Special Episode: War Comes to Ukraine

Russia has launched the first major invasion in Europe since World War II. What is Putin thinking?

A somber Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits forward army positions in the Donetsk region on the eastern edge of his country, on Feb. 17, just a week before the Russian military would launch a full-scale invasion, from the north, east and south. Today, Zelensky is hunkered down in a heavily fortified compound but still regularly addressing his people by social media. The Russian invaders, he said, “know nothing” of Ukrainian history. “But they have orders to erase our history, erase our country, erase us all.” Our guests today fill you in on some of that history and give powerful testimony to their own experiences of Russian aggression.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

Jane Lytvynenko hasn’t slept much in two weeks. From her home in Toronto, she has been watching in horror as Russian troops invade and bombard her native Ukraine, threatening her loved ones and friends. And it’s rattling her nerves. But through it all, she remains hopeful. Siva speaks with Lytvynenko, a freelance journalist, about the failures of world leaders to stand up to Vladimir Putin. Plus, we revisit a couple of interviews from last year that help add context to the conflict.

An explosion lights up the night sky in Kyiv as the Russian military fires rockets on the Ukrainian capital and other major cities.

Photograph by Giovanni Cancemi via Shutterstock.com

Masha Gessen of the New Yorker explains how Putin has stifled dissent in his own country with ruthless tactics. Still, Gessen sees hope in the resistance of dissidents like Alexei Navalny, who has risked his life to challenge the regime. Will it be enough to inspire young people who have grown up with no ruler other than Putin — a former KGB officer who views the totalitarian past with nostalgia?

Meanwhile, Harvard historian Serhii Plokhii walks Will and Siva through Ukraine’s own recent social movements, which have proved fateful. Twice in two decades, Ukrainians took the streets en masse to defend their country’s autonomy and call for closer ties with the rest of Europe. At the same time, Plokhii tells us, those uprisings triggered the very Russian hostilities that have come to define Ukraine’s plight.

About our guests

Jane Lytvynenko is a freelance journalist and a senior research fellow at the Technology and Social Change Project, part of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Lytvynenko formerly worked as a reporter for BuzzFeed. She lives in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @JaneLytv.

Masha Gessen is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Gessen grew up in Russia and the United States, and was previously editor of the venerable Russian-language geographic magazine Vokrug Sveta, until losing that job for refusing to run a puff piece about Putin hang-gliding in Siberia. Gessen has written a dozen books, including Surviving Autocracy (Penguin, 2020) and The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Penguin, 2017), winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Follow Gessen on Twitter @mashagessen.

Serhii Plokhii is the Mykhailo S. Hrushevs’kyi Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University and the director of the Ukrainian Research Institute. He writes frequently for the Financial Times, the Guardian and other popular publications, and is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (Penguin, 2016), The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (Basic Books, 2015) and Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe (Basic Books, 2018). Follow Plokhii on Twitter @SPlokhy.

Siva’s phone conversation with Lytvynenko was recorded on Feb. 24, 2022. Our episodes featuring Gessen and Plokhii originally aired in the spring of 2021. This compilation episode was released on March 1, 2022.

What we’re reading

By our guests

In an essay for the Atlantic last week, Lytvynenko described the vertiginous — but somehow, spiritually helpful — effect of watching and waiting for the war to unfold in Kyiv, via livestream.

During her time at BuzzFeed, she wrote primarily about social media and its social impact. Read about Lytvynenko’s current interest in helping Ukrainians defend themselves by democratizing, and protecting, wartime information through open-source intelligence.

Gessen has been busting out reports and essays on the war in Ukraine, plus the Kremlin’s war of rhetoric on the Russian home front. But also: read how the staff of Russia’s last independent TV station is working long days and longer nights to get out good information.

People around the world have been rallying to support Ukraine. On Feb. 24, the night the Russian invasion began, Poles gathered and waved Ukrainian flags in the market square of Bielsko.

Photograph by Kamil Zajaczkowski via Shutterstock.com

In Surviving Autocracy, Gessen recounts the experience of growing up in Soviet Russia and then covering the rebirth of tyranny under Putin. That book was a response to the surge of neo-fascist rhetoric in America during the Trump era.

Earlier, in The Future is History, Gessen explored how Russia’s 20th-century police state morphed into a 21st-century mafia state. It follows four people, all born at the start of the post-Soviet era. Their aspirations would be crushed under the new regime.

Read more of Gessen’s recent work on Navalny, including pieces on Navalny’s treatment in detention and his decision to return to Russia.

Plokhii spoke with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner just as the Russian invasion was imminent. They covered Russia’s fears about Ukrainian national identity and the potential for the Ukrainian people to resist yet another imperial takeover.

The Romans, Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians and Soviets all have held sway over Ukraine across the centuries. Plokhii reviews this tapestry of empires, and the struggle of Ukrainians to throw it off, in The Gates of Europe.

As Plokhii shows in Chernobyl, the Soviet government tried to orchestrate a coverup of the nuclear meltdown in northern Ukraine. Read his description of the chaotic evacuation of the town of Prypiat, which was next door to the reactor.

He has also written, for the Guardian, about what Vladimir Putin can learn from Vladimir Lenin when it comes to Russian meddling in Ukraine. Short answer: don’t do it.

From around the web

This playground outside an apartment building in Kyiv has been reduced to rubble.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

On a related episode, we considered the wider tensions across Eastern Europe — with help from Stephen Mull, UVA’s vice provost for foreign affairs, and Heather Conley, now president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Conley coauthored a number of reports on European affairs and America’s role in the region, including “The Kremlin Playbook” in 2016 — about Russia’s influence in its neighborhood — and a follow-up study published in 2019, examining the Russian government’s local “enablers.”

Not long after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Conley and her colleagues offered some recommendations about how the U.S. military might posture itself against Russian forces in the post­–Cold War era. It’s worth another look.

Subway stations in Kyiv are now serving as a bomb shelters for thousands of people.

Photographs via Shutterstock.com

In 2018, Conley evaluated how Europe handled mass waves of migration to the continent over the previous four years. In that period, 1.9 million people arrived in Europe, and EU member states processed 3.6 million first-time asylum applications. That influx has been driving political strife in many countries.

Now the continent will have to deal with its own internal refugees. Already as many as 660,000 Ukrainians are flooding across neighboring borders to escape the war.

Writing for the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum argues that the fighting in Ukraine and its shockwaves have upended conventional geopolitical thinking across the world, including among the Russian people themselves.

Families have been fleeing on foot toward the Hungarian village of Beregsurány, on the border with Ukraine.

Photograph by Janossy Gergely via Shutterstock.com

Remember when Fiona Hill testified in Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearing? She’s the career diplomat and Ukraine expert who clashed with Trump over his administration’s Russia policy. This week when Politico asked Hill whether we were inching closer to World War III, she replied, “We’re already in it.”

There’s a lot of ink out there right now trying to assess what’s in Putin’s mind, and you’ve probably read much of it. Peter Pomerantsev of the London School of Economics has one simple answer, in the Guardian: Putin is a fascist, he argues, plain and simple.


A transcript of this episode is available here.

Heard on the show

Our theme music is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

Check back for a rundown of other songs we used to score this episode.

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