Mikhail Zygar Rethinks Russian History

By Natasha Wood, MALD 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

Mikhail Zygar, one of the last Russian independent journalists still working from the country, made an appearance at Fletcher on November 13, 2023. He joined the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program, the Fletcher Conference on Gender and International Affairs, and Fletcher Pride to talk about his new book, “War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the Path to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.”

The book Zygar intended to write before February 2022 changed drastically after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The result was a book rooted first and foremost in Russian and Ukrainian history. “It seems to me… we don’t have a history of the Russian people at all. Unfortunately, I’m coming to the conclusion that most classical Russian historians used to work as historical propagandists.” Zygar said. 

“We know Nikolay Karamzin, who is considered to be the father of Russian historiography. His official position was the official historiographer of the Russian emperor – he was working directly for Alexander I… Unfortunately, that’s the same story we can tell of most well-known Russian historians. We know that most Russian leaders were very careful [with] Russian history,” Zygar pointed out. 

“War and Punishment” was therefore born from Zygar’s desire to contribute to the creation of a new, more objective Russian history. In reference to the legacy of the Russian empire, Zygar stated, “I know very well that I have to take the blame for being blind for so many years, and not paying attention.” The book seeks to understand how this invasion was possible by examining the basis of  Russian narratives, or myths. 

Zygar believed that there are seven primary historical myths that have become substitutes for real history and are therefore at the root of how Russia approaches the war, its propaganda, and international relations more broadly. One is the “imperative” of Russian/Ukrainian unification based on the Pereyaslav agreement of 1654. The agreement, which established the Muscovite protectorate over the Cossack town of Pereiaslav, has been reinterpreted by Russian historians as justification for Russia’s subsequent subjugation of Ukraine. 

Another myth is the Russian claim that other nations suffered during the Holodomor to the same extent Ukraine did. Holodomor (1932-1933) was the starvation of millions of Ukrainians as a direct result of Soviet policies. Another foundational Russian myth, according to Zygar, is the “nonexistence” of the Ukrainian language. 

Among other audience questions, Zygar was asked to compare different generations of Russian dissidents. He was hesitant to compare the dissident movements spurred by Soviet oppression to the movements of today, suggesting that the maxim “victims of the same empire” was oversimplified. 

Ultimately, Zygar emphasized the importance of Russia finally reconciling the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Russian Empire in 1917. “It’s really hard for any society, for any empire, to reconsider its past. It’s a very painful conversation.” But, he insisted, “It’s the right time to start this conversation, for the sake of the next generation of Russians.”


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