Ukrainian History Global Initiative brings together 90 academics to put the country’s historical contributions on the map
29 November 2023
The opening salvo in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year was not a rocket or a missile. Rather, it was an essay. Vladimir Putin’s On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, published in summer 2021, ranged over 1,000 years of history in its 7,500 words to assert that the two countries are “one people”.
Now, 90 international and Ukrainian historians are coming together under the umbrella of the new London-based Ukrainian History Global Initiative to wrest Ukraine’s past from the shadow of Russian and Soviet narratives. The historians want Ukraine’s history to take its place among a wealth of global stories – from the part it played in the history of the ancient Greeks who founded trading emporia on the Black Sea, to its connections with Byzantium, and its links with the Vikings who ruled the medieval polity of Kyivan Rus.
Putting Ukraine into the picture will change understanding of major world events, said Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale, at a launch for the initiative at the British Museum in London. “The whole history of the second world war looks different if you understand that Germany’s main war aim was the conquest of Ukraine. And I would venture to say that the history of the 21st century looks different if you understand the reasons why Ukraine resisted the Russian invasion.”
With its terms of reference laid out in a manifesto by Snyder, and the three-year project funded by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk, the initiative is planned to be a vast undertaking. Aside from supporting the 90 scholars invited to take part by Snyder and the academic board, Pinchuk will fund three major academic conferences, a host of publications, and archaeological digs. The initiative has been in the planning for three years – well before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Snyder and Pinchuk declined to comment on specific funding levels but Snyder said: “I can think of few endeavours, in contemporary humanities at least, which are on this scale, keeping just under 100 scholars active for around three years: if you just do the math, it’s a fair amount of money.”
Pinchuk, who trained as an engineer, made his fortune in manufacturing in Ukraine’s turbulent 1990s and early 2000s. A sometimes controversial figure, he is the son-in-law of Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, who has been accused by critics of corruption, authoritarianism and assisting the rise of oligarchy in Ukraine.
Pinchuk insisted that the Ukrainian History Global Initiative would be “absolutely independent” and that he had “zero influence” on its academics. He is one of the trustees of the initiative, whose chair is Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden. Other trustees include the historian Anne Applebaum, the lawyer Philippe Sands, and Ukraine’s most celebrated poet, Serhiy Zhadan.
Climate, geography and environmental questions will form a part of the project’s focus, beginning with Ukraine’s prehistory. The second world war will inevitably play a big role. And so will empire. “One of the most divisive issues in Ukrainian historical memory is decolonisation – to what extent Ukraine was a colony of Russia and wasn’t. There is no consensus,” said Yaroslav Hrytsak, professor of history at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. “There is hardly a topic in Ukrainian history on which you could find consensus – and that is good.”
The importance of history in state-building and a nation’s identity is aptly demonstrated by the fact that the father of Ukrainian historiography, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, was also the country’s first head of state in 1917-18, between the collapse of the Russian empire and the briefly independent Ukraine’s fall to the Bolsheviks. But, said Serhii Plokhii, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, Ukrainian historiography faltered after many of its practitioners either emigrated or were killed or sent to gulags under the Soviets. The new initiative marks, he said, the discipline further moving away from “the periphery, something on the margins of either Soviet or Russian historiography, to the centre”.
Yuliya Yurchenko, a senior lecturer in political economy at the University of Greenwich, and one of the academics involved in the initiative, said that as a young researcher working on Ukraine’s post-Soviet economy at a British university 20 years ago, “nobody was interested in Ukraine, and nobody could really instruct you. I was made to feel when I was studying Ukraine that I was doing something very insignificant”. She was glad, she said, that the initiative was taking off “at this historic, painful, juncture in Ukraine’s history”. She added: “It gets thrown into Ukrainian faces that Ukrainians are censoring political discourse, that they are censoring narratives of what the Ukrainian nation is, and what history should be. And this is such a great slap in the face to those critics. We are willing to work collectively, internationally, together, to learn from history – and to do a proper job of it.”
Charlotte Higgins is The Guardian’s chief culture writer and a member of its editorial board. Formerly the paper’s arts correspondent and classical music editor, she has a particular interest in contemporary music. She began her journalism career at Vogue. She has published four books, three of which have focused on the ancient world. Her first book was concerned with Ovid, and was entitled Latin Love Lessons (2009). Her second book was It’s All Greek To Me (2010), and her third book was Under Another Sky (2013), which was about journeys in Roman Britain. This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC, a history of the BBC, was published in 2015. Her book Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths was published by Penguin in 2018, and was BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week in August 2018.