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Donald J. Raleigh
Donald J. Raleigh
Donald J. Raleigh is the Jay Richard Judson Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History. He taught the history of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe at UNC-Chapel Hill for thirty-two years and advised twenty-six graduate students before his retirement in 2020. Dr. Raleigh has written extensively on the Russian Revolution and Civil War, focusing particularly on its local and regional aspects. Currently, he is working on a biography of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, for which he has conducted research in Russia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.

I met with Dr. Raleigh in mid-April to get his perspective both on Russia’s war in Ukraine both as a historian and as someone who has spent time in both countries.

Q. Did the Russian invasion of Ukraine surprise you?
A. The morning of the invasion, I was packing for the regional Slavic Studies conference in Richmond, Virginia. I was shocked by the news, and everyone else at the conference was as shocked as I. Why? I think we all understood what would happen if Russia invaded. We thought the cost was so great that Putin wouldn’t risk anything like this. It didn’t seem sensible or logical to us. Putin is usually thought of as someone who’s cynical and calculated but smart, and this didn’t seem to be in Russia’s best interests. What we feared would happen if he invaded is happening. I felt that the attack would be horrific, that the Ukrainians would fight to the end, and that it would be brutal, as indeed it has been.

Q. How do you understand what might have motivated Putin’s decision? You often hear people say that he is trying to reestablish the Soviet Union, or the Russian Empire. What do you think about this?
A. For me, the question is: Who wants to belong to a former superpower? Certainly, Putin doesn’t. In a speech that he gave after coming to power in 2000, he said that Russia will be great, or Russia will not be. I don’t think that, for Putin, it’s a matter of restoring the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Rather, it’s about restoring Russia’s greatness and its role in the world. He sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as a major catastrophe for Russia engineered by the United States, which sought to defeat its geopolitical rival and dictate its will on the world unilaterally.

While Putin laments the fall of the Soviet Union, he takes a very negative attitude toward communism, and especially toward the Russian Revolution. Official statements on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution five years ago described it as a negative event that robbed Russia of victory in the First World War. State commemorations that year focused on the First World War, not the Russian Revolution — because if revolution was justified in 1917, it might be justified today if people oppose the government!

Putin has also argued that the Bolsheviks disrupted Russian unity. Just before the invasion, he argued that the idea of an independent Ukrainian nationality was an artificial product of Bolshevism and the federated Soviet state. Of course, this isn’t true at all. Ukrainian nationalism was among the many national movements that emerged in nineteenth-century Europe. Ukrainians pushed for autonomy immediately when the Russian Revolution broke out, and in fact declared independence shortly thereafter. The Ukrainian state was later absorbed into the Soviet Union, but it was not a creation of the Soviet Union — it was there first.

Q. How does the memory of the Second World War affect how people in Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the world understand and talk about this war?
A. Putin is a very cynical manipulator of history. He draws from the best — or, I should say, the most successful — Soviet practices. Democrats are fascists, fascists are democrats, and unprovoked violence is a peacekeeping mission. But this phenomenon isn’t limited to Russia. It’s now part of political rhetoric in much of the world, among people dissatisfied with the current order.

The Second World War looms large in Russian historical memory, since the Nazi invasion resulted in the deaths of twenty-seven million Soviet citizens. So by talking about neo-Nazis in Ukraine, and by making reference to historical events, Putin is trying to mobilize public opinion in favor of his aggressive policy. Yes, it’s true that some peasants in western Ukraine welcomed the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union because they were told that they would get their land back, that the churches would be reopened, and that Stalin would be overthrown. And it’s true that some right-wing Ukrainian nationalist insurgents fought against Soviet power until the late 1940s. But ironically, this was never part of the Soviet historical narrative, and it wasn’t discussed publicly until perestroika.

Q. Do you think that historical analogies are useful in trying to understand this war? Why do you think they come up so often?
A. When we look at narratives that states create for themselves, it’s hard to nail down what the Russian state narrative really is after 1991. The new Russian state had to face some enormous problems: How do you break up an empire? What happens to the twenty-five million Russians now living abroad? How do you introduce capitalism into a planned economy? How do you introduce democracy? There are democratic valences in Russian political culture, but they’ve been starved. For many ordinary people, democracy and capitalism brought destitution, crime, and disorder.

After Putin came to power, he based his popularity on economic success and stability. After the financial crisis in 2008, though, this momentum couldn’t be sustained, and the evidence shows that Putin’s strategy shifted. He sought to build legitimacy by restoring Russia’s power on the world stage, and he had some small successes — the wars in Georgia and Abkhazia, the Olympics in 2014, and the annexation of Crimea. But the invasion of Ukraine indicates that this wasn’t sustaining itself. I interpret it as an act of desperation. By drawing focus on an external enemy and stirring up fears of Nazism, he can take attention away from the problems in Russian society. But can it work? I’m doubtful.

Ukraine, on the other hand, was able to come up with an official narrative, and it’s a narrative of victimhood, repression, and suffering under both the tsars and the Soviets. The current invasion fits into this narrative very well. Putin’s actions will not only bolster the Ukrainian narrative of victimhood, it will likely strengthen Ukraine’s national identity. This began already after the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk. In 2017, I did research in Dnipro, a city in eastern Ukraine where Russian is widely spoken. I met many people who spoke both languages and hadn’t considered themselves either Russian or Ukrainian, who began to identify themselves as Ukrainian because of the threat posed by Russia.

Q. Why was Putin so surprised by the Ukrainian resistance? Was he a victim of his own mistaken beliefs?
A. Putin may well have fallen victim to the secrecy and paranoia of his own regime. He may have been getting reports indicating that the Ukrainian people would welcome Russian troops. Leaders in general are often given the information that they expect. This happened to Stalin at the beginning of World War II — he had over a hundred and eighty reports that the Nazis were about to invade, and he listened to two or three from his own intelligence officers, but he ignored the Soviet intelligence officer who told him that it was true. So I think that they were truly surprised by the Ukrainian resistance. I also think that they were surprised by the unity that Western countries have shown in supporting Ukraine.

NATO and the West have made mistakes. NATO should have been abolished after the Cold War. It was a Cold War organization, aimed against the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian state has made mistakes as well. I was at an archive in Dnipro in 2017, and I had to fill out a registration form in Ukrainian. Since it was a state institution, they wouldn’t accept forms in Russian. They had a laminated template to help you fill the form out in Ukrainian, because otherwise most of the visitors wouldn’t have been able to do it, including the local people. And then we all went and turned it in to the Russian-speaking staff. I found this a little absurd. So, it is true that the government has taken Ukrainianization measures that I don’t think are necessary. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of NATO’s actions and those of the Ukrainian government, but none of them justify the invasion in any way whatsoever.

Russian scholars and scholars of Slavic studies have attempted to explain Russia’s interests, its security concerns, and the perspective of its government with regard to Ukraine, and in some cases may have gone too far. On the day of the invasion, I posted on social media saying that this was a day of infamy. I wrote that this was a sign of Putin’s waning popularity, and that the fighting would be horrific, but that it would unite the people of Ukraine like never before. And I was scolded by a retired high-ranking US diplomat, who said that Putin just borrowed the playbook that the United States used for Iraq.

Q. What’s your specific problem with that analogy?
A. Putin doesn’t need anyone else’s playbook. We should look at what his playbook has been since coming to power. And this is an analogy that Putin himself uses to deflect criticism. I was very critical of the war in Iraq, but the invasion of Ukraine is an entirely different situation. And it’s true that the United States intervenes in what it sees as its own sphere of influence, but many of us are critical of this as well. When does sheer military power give you the right to determine what goes on outside your borders? Ukraine has been a sovereign state for thirty years, and for thirty years it’s attempted to practice a democratic order.

Immediately after the invasion, some British colleagues circulated a petition that, among other things, asked Western countries not to send arms to Ukraine in order to prevent a bloodbath. Well, what would the consequences of that have been? Putin would have installed a puppet in Kyiv, and there would likely still have been a bloodbath.

Q. I’m interested in what you think about the argument that Putin is threatened by Ukrainian democracy. If a flourishing, Western-oriented democracy were established next door to Russia, this argument goes, it would undermine Putin’s regime by demonstrating to Russian citizens that they, too, could live in a freer and more prosperous society. It sounds plausible, but I wonder if it doesn’t go too far in attributing beliefs to Putin that he doesn’t necessarily hold.
A. I think that there’s something to this argument, but I look at it a little differently. When Russia is compared to Western democratic norms, it falls short on all counts, and it always has. So its leaders prefer to present Russia as something unique, something special, something that can’t be compared to the West. Currently, Putin claims to represent conservative forces worldwide. He claims to present an alternative to Western “decadence,” and that Ukraine represents this decadence right there on his own border.

The war has certainly had a demoralizing effect on many Russians. My friends in Russia — some of whom I’ve known since I was a student — are depressed, they’re angry, they’re horrified. Some of their adult children have fled the country, and they don’t know when they’ll see them again. When I talk to them on FaceTime, you can see their tired faces and swollen eyes, and it’s heartbreaking. But Russians opposed to the conflict are engaging in small acts of defiance, even though the risks are significant.

Q. How do you think this war will affect the fields of Russian, European, and Soviet history?
A. Most obviously, it makes it impossible for students to study Russian in Russia. These programs have been shutting down for a few years now. Instead, students have been going to other countries where Russian is spoken — to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, or Latvia.

Historians studying Russia will look for topics that can be researched elsewhere, so we may see a revitalization of work on the Russian diaspora, for example. I recently talked with a colleague at another university, and she mentioned that her Russian history course filled up immediately. This crisis will likely increase interest in Ukrainian history as well, and in Eastern European history more generally as a part of European history.

Q. How have your own research plans been affected?
A. I was planning one last trip to the Russian archives to make sure I didn’t overlook anything. My intention was to take another look at Brezhnev’s personal files. They became available in 2015, but I was only able to look at these documents once, because then the archive was closed for relocation for two years. Fortunately, a lot of what is in that archive related to his days in Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Ukraine. I was able to visit archives in those countries, and the material preserved there is much richer.

I will go back as soon as it’s possible, although I’ll have to apply for another visa. I’ve never had a problem getting a visa in the past, but the things I’ve posted on social media may make that more difficult now. During the Soviet days, I was always able to get a visa, but I feel that it’s different now. In those times, you could figure out how the system operated, but now foreign scholars really don’t know what to expect.

–Mira Markham

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