To help shed light on the histories, languages and cultures of Ukraine and Russia as war between them rages, and on U.S. diplomatic efforts in response to the crisis, Pomona College asked three members of the faculty to share perspectives from their academic disciplines. Pey-Yi Chu is a historian of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Mietek Boduszyński was born in Poland and spent a decade as a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, with postings in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Anne Dwyer has traveled in Ukraine and extensively studied the cultural histories of Habsburg and Romanov borderlands. All three gave presentations at the College on the topic during the spring semester.
History as structure or weapon?
Pey-Yi Chu, Associate Professor of History
In the U.S. and Europe, people have turned to history to understand the causes of the war— what we might call “history as structure.” In Russia, however, history has served as a source of justifications for the invasion; we can call this “history as weapon.” On February 21, President Vladimir Putin, during a lengthy televised address, gave a tour through history aiming to explain the necessity of independence for the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and laying the groundwork for the invasion of Ukraine that took place three days later.
One reason that history as weapon is so potent is that it relies on partial truths. Take the claim by the Russian government that Ukraine has a shared history with Russia and is therefore “inalienable” from Russia. Indeed, both Russia and Ukraine can trace their origins to a polity known as Rus, which was founded in the ninth century. (Notably, Kiev was founded over 200 years before Moscow.)
Since the twelfth century, however, the histories of what would become Ukraine and Russia diverged. In the seventeenth century, for example, the territories that make up Ukraine today were claimed by the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate (the land of a Muslim people known as the Tatars), Poland-Lithuania, and regions ruled by Cossacks. In the nineteenth century, much of what is today Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, but part of it also belonged to the Austrian Empire. The unique mix of historical influences—Austrian, Slavic, Cossack, Turkic, Catholic, Orthodox, Islamic—fed into the distinct culture of Ukraine.
Putin has also claimed that Ukraine must be liberated from “neo-Nazis.” During World War II, the Soviet Union bore the brunt of fighting against Nazi Germany at the cost of over 20 million dead. After the war, a cult celebrating the Soviet victory was built up by the Communist regime to legitimate its rule. By referring to the Ukrainian leadership as “neo-Nazis,” the Russian government invokes memories of Ukrainian nationalists, from the region that used to be part of Austria, who collaborated with Germany during World War II in the hope of creating a non-Soviet Ukraine and who fought against Soviet rule even after the war.
However, Ukrainians were also the second largest nationality in the Soviet Union at the time, and Ukrainian soldiers were deeply involved in the war against fascism. Moreover, the Russian government’s rhetoric ignores the fact that the Soviet Union itself was allied with Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1941. It attacked Poland after Germany did and delivered raw materials of all kinds to Germany up until Germany attacked the USSR.
So history as structure and context is complex. History as weapon would rather simplify these complexities.
David versus Goliath, or “shatterzone of empires”?
Anne Dwyer, Associate Professor of German and Russian
The conflict in Ukraine is more than just a struggle between a Russian Goliath and a Ukrainian David. Ukrainian history has long taken place in what Omer Bartov and Eric Weitz have called the “shatterzone of empires.” This history has never played out bilaterally. Ukraine again finds itself caught between much more powerful forces, including the United States.
“We will all agree that language matters in Ukraine,” writes Kyiv-born poet Iryna Shuvalova, “before we disagree on the which and the why and the how of the issue.” In Kyiv I marveled at the language of the city, from my Russian-speaking cab driver’s reflections on Ukrainian as the “language of the heart” to the playfulness with which groups of young people slid between Ukrainian and Russian mid-sentence, occasionally tossing English words into the mix. Such speech is known as surzhyk, in Shuvalova’s words, “a delightful (or horrible, depending on whom you ask) mishmash.” My own multilingual sensibilities predisposed me to love the city of surzhyk; but now I wonder whether its speakers are still finding it “delightful” today.
The soundscape of L’viv, by contrast, is Ukrainian. That has not always been the case. The city has gone by many other names: Lemberg or לעמבערג in German and Yiddish, Lwów in Polish, Leopolis in Latin, L’vov in Russian.
In 2011, I visited L’viv’s historic Lychakiv cemetery. Old family plots from the Habsburg era list German family names that became Polish in subsequent generations. Graves with Polish inscriptions from the turn of the 20th century feature elaborate sculptures of angels. Smooth granite with Cyrillic writing marks the newest, Ukrainian, sections of the cemetery, with inlaid photos or realistic etchings of the deceased. The cemetery tells the story of the city. Or some of it. There is no Jewish cemetery in L’viv today. When the city’s Jewish residents were murdered by the Nazis, the tombstones of their ancestors were repurposed as cobblestones.
Many layers of L’viv’s urban history could not be explored publicly during the city’s Soviet years but are being brought to the surface by scholars, artists and city planners today. Many Ukrainian-speaking residents of L’viv are re-learning and reclaiming their city’s history.
L’viv today is one of the most ethnically and linguistically Ukrainian cities in Ukraine, but its history as a Polish-Jewish-Ukrainian-German borderland city speaks to the complexity, beauty, and immense violence of Ukraine’s recent history. The city—like most of Ukraine—was ravaged in World War II, first “liberated” by the Red Army, then occupied by Nazi Germany, and then incorporated into the Soviet Union until it declared independence in August 1991.
America’s Allies: Predictable or Unreliable?
Mietek Boduszyński, Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations
Winston Churchill once said that the only thing harder than fighting with allies is fighting without them. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has cast both the importance and challenges of alliances in sharp relief. The U.S.-led campaign of sanctions and other forms of pressure against Russia has relied upon the cooperation of America’s allies and partners from Europe to Asia. For example, European allies such as Italy and France have helped freeze the overseas assets of Russian oligarchs, while Asian partners such as Singapore and South Korea have ensured that Russia cannot acquire certain kinds of technology that they produce.
But some countries that the U.S. considers to be close allies have not stepped up to the plate. Shortly after Russia’s invasion, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a key U.S. political and security partner in the Middle East and, at the time, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, abstained from a Council vote condemning Moscow. Also, the UAE has not moved against all the corrupt Russian oligarchs who own lavish villas in Dubai. Other close Gulf partners such as Saudi Arabia have refused U.S. requests to increase oil production to ease rising energy prices.
If allies and partners are akin to friendships in personal relationships—those on whom we can depend in times of need—the actions of America’s Gulf partners beg the question of what kind of friends they really are.
In fact, countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long acted in ways that undermine U.S. interests and values, but rarely has Washington mustered the will to call them out. The exception may have been the assassination and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which led to a flurry of outrage in Congress and the imposition of targeted sanctions against the alleged killers. However, despite a promise of no return to “business as usual” with Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in arms sales to the Kingdom.
Yet, the U.S. has not always been a reliable ally and partner either. From the Biden administration's botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, to the Trump administration’s sudden abandonment of its Syrian Kurdish allies, Washington has often left its friends in the cold, leading former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski to observe that “an alliance with the United States is like marrying a hippo. At first, it’s warm and cuddly. Then the hippo turns, crushes you, and doesn’t even notice.”
One lesson in all of this is the need to rethink certain U.S alliances and partnerships, carefully considering the benefits they supposedly bring versus their unreliability. But another lesson is that the U.S., too, needs to take a long hard look at its own record as a loyal ally and partner and avoid the mistakes of the past.