Historians bring context to the war in Ukraine

by Anne Reynolds

In September, George Mason University’s Russian and Eurasian Studies program will launch a 12-part weekly webinar series entitled Russia’s War on Ukraine in Historical Perspective. 

The series opens with a conversation with Steven Barnes, the program’s director and associate professor in the Department of History and Art History. He explains how historians, trained to understand events of the past, can bring this understanding and context to events going on in the present.

This conversation sets the stage for a dozen historians from around the globe, who will share their knowledge and insight to reflect how history helps them confront Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Each Monday, a different expert will discuss issues related to Russia, Ukraine, their historical relationship, and their respective places in the world. Speakers representing Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Texas, and the Ukrainian Institute London will share their perspectives and answer questions from the participants. An October 31 special session, co-sponsored by the University of Mary Washington, will bring scholars from the Center for Urban History in Lviv, Ukraine to talk about how they are working to document a war as it is underway. The series will culminate at the end of the semester with a conversation on how history writes the present, featuring Pulitzer Prize winning historian and staff writer for The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum.  

Barnes will moderate each of the guest sessions. He hopes that the series will “get out this message of why this war matters, not just to Ukraine, but to Europe, to the United States, to the world. Scholars of history play a critical role in helping us understand that.” 

Open to the public, the lecture series is also part of History 388-DL1: War on Ukraine in Historical Perspective, a synchronous, fully online class. The lectures take place during Monday class meetings; Barnes and his students discuss the substance of the lectures later in the week. Barnes and Jennifer Disano, executive director of Mason’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), have made the series available to OLLI members, and the AARP is sharing the series with its members, as well.

Barnes is pleased with the broad interest. “It’s having public research universities that allow us to do things like this,” he said. “How do we understand what's happening? How do we understand the fact that Ukraine—a much, much smaller country with a much, much smaller military—is standing up to one of the largest militaries in the world?  

“I think to understand that you have to understand something about who Ukrainians are and how they think about themselves.” 

Russia’s War on Ukraine in Historical Perspective will take place on Mondays, September 12 through November 28, 3:00 – 4:15 ET. Registration is free, and is available on the series website. Each lecture will later be available on the Russian and Eurasian Studies program’s YouTube channel. The series is presented by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Department of History and Art History, the Program in Russian and Eurasian Studies, and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.