Timothy Snyder Lecture in Prague

9. 2. 2015

„Russia, Ukraine and the central significance of civil society“

Summary of the lecture by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, January 27th, 2015, Charles University in Prague.



In his opening remarks professor Snyder reminded the audience that it is simply not the case that history ends. “There is always something unexpected. We are now, 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, at such a turning point.” It is an occasion to reconsider civil society, which has turned into a stereotype (i.e. civil society without thinking). Snyder noted that Václav Havel´s essays had inspired people to think what authentic civil society is. Today, when there is a conventional war taking place in Europe, is the time to again consider what civil society really means. People thought they knew what significance of 1938, 1939, 1945 or 1948 was. “Yet that confidence in historical knowledge has disappeared,” Snyder pointed out.

According to Snyder, both Russian and Ukrainian history begins with the conversion of Kievan Rus to Christianity (the leading role, paradoxically, played by Vikings). A key turning point when their histories diverged came in 1569: the founding of teh Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. As a result, Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities went through the Renaissance and even a sort of Reformation (albeit in an Orthodox context) much like cities in the West – in contrast to cities in Russia.

Another source of Russian and Ukrainian divergence are the differing views of Stalin´s first 5-year plan, when rapid industrialization led to forced famine in Ukraine. The resulting instances of cannibalism caused massive humiliation and the destruction of civil society. The famine thus became a central element of national memory.

The history of the Soviet Union, including WWII, otherwise largely binds Ukrainians and Russians together (at least for most Ukrainian families). Whereas in Russia WWII serves the only reservoir of political memory, Ukraine has had new experiences (in which language/ethnicity didn´t matter).

Since 1991 Ukraine has known „oligarchic pluralism. The problem with oligarchy is the rule of law. The Maidan was a revolution of the Russian-speaking Kyiv middle class against oligarchy,” explained Snyder. The rallying cry of „Europe“ was shorthand for the rule of law, not a declaration of love for the EU acquis (the Maidan was multiethnic and hence civil). Public opinion of the revolution shifted when violence was used; it later changed dramatically after the first reported death of a demonstrator. The eventual downfall of the government was the „normal“ outcome of such a split between the state and civil society.

For Russia´s centralized presidential system the toppling of Yanukovych was merely inconvenient; the breaking out of civil society was more worrisome. The animus of Russian television coverage was aimed against “Europe”, which was described as a decadent, seething with gays and pedophiles. “Europeans are missing the point if they think this is merely a Russian-Ukrainian conflict,” Snyder warned. 

Russia employs the tactics of “reverse asymmetrical warfare”: Despite being the much stronger force in the conflict, the Russian army acts as if it were a partisan guerilla (shedding insignia, mixing in with the civilian population). This corresponds with their perception that they are actually fighting a great American hegemonic conspiracy.

Russia´s strategy is one of “strategic relativism” aiming to weaken others: Russia is much weaker compared to a united European Union, but not compared to individual EU members. Snyder pointed out that one way to weaken the EU is to support far-right anti –EU populist parties and separatist movements.

Snyder described Russia´s propaganda war as sophisticated: disguised in cacophony. It reports “all the different versions” of events in order to create confusion. No one is really sure what the truth is. Russia also has sleek political marketing: it plays to the conservative Right by emphasizing Europe´s alleged decadence and Russia´s “family values”; it plays to the Left by casting the new Kyiv government as “fascists”.  

A prerequisite of civil society is the self-definition of the individual. If you say there is a “Russkiy Mir” (“Russian World”) to which all Russian-speakers belong, you deny their self-definition (imagine the U.S. president declaring that English-speaking Canadians are part of the “American World” to justify annexation). It is an ethnic argument – at odds with civil society.

Snyder pointed out that you also need a state for civil society to thrive in. The wiping out of state structures in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions also led to the wiping out for civil society there.

Snyder ended his lecture by stressing that civil society depends on trust. “Maidan Friendships”, when random people trusted each other with their lives, are a radical example of trust. Russian propaganda is not trying to convince you but to export distrust, the erosion of any belief in any authority, in truth. If you believe the Maidan was a CIA plot, you don´t believe in trust, making civil society impossible. Civil Society does exist - but if you believe it doesn´t, you can make it cease to exist, by destroying trust. 

Snyder was asked, during the discussion that followed his lecture, how to counter Russian propaganda. He replied that not by producing counter-propaganda that reduces news to entertainment but by exposing contradictions in the Kremlin line, and by having foreign correspondents on the ground. “No one in Ukraine buys Russian propaganda – as opposed to people in the West,” Snyder pointed out.

Another questioner asked what will be Putin´s next steps. “The invasion was a big strategic blunder for Russia and has led to the loss of Russian leverage vis-à-vis China,” noted Snyder. Beijing is thus the only winner of the conflict in Ukraine. Russia has no grand strategy apart from the aim to weaken opponents. However, their ambition is a land-corridor to Crimea, respectively Transdnistria.

Snyder was next asked what he makes of the “fascist” bands fighting on Ukraine´s side. He pointed out that the irregular “battalions” fighting alongside the Ukrainian army are the result of a weak state. Some of them may be overtly nationalist. But, according to Snyder, the premise that the Ukrainian side is “fascist” is ridiculous: There are more Jews in the Ukrainian government than in the U.S. or Czech government. There were more Jews on the Maidan, including among those killed, than is their share of the Ukrainian population. The far-right received approximately 2 % in last year´s elections.

Snyder stressed that the Maidan was a fundamentally leftwing endeavor against the concentration of wealth by oligarchs. It was not “about Russia”. However, when the invasion happened, the oligarchs were brought in by the weak state to serve as governors and one oligarch (“chocolate king” Poroshenko) was elected president. This amounted to a counterrevolution.   

Regarding the usefulness of sanctions, they demonstrate the ability of the EU to come up with a response. “What other response could the EU have?” The sanctions are impressive, they show resolve. “They matter because of what they demonstrate about the EU,” insisted Snyder.

He pointed out that Russia´s actions are limited by the number of Russian soldiers who can die in Ukraine without provoking a popular backlash at home. Several thousand have already been killed. According to polls, most Russians oppose an (overt) invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin can only deny the truth for so long. “Death transcends propaganda,” Snyder reflected. According to him, Russia will lose the war without anyone winning, defeated by Ukraine, which would be a politically untenable blow to Russia´s self-perception.     

In conclusion, Snyder was asked to predict what will be the outcome of the conflict. He listed three: A split between Russian and Ukrainian public opinion; one million displaced persons (both internally and externally); and the consolidation of the Ukrainian political nation.