The Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko recalls a quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck: “Wars are not won by generals, but by schoolteachers and parish priests.” It’s a country’s taught collective memory, its shared sense of its own history, that are the decisive instruments for mobilisation, and are as important on the battlefield as weaponry.
Few conflicts have been so shaped by the chief actors’ sense of their own national story as the Ukrainian war that began in February. It is the competing grand narratives of the past, not just in Russia and Ukraine, but in Germany, France, Poland, the Baltics, the UK, the US, and even the global south, that make this war so hard to resolve.
Indeed, sometimes this war feels less like the end of history and more like the revenge of history.
Georgiy Kasianov, the Ukrainian historian, puts history in the cockpit of a conflict that may create a new world order. “Russian forces have been smashing their way through Ukraine spurred in large part by historical fiction,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. “But history also propels the fierce Ukrainian resistance. Ukrainians, too, harbour a particular understanding of the past that motivates them to fight. In many ways, this war is the collision of two incompatible historical narratives.”….
(NB: No sir, it is a collision between two armies, real soldiers and generals; and the political powers commanding them. The ‘narratives’ are the ideological doctrines adopted – with varying degrees of sincerity – by all the people engaged in the ongoing warfare. It sounds very profound to talk of ‘collision of narratives’, but this kind of post-modern jargon needs to be rejected because it reduces everything real to language. It’s not words that are murdering and bombing and fighting, its real people – DS)