‘Putin is trying to destroy Ukraine’s cultural memory’

© Getty Images / sandsun

War in Ukraine: an interview with the Eastern Europe expert Franziska Davies

500 participants are following your lectures about Ukrainian history every Tuesday, and the waiting list is long. Did you expect this kind of response?

I am very happy about the great interest, of course. My original plan had been to hold the series as a private event, but then the German Historical Institute Warsaw decided to host it and add it to its programme. It is a new format for me, so it is kind of an experiment. There will be a total of ten lectures until the middle of July, in which I am going to give an overview of the origins of the Ukrainian national movement from the 19th century through to the present day. After each lecture, I answer questions asked via the chat function. The large amount of feedback that I receive after the lectures shows that there is great demand for information.

How do you experience this war?

What we can see in Ukraine reminds many historians of times they are only familiar with from literature. This is shocking. Terror against the civilian population, systematic violence against national elites, enemy constructs: these are all phenomena that we know from history. Now we are witnessing an imperialist war of aggression ourselves, which is spearheaded by state propaganda through the media.

Did you see this coming?

Many experts had clearly predicted this development. Poland and the Baltic States, as well as Ukraine itself, of course, had been warning us for a long time. For many historians, including myself, this war did not come as a surprise. However, I did not expect a comprehensive attack like this, that also included Western Ukraine and Kyiv. I was truly shocked by this. It goes without saying that this brutal war of annihilation is deeply touching if you are so familiar with the region and have close relationships with people there. My position is very clear, though. I am 100 percent in solidarity with Ukraine and I advocate for resolute political and military support for the country.

Almost 15 years ago, you went to St Petersburg as a DAAD scholarship holder. You wrote on Twitter that you are often thinking of this time these days. What are you thinking about in particular?

Hate campaigns in the state media started even then, and I remember this very clearly. At the time, these were directed against Estonians, because they had moved the monument for the Soviet soldier to the edge of the city. Today we can see what this hatred has done to Russian society. At the start of the war I had this small hope that the mothers of the Russian soldiers might rise up. However, quite the opposite is true: many of them are spurring on their sons or celebrating their actions.

How strong is the anti-Ukrainian sentiment among the Russian population?

The extent of support for Putin’s war is impossible to assess right now. It will be up to future generations of historians to find out. Making political statements is dangerous in Russia, of course. However, it is not necessary to explicitly endorse this war on state television, nobody is forced to do this. We will also have to address the fact that anti-Ukrainian stereotypes are widespread in Russian society and that Ukrainians are expected to submit to Russia. The roots of this go back to the 19th century. It is fair to say that a certain idea of Ukraine existed which Putin was able to mobilise and radicalise with his propaganda. Here too, however, we will need sociological studies dealing with this issue. What I find almost as important is the question who is even interested in what is happening in Ukraine. Large parts of Russian society seem to be mostly indifferent about the war, and are just leading their same everyday life. However, people do hold responsibility for what is going on in their state. History has shown what turning a blind eye can cause.

Your commitment has gone far beyond university teaching for several years now. What prompted this?

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was one reason. A former Federal Chancellor referred to Ukraine as an ‘artificial’ nation at the time and received a lot of applause for his. Ever since, I have been trying to raise interest in the developments in Eastern Europe through lectures at community colleges as well as short journalistic papers. It is sad to see that it took a war to create this awareness.

One of the key topics you focus on is Russification. What does that mean?

To this date, the Soviet Union and Russia are often treated as the same thing. This Russification of Eastern Europe dates back to the 19th century and it characterised Germany’s policy on Russia in the 20th and 21st century. The experiences of World War II had given rise to a deep desire for reconciliation. It is important to me to show that it was not only Russia that had been a victim of the German war of annihilation but also other countries, such as Ukraine and Belarus. The Soviet Union was a multi-ethnic state and this was completely ignored for a long time. To this day, we speak of the ‘Russian campaign’ or of ‘Ivan’. These terms alone show how strongly the war in the east is still associated with Russia. Despite the fact that regions such as Ukraine or Belarus were the main places of action of the German campaign of destruction. Even soldiers of the Wehrmacht who were fighting there, frequently did not realise they were not in Russia.

What is the role of commemorative culture in this context?

I believe that one of my jobs as an Eastern Europe historian is to communicate academic findings about the German war of annihilation in Eastern Europe to a broader public. This was also the reason why I wrote a book about ‘Eastern Europe’s open wounds’ together with my colleague Katja Makhotina. We hope that it will be read by people outside the expert circles. We travelled to memorial sites of World War II, where we did research and spoke to witnesses of the events. We tell stories that show how people experienced the war and the occupation. These voices have not been heard for far too long.

One chapter is dedicated to the mass murders committed in Babi Yar. Back in March, this Holocaust memorial was damaged in an attack.

Babi Yar is a highly symbolic place in Europe that everyone should see. Around 65,000 people were killed here. It is unbearable to think that bombs are being dropped on memorial sites in Ukraine, that witnesses of the Holocaust are shot at and killed. This is not only an attack on the Ukrainian people but also on the country’s cultural memory. Putin wants to destroy Ukraine as a state, which is why archives are being targeted deliberately. I had planned to visit Kyiv in July to do research in the historic collections. Following the experiences I made in Russia, I deliberately decided to focus on East Central Europe for my habilitation project, to be able to work without Russian archives, if necessary. My project deals with the strikes and labour disputes in Poland, Great Britain and Soviet Ukraine in the 1980s and 1990s and aims to bring together the Western and Eastern European perspectives of history. By now it is hardly possible to conduct any academic work in Russia as a foreigner.

Interest in Eastern Europe is strong at the moment, what do you expect in the future?

Our views of Eastern Europe are often characterised by a certain degree of disregard, so I hope that this perception will change fundamentally. With our book we do not deliver a collection of facts, but we encourage readers to question our somewhat colonialist view. The fact that people are only becoming aware of Ukraine now does speak for itself. And we really have so many links to Eastern Europe, there are so many people here. They take care of our parents and they harvest the asparagus that we eat. We need to take a genuine interest in their personal histories and in their countries.

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