Q&A With Princeton University Professor Ekaterina Pravilova on “Unimaginable, Unthinkable” War in Ukraine

Photo courtesy of Princeton University Office of Communications

Interview by Donald Gilpin

Princeton University History Professor Ekaterina Pravilova holds the Rosengarten Chair of Modern and Contemporary History and is the acting director of the Princeton University Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, she received her Ph.D. from the Russian Academy of Sciences. She came to Princeton University to join the faculty in 2006.

We spoke on April 4, about six weeks after the Russian invasion and start of the war in Ukraine. News and photos had just come out revealing the mass killing of civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.

How does your perspective as an historian of Russian history help to shed light on the current situation in Ukraine and Russia?

This war is completely unimaginable, unthinkable. We live in the 21st century and we are witnessing something that resembles the 19th century colonial wars with the methods of killing that we cannot comprehend because we thought that these kinds of wars were in the past.

It is very, very difficult to explain this war. We see that [Vladimir] Putin is obsessed with Ukraine, and this obsession may appear as some kind of a mental disorder. At the same time, as historians, we know that the Ukraine has been one of the most problematic questions for Russia.

Before the Revolution, Russia was a colonial empire based on autocracy and centralization. When in the mid-19th century Ukrainian thinkers and intellectuals raised the problem of Ukrainian cultural and political autonomy, the Russian government was just furious, and it reacted by banning small cultural societies that were just trying to educate the public and strengthen the Ukrainian culture and language. In 1863 the Russian government prohibited the use of the Ukrainian language. The government claimed that it was a dialect, the invention of these bizarre intellectuals who wanted to use cultural autonomy to advance their political goals.

Since the mid-19th century the Russian imperial government was trying to resolve the Ukrainian problem by silencing the Ukrainian intellectuals. But even liberals during the Russian Revolution didn’t really want to accept the fact of Ukrainian sovereignty and its cultural, political, and historical existence. In 1917 the Empire collapsed, and a new, Soviet empire emerged on its foundation. Then the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Now, more than 30 years later, Russian government is trying to build a third empire.

Why is this happening? As a historian, I cannot say that this is all predetermined and this all goes back to the 19th century. Things could have gone very differently, if the government and the Russian society had accepted the fact that the Empire was over in 1991. Politically, the Soviet empire collapsed, but in the minds of Putin and others, the de-imperialization just didn’t happen. Russians have the same colonial imperial mindset that allowed to perceive Ukraine as part of its imperial space. This is what we see, the persistence of this imperial syndrome.
Now Russian intellectuals are experiencing a sudden realization that the preparation for the invasion has been underway for quite a long time, not only in the form of chopping off some of the territories of Ukraine, but also in what the government has been doing to the Russian public and Russian society.

Aerial view of the Ukrainian flag in the city of Kyiv, Ukraine near the famous statue of Motherland in 2021. (Shutterstock.com)

As a Russian and also an American, can you provide other lenses to help us understand what’s happening?

It helps to understand that in the 19th century Russian imperialism was based on a very peculiar concept of truth. This is not truth as we understand it, as something that needs to be discovered, critically analyzed, and supported by proof and evidence. Historical truth for the Russian government was something that the government imposed, and society was supposed to accept. And this is what’s happening now. Putin gives the people of Russia a certain version of history, a certain version of political events — for instance that Ukraine is a failed state or Ukraine is in the hands of Nazis or that Ukraine has no rights to Crimea. He makes society believe that this is true. And any kind of doubt is exterminated.

For many years — and this is what we have not been paying enough attention to — the government has cultivated this attitude to truth: as something that is based on blind belief, asserting that there is no reason to wonder or to doubt this version of events or this version of history or ideology. Year by year the government has been gradually establishing consensus about what is truth. And what is most shocking is that people do not question it. This is what I see in Russian society.

Uzhhorod, Ukraine — February 26, 2022: Refugees waiting for permission to cross the border into Europe through the Ukrainian-Slovak border. (Shutterstock.com)

What do most people in Russia believe about the current situation?

We don’t know. We really don’t know because all these polls, Putin’s public opinion surveys — they’re false. They want to show 80 percent support, which is not true.

Even the words that they use matter. If you ask people in Russia if they support the war they would say “no,” but they support the “special operation,” as it’s called. It’s psychologically very comforting. It’s just the army fighting some terrorists — some Nazis. It’s not a war against another nation. It is important to understand that most Russians do not see the pictures that we see daily in the news. Therefore, we cannot say that they support that war. Even if they support war, this is not that war that we know about.

When the war had just begun, I couldn’t believe that anyone could be in favor. Nobody in my family or my friends is “pro-war.” But as the war progressed, I started finding out that some other people — not in my immediate circle but the next circle — some of them are pro-war. The moment when you find out about people’s opinions is really painful.

This war is taking place in two countries. It’s a tragedy of the Ukrainian people because they suffer from horrible human losses, and at this point we cannot even imagine the consequences of this war for children, families, for the Ukrainian society.

And there’s another war taking place inside Russia — a cold civil war, which can actually turn into something bloody. As someone was saying recently, people who are deprived of dignity, people who are humiliated, when they are suppressed by someone, they start hating — not the one who suppresses them, but those who did not give up, those who have not lost their dignity, those who have resisted.

The level of antagonism in Russian society that exists now is not so visible because there is a law prohibiting anti-war actions. This antagonism may be silent now, but in the future, we’re going to see a tremendous civil strife, the rise of cultural and political conflicts between these two Russias.

The gap is growing day by day. Over the past two days as atrocities committed by the Russian army in Bucha were revealed, this polarization became even more significant. Because earlier people were saying “Oh, this is Putin’s war, and Russian soldiers are his victims.” Now we see it’s not just Putin. It’s also Russian men who commit these atrocities, who make a choice — to open fire and kill women and other civilians, or not. Scholars will spend years after the end of this war analyzing the sources of this inexplicable violence. I have no explanation now. I don’t think anybody has an explanation.

This is a tragedy of half of the Eurasian continent. It’s not just Ukraine. It’s also Russia.

Have you been in communication with friends and family in Russia? What are their thoughts about this war?

Some of my friends have left the country – out of fear or because they think that by staying in Russia, they would become Putin’s accomplices. But most of my friends cannot leave – they have families, children, parents who need care. I often hear this: it is unbearable to stay silent, you lose all self-respect. And yet you know that individual protests can hardly change anything. People are responsible for their loved ones, and this moral choice is the hardest thing, especially now, when the violence of war becomes so blatant and explicit.

Lives have changed dramatically in these few weeks. My parents are learning how to keep connections with the outside world. If you don’t make these efforts, you’ll be a prisoner of the state propaganda.

Do your parents in St. Petersburg have access to the internet and news from around the world? Would you say they are better informed than most Russians?

Yes, but they cannot easily find everything. They used to watch just one independent TV channel, listen to one independent radio station. That was enough with all the information condensed in two outlets.

Now they need to really collect this information from different sources. That’s what they are doing. My parents are in their 80s, so it’s not easy. We send links to YouTube videos. My mom listens to podcasts and interviews, and she knows what’s going on.

Some people are comfortable with not knowing the truth. They think the truth is what’s given to them, that they don’t need to try to figure out what is true and what is not, what is authentic and what is fake. This is about a desire to learn the truth, to excavate it, to explore this mass of information.

What do you tell students in your classes to help them understand the war?

Education is the best weapon. We talk a lot about nationalist myths. For instance, we analyzed Putin’s articles, the speech which he gave on the eve of the invasion. He is obsessed with history, and the way he twisted historical facts, the way he presented this nonexistent history of Ukraine, says a great deal about his imperialist mindset.

Los Angeles, Calif., 2022: Stand with Ukraine protest against the war and Vladimir Putin. Americans in defense of Ukraine. (Shutterstock.com)

What is the most likely outcome or resolution to this?

We don’t know. Putin is losing the war on the battlefield. He probably thinks of himself as Napoleon, but his army resembles the Napoleonic army retreating from Moscow. Maybe the end will come in some kind of a coup d’état, but I cannot predict the future.

We don’t know what’s happening in Putin’s inner circles.

What can we do to help?

There are many possibilities to donate money.

The biggest thing that the U.S. can do is to ease the process of getting visas for Ukrainians. There is a great Ukrainian diaspora here, and these people could take care of their relatives and not only just their relatives. Princeton University is trying to bring Ukrainian scholars here. When they arrive, they will need help and support from the Princeton local community. Some of them will come with families and children.

Another thing we can do is to keep talking about the war. I know everybody is getting used to it because it’s been in the news for weeks. Another city is bombed, another family is divided. It’s almost the same thing over again, but it’s not the same thing. Every case is a human tragedy. We need to resist this feeling of numbness, of getting used to it. We need to keep the temperature high, and pressure the government to be more active in defending Ukraine, helping refugees and people who have lost their homes. And when the war comes to its end, we should demand justice and punish all war criminals. It is in the interests of the Russian people, Ukraine, and humanity.