"How to talk about the war?"

Ukraine in Focus

In times of Russian war I read a newspaper called Novaya Gazeta.  Its editor, Dmitri Muratov, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year (along with Maria Ressa).  Muratov dedicated it to the memory of the reporters of the journal who have been murdered for their work.

Its journalists go to the front when that is humanly possible.  Much of what we know about the last Russian invasion of Ukraine, in 2014, we learned from Novaya Gazeta.  This time around, as the war began, Novaya Gazeta also began to file reports: on Ukrainian refugees and Ukrainian men going to war, on Russian family members seeking missing sons, on the destruction of Ukrainian cities.

Since Friday those reports are gone.  Novaya Gazeta still exists, but it has been forced to remove war reporting from its website.  Russian war censorship includes a ban on the use of the word "war.”  Novaya Gazeta circumvented that for a little while by using euphemisms with an asterisk explaining that it could not use the word "war."  But now the war reporting itself is absent.  Muratov took this decision in the hope of preserving the newspaper itself.

Dmitri Muratov and covers of Novaya Gazeta, Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS

Of the articles I had been planning to reread, only one still remained: about how Russian schools were reacting to the war.  It is a chronicle recording questions from parents, responses from school officials, and government guidance, which is rather interesting.  In the school your children attend there is probably a lesson about "critical thinking" in the use of the internet.  It turns out that this lesson is also taught in Russia, with the twist that "critical thinking" means treating the pronouncements of Russia's president as the most reliable source.

This puts everyone in a surreal position when that president begins a murderous war on the basis of foul lies.  One approach is to treat them as official truth.  A regional school authority, faced with questions from parents about what to do in time of war, issued the guidance that "Vladimir Putin's speech on February 21, 2022" is "the main historical revelation of recent years and a major guide to our our own times." 

Those familiar with Soviet history will be struck by that Stalinist tone.  The latest speech of the leader is truth.  The leader is the authority in all fields, botany, physics, in this case history.  Whatever he says determines not only what is knowledge but how we are to see the world around us.  We genuflect before his genius.

Lesson plans have been updated to account for some of what the Russian president has said about the war.  History is to be taught on the basis of the "unity of the nations of Russia and Ukraine."  This echoes the title of a long essay Putin published last July (to which I am not linking because the Kremlin website is still down).  Putin has the idea, expressed over the last decade, that God wants Russia and Ukraine to be together eternally because of something that a Viking warlord might have done a thousand years ago, when neither Russia, nor Ukraine, nor for that matter the notion of modern nations existed. 

The imagined past enforces a deadened future.  A historiosophy that weird can only be made true by a war, which it is used to justify.  If Ukrainians don't recognize the truth as revealed to Putin, that means they must be hit harder, killed in greater numbers.  Only force can bend a resistant real world towards a lonely dictator's dream of eternity. 

That baptism was carried out in Kyiv, and so Putin believes that the Ukrainian capital is the mother of Russian cities.  Family metaphors arising from myth have a certain naive brutality.  In this war, Kyiv will have to be destroyed to prove that it is Russian.  Matricide will prove maternity.

Meanwhile, Russian children must be given a narrative that links a baptism in the tenth century to the ruins Putin is making of the twenty-first.  In the official guidance for teachers, the end point of the story is Russia's recognition of the self-proclaimed "Luhansk People's Republic" and "Donetsk People's Republic" that Russia carved from Ukraine in 2014.  The first event somehow justifies or leads to second one: "predetermines" it, to use a word Putin likes. 

By no coincidence, Putin recognized those "republics" in that 21 February speech.  His initial justification for war was the supposed oppression of the people in those districts.  Putin has since moved on to other falsehoods, about Nazis and nuclear weapons and so on, but presumably the tenth-century baptism can be bent in those directions just as well, and the pedagogy will be adjusted. If the past is only there to serve the present, then it is infinitely pliable.

Now that we know how history works, we can pass a history test.  Here is a question that is to be posed in Russian schools: "Remember your history.  Russia has always acted as the guarantor of the security and independence of Ukraine.  Is it possible then to describe the actions of our country as that of an older brother helping a younger?"  So much here is wrong that a historian wants to leave the room and wash his hands.  The "remember your history": pushing the button of the things that one is "supposed" to know.  Then "Russia has..." repeating that thing that one is "supposed" to know.  The "always," that dead giveaway that what is being pronounced, whatever it might be, is not history, because there is no "always" in history.  And then the dreadful family metaphor, transforming the falsehood into a naive but brutal shape, whereby Big Brother can always silence little brother by killing him. 

It is grotesque that Russian schoolchildren should be subject to such intellectual abuse as Russian bombs and shells destroy Ukrainian schools, but the two phenomena are actually one phenomenon.  Violence on this scale requires taming the past, monopolizing innocence, and creating a false certainty that whatever one's country actually does in the present and future must be correct.  We came first, we were always on the defensive, we always helped others, even if they themselves don't always understand that.  Once national memory is so organized, people behave predictably, and are easier to send off to fight stupid, criminal wars.  This is true everywhere, not just in Russia, which is why memory laws are to be avoided.  It is telling that Putin strengthened his right before he launched this war.

Like the Russian military offensive in Ukraine, this pedagogical offensive might not be going as planned.  Russian parents asking over and over about how to talk about "war" are already disobeying new war censorship, which requires them to speak of a "special operation."  Teachers have signed anti-war petitions, and have been fired for doing so.  It would be so very interesting to know more about this.  And I hope that Novaya Gazeta can keep reporting. 

Actual history can only be built on sources; and sources, especially precious ones like investigative reports, always require human effort and human risk.  History is not how one man smooths the past so that we all slide towards war.  It is how many of us, each a little differently, confront the difficulties of the past and so imagine our own individual routes towards the future.  Investigative reporters are the heroes of our time, and the allies of historians to come.  I wish those of Novaya Gazeta strength and endurance and I thank them for helping me to learn.

This essay was originally published on Timothy Snyder's Substack. Reproduced here with the author's permission.

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