Ukraine, Russia & the maelstrom on social media
A deluge of information offers little clarity on the conflict
On the afternoon of 9/11, I vividly recall walking with a friend of mine on the streets of Washington, D.C. It was utter chaos—stores closed, cars abandoned, smoke from the Pentagon rising in the distance. My friend, who was a journalism student, stared into the madness and uttered a sentence I will never forget. “This is horrible,” he began, “but as a journalist, these are the stories you live for.”
I thought about that remark this week as the situation in Ukraine unfolded. For journalists, pundits and academics there is no greater call of duty than to have one’s skills and expertise be essential in a time of crisis. The urgency to be tapped on the shoulder and called into service in a time of need is the desire of any public intellectual. It showcases one’s knowledge, makes one feel that s/he is participating in something important, satisfies the ego, and validates the decision to do the often-thankless work of scholarship. Plus, it can be lucrative. To make a name for oneself during a media or social media frenzy can lead to book sales, media appearances, even speaking gigs. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.
In my book I call this phenomenon the “newsworthy past.” It is one of the mechanisms through which historical information becomes visible online. Few people in the United States ordinarily engage with experts on Ukraine, and even fewer encounter historical scholarship about Ukraine on the Web. But this week? Ukraine experts have had their 15-minutes of fame as governments, the global news media and the policymaking establishment have grappled with the conflict. The response has been a dizzying array of op-eds, podcasts, tweets, social media posts, Twitter Spaces, Clubhouse rooms, analysis pieces and media segments from a wide swath of individuals. Anyone who could piece together an articulate set of thoughts on Ukraine sprang into action with an opinion on what should be done to counter Vladimir Putin, how the U.S. and Europe should respond to the invasion, and what the conflict reveals about American strength, American weakness, Putin’s calculations, Putin’s miscalculations, how Europe is falling apart, how Europe is banding together, the role of China, the role of Africa, capitalism, global energy markets, the news media, journalism, misinformation, disinformation, the financial markets, Biden, Trump, how the West is strong, how the West is weak and everything in between.
This has included some professional historians, but not many. The Washington Post’s “Made by History” column—which is edited and written by professional historians—had not published a single article on Ukraine or Russia the entire month of February until the day after the invasion, instead writing about the new “Around the World in 80 Days” movie on PBS, a school dispute in Utah, happy birthday to George Washington and Internet pornography. CNN’s op-eds on Ukraine were penned by a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; a spokesperson for a natural gas consortium; a former instructor of strategic planning at the U.S. Army’s School of Advance Military Studies; and a retired journalist for Sky News. There are currently no open positions on the American Historical Association website for historians who work on Russia or Ukraine, and when I searched the Women Also Know History database, I found only 10 female historians in the entire United States who self-identify as working on Ukraine. One historian lamented on Twitter that when her university’s PR person asked her for scholars in the department who specialized in Russia and Ukraine, she replied that they had none. There is a Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations with its approximately 1,200 members, and an Association for Slavic, East European & Eurasian Studies. But journalists, media producers and Web users would be forgiven for not knowing these associations exist, nor how to access the research done by their members.
This re-ignites a debate within the history profession that came to a head in a 2018 article in War on the Rocks. Has the emphasis on race, gender and identity studies come at the expense of military and diplomatic expertise? According to the article, written by professors Hal Brands and Francis Gavin, only 3 percent of historians identified as diplomatic historians; less than 1 percent of history professor jobs were in diplomatic or international history; and the number of courses taught in military and diplomatic history had plummeted (Harvard, for example, used to have numerous such courses; in 2016, it had one). Brands and Gavin argued these deficiencies in funding, coursework and scholarship had caused steep declines in history enrollments and hurt the nation’s ability to cope with geopolitics. Those who’ve read my book know the reality is far more complex; the unmooring effects of the Web and social media have more to do with declines in history and historical literacy than simply what courses are offered in a given semester.
Still, in moments where the “newsworthy past” becomes headline material, in the absence of professional historical scholarship emerges other forms of e-history such as I chronicle in my book. This content about the past is purposefully designed to achieve visibility on social media, and leverages social media in order to advance other agendas beyond education. In the case of op-eds, it could be the agendas of energy companies or military strategists. In the case of meme- or video-based social media accounts it can be misinformation and disinformation (Taylor Lorenz wrote this week about Ukraine-themed accounts on Instagram that claimed to have on-the-ground reporting, but were in fact run by a teenager in Kentucky). In other instances it may be opportunistic journalists keenly aware that time on camera will enhance their careers; think tanks positioning themselves as go-to experts by deploying their pundits and commentators across newscasts and social audio; or even, in the case of one Twitter Spaces, reputation rehab by Lev Parnas, the Ukrainian-born American businessman convicted in federal court of illegal contributions to the Trump now suddenly positioning himself as a defender of democracy.
Certainly there are merits to hearing an array of opinions, and some contributions are made with earnest intent. But as I write in my book, when the “newsworthy past” rises to the top of the newsfeed the current media ecosystem does little to improve our understandings of history—a subject crucial to making sense of the Russia-Ukraine situation. The frenzy to produce newsworthy content produces a dizzying array of conflicting, confusing and contradictory perspectives advancing numerous professional, personal, political and economic agendas. The ecosystem rewards those who produce a lot of content in a short period of time and can manipulate it to the top of the feed—regardless of its merits or outcomes. With so much information bombarding us in a short amount of time about an exceedingly complex subject, it becomes difficult for Web users to gain any deep understanding.
In fact, in a Twitter Spaces conversation earlier this week, I asked my fellow participants for their insights into the Russia-Ukraine situation. All of the participants—none of them historians but all of them intelligent, thoughtful, and well-read individuals—admitted they could not provide any historical perspective learned via the news or social media. As I write in my book, more information about the past does not equate to a better understanding of history. It reminded me of another famous sentence, this one by Samuel Coleridge: “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.” e-history is all around us, yet do we truly learn anything from it?
I’ve identified a problem, so I should contribute to the solution. Ukraine is full of historical complexities, and I am not specialist in the region, but here is a very rudimentary overview:
Ukraine has been an independent nation since 1991, becoming independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Territorially it is a large country, roughly the size of Texas. It has strategic ports on the Black Sea, long rivers valuable for trade and irrigation, is rich in natural resources (iron ore, coal, natural gas), and has fertile agricultural lands. For these reasons, it has been a highly desirable and sought-after region for centuries (including by Adolf Hitler, who envisioned Ukraine as the bread basket of a far-reaching Aryan empire).
The fact that Ukraine exists as an independent country has historical roots in both Russia and Poland (Russia borders Ukraine to the east; Poland borders Ukraine to the west). At various points in time, parts of—and/or all of—Ukraine have belonged to either Poland and/or the Russia Empire/Soviet Union, and at various points Russian nationalists wanted Ukrainians to be Russians, and Polish nationalists wanted Ukrainians to be Poles.
In fact, in the 19th century and into the 20th century, a substantial portion of the Ukrainian independence movement formed in opposition to Polish rule, not Russian rule. Up until World War II, the Polish influence on Ukraine remained strong. This was especially true in the parts of Ukraine that bordered Poland or had been part of Poland. Southern Ukraine, including Crimea, had actually been part of the Ottoman Empire before being taken over by the Russian Empire, and had Islamic roots as much as it did Russian roots. Western Ukraine had been part of Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, then back to Hungary, before being taken over by Russia. In other words, different parts of Ukraine have been different parts of different empires for much of the past three centuries. Any claim that Ukraine has always been owned by Russia and/or the Soviet Union is simply inaccurate.
Putin’s interpretation of Ukrainian history rests on the faulty premise that Ukraine’s normal condition is to be part of Russia. This viewpoint represents a particular strand of imperial and militaristic Russian nationalism. But Ukrainians have their own brand of nationalism, forming (like so many others did) in the 19th century, in the process gradually merging the country’s many regions and ethnicities into a single nation-state.
That Ukrainian nationalism has continually competed with Russian nationalism. In the Russian nostalgic imagination, the long history of a Russian state was intimately connected with Kiev (Ukraine’s capital). In other words, in the minds of Russian nationalists, the history of Ukraine and the history of Russia were inseparable. The two were linked in an unbroken continuum of ethnic identity dating back centuries. When Ukrainian nationalism emerged in the 19th century, Russian nationalists saw it as illegitimate, a product of foreign influence. It is no surprise, then, that Putin speaks in these same terms today. He is borrowing from a long line of Russian rhetoric that has never truly believed in Ukraine’s right to exist and has always seen Ukraine’s independence as a result of meddling from the West.
Crimea looms at the heart of these contested historical narratives. Crimea itself was home to ethnic Turks and Tatars, but was colonized by Ukrainian nationalists in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. To paraphrase Harvard historian Roman Szporluk, for Russian nationalists the conquest of Crimea represents an expansion of military might and grandeur. For Ukrainian nationalists, it represents a people’s free movement and settlement in the wake of empire.
Poland (for now) has given up its claims to Ukraine and recognizes its status as an independent nation. The United States, too, since the early 1990s, has recognized Ukraine as independent, largely as a signal to Russia that any dreams of its reclaiming territory in the name of the Soviet Union or Russian Empire will be contested. But Putin has never relinquished the fantasy of “Making Russia Great Again” by capturing neighboring territories or harkening back to previous imagined glories. He has eyed Crimea, Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites (Lithuania, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova) for more than 20 years, intent on maintaining control either through puppet governments or outright land seizure. Prior to 2014, the Ukrainian leadership was just that—a puppet government with loyalties to Russia. Shortly after that government was ousted in a protest, Russian military forces entered Crimea under the guise of “protecting” Russian-speaking residents. Those forces quickly overtook government buildings, dissolved the existing government, and voted illegally to secede and become a sovereign territory of Russia. That has been the status quo for the past seven years until this week.
Putin has repeatedly invoked nostalgia and mythology regarding Crimea’s significance to Russian history, likening it to both the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (i.e., the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy) and the Alamo (i.e., the place where Russian troops stood heroically against British and French forces during the Crimean War). As I write in my book, these romanticized and nostalgic views of history are perfectly suited for the Web and social media, which were practically built to stimulate on-demand nostalgia and historical emotions. The platforms play right into the hands of dictators and strongmen.
All of this and more has created the ingredients for a very complex geopolitical situation. It can be difficult for such information to appear in the social media feeds of Americans, however, in part because there are so few historians of Ukraine employed in the United States, and in part because the news and social media outlets surfacing information are laden with other agendas.
So, in closing, I will leave you with this thought:
Part of the reason that nations banded together after World War II to establish NATO, the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations was to prevent autocratic rulers from weaponizing nostalgic versions of empire in order to march into other countries and seize land, kill civilians, and begin wars. Certainly, the international community has not always lived up to that ideal over the past 75 years. But the question remains: If a dictator, who is not beholden to a democracy at home, invades another country under the false pretense that it, at one point in the past belonged to some prior iteration of its empire, what is the international community prepared to do in response? That is what makes the Ukraine situation so fraught. Because when we don’t stand up to dictators, history has many examples of where that can lead…
Still haven’t read History, Disrupted? Now is (sadly) an opportune time to do so. Much of what is unfolding rings eerily familiar with the themes in the book.
Here are some of recent events and press:
C-SPAN’s American History TV recently aired the book release event in Washington, D.C. for “History, Disrupted.” This event occurred at Lost City Books in January. Watch it below.
The Young Turks
I was a guest on The Young Turks, interviewed by David Shuster about “History, Disrupted” and the effects of the crowd-sourced past. Watch it on YouTube.
After We Vote
I was a guest on “After We Vote” on Clubhouse talking about “History, Disrupted” with some of my favorite Clubhouse creators and friends. Listen to the replay below.
Book release event in New York City, hosted by Lululemon
Wishing you a safe and healthy week.