An interview with Steven Barnes on "How Historians Make Sense of the Present: Reflections on the Russo-Ukrainian War"

CHR is excited to highlight an upcoming speaker series on Russia's War on Ukraine in Historical Perspective

by Kristofer Stinson

An interview with Steven Barnes on "How Historians Make Sense of the Present: Reflections on the Russo-Ukrainian War"

CHR interviewed Steve Barnes in advance of the launch of his online speaker series "Russia's War on Ukraine in Historical Perspective."


CHR was very glad to hear you were organizing this wonderful series on the war in Ukraine and bringing such a great line-up of experts on the topic to our community. Who are these talks for? Who do you hope to reach?

In short, the talks are intended for everyone. You don’t need to be a historian, a professor, or a student. The series battles a natural fatigue that normalizes Russia’s unprovoked war and turns the immense suffering of Ukrainians into the background noise of our busy lives. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, every news organization kept the war above the fold, but the topic has inexorably migrated to the far reaches of websites, at best the C block of cable news, and the back pages of newspapers. Organizing the series is an effort to scream out so that we will not tune out. With hundreds already registered to attend, we believe we can make a small but meaningful difference in our own Mason nation.

What kind of conversations do you hope this series of talks will stir?

Making sense of our present, we always implicitly or explicitly reference our past. Vladimir Putin understands that and built his justification for a brutal and unprovoked war on a series of intentional and knowing historical falsehoods alleging that Ukrainians and Russians are a single people. I hope the series will counter historical falsehood with historical reality. Our speakers will model how historical thinking and the fruits of historical research enable a deeper understanding of this war.

Flyer for the upcoming speaker series on the Russo-Ukrainian War

For me, as a historian, the past is ever present. When I think of this war, I think of August 1968, when eight courageous dissidents walked into Moscow’s Red Square. Though quickly and roughly arrested, they unfurled banners of protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, one of which, echoing a historic motto of Polish resistance, speaks loudly to me today--“For your freedom, and ours.” Ukrainians fight for just that—for their freedom, and ours, and even for Russia’s which can only be free through defeat in this war.

What’s one piece of advice you would give someone unfamiliar with Russian or Ukrainian history who is trying to make sense of the current war?

Ukraine exists. Ukrainians exist. Ukraine was not always part of Russia and was not the invention of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Ukrainians are not an invention of foreign powers aimed to weaken Russia, but a real national community constructed by Ukrainians themselves. Vladimir Putin might spin fairytales about Ukrainians and Russians as a single people, but Ukrainians have demonstratively shown him and us that they will not be erased.

Did this most recent invasion and current war strike you as similar or different from those wars Russia has fought in the past century?

While I am not a historian of war, a certain Russian way of war seems to have emerged in the post-Soviet era. Images or urban devastation that I have long shown to my students from the Russian assault on Grozny, Chechnya have been reproduced in Aleppo, Syria and in Mariupol and Mykolaiv and Kharkiv and other cities in Ukraine.

Your first book looked at the role of the gulag in Soviet society – an admittedly hard, even troubling topic. As a historian who has dealt with hard topics before, what do you find most “troubling” about this war?

I will never shake off the brutal inhumanity of Russian occupation, revealed to us in the grisly accounts and images that emerged from Bucha and Irpin and other cities in northern Ukraine after the Russian army was forced to retreat.Russia’s war is a terrifying confirmation of what I have often taught in my classes—that studying history should never make us comfortable in thinking that repression and violence are just “back then” or “over there.” The language and structures of the Gulag eerily reappear in the widespread reports detailing Russia’s “filtration” of the occupied Ukrainian populations, a process that once heaped additional suffering on Soviet citizens who had lived for a time under Nazi occupation, returned in Russia’s wars in Chechnya, and now again in Ukraine. Maps appear detailing the deportations of those Ukrainians who fail the filtration process that recreate the geography of the Gulag. Bombastic Russian television personalities threaten anyone who thinks of themselves as Ukrainian with reeducation, of the particularly violent sort that was long a staple of the Soviet Gulag. 

I know this is a sticky question, but is the Russo-Ukrainian war “history”? 

Historians are fond of saying that everything has a history. Perhaps it would be as appropriate to say that everything is history. This war is already and has been for some years a part of my history classes, and it will be a reference point for generations to come when thinking about what it means to be post-Soviet or Ukrainian or Russian.

To end on what might hopefully be an optimistic note, war reshapes identities, and over the last eight years, this war has forged a concept of Ukrainian identity based not on ethnicity, religion, or language, but on citizenship in the independent state of Ukraine. Whether intentionally or not, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a tale of decolonization, a moment of imperial retreat. Whether intentionally or not, Russia’s war on Ukraine has shaped a new, better, and hopefully durable meaning to being Ukrainian.


This interview has been edited for length. 

Register here for the virtual talk on Monday September 12 at 3:00 pm EST, and all other talks in the series.