In the days leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, few people expected an act of such aggression, Yale historian Timothy Snyder told a classroom of students earlier this semester. Looking back now, he said, the fact that the invasion did happen offers an important reminder: seen from the present, history is hard to predict.
In fact, Snyder told students, the oft-quoted saying that “history repeats itself” is a fallacy.
“If it is true that history repeats itself, then nothing we do matters,” Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), told students gathered in William L. Harkness Hall. “If history literally repeats itself, there would be no human agency. … It’s the same as saying ‘Things never change.’”
The war in Ukraine has also revealed other fundamental misconceptions. For instance, it was commonly assumed that Ukraine would fall quickly. “The fact that we thought Ukraine would collapse in three days,” he said, “might say more about our misunderstandings of the place than it does about the place itself.”
At a time when Ukraine — and its resistance to repeated Russian assaults — has attracted global attention, Snyder has tried to correct such misconceptions in the course “The Making of Modern Ukraine.”
And to make sure the lessons travel far beyond the Yale campus, he has made the course lectures available for free on YouTube.
By last count, videos of his classroom lectures had attracted well over 2.5 million clicks. The first lecture itself, which was held on Sept. 1, has more than 824,000 views to date. Viewers hail from nearly 70 countries; with the highest participation coming from the United States and Ukraine. The cities with the most viewers for the first class are Kyiv and Lviv in Ukraine.
“Tim Snyder’s course on Ukraine’s past and present provides its students with a richly textured historical context for understanding current events,” said Tamar Gendler, dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “And these students include not only the hundreds of Yale undergraduates who are following his lectures on campus, but the hundreds of thousands of citizens across the globe who are following them online.”
“This kind of publicly engaged teaching is at the heart of the FAS’s mission to preserve, advance, and disseminate knowledge, and it is thrilling to see such an enthusiastic response to this rigorous yet accessible introduction to Ukrainian history.”
According to Lucas Swineford, executive director of digital education at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, the addition of Snyder’s course to the university’s catalog of free online courses aligns with Yale’s mission of expanding knowledge through both research and education. More than 80 Yale courses across many disciplines are now available online, including courses on epidemics in Western society, climate change and health, financial markets, and African American history.
“Yale is a global institution and making the insights and expertise of our faculty available to global learners works directly in support of the university’s mission,” Swineford said. “Through this online offering, people from all over the world can learn from Professor Snyder about the historical context for an important news event that is happening in real time.”
Snyder, who holds a joint appointment as professor of global affairs at the Jackson School of Global Affairs, is a scholar of modern Central and Eastern Europe. He is the author of the bestselling book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” which he has expanded into an audio version that provides historical background for Russian’s invasion and Ukrainian resistance. He has written six books on Ukraine’s history and politics, including “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America,” “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” “The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke,” and “Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine.” He has written regularly about the war in Ukraine for many media outlets, including The New York Times, the New Yorker, and Foreign Affairs. He was recently invited by Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy and the team at United24, the main venue for collecting charitable donations in support of Ukraine, to help launch a campaign to defend Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure from criminal Russian drone attacks.
Snyder hopes his course on Ukrainian history provides illuminating historical context for the ongoing war.
Early in the course, Snyder discussed the ancient history and geography of present-day Ukraine, followed by a review of events during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. By late October, as his large audience of students and public viewers continued to grow, he reached the early modern period, including discussions on such topics as the Cossack Rebellion, the Russian and Habsburg empires, and the Ukrainian national movement before World War I. Future lectures will examine the interwar period, Soviet-ruled Ukraine, and its later independence.
Throughout, the course will examine fundamental questions, including: What brought about the Ukrainian nation? Why has its existence occasioned such controversy? In what ways are Polish, Russian, and Jewish identities dependent upon experiences in Ukraine? What can be learned from the impact of Soviet and Nazi terror on the country? And is the modern, multilingual Ukrainian nation a “holdover” from the past or does it hold promise for the future?
Often, Snyder noted in the course syllabus, “the most important historical factors are the ones that are most difficult to see. Ukraine, throughout its history, has tended to exemplify the major trends in European and world history, including as an early example of European state formation and an early example of anti-colonial rebellion. But sometimes these shifts occur in a form so radical that they escape notice and classification.”
The Yale historian will bring students and other viewers of his course up to date on the current war following discussion in coming weeks of some of the other traumatic events and conflicts Ukraine has endured in the two most recent centuries, including Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, the war of 2014, and current-day Russian genocide in the country.
“I’m not going to say that the purpose of this class is to make the Russian war against Ukraine make sense,” Snyder told students during the first lecture. “What I am going to say though is that the war is perhaps an occasion for us to go back to understand the history. Some of the things that seem mysterious — like how war like this is possible — might seem less mysterious. Some of the claims made about this war might seem easier to dismiss or easier to understand once we have the history under our belts.”