Serhii Plokhy: Putin’s imperialist narrative ‘is being crushed’

There are not many people in the world who have dedicated vast amounts of time to the study of the medieval east Slavic state of Kyivan Rus. Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy is one. Vladimir Putin is another.

“I was there before,” interjects Plokhy, the world’s foremost historian of Ukraine, as we meet on a damp London day for lunch at Ognisko, the restaurant of the Polish Hearth Club.

Set up by Poles in exile in 1939 — its stucco reliefs and chandeliers a warm embrace of old world grandeur — the club feels like an apt place to meet the chronicler of a country on the front lines of another seismic European war. Plokhy, though now living in Vienna on sabbatical from Harvard, is squarely on that battlefield. “It’s not that I joined the war,” he says. “The war occupied my part of the world, and its history.”

In Ukraine it is not just two armies, but two historical narratives that have collided. In the narrative to which Plokhy has dedicated his career and more than a dozen deeply researched books, Ukraine has a long and meaningful history as a nation and an independent state.

The other, a darkly manipulated version propounded by President Putin, denies Ukraine its national identity. Ukraine, that narrative goes, has always been part of a greater Russia, ever since ancient Kyivan Rus. To quote Putin, it is “not even a state”, and has no right to exist.

As we sit down to a table set with rye bread and gherkins in Ognisko’s garden marquee, I ask Plokhy what it is like to do his job when both his country and its history have come under attack. Plokhy reminds me, smiling, that the fields of “medieval or early modern history were generally populated by people who just wanted to get as far away as possible . . . into the past.”

Now, however, things have changed. “The politicians and the generals,” he says, are seeking to occupy not just lands, but “swaths of history” as well. So there’s nothing left to do but fight against the “abuses and misuses of history”. “The task is really to defend your turf.”

On February 24 Plokhy woke up early to an email from a colleague that was labelled: “Oh my goodness”. Another came from a former student at the university in Dnipro in southeastern Ukraine, where he used to teach. “He was asking whether it would be OK to send me electronic files of his work — for safekeeping, because he was living in Dnipro.”

55 Exhibition Road, London SW7 2PG

Shlodnik (beetroot soup) £6.50
Sauerkraut pierogi £8.50
Goat’s cheese polenta £15.50
Pork schnitzel £19.50
Sparkling water £4.00
Still water £4.00
Espresso £2.50
Total £68.06

Plokhy knew immediately that Putin’s full-blown invasion — long feared, long threatened, still unfathomable — had begun. He called his sister in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, where he grew up. A first air strike had already hit the city. “That was my wake-up call.”

February 24 came as a wake-up call for Europe too, he says. “I think deep down we really believed that history had ended. Maybe not literally . . . but in terms of unprovoked war.” The continent’s big issues, it was assumed, would forever be solved through negotiation, elections and so on.

But history didn’t end, and for the first month “it looked like a nightmare”. Eventually, he found “a balance between emotion and work”. But a large part of the southeastern region where Plokhy grew up is now occupied by Russian troops. “It is surreal. It is difficult to accept. It makes you angry. All of those things.”

Plokhy’s writing has focused on Ukraine and the post-Soviet space, but has covered the full span of its history, from the early modern to the cold war to the present day. He first left Ukraine in the early 1990s to teach in Canada, before moving on to the US. I was born in Russia, but raised in the UK. We speak in English, but when discussing food we slip in words in Russian.

Ognisko’s menu is heavy on eastern flavours — dill, lard, pickles, cabbage — but also on Polish terms. Still, I have high hopes for my ability to read it without tripping up. I have come directly to our lunch from Warsaw, where I’d just spent six weeks, drawn to the city by its wartime role as a sanctuary for millions of Ukrainian refugees.

As we read, I try my hand at an au courant remark about potato dumplings — will pierogi ruskie still be called that after this war?

Yes, Plokhy tells me, as my premise is wrong. Ruskie does not mean Russian, and refers instead to the fact that the dumplings came to Poland from western Ukraine, perhaps during the time when it was part of Poland. Our region has folded in on itself so many times that it could make a thousand dumplings, I think to myself, somewhat put out, and pick them as my starter.

Plokhy, who selects a cold beetroot chlodnik soup, says he has been moved by Poland’s response, but not surprised. Both nations have faced down Russian aggression. Both, too, have seen their identities shaped by the experience of the loss of statehood. Their anthems share the same opening line: “Ukraine has not yet perished”, “Poland has not yet perished”, he notes. They are statements of defiance, expressing the idea that “the state can be gone, but the nation is alive”.

The message feels particularly poignant at a time when Russia has returned to its imperial drawing board, threatening Ukraine’s very presence on the map. It also permeates The Gates of Europe (2015), Plokhy’s odyssey through the history of Ukraine, where its coherence as a nation remains the unifying thread even when, one after another, conquerors sweep across its lands.

Ukraine is a frequent target thanks to its geography, a hinge between east and west, and the Dnieper river that cuts through the country is often considered the key dividing line. Plokhy’s academic life began in Dnipro, a city on its banks. There, he researched the history of the Cossacks, a people with strong military traditions and with their origins in Ukraine.

In the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 1980s, his work was considered suspicious. Moscow’s leaders — from tsars to communists and beyond — have long treated the idea of an independent Ukrainian history as a threat, and sought to suppress it. Several of Plokhy’s elders at the university had been fired from their positions during a campaign against “Cossackophiles”, accused of “idealisation” that could be “potentially nationalistic”.

It was formative. “I was very conscious already from my student years that there were these issues with history and its interpretation,” he says, as our starters arrive.

My pierogi are rich, filled with mushrooms and sprinkled with sautéed onions. Plokhy dives into his beetroot soup. “I’m just trying to get the maximum out of this lunch in terms of nostalgia,” he says. But the soup, he says, is very much a Polish rather than a Ukrainian borsch.

Ukraine’s claim to borsch as a national dish has stoked Russian ire in the past. The exchanges used to feel like fodder for playful articles about culinary competition. But their dark undercurrents were laid bare after the start of the invasion, when Moscow’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said in a speech that the war was justified as Ukraine “couldn’t share borsch”, and this was “Nazism”.

There is a long tradition of Moscow seeking to stifle the development of Ukrainian culture and the trappings of national identity — banning publications in its language, for example, in 1863. It is this 19th-century tradition that Putin harks back to when he claims that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”.

“What is so shocking”, Plokhy says, “is that it’s really a discounting of the entire history of the 20th century”, when the Ukrainian national idea grew, and led it to vote for independence from the Soviet Union in late 1991. It’s a vote, Plokhy argues in his book The Last Empire (2014), that sounded the death knell for the bloc as a whole.

Had we paid more attention to Putin’s historical rants, and to Plokhy’s dissections of them, could we have seen the invasion coming? I was reporting in Kyiv as the tension mounted, but until the first bombs hit the city I was convinced that it couldn’t happen. The assault came as a shock for Plokhy too. “We listened, but we didn’t hear what was there,” Plokhy said. “Because it was so difficult to imagine.”

People like to say you can’t outrun the past. In the post-Soviet region, you’re not even given time to put your shoes on. “I am writing history and then it keeps appearing as current news,” Plokhy says with a tired smile.

His latest book Atoms and Ashes is a global history of nuclear disasters. Its publication this spring coincided with Russia’s reckless military assault on the retired Chernobyl power plant, and on the functioning plant in Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.

“How can you do that?” Plokhy says, with exasperated horror. “Don’t shell the nuclear power plant! At least get a map of the Chernobyl zone. Don’t dig your trenches next to the Red Forest. Didn’t you watch the HBO series?!”

For Plokhy, the subject of nuclear history is no deviation; as with all the topics he turns to, it is deeply intertwined with his own life. When he documented the Cuban missile crisis in Nuclear Folly (2021), it was no random choice — he tells me that every warhead delivered to Cuba in 1962 was produced in factories in his home region of Zaporizhzhia.

Chernobyl, published in 2018, also has its roots in his own experience of the nuclear disaster in 1986. Plokhy was in Dnipro, some 600km south-east of the power plant, with a group of young physicists and professors from the university when news of the disaster — suppressed for several days — was finally made public. He recalls the group’s firm belief in the infallibility of Soviet science, deciding it must have been a freak accident, rather than human error.

In fact, however, “Chernobyl is a story of mismanagement, arrogance, cover-up,” Plokhy says. At some point during the subsequent month, a Communist party official came to the university and said that contaminated water from Chernobyl was heading down the Dnieper river towards their city.

“I remember getting into the trolleybus and going home and looking at the streets, and people walking there, and children, and this thought that in two days, maybe nothing of that would be there,” he recalls. The feeling was a similar one to what he felt in the weeks after the first bombs were dropped on Kyiv this year: “what do you do, when the world is coming to an end?”

The story of Chernobyl, however, was also of a certain “heroism,” Plokhy says. He recalls that many of his colleagues and students went up to the plant soon after the disaster to volunteer in the clean-up. They found freedom and camaraderie among the nuclear rubble. “I have encountered people who say ‘those were some of the best days of my life, spent in the zone’.”

Our mains arrive. I had selected mămăligă, a yellow polenta porridge that Plokhy said was common in southern Ukraine, known (and looked down on) as a dish of the Moldovans and Romanians. It is served sprinkled with mushrooms and way too much salt.

For my guest, a schnitzel with a fried egg on top. You can’t get a more late Soviet dish than that, he says with glee.

Plokhy moved to Vienna at the beginning of this year, to do research in the archives of the International Energy Agency. We talk about how there is no international legislation by which Russia could be prosecuted for its attack on Ukraine’s nuclear plants because there is no precedent. “This is the first time in history that war is waged on the territory of the nuclear sites . . . It is history’s first,” he says.

Plokhy stepped out of the archives after Russia’s invasion began. He started to search for ways to respond, in his work, to the new war. Partly, he says, to be useful. Partly, “to find some kind of anchor. Otherwise the winds and the waves are so strong.” Now, he is focusing on writing a book about the origins of this war, its history and context.

Where, I ask, does my job end and his begin? “For a historian, writing . . . on a contemporary development, it’s going outside of your comfort zone,” Plokhy responds. The difference, he says, is that a historian begins with a frame already in mind, and then works backwards.

“Our job is easier and more rewarding than yours,” he says, laughing. “The trick is that we try to solve the equation when we already know the answer . . . Our wisdom comes from the perspective that we have, we know how it ended, and we are looking for the things that led to that.”

Gradually, the tables around us at Ognisko have filled up. A light patter of rain hits the marquee. Our plates are cleared.

I’m still thinking about Plokhy’s position in this war. If history is “written by the victors”, where does that place him? And what is at stake? “History is written by all sides,” he responds. But “victors have the resources to suppress other narratives, and to promote their narrative.”

Today, “we have an imperialist narrative, written by Putin, and his . . . ” Plokhy begins to say “ . . . and his inner circle”, but then wonders aloud whether there is one left. In Ukraine, that view of the world, and the distorted historical story that underpins it, is being defeated, Plokhy says. “It’s just being crushed.”

So it is Russia that might change the most as a result of this war. “The fall of empire is not a particularly Russian phenomenon. We are in London now after all,” he says. Portraits of British and Polish royalty hang on Ognisko’s walls. “And the wars that accompany the fall of empires are not unique as well.”

But normally, when empires fall apart, the old imperial powers reinvent themselves, finding a new identity as nation-states, he says. This hasn’t happened yet for Russia. “We believed, in 1991, that the Soviet Union came to an end, and a new era started,” Plokhy says. And for many people, including many Ukrainians, it did. “But it didn’t start for the core group” — for Russia, or at least for its elite.

Perhaps the birth of a new identity for Russia, one free of the hangover of empire, will be the long-lasting outcome of this war. “I want to think optimistically,” Plokhy says.

Polina Ivanova is an FT correspondent covering Russia and Ukraine

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