This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Colonizers are going to colonize. No, I haven't forgotten about Puerto Rico or Guam. We've reviewed that history in other shows. Though colonization is about land and resources and power, sometimes it's bracingly depicted as an act of goodwill or of kinship. Case in point, days before Putin invaded Ukraine last year, he recited an old essay on "the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians wherein he rewrote the past."
Female News Speaker: This week started with President Putin quoting Lenin in saying that Ukraine was a fake country created by Lenin.
Male News Speaker: President Putin laying out his case that Ukraine is always part of Russia historically, cultural, ethnic, religious ties that go way back in history that it's not a real country that is naturally part of a bigger Russia.
Brooke Gladstone: The notion featured heavily on Russian news to justify the war. "Because Kiev is the mother of all Russian cities," but this is not new fiction. In fact, Mikhail Zygar has traced it back at least this far as the middle ages. He's a Russian investigative journalist, founding editor and chief of the independent Russian TV channel Rain. Suspended for its war coverage. Now based in the Netherlands. And author of the new book War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the Path to Russia's Invasion of Ukraine.
Zygar unravels a thousand years of fables, and he discovered a history entirely unlike the one he learned in Moscow growing up. Actually, he says that history starts in the Europe that would be familiar to fans of Game of Thrones with empires and religions vying for power and for land.
Mikhail Zygar: My mission was to start writing completely different version of Russian history because unfortunately, we have never had any kind of history of Russian people or people's of Russia. It has always been written by official historians who were serving the state and they were much more propagandist than historians.
Brooke Gladstone: Your book explores seven myths about the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. We won't get to them all, but we'll start with the most crucial one probably, unity, which was penned in a paper called Synopsis by a German monk 300 years ago.
Mikhail Zygar: A myth of the unity of Slavic nations is very real. It was created only three centuries ago by that German person named [unintelligible 00:37:21] Gizelle.
Brooke Gladstone: How does Gizelle's chronicle read?
Mikhail Zygar: It starts from the creation of the world, then goes all the way to Noah and Moses, and the first princess of Kievan Rus according that chronicle direct descendants of characters of the bible. The first statehood was created in Kiev, but then the grandson's of grandsons of the first Kievan princess move the capital of unified Rus to the city of Moscow. He draws that imaginary line that unifies old Kiev with new Moscow.
Brooke Gladstone: You say Gizelle's synopsis went on to be used a textbook.
Mikhail Zygar: It was one of the first scientific text on Russian history and [unintelligible 00:38:09] Gizelle could not have foreseen that, but Peter the Great loved it and it was used by all the official historians. Actually, it was the main source of the information for most Russian historians in 18th century and the 19th century till 20th century.
Brooke Gladstone: Okay, so stay with the era of Peter the Great when the Ukrainian leader or Hetman Ivan Mazepa was navigating two different empires, Sweden and Russia is now rapidly expanding. How did Mazepa become a symbol of betrayal? That would be the second myth that still resonates today.
Mikhail Zygar: During that period, Ukraine has become part of Russia empire and he was considered to be one of the very close military leaders to Russian emperor Peter the Great. As Mazepa always considered himself to be first Ukrainian leader and only then ally of the Russians are, when the sedation for his homeland has become really dangerous, he has chosen to switch sides and ally with Swedish emperor, and that symbolic choice is still considered for many years to be a symbolic betrayal by Russian historians.
At the same time, for Ukrainian historians, on the contrary, he chose his own people and his own nation, and he might have been a traitor if he had chosen Peter the Great but not his people.Is right now during the current war, it's associated with Ukraine word zrada that means betrayal. A very important political term in today's Ukraine that moral dilemma of Ivan Mazepa. It's always raised when a politician or an activist has a choice between real interests of his nation and possibility of some political alliance.
Brooke Gladstone: It explains so much, because in the last year or so, at various international cultural events like the PEN Conference, which stands for the Freedom of Writers, Ukrainian writers simply won't appear on the same stage with Russians, even if those Russians are dissidents and at risk and opposed to Putin's war. I never understood until you explain the idea of zrada, why Ukrainians would shun those Russians.
Mikhail Zygar: Ukrainians blame not only Russian government, and not only Vladimir Putin, but Russia as such, and all representatives of Russian culture. Ukrainians blame Pushkin as well as Joseph Brodsky, Dostoevsky, or other representatives of Russian culture claiming that they were imperialists. That's a very important idea for me because I think that we won't find common grounds before we address all those issues. We cannot, as Russian writers, Russian intellectuals, we cannot say, "Don't touch Pushkin, he's sacred. He's our everything." That would be just blind. We should reconsider all the mistakes and crimes of Russian culture as well. We are not the first. Very symbolic example is, for example, Kipling who has written the infamous poem about-
Brooke Gladstone: White Man's Burden.
Mikhail Zygar: Yes. Jungle Book is not canceled, is still loved by kids all over the world, but this particular concept of Kipling is widely discussed and is denounced by British intellectuals and by British historians. We must do that. We must get rid of our historical myths and of our sacred cause, including Pushkin or Dostoevsky.
Brooke Gladstone: You want to just get rid of Dostoevsky?
Mikhail Zygar: No.
Brooke Gladstone: You mean that we have to understand that he's a creature of his time.
Mikhail Zygar: We should read him in full. If he was terribly wrong, we must find courage to admit it and to say it.
Brooke Gladstone: You liken the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko to Frederick Douglas because Shevchenko was basically a surf who happened to become the greatest Ukrainian poet. Liberated at the same time as Frederick Douglass, ran away from slavery to New York City, and liberated himself.
Mikhail Zygar: There were no parallels in history, definitely, but there are rhymes. Different countries were facing very similar political and social process and served them this form of slavery served them. In Russia, was abolished the same year as the American Civil War started. Taras Shevchenko is the first writer who used classic traditional literature, Ukrainian language. Before him, Ukrainians could reach the highest positions in Russian cultural elite or political bureaucracy. They could have become members of government or chancellors with only one condition if they abandoned their Ukrainian background and started speaking Russian. Shevchenko, even after being liberated and even after he had become one of the most popular artists in St. Petersburg, he never stopped writing in Ukrainian, and he has become a moral example.
Brooke Gladstone: It's interesting though how many Russians suggest that Ukrainian is actually just pigeon Russian. The words look alike, they sound alike. How do you address the language issue or the language myth?
Mikhail Zygar: A lot of Russians, and we know that Vladimir Putin is one of them, consider Ukrainian not as a real language, but as provincial Russian. Unfortunately, all those people don't know anything about Ukrainian literature or the history of Ukrainian language. They don't know, for example, the history of Russian authorities, especially in the 18th and 19th, and 20th century, to suppress the usage of Ukrainian languages. Ukrainian books were banned, the education in Ukrainian was permanently banned. That's a real historical tragedy. It's funny that the language that does not exist was banned and then still exists even after all those centuries.
Brooke Gladstone: Another myth you address is the myth of Lenin. Putin's claim before invading that Ukraine was an invention of Lenin's. You write that an independent Ukrainian state was formed in spite of Lenin.
Mikhail Zygar: Oh, yes. It's important to say that after the collapse of the Russian Empire, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, who was the spiritual leader and the head of first Ukrainian parliament, had an idea about Ukrainian autonomy.
Brooke Gladstone: He was, interestingly enough, a historian, and his book, the History of Ukraine-Rus, played a role in establishing Ukraine as a modern state.
Mikhail Zygar: He's still considered to be probably the founding father of the political Ukrainian nation because he was the first author to write the academic history of Ukraine.
Brooke Gladstone: That was written in 1898 and it was the first impactful response to the history written by the Monk Gizelle.
Mikhail Zygar: He was successfully trying to prove that Gizelle's concept written in synopsis was fake. How Ukraine became the independent state back in 1918, in October of 1917, there was a Bolshevik coup in St. Peterburg and Russia had become a communist dictatorship. That was a catastrophe for all the democratic movements in Russia and in Ukraine. After Lenin has become Russian dictator, there was no other choice for Ukrainian authorities and for Hrushevsky but to proclaim the independent Ukrainian state. It's really ridiculous when Vladimir Putin says that Ukraine was invented by Lenin.
Brooke Gladstone: Hrushevsky was interrogated by the Soviet secret police in the '30s. Historians arrested in the Soviet Union were called wrecker historians by the government. So the Russian government has always been extremely sensitive to how history is depicted.
Mikhail Zygar: That's the curse of Russian history, that it has always been very close to the power. All famous classical historians were always appointed by the heads of state and were reporting to the emperors or to the secretary generals. Nikolai Karamsin, probably one of the most famous Russian historians of 19th century, was reporting directly to the emperor Alexander I.
In 20th century, Stalin himself was editing the official version of the Communist Party history. It was absolutely clear for Russian leaders that they have to create the version of Russian history that proves they deserve to be in power. It should explain why Russian needs to be the empire. That was very clear for me that the moment when Putin started to build his ideology around his version of Russian history and to justify the current brutal aggression.
Brooke Gladstone: In the epilogue, you write that imperial history is our disease and that future generations of Russians will "not tread the same path if we, their ancestors, bear the punishment today." If imperial history has been the problem, you're turning to a revision of that history as the solution.
Mikhail Zygar: Yes, that's true. We have never had a proper people's history of Russia and that's right time to start writing it. If in history Russian army or Russian leaders have committed war crimes, they should be named this way. We should know everything about history of peoples of Russia, history of Siberia, and how Siberia was colonized, history of Far East, history of Urals, history of North Caucasus, all the neighbors of Russia and confess to ourselves and apologize to all other nations which have become victims of Russian imperial history.
Brooke Gladstone: Have you been following the fight here in America over history? How to teach it, how to advance it, how to reckon with it?
Mikhail Zygar: The debate about history in America is an inspiration for me because I think that every time we add another historical narrative to the traditional one, that's the way out. For example, I love the African-American Museum in Washington, DC because it adds another very important narrative missing in the traditional version of American history. I think that the more historical narratives a nation adds to its perception of history, the better. That's the way I hope Russian historians will proceed.
Brooke Gladstone: Mikhail, thank you very much.
Mikhail Zygar: Thank you. That was a pleasure talking to you.
Brooke Gladstone: Same here. Mikhail Zygar is the author of the book, War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the Path to Russia's Invasion of Ukraine.
Brooke Gladstone: On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang, and Suzanne Gaber with help from Shaan Merchant. Our technical director's Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Nerviano. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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