Making connections: Initiative puts Ukrainian history in global context
Ukrainian history and world history have been linked for thousands of years, from the spread of what would become Indo-European languages by the Yamna culture to the global consequences of today’s Russo-Ukrainian War.
An international team of scholars led by Yale historian Timothy Snyder will spend the next three years working on an experimental model for understanding that history within its global context.
Called the Ukrainian History Global Initiative, the project will seek a broader history of Ukrainian lands and peoples by tying that history in with global and regional developments across time. Some 90 scholars working in a variety of fields and disciplines will pursue research across 70 themes, looking for new understandings and connections.
“It’s trying to take a fresh start on the basis that lots of things are possible now that weren’t possible until very recently, thanks to advances in archaeology,” says Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and professor of global affairs at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs. “It’s an invitation to say, this history is fascinating, it has all these great themes in it, let’s see what we can make out of it.”
Snyder announced the initiative on Nov. 27 at a press conference at the British Museum in London. It is being funded by Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian businessman and oligarch.
“It’s a bit of good news in a part of the world where there’s not a lot of good news right now,” Snyder said, referring to Russia’s war on Ukraine. “And it's also a bit of good news in this moment where so many terrible things are happening.”
Four other Yale historians will join Snyder on the project’s academic advisory council. They are Marci Shore, who studies European intellectual history; Hussein Fancy, a historian of medieval Europe and the Islamic world; Sunil Amrith, the Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History focused on transnational migration in Asia; and Rohit De, a lawyer and historian focused on the legal history of the Indian subcontinent.
A prominent historian of Eastern Europe, Snyder is the author of numerous award-winning books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” Last year he attracted a global audience when he made the lectures from his Yale course “The Making of Modern Ukraine” available for free on YouTube.
Snyder recently spoke with Yale News about his latest project, one more than three years in the making.
How did this initiative come about?
Timothy Snyder: It came about because Victor Pinchuk called me about three and a half years ago and said, ‘I have this idea. I think there should be a deep Ukrainian history.’ He had this notion that one could do a deep history of Ukraine on the basis of recent technological innovations and by bringing in the scientific aspects of history — the geology, the paleontology, the biology. I essentially said, that’s a great idea, but you will have to institutionalize this because it's going to have to involve lots and lots of people. And you’re going to need a concept which allows those people to each take a part and somehow work together. And so over the course of that long period of time, we kept talking. I ended up drafting the concept. And the institution is this thing we launched in London.
How will it inform what we already know about Ukrainian history?
Snyder: It’s unlike any other project of this kind in that its purpose is not really to say, “Hey everybody, there’s Ukrainian history and you must know it.” Its purpose is more to say, “If you start in Ukraine and look at world history and European history, world history and European history will make more sense.” We’re assuming that history is global. And if you look at one part of it in its global connections, you’ll end up understanding many major themes much better.
If you’re a Ukrainian coming to this, you’re going to think, “Oh, my history is more interesting because it connects to the spread of Indo-European languages throughout Europe, or it connects to classical Greece.” If you’re someone who's not from Ukraine looking at this history, you'll say, “Aha, here we have this place where we can find this conjuncture of all kinds of things that are familiar to me, which I now understand better.”
To take those two examples: We’re speaking English. If you know that proto-Indo-European — the base language from which English comes — probably spread from what’s now Ukraine, you think differently about yourself. Or if you think, well, I’ve heard of Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, but gosh, I didn’t know that they were fed by wheat that was grown in what is now Ukraine, where a war is now being fought. Then you might start to think about the classical world differently, right?
Is Ukraine uniquely suited for this kind of an approach, or could you do this in a lot of places?
Snyder: The answer is, I think I know how to do it for Ukraine. But the idea is that this could be done with lots of other places. This is meant to be a pioneer project. It’s experimental. It has an outline, which is the concept that I wrote, but it’s partly about learning new things in a collaborative way. There are roughly 70 projects within the initiative, which I call “capsules.”
The idea is you start from a place — a nexus point — and you look for the connections.
There are lots of lines crossing here, so let's look at the crossings and let’s also follow the lines out a little bit. One of the things I thought about very hard in the time I was constructing this was, how do the capsules interact with each other? We’re going to have big conferences and workshops so that we make sure that all these capsules connect.
Pinchuk is a high-powered oligarch and is married to the daughter of former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. Will you be able to operate the initiative independent of Pinchuk’s influence?
Snyder: This goes back to your first question. That’s why I said from the very beginning, you have to institutionalize it. You can’t create a situation where people think you’re directly paying historians because then no one's going to take it seriously.
There’s an important positive part about this, which is that he wants to support the humanities over multiple years with lots of money. And that’s a good thing. The way you make it possible, both in reality and in perception, is you create an institution in which his role is, in an obvious way, constrained. And that institution is a United Kingdom Charitable Foundation, which is just about the most transparent, bulletproof and legally respectable kind of home for a thing like this. His role is defined as one of the trustees on the board of this institution.
What are your hopes for the findings?
Snyder: First of all, there’s just a whole lot that we don’t know. We are going to go out and do new things and find all the things we didn’t know. That’s a big part of the spirit of this project. The part that I can't predict is in some ways the most interesting thing about it.
The part that I can predict is that we’re aiming to have 70 or so long summaries, 30,000 words and then shorter summaries. So we can fit this together as a kind of old-fashioned encyclopedic project, and we can also fit it together as a shorter book. Once we get there, this may turn out to be stage one of larger projects, where stage two would be something like a physical museum. This would be the intellectual work for that. A museum which is the result of a new experimental project like this would be a different kind of concept.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the project?
Snyder: I should stress how important this is for the 50 or so Ukrainian researchers who are involved, in the sense that they’re being recognized and brought into something bigger. The Westerners I’ve talked to have also been really excited about it, as soon as they get their head around what I’m trying to do. I think people really like the idea that, okay, we’re going to do something which is bold and not too specialized and brings a lot of people together. That’s cool.