Serhii Plokhy: History of Ukraine, Russia, Soviet Union, KGB, Nazis & War | Lex Fridman Podcast #415

Serhii Plokhy: History of Ukraine, Russia, Soviet Union, KGB, Nazis & War | Lex Fridman Podcast #415

Introduction (00:00:00)

Collapse of the Soviet Union (00:01:18)

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union involved the end of Communism, the Cold War, and the Soviet Union itself.
  • The Soviet collapse was part of a larger trend of empire disintegration in the 20th century.
  • The rise of Russian nationalism and other local nationalisms contributed to the collapse of the multi-ethnic Soviet state.
  • Ukraine played a critical role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, as its decision to become independent in 1991 led to the country's economic bankruptcy and Russia's loss of interest in the Soviet project.
  • Vladimir Putin views the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century due to the loss of state power, the division of the Russian people, and the loss of great power status.

Origins of Russia and Ukraine (00:17:27)

  • The Slavic people originated from the Pripet Marshes region in present-day Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland.
  • They spread to various regions, giving rise to different Slavic nations such as Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks.
  • The medieval state of Kievan Rus' played a crucial role in shaping Eastern Slavic heritage, including the adoption of Christianity from Byzantium.
  • Kyiv, the capital of Kievan Rus', served as an important outpost for Vikings and was a major European state in medieval times.
  • The Russian Empire emerged in the 18th century, while Kyiv existed as the capital of Kyivan Rus' in the 10th century.
  • Moscow rose to prominence under Mongol rule and became the new capital of the region, replacing Vladimir.
  • The "Gathering of the Russian lands" was completed in 1945 when the Soviet Union acquired Transcarpathian Ukraine from Czechoslovakia.
  • Slavic languages such as Ukrainian, Polish, and Czech are distinct, indicating different peoples with varying political traditions and histories.

Ukrainian nationalism (00:30:30)

  • The History of the Rus, an anonymous manuscript that emerged in the 1820s, claimed that the Cossacks of Ukraine were the original Rus people and had the right to a central place in the Russian Empire.
  • The text captivated key figures in the Russian intellectual elite, including Krav, Pushkin, and Taras Shevchenko, who interpreted it differently.
  • The authors argued that the Cossack elite should have the same rights as the Russian nobility and used new arguments about nation and nationalism, claiming that the Cossacks were a separate nation.
  • This challenged the Russian Empire's model of integrating elites based on estate loyalty and religion, leading to uprisings by the Poles and Ukrainians.
  • The text sparked nationalist movements and became a foundation for Ukrainian national mythology, inspiring romantic poetry, folklore collection, and eventually mass politics.
  • Throughout the 20th century, there were five attempts for Ukraine to declare independence, with only one succeeding in 1991.
  • After the Bolshevik victory in Ukraine, national mobilization manifested in two forms: national communism in Soviet Ukraine and radical nationalism in Ukrainian territories controlled by Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.
  • In Soviet Ukraine, national communism re-emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and in 1991, the majority of Ukrainian Parliament members who voted for independence were members of the Communist Party, indicating the persistence of national communism in Ukraine.

Stepan Bandera (00:38:13)

  • Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian revolutionary and leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), organized assassinations and promoted radical nationalism, becoming a hero among Ukrainian youth.
  • During World War II, Bandera collaborated with Nazi Germany, hoping to gain Ukrainian independence, but his faction's declaration of independence was not sanctioned by the Germans, leading to his arrest.
  • Despite spending most of his life outside Ukraine, Bandera became a symbol of the Ukrainian liberation movement, though his actual role in fighting Soviet occupation is questionable.
  • Bandera and his followers were nationalists who sought to create a Ukrainian state with geographic boundaries, willing to work with anyone who supported their project, including Nazi Germany.
  • While there is evidence of anti-Semitism among Bandera's associates, there is no clear evidence of his personal anti-Semitism.
  • Ukraine's radical nationalism, extremism, and white supremacy remain marginal compared to similar groups in other countries, and the country effectively manages relations between different ethnic groups and languages.
  • Despite the ongoing war since 2014, no nationalist or nationalistic party has entered the Ukrainian parliament.
  • Vladimir Putin's stated goal for the war in Ukraine is "denazification," which resonates with the Soviet and Russian population due to the powerful mythology surrounding World War II and the fight against fascism.
  • The war contradicts logical thinking and highlights the absence of free press and independent media in Russia, leading to difficulties in finding common ground with relatives in Ukraine due to state-controlled media and propaganda.
  • The Canadian Parliament's celebration of a veteran from the Galicia division, formed by Ukrainian youth and defeated by the Red Army, sparked controversy due to the complexities and dark aspects of World War II, including collaboration and atrocities committed by all sides.
  • The applause in the Ukrainian parliament was for World War II veterans, not specifically for a Ukrainian veteran who fought for the SS, but Russian propaganda has seized on this incident to push the narrative of a Neo-Nazi problem in Ukraine.

KGB (01:07:13)

  • The Ukrainian Insurgent Army fought against the Soviet Union until the early 1950s, and the Soviets recruited locals to spy on them, including Bohdan Stashynsky, who betrayed his sister's fiancé and became a KGB assassin.
  • Stashynsky assassinated leaders of anti-Soviet organizations in West Germany, including Stepan Bandera, but had a change of heart and escaped to the West with his wife just before the Berlin Wall was built.
  • The American intelligence initially distrusted Stashynsky's claims, but he insisted on his guilt to avoid being targeted by his former colleagues.
  • After the trial, Stashynsky disappeared, and his whereabouts remain unknown, with reports suggesting he fled to South Africa.
  • The KGB, a powerful Soviet security agency, had both internal surveillance and foreign intelligence operations, as well as control over border troops, and its extensive surveillance within the Soviet Union played a significant role in shaping Vladimir Putin's perspective as a former KGB foreign intelligence officer.
  • The KGB provided its members with a deep understanding of domestic and international situations and was a prestigious and well-paid career, but it also had a degree of resentment towards the party leadership due to restrictions on their operations.
  • After the Stashynsky scandal, the KGB stopped political assassinations abroad due to the political risks involved, and people like Putin brought the KGB mindset and methods to power in the Kremlin, incorporating the KGB's culture of planning and executing operations into Russian culture.

War in Ukraine (01:22:11)

  • The Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2013 were key moments leading up to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • Ukraine's pro-Western orientation and democratic survival, in contrast to Russia's strengthening autocratic regime under Vladimir Putin, led to tensions between the two countries.
  • Russia's military takeover of Crimea in 2014 was prompted by Ukraine's decision to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, which threatened to take Ukraine out of Russia's sphere of influence.
  • The war in Donbas, an industrial region in Ukraine with a significant ethnic Russian minority, began as Russia attempted to topple the Ukrainian government and annex Crimea.
  • Putin portrays the war in Donbas and the 2022 invasion as defensive actions against alleged persecution of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, but this claim lacks evidence.
  • The Russian language is not persecuted in Ukraine, and Ukrainian is the dominant language in the western part of the country.
  • The younger generation in Ukraine increasingly chooses Ukrainian as a marker of their identity, especially after 2014 and even more so after 2022.
  • In July 2021, Putin published an essay claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, drawing on the idea of a unified Russian nation that existed in the Russian Empire before the 1917 revolution.
  • Despite cultural similarities and historical ties, Ukraine and Russia have distinct identities and behaviors, as evidenced by different responses to police violence and the Maidan protests.

NATO and Russia (01:58:27)

  • Despite NATO's role being cited as a justification by Russia, Ukraine's membership was not imminent, and Western leaders had repeatedly conveyed this to Putin.
  • Putin's demand for NATO's withdrawal to the 1997 borders was unreasonable and served as an excuse for the invasion, as evidenced by Finland and Sweden's subsequent NATO membership without triggering a significant Russian military response.
  • The primary cause of the war lies in Russia's desire to maintain Ukraine within its sphere of influence and prevent its drift towards the West.
  • Russia shifted to Plan B, annexing parts of Ukrainian territory and incorporating them into the Russian Federation, when faced with Ukraine's effective resistance and international support.
  • Ukrainian leaders like Zelenskyy, military commanders, and city mayors played a crucial role in Ukraine's defense by defying expectations and resisting the invasion.
  • Despite attempts by the West to convince Zelenskyy to leave Ukraine and establish a government in exile, he refused, demonstrating his commitment to his role as president and his belief in the Ukrainian people.
  • Zelenskyy's ability to sense and amplify the sentiments of his audience helped him unite the Ukrainian people during the crisis.
  • After the loss of Crimea and part of Donbas, Ukraine became more unified, with Zelenskyy's party winning 73% of the vote, reflecting this unity.
  • Zelenskyy's talent as a politician allowed him to sense and capitalize on this unity, which proved crucial in rallying the Ukrainian people against the Russian invasion.

Peace talks (02:09:30)

  • The peace talks between Russia and Ukraine failed due to Russia's unacceptable conditions, including territorial losses for Ukraine and restrictions on Western support.
  • Ukraine's realization that they could win on the battlefield and the evidence of Russian atrocities made negotiations difficult.
  • Claims that Boris Johnson or the West manipulated the peace talks are unlikely as Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is unlikely to act against his country's interests.
  • Ukraine requires substantial support from the West to continue the war, and this support was promised after the West recognized Ukraine's potential for victory.
  • The war could end in three ways: one side's victory, the other side's victory, or a stalemate with a compromise, particularly concerning territories.
  • The war is approaching its second anniversary, and there are no indications of peace in the coming year.
  • The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is the largest in Europe since World War II and the largest globally since the Korean War.
  • Three possible scenarios for the war's end are discussed: a compromise and return to 2022 borders, an armistice along current front lines, or the continuation of the war.
  • A compromise to return to the 2022 borders is unlikely without a political change in Moscow, as five Ukrainian regions have been incorporated into the Russian Constitution.
  • An armistice along the current front lines is possible but would require the defeat of the Russian army.
  • Rapid constitutional change to enable a return to the 2022 borders is improbable this year, as both sides remain focused on achieving their goals through military means.
  • The past year of the war in Ukraine has witnessed intense fighting and suffering, with minimal progress on the front lines.
  • Ukraine achieved a significant victory by pushing the Russian Navy into the western part of the Black Sea and restoring the grain corridor, allowing grain exports from Odessa to reach up to 75% of pre-war levels.
  • Despite this victory, the cost has been immense in terms of wealth and, particularly, human lives.

Ukrainian Army head Valerii Zaluzhnyi (02:23:17)

  • Zaluzhnyi's dismissal is significant as he is popular with the army and the public.
  • The change in leadership could indicate a shift in Zelensky's approach to the war, including more active involvement in planning or a change in tactics.
  • Zelensky's popularity is lower than Zaluzhnyi's, but the Ukrainian people are united behind their president and the armed forces.
  • Despite unhappiness and questions, Ukrainians realize the importance of staying united.
  • Zaluzhnyi's behavior does not suggest any immediate threat of a coup.
  • Zelensky's days as president are not numbered, but there may be a desire for change after the war, similar to Churchill, de Gaulle, and Pilsudski.
  • Zelensky has refused to call elections despite his popularity, prioritizing unity during wartime.
  • The question of Zelensky's legitimacy beyond five years may arise, which Russia will likely exploit.
  • Zelensky's perspective on a potential second term and its impact on unity and the war effort is worth exploring.

Power and War (02:29:54)

  • Prolonged power and war can corrupt leaders and make them less accountable, as seen in Putin's difficulty in explaining his decisions.
  • Historian Serhii Plokhy questions the timing and logic of Putin's actions, particularly regarding Ukraine and Crimea, and wonders about the difference between his public statements and private thoughts on empire and reunification.
  • The Russian question, as articulated by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, focuses on the negative impact of communism on Russia and the need for ethnic Russians to reclaim their rightful place in society.
  • Solzhenitsyn proposed restructuring Russia by eliminating certain regions and creating a nation-state of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians.
  • After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn's Plan B involved Russia taking over Donbas, Crimea, and Southern Ukraine.
  • The Ukrainian question today centers on maintaining its sovereignty as a nation-state, challenged by Russia's claim that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people.
  • While a prolonged war could lead Ukraine away from democracy, its history and society, including its emergence as a pluralistic state with democratic elements, suggest that radical nationalism remains a minority view.

Holodomor (02:40:45)

  • Holodomor was a massive famine in Ukraine between 1932 and 1934.
  • It occurred due to forced collectivization of agriculture and Stalin's attempt to integrate Ukraine into the Soviet Union without opposition from Ukrainian National Communists.
  • In December 1932, Stalin and Molotov signed a decree requisitioning grain, leading to mass starvation.
  • Ukrainian language publications and education were banned outside of Ukraine, and limitations were imposed on the use of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine itself.
  • The famine resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians, making it the only place where grain collection policies intersected with policies of clans and political leadership from Moscow aimed at suppressing Ukrainian culture.
  • The Holodomor is a reflection of the ideologies of the 20th century that devalued human life and considered the destruction of large population groups necessary for progress.
  • It represents a break with common sense and morality, and humanity has not fully learned the lessons of such atrocities.
  • There is a human capacity to be captivated by ideologies that promise a better world while devaluing human life, leading to the torture and destruction of millions of people.

Chernobyl (02:47:17)

  • The Chernobyl disaster exposed failures in the Soviet government's culture of secrecy and its managerial culture, which prevented people from making their own decisions.
  • The Soviet government mobilized resources to deal with the disaster but concealed information about radiation clouds from the public.
  • The Chernobyl disaster sparked ecological nationalism in Ukraine and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • The HBO series "Chernobyl" accurately portrays the Soviet era's everyday details but includes dramatizations and untruths for storytelling purposes.
  • The series effectively conveys the overall truth of the events and the atmosphere of the time, even if some specific details are not entirely accurate.
  • Scriptwriter Craig Mazin acknowledges the importance of truth but goes beyond strict historical accuracy to create a compelling narrative.
  • Mazin believes that some of the most dramatic moments in history, such as decisions to start wars or invasions, may be quite mundane.
  • Despite the dramatizations, the series emphasizes the power of individuals to stop wars and highlights the role of individual leaders in decision-making.

Nuclear power (02:57:51)

  • Nuclear energy is extremely safe in terms of mortality rates compared to coal and oil, but political, economic, social, and cultural factors that led to past nuclear accidents are still present today, making the industry vulnerable to repeating mistakes.
  • New accidents can create anti-nuclear mobilization and make the industry impossible to rely on as a long-term solution to climate change.
  • Authoritarian regimes, high centralization of decision-making, secrecy, and a lack of experienced nuclear engineers pose additional risks to nuclear safety.
  • The recent war in Ukraine has highlighted the vulnerability of nuclear power plants in times of war.
  • Nuclear accidents are likely to continue happening due to unforeseen vulnerabilities and the complexity of nuclear power systems.
  • The long-term health effects of radiation exposure are not yet fully understood, and the fear of radiation is greater than the fear of coal despite the invisibility and potential health risks of radiation.
  • Governments have used crises like the COVID-19 pandemic to gain access to vaccines and resources.
  • The Chernobyl disaster marked the peak of nuclear industry development, leading to a global freeze on nuclear reactor production after major accidents like Fukushima.
  • The nuclear industry is politically unreliable due to technological, health, and political factors.

Future of the world (03:07:28)

  • The war in Ukraine has revived Cold War dynamics, with Russia seeking to regain control over the post-Soviet space and establish a multi-polar world.
  • Despite its diminished military and economic power, Russia's actions have strengthened the transatlantic alliance and East European support for Ukraine.
  • Parallels can be drawn with the 1950s rebuilding of the Beijing-Moscow alliance, potentially leading to a bipolar world centered on Washington and Beijing.
  • Historians should reevaluate the Cold War to learn from its successes in preventing global war and understand how to keep conflicts contained.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis exemplified the dangers of nuclear war, but its resolution demonstrated the cautious leadership of Kennedy and Khrushchev, who recognized the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
  • The current generation lacks the same level of fear and respect for nuclear weapons, increasing the risk of similar mistakes in the future.
  • Leadership and individual personalities play a crucial role in shaping history, as evident in the actions of Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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