history. As Raphael Lemkin came to believe, the essence of genocide is to deny a group’s existence, thus destroying it as a group, which can be done in many ways, and you don't care what others think about this. Thus, Putin's documents and articles, his speeches, and the very invasion were an act of genocide from the standpoint of discourse.
Afterward, Putin experienced defeat several times as the situations unfolded in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, and, I believe, also in Bakhmut. And this course of events changed everything. I think that initially, the idea was this: "We'll go to Ukraine, they will not resist much, many will welcome us, and we'll kill 20,000–30,000 Nazis [that is, judges, school principals, police chiefs, army officers etc., meaning the Ukrainian national elite]." I think that they were prepared to liquidate these categories of people. I can't prove this, but it seems that the idea was to get rid of a certain number of people and have others leave Ukraine. These people were enemies who had to be destroyed. The genocidal discourse against an entire people, genocidal because it denied Ukrainians the right to exist, was thus accompanied by the decision to liquidate a group of people whom they called “Nazi” nationalists. We know about Bucha but don’t know how many people were killed in Mariupol, and possibly the traces of many crimes will be destroyed, like in 1937 or 1938.
Putin's defeats precluded the implementation of genocide, according to the plan. Russian texts dating to April 2022 state that the Ukrainians’ resistance is unexpected because it is not a small group of Nazis that is fighting off the Russians. Therefore, denazification means that it is necessary to repress several million people over twenty years. Upon seeing the scale of the resistance, they realized that they could not defeat it. Thus, the inflicting of defeats on Russia prevented genocide. And then they resorted to carrying out unmistakable crimes against humanity as well as war crimes: bombarding the energy infrastructure, water pipes, and the like. This is, in my understanding, the interpretation of genocide and these events from the standpoint of recent Ukrainian history.
If we employ legal terms, then the abduction of even a handful of children is genocide, according to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Thus, for example, Canadians are accused of genocide for having forcibly removed children from First Nations tribes to be raised in Protestant schools because, according to the Genocide Convention, operations targeting children are an act of genocide. So, from that standpoint, the decision made by the Criminal Court in The Hague is correct. From the vantage point of history, everything is much more serious because, after the invasion, Putin was possibly going to destroy scores of thousands of people, but he did not succeed in doing so because of defeat.
What does this war mean for the European Union and the hypothetical West?
This is a huge challenge for the West because our West, the West born in 1945, is today weak and relatively divided. Let's not forget the statements made by Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron about NATO's inability to react adequately to threats. Ukraine revived what was left of the West and made it confront the need to change in helping Ukraine to mount resistance and search for a new identity for itself. This question is more for politicians, so I will be brief. I think that this war is an immense challenge that is forcing us to look in a fresh way at the evolution of Europe, a new alliance with the United States, and a global alliance, because NATO is, after all, a North Atlantic alliance. In the global world, the North Atlantic does not matter all that much, because there is the Pacific, and there are other powerful players, like China and India, and other important ones like Japan, South Korea, or Australi. We also need to anticipate that other countries will join the liberal democracies and open societies, and fight for this. Revitalizing the West, which has weakened and lost positions over the decades, is a very difficult task. Ukraine is providing an example of the moral courage needed to implement vitally necessary changes. In this sense, support for Ukraine is of decisive importance in overcoming this challenge successfully. It gives us a chance to accept reality and become strong once again. And I am very grateful to Ukraine for this.
"What has really impressed me is the Ukrainians' ability to resist"
In your opinion, will the war affect the self-perception of residents of the West/Europe?
It will have an effect in the sense that right now, in the picture of the world held by a majority of Europeans, Ukraine is a part of united Europe, while Russia is the aggressor. At the same time, there remains a minority that is still pro-Russian. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of Europeans share the conviction that Russia is an aggressive power that should be feared and combated. Italy remains the most pro-Russian country in Europe. Europeans with a pro-Russian orientation cannot believe that there is an anti-European government in Russia and that an anti-European group is ruling Moscow. They still think that Russians are Europeans like them, which is true for many Russians, but not with regard to Putin’s group. They cannot believe that Putin’s Moscow sees the European Union as a rotten social body that Russia should correct by using force. Another huge victory for Ukraine in the sphere of discourse and narratives is that she is perceived as an independent state that does not want to be Russia but aspires to be together with Europe. I think that the Russians are furious that they have lost the propaganda war in the West. This was truly a turning point, as a result of which Europeans have formed a certain stable idea about Ukraine, which is very important.
Has the war changed your views on the Eastern European past in general and on Ukraine in particular? If so, how precisely?
I have been studying Eastern Europe for a very long time, and for a considerable period of time, I thought that Putin was preparing to launch an invasion; I was a pessimist in this regard. What has really impressed me is the Ukrainians' ability to mount resistance. For example, I knew some people in Ukraine who had voted for Viktor Yanukovych, and many among them thought of themselves as Ukrainians, even though they spoke Russian. Even they told me that if Russia comes, they will resist. But they did not believe the Russians would come.
Since then, the country has demonstrated its ability to resist stoically on an immense scale for more than a year, suffering considerably at the same time. My friends, scholars who are older than me, continue to live in Kyiv and are not going to leave. Perhaps some of them have traveled to Europe for a few months in order to visit their children, but they have come back. For me, the Ukrainian will to resist is truly impressive. I always knew about this ability of the Ukrainians — they had survived the Holodomor — but I never thought that the resistance would be so strong. So, for me, this was the biggest change in my perception of Ukraine.
What would you recommend to Ukrainian historians right now?
First of all, you should fight however and wherever you can, regardless of whether you are a historian or a metalworker. In wartime conditions, historians, like other people, must do their duty. There is a propaganda war that must be fought, and there is a discourse that must be formed. However, it is important to remember that this is not the study of history but participation in resistance. So, on the one hand, it is very important for historians to both fight at the front if needed and wage a struggle by writing articles for newspapers and appearing on television to give interviews in the West or somewhere abroad. But, on the other hand, it is also important to continue being historians and serious researchers as much as possible and not limit your research to the study of Ukrainian history because the more you know, the better you will understand your own country because you will be able to compare it.
What are the possible scenarios for the war in the near future?
It's difficult to say. Of course, wars are resolved on the battlefield. I am certain that Putin has already lost both in the political and military sense, even though 20 percent of Ukraine's territory is still occupied. I think that he knows this; and the Russians know this, as well as the republics of Central Asia and China. But he cannot surrender because then he might even lose his life, which is what happens to defeated dictators. That is why it will be difficult to utterly defeat him, which is also very complicated because Putin controls thousands of nuclear weapons. However, since various hypotheses coexist in Putin's mind, the concrete situation may push him to declare that he has achieved his aims, which is of course untrue. A similar position may be read between the lines of diverse settlement initiatives that are coming from China, Brazil, Turkey, and others. Accepting it naively is very dangerous because, after some time, Russia may launch a new offensive.
Today, the main problem is, in my view, therefore, this: What guarantees can the West—as it exists now and will exist after the US election—offer Ukraine? I believe that membership in the European Union is absolutely indispensable, just like some form of integration into NATO. Ukrainians should know that they have already won a spiritual, moral, and military victory, even if some territories have not been restored. It is very important to remember this in view of the fact that in the early days of the war, few thought that events would unfold this way. If not for nuclear weapons, the Russian army would have already suffered a crushing defeat. Perhaps there will come a moment when the fighting will end, with Russia not surrendering all the occupied territories. And the possibility of an armistice will be discussed. This is a likely option, but the risk that Russia will attack again cannot be excluded. This is why guarantees are the crux of the matter. I would very much like for Ukraine to win the war right now, but one should never underestimate one's enemy. I hope that Ukrainians and the Ukrainian leadership will find the best way to navigate this situation.
Interviewed by Petro Dolhanov
The accompanying photographs are from open sources.
Andrea Graziosi is a professor of history at the Università di Napoli Federico II and a past President of the Italian Society for the Study of Contemporary History (2007–11) as well as of Italy’s National Authority for the Evaluation of Universities and Research (2014–2018). He is an associé of the Centre d’études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre-européen (Paris) and a fellow of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is the author of Histoire de l’URSS (Paris, 2011; Bologna, 2012; Moscow, 2016); Lysty z Kharkova: Holod v Ukraїni ta na Pivnichnomu Kavkazi v povidomlenniakh italiis′kykh dyplomativ, 1932–1933 roky [Lettres de Kharkov: La famine en Ukraine et dans le Caucase du Nord [à travers les rapports des diplomates italiens, 1932–1934] (Paris, 1989 and 2013; Turin, 1991; Kyiv, 2007); The Great Soviet Peasant War, 1917–1933 (Cambridge, Mass., 1997; Naples, 1998; Moscow, 2008); Viina і revoliutsiia v Ievropi, 1905–1956 [War and Revolution in Europe, 1905–1956] (Bologna, 2001; Kyiv and Moscow, 2005); The Battle for Ukrainian: A Comparative Perspective, ed. Michael Flier and Andrea Graziosi (Cambridge, Mass., 2017); Genocide: The Power and Problems of a Concept, ed. Andrea Graziosi and Frank E. Sysyn (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2022). He is also the founder and former co-editor of the series Dokumenty sovetskoi istorii.
Originally appeared in Ukrainian @Ukraina Moderna
This article was published as part of a project supported by the Canadian charitable non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk
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