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"The atrocities committed by the Russians are their reaction to the fact that they are nobody in their own country." Interview with a historian

Wednesday, 6 July 2022, 11:37

The full-scale war that began on 24 February has been, for many Ukrainians, the first experience of hostilities and their consequences. What the cities of the Ukrainian region of Donbas have been experiencing for 8 years, Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv and other cities have now also had to go through. 

The greatest tragedy facing the Ukrainian people is the genocidal actions of the Russians, which we had previously only read about in books about the Soviet "Great Terror" [the Great Terror, also known as the Great Purge, was a cruel political campaign by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to kill dissenting members of the Communist Party and anyone else he considered a threat] or the German occupation during the Second World War.

It seems that we have survived everything: shootings, tortures, deportations and sexual violence.


We discussed the crimes committed by Russians in historical perspective with Dr Larysa Yakubova, a researcher in historical sciences specialising in the study of the "Russian world".

"Ukraine has been able to elude the state that has been destroying Russia"

- The term "Russian world" is not new for you, and you have devoted many publications to it. Did you foresee the war, knowing all that?

- People had feared that something bad would happen, and 24 February was the point when it finally did.

It had already been clear since November that war was coming, and that it was a matter of weeks.

When you are just a scientist who is engaged in studying the "Russian world" and you know enough about it, then this burden completely suffocates you and does not allow you to live fully.


- The Russians are trying to use their own historical myths against Ukraine. Before the full-scale war, we listened to a speech by Putin in which he denied Ukrainian statehood. Can we say that Ukrainians already have a certain degree of immunity to this?

- I have been studying Russian propaganda for 8 years - it is quite difficult for an average person to understand it.

In the area they refer to as the "Russian world", people have long been living in a "virtual world" that can’t be called our history, Soviet or Russian history - it is an alternative history in which the same commonly used word forms seem to float around, but they are combined in such a way that we find ourselves immersed in Orwell's reality or that of other outstanding fiction writers.

I believe that for 30 years we, as historians, have been doing things right in Ukraine. Ukraine was able to elude the state that has been destroying Russia, namely, the state of unwillingness to know anything about its real past, of forgetting and erasing it from memory, of refusing to repent of anything and seeing only progress and victories.

As a result, Russian historians ceased to be historians and deprived the people of Russia of understanding where they are and who they are.

The difference between our countries in this sense is enormous. That is, Ukrainians today are people with their own true history, whilst Russians are still wandering through the swamps with their 17th-century hero, Ivan Susani


- Will the Russians ever be able to get out of this state?

- They will not get out of this dead-end for another 50 years, because it is impossible to write a new history just from Wikipedia.

There need to be tens of thousands of professional historians, but they hardly have any left. The current cohort, who were trained in the past 30 years, are propagandists who do not have the tools for professional work.

First, it is necessary to train young professional historians, explain the difference between propaganda and historical science, and then they all have to go to real archives, which are currently closed to researchers, to work and think for a couple of dozen years.

The results should then be published, put into mass circulation, and it will take 10-20 years for society to accept it.


"For 30 years, the Russian people were deliberately led by their government into a state of atrocity"

- Why do Russians draw on historical perspective to destroy Ukrainians? The Holodomor [the great famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933 caused by Soviet policy], repression, destruction of culture and memory, and now the public denial of Ukrainian statehood and atrocities committed in the occupied territories.

- It’s all very simple, because the "Russian world" is a virtual picture of an alternative history. Researchers quite often use the cliché that Russians are people with a false self-identification.

There are many examples when families have kept silent about their origins. Russians can go through their whole lives and learn only near old age that they are the descendants of repressed Greeks, Finns, Jews or Ukrainians.

That is, we are talking about negative selection, where Great Russian chauvinism is a necessary prerequisite for being promoted through the levels of internal hierarchy.

Although Stalin was a Georgian by nationality, he was also a Great Russian chauvinist. So was Lenin. Not to mention the tsars, who could not have become imperialists simply by the fact of their birth - they were brought up in the tradition of Russian imperial historiography.

-Were the Bolsheviks also brought up on imperial historiography?

- They also shared an imperial historiography. It could not have been otherwise, from a historical point of view.

The main task of Ukraine at the current stage is to ensure that Russians leave us alone; to separate this two-unit matrix on which the basic historical reflection on the question of origins is based. And where are the origins of historical reflections on Russia?

- Since the time of Kyivan Rus...

- Here's the answer to why they pick on us: because the internal system of coordinates in the personality structure of every Russian dictator takes its starting point in Kyiv.

However, a common starting point and the present-day community are not the same thing.

If that were the logic, then Kyiv could claim that Moscow should become a region of Ukraine. But no - because at some stage, Vasily Klyuchevsky [a 19th-century Russian historian] de facto transferred the emphasis on continuity from the "mother of Russian cities" [Kyiv] to the "dynasty". Thus, the focus switched to the notion that, for some reason, Kyiv should be a province, not Moscow.

Until the Russians accept their true history as part of their mentality, until then there will be a terrible mess that will bring death and war everywhere.


- Most Ukrainians were shocked by the scale of torture and abuse in Bucha and Irpin, but if we open a textbook on the history or study of Soviet terror, we will see that this behaviour is typical of Russians...

- The Russian people have been deliberately brought to a state of brutality by the authorities over the past 30 years. This is a side effect of a totalitarian society as such.

They were deliberately pushed into a totalitarian matrix, although it should be noted that they have never actually left it behind. There was a period that saw a degree of easing, sometime before the First Chechen War.

Russia is moving in the direction of a large Gulag [the government agency that administered the prison camps in the Soviet Union, and also refers to the network of those prison camps] covering the entire territory of the state. And the totalitarian matrix dehumanises every person at every level.

We consider their leaders, we look at Putin: he stands completely stone-faced and proclaims the genocide of the Ukrainian people. Not a single muscle on his face moves, although he must understand that he is condemning an entire nation before the eyes of the whole world.

And with a similar stone face, 70-80% of 140 million [Russian] people say "okay, that's how it should be."

Atrocities are their reaction to the fact that they are nobody in their own country. This is no longer an army, but an armed bunch of scumbags who will do whatever it takes to follow  their orders.


- Can this behaviour of Russians be considered the norm for them?

- The civilisation praised by the "Russian world" [mentioned earlier] was brought to such a state by 30 years of work on the mass consciousness of people by the Russian authorities. This was done on purpose, because only in this way can there be a totalitarian state and power that does not change and is cemented. This is a country where historical time and social development have stopped.

But we should understand that this side effect is the norm in totalitarian regimes; the same thing happened in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and in post-war China.

When totalitarianism wins as a form of social organisation, mass brutality is its direct consequence. And every war is an atrocity, regardless of who wages it. The exception is the country that defends itself.

Why do Europeans repeat "Never again"? Because they understand that any nation can be brought to such a state, and everyone can turn out to be a victim or an "animal".

We have something to be proud of in this situation: we are holding our ground, and the Russians will have to live with it. Our task is not to lose our humanity. And once we persevere and win, we must ensure that in the end, all the guilty parties are punished. But Russia is playing around with history in order to avoid this.

"The tools of interaction with society are all the same: basements, tortures, mutilations, camps, interrogations"

- If we compare what the Russians are doing now to the Soviet terror of the 1930s and the German occupation during the Second World War, can we say that they have increased the atrocities to a new level?

- Such comparisons are not correct from a historical point of view, because people were different 70 years ago, even if we are talking about your grandfather. The majority of Russians at that time had not completed 4 years of education - we are not talking about the intelligentsia or elites here.

The mass of individuals who lived under the Nazi regime at the time were burghers who had gone bankrupt after the First World War. Moreover, they were people who did not have an average, full-fledged Western European primary education. They were told that a Jew is not a person, and that a physically disabled person can be killed without remorse in order to "purify the race".

It was explained to the Germans that Ukrainian lands are their living space. The Nazis came to Ukraine to get a large piece of land, where they planned to start farms, create a colony where their children and great-grandchildren would rule, and drive Ukrainians into slavery.

And today we see a Russian man, allegedly an educated person, with access to the Internet, raping a girl.

It is possible to compare them, but in making a comparison one should not forget about the internal structures of the countries which commit crimes against the population.

NKVD [The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, abbreviated NKVD, was the secret police agency of the Soviet Union 1934-46, subsequently renamed the KGB]

After all, if we consider that every Russian is capable of doing this, then we will come to a dead end. That's how they think about us, and genocidal practices grow out of such assumptions: when an entire nation is denied every right to remain human.

- Have the working methods of the Russian special services changed since Soviet times?

- The tools of interaction with society are all the same: basements, tortures, mutilations, camps, interrogations. If you look at a study of what was done during the "Great Terror" of 1937-38, you will see that the same thing has been done for 8 years in the basements of the "DPR" [self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic] and "LPR" [self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic].

The only difference is the scale. The only thing is that mass war crimes are the crimes of another structure, the so-called Russian army. It is now not an army, but basically a terrorist organisation.

And it [the Russian army] is doing the same thing to Ukraine as to Syria. That is, it is  technically possible to turn every Ukrainian city into Aleppo. There are orders, there is no honour, there is no dignity, there are no human values.

After all, the Nazis did the same thing. Our catastrophe is that we will have to live with this terrible neighbour for a long time, because I do not see the leaders of Russia radically changing its internal settings in the near future.

The next 30 years will be very difficult for all of us, and in this situation it is very important to be down-to-earth.


- Sexual violence is one of the types of terror in Russia today. How common were such cases during the Soviet terror in the 1930s?

- From a purely scientific point of view, sexual violence is a reflection of barbarism. We have to understand that it is present in every war, because all the violent attitudes, the dehumanisation of the enemy are the archetype of the behaviour of a barbarian warrior who comes to the land he has captured.

The first thing a barbarian does before a defeated enemy is to rape women, daughters and sons, kill the master and begin to rule over all those who have been humiliated. After enduring such stress, one must have a very strong inner core not to break down and to continue the struggle, and even to continue to live.

This topic is studied on the basis of what happened in the Second World War, during Soviet occupation, and from Western European material. Let's consider what happened after the capture of Berlin, where wives and daughters were raped in front of the captured officers, after which those officers committed suicide.

Rape in public places is an act of humiliation and moral murder. When all the information is available, we will talk about what we are dealing with today.

Fortunately, now the Ukrainian army is working quite well, and it will be difficult for them [Russian soldiers] to reach the boys, men, and women, and this may hold them back. In the first stage of the war, when they marched in in full uniform, they had a sense that it was open season.

- You have done a great deal of research on the history of Donbas. Is it now symbolic that the fate of Ukraine is being determined there?

- If our border with Russia was in Ternopil Oblast or Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, then the symbolism would lie there.

We recaptured Kyiv Oblast, Chernihiv Oblast, and Sumy Oblast not because there is less support for the "Russian world" there than in Donbas. The problem is that Donbas has been a stepping-stone for the past 8 years.

Donbas was chosen as the zone that was easiest to "sway". At that time [in 2014], the fugitive president Yanukovych was "the leader of the common man from Donbas", just as the average Russian now identifies with Putin. That is, these slogans worked there because of a high level of social tension, not because of "pure love" for Russia.

Secondly, it was a zone of chronic social depression, and this weakened Kyiv's position. Similar zones of social disaster in Russia are now zones of support for Putin's "special operation". Their residents thus strive to "establish order" in Ukraine, when they have no influence on anything and live on the edge of survival [within their own territory]. 

We have taken a huge step forward in these 8 years. I don't like it when they write that if it weren't for Putin and the war, there would be no Ukrainian nation.

The symbolism of Donbas is that in 2014, the Russians wanted to "revive" Novorossiya ["New Russia", the historical term for a region that was part of the Russian Empire and included part of present-day Ukraine], but they failed.

After that, they would state, on various platforms, look: Putin's Russia is a nightmare, and we will build a "new, beautiful Russia" in Donbas. So what happened? It turned into a festering cesspool of terrible degradation: intellectual, moral, economic, and social.

These pseudo-republics, like metastases, spread to the mental body of Russia itself. And now we see that the insignificant "LPR/DPR" [self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics] have turned out to be a projection of the totalitarian future of Russia itself.

But we have different projections: we will retake Ukrainian Donbas and we will "live our own lives", building a future of peace and freedom.

Mykhailo Zahorodnii, Ukrainska Pravda. Zhyttia