Post Date: Post Date – 11:30 PM, Friday – October 28
People learn about the world through the stories we tell about ourselves and others—that is, where we came from, how we got here, and where we might go. In fact, the political and social environment in which we live is rooted in these stories, these narratives.
The same is true of the current conflict in Ukraine. As months of fighting continue to unfold, so does the narrative that underpins the actions of both sides. It’s as if both Russia and Ukraine are trying to write history in real time – the why and how of the conflict.
As a historian, I know there are problems with narrative. First, while they may be true and related to facts and actual events, dominant narratives may also be completely fabricated. Second, once narrated, it means that any story you tell is as valid as your opponent tells it. Usually this is not the case.
Take Russia and its disastrous war in Ukraine, for example. Russian politicians and their media claim that Russia is fighting the Nazis in Ukraine, who usurped power in a 2014 coup and pushed the country to align itself with the West, posing a direct threat to Russia itself.
In this story, Russian boys yearn to protect their Ukrainian brothers, Russians, and Russian-speaking Ukrainians from fascism—just as their ancestors did during World War II.
For Ukrainians and most Westerners, this Kremlin-inspired narrative is clearly false. Their rebuttal is that Ukrainians decided in the 2014 “revolution of dignity” that they wanted to escape the stifling pressure of Vladimir Putin, abandon their desire to join the West, consolidate their democracy and become a fully sovereign, independent s country. Inspired by this narrative — and the unprovoked invasion of their country by their powerful neighbors — the Ukrainians bravely and effectively resisted Russian onslaught, even achieving major victories on the battlefield.
perceived existential threat
The truth is that Ukraine has never been a serious and direct threat to Russia. But for Putin and his supporters, who fear losing geopolitical leverage over the United States and NATO, Ukraine’s gravitational pull to the West portends a fragile future.
This narrative pushes Putin into what he sees as preventive war. It is premised on anxiety about future dangers, but not in grim realist terms, but in overly emotional narratives of what Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians call harmonious brotherhood.
Ukrainians don’t have to create grand narratives that go against the truth. Wartime hyperbole was almost inevitable, however. The government in Kyiv, as well as Western leaders, claim that the war has become a struggle for the survival of the Ukrainian nation, and Putin is determined to wipe out the Ukrainians as Ukrainians.
If this claim is true – and I don’t think it is – then a compromise with Russia is impossible.
Putin’s narrative is equally existential. It has been described as a struggle against Western “neocolonialism”, which he believes is an attempt to dismember Russia. In Putin’s narrative, the war with Ukraine challenges America’s claim to global hegemony that has reduced Russia to a humiliated regional power.
Expand the threat
In his speech on September 30, 2022, Putin incorporated Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporozhye into Russia, using history to justify his imperial plunder. He said the land he called “New Russia” or “Novrossiya” was consecrated by the victories of Russian heroes in the 18th century. This is the land where Catherine the Great founded the city.
He then turned to the bitter year of 1991, when three representatives of the Communist Party elite terminated the Soviet Union “without asking ordinary citizens what they wanted, and people suddenly found themselves cut off from their motherland.” Putin linked this illegal act to Lenin and the Bolsheviks The establishment of a Soviet republic on the basis of its nationalities was compared. In Putin’s narrative, the invasion of Ukraine was part of a process to correct what he now considers the crimes of the Soviet Empire at dawn and dusk. He explicitly rejected the idea of restoring the Soviet Union—”Russia doesn’t need it today; it’s not our ambition”—but he thinks he should help those separated from their historic homeland.
In Putin’s narrative, Ukraine needs to break free from the clutches of the West and Western culture, and must return to the Russian world — the Russian world — and its unique culture.
In his speech, Putin declared that there would be no “parents one, two and three” in Russia, but “mothers and fathers”. He continued: “Do we want our schools to impose on our children… perversions that lead to degeneration and extinction? Do we want to instill in them the idea that certain other genders exist alongside women and men, and provide them with transgenderness Surgery? … It’s not acceptable to us. We have our own different futures.”
The move includes an attack on Russian values as part of Putin’s defense of his actions in Ukraine — expanding imagined threats from the West to include culture and Russia’s existence and great-power status — at the same time it is argued that Moscow is now Some narratives fail.
In major Russian cities, in non-Russian regions such as Dagestan, and even in Russian-occupied Crimea, domestic resistance to war broke out from time to time. Young people are fleeing to Finland, Georgia, Armenia and Central Asia to avoid call-ups by the military. Few are willing to die fighting for a pointless war.
back to the corner
Historians look back in time to understand how we got to where we are now. Investigating the past can help us understand why the war in Ukraine happened, and can actually help us find a way out of the conflict. But neither articulating the causes or possible outcomes of the war will necessarily lead the conflict to a common narrative acceptable to both sides.
Narratives, once expressed, can take on a life of their own. The Soviet vision of a better future that Putin grew up with lies shattered in the now distant past. He tries to replace it with another heroic narrative, worried about where history will take him and his compatriots. But it also appears to be a narrative in danger of collapsing in the face of reality.
(The author is a professor of history and political science at the University of Michigan. theconversation.com)