Listening to Someone Else Teach: Timothy Snyder’s The Making of Modern Ukraine

I’ve been listening to the podcasts of Timothy Snyder’s course on The Making of Modern Ukraine.  I started watching the YouTube versions back in the fall, but couldn’t quite sit in front of the computer for an hour at a time without multitasking. But the audio versions are great for long walk and gym time.

The course is excellent and takes the long view, situating the history of Ukraine in world history,   If you are at all interested in the complexities of the current war, set aside some time to listen to The Making of Modern Ukraine.  The overall point of the course is the interconnection of history and myth–not just Putin’s current myth of the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine but myths and justification for nations and empire going back over a thousand years.   Around lecture 5 we get to the founding of a state in Kyiv starting in 988 CE, with the baptism of Volodymyr the Great. Snyder (and the occasional guest lecturer) takes us through the realities of European politics that we don’t often get through the simple Cold War lens most of us were exposed to in school.

Snyder is also fascinated with the language, the power and subtleties of names and national narratives.  And the lectures a perfect antidote for the narrative that the humanities are dead:  as Snyder says in one lecture (I’m paraphrasing), the best way to avoid being surprised by current events is to study history; in another lecture, he reminds us of the dangers of thinking that history has ended.  And though Eurasianism isn’t specifically mentioned, listening to the clash us Byzantine and Western cultures gave me a new perspective on Nikolai Trubetzkoy’s ideas from the 1920s.

The additional bonus for me is listening to Snyder teach first-year students at Yale.  He’s relaxed, spontaneous, and tells the right amount of jokes poking fun at pretensions and sacred cows, (I thought the jokes were all bombing until Snyder pointed out that the audio didn’t pick up the students’ laughter).

It did my heart good to see that Snyder was one of us in the classroom, making difficulty material interesting with the right combination of important generalizations about historical forces, spellbinding details, humorous segues, and reinforcement.

Give The Making of Modern Ukraine a careful listen. You’ll learn a lot.

By Lencer – own work, used:Ukraine_adm_location_map.svg by User:NordNordWestUkraine_2022-02-21.svg by User:NordNordWestReliefkarte_Ukraine.png by User:TschubbyListe der Städte in der Ukraine, CC BY-SA 3.0,

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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