As Vladimir Putin’s threats against Ukraine culminated in a military invasion, Twitter users and news organizations turned to doctoral student in history Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon for insight. As an undergraduate at Swarthmore, St. Julian-Varnon studied Soviet and Eastern European history, then took up Ukrainian history for her master’s degree at Harvard, because, as she explains, “I just fell in love with Ukraine.” She specializes in how the Black experience shaped identity in the Soviet Union, and she lived in Ukraine while conducting research in Kyiv and Odesa.
St. Julian-Varnon has spent much of the first days after the invasion speaking out on news outlets and Twitter, where her followers grew from 9,000 to almost 70,000. She pulls no punches; one tweet said, “I will fight disinformation and Russian propaganda as Ukraine fights a murderer and his henchmen. Putin, you will choke on Ukraine.”
In the lead up to the invasion, President Vladimir Putin described Ukraine as “historically Russian land” and said that the country was “artificially created by Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.” St. Julian-Varnon sets the historical record straight.
“After the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917, you have a civil war that breaks out in Ukraine. So, eastern Ukraine, they actually have an independent Republic—Putin skipped that part. They have an independent Republic that eventually joins the Soviet Union. And when the Soviet Union is created in 1922, every titular nationality or big national group gets its own territory, the promotion of its language and the promotion of its culture. So, Ukraine got its named territory, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. They promoted Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture.”
“This is what Putin sees as an aberration. This is why he says the Soviet Union was wrong and that Lenin created it. It’s because compared to the Russian empire, the Soviets promoted Ukrainian nationalism to an extent. Throughout Soviet history, you have this problem of Ukrainian nationalism always being stamped down because it’s a problem for the Soviet Union. And when the Soviet Union collapses in 1991, one of the major reasons is because Ukrainians voted to leave the Soviet Union. It could not continue without the bread basket that was Ukraine.”
“So Putin’s understanding and conception of Ukraine being Russian or being one people, it’s just fundamentally ahistorical. I speak Russian, and I’m learning Ukrainian. They’re not the same language. They’re similar, but they’re not the same. Polish grammar and Polish language are actually closer to Ukrainian. The religion is different.”
Ukranians have been living with Russian aggression for over eight years, she says. Donetsk and Luhansk, are occupied by pro-Russian forces. A couple years ago, Russia hit the electricity grid during winter, and has unleashed cyberattacks on banks and ministries.
She adds that “Ukraine has always been a multilingual country, and this is something that’s so important because Putin says if they’re Russian speakers, then they’re Russian. That’s not true.”
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