Documenting Ukraine

Timothy Snyder

Documenting Ukraine: A project to support Ukrainians who are recording the horrors of war is published by Timothy Snyder, an eminent scholar of European history, the Holocaust, the history of the Soviet Union, and the history of Ukraine, author of numerous books and fervently publishing on the ideological backgrounds of the current war, on May 8, 2022, via his newsletter “Thinking about …” We consider this call to support the recording of history in line with the Harun Farocki Institut’s politics of evidence and documentation and thus wanted to share/document it here.

Today we commemorate the end of the Second World War in Europe, the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies.  We do so in the midst of another major conflict.  The Russo-Ukrainian war recalls the Second World War in more ways than one.  Now, as then, the chief prize is Ukraine.  Now, as then, the aggressor sees Ukraine as a land to be dominated and colonized.

As a historian of the Second World War, I have spent years of my life — quite literally — searching for and reading documents about the period.  Two of my books, Black Earth and Bloodlands, are based upon sources from that time and place, collected by other historians or by me.  Sometimes the process of locating a source can cost not just hours but days or weeks.   If there is anything heartening about the present war, it is that it can be very well documented.  If we make the right preparations now, this could be the best documented war of all time.

One reason the Second World War was hard to chronicle was that it was immediately followed by cold war.  This separated researchers not only from sources but from perspectives and worldviews.  During the cold war, a young Polish philosopher founded an institute for advanced studies to try to overcome such divisions.  The first action of this Institute for Human Sciences was documentation: the preservation of the archive of Jan Patocka, a Czech philosopher who died after interrogation by the communist secret police.  This year, the Institute for Human Sciences  celebrates its fortieth anniversary.  For most of the time that it has existed, it has served me as an intellectual home, including during the time I was working on Bloodlands and Black Earth.

Eight years ago, I helped to establish a program at the Institute called „Ukraine in European Dialogue.“  The work on Bloodlands and Black Earth had convinced me that the absence of Ukraine in historical consciousness made the European past impossible to understand.  The Maidan revolution in Ukraine and the Russian invasion of early 2014 showed me that this was also true of the present.  The invisibility of Ukraine had terrible political consequences.  Even as Russian troops poured into Ukraine, Russian propaganda portrayed Russians as the victims, and Ukrainians as somehow deserving of attack.  This worked thanks to our own weaknesses and ignorance, but also because Ukraine had not been established as a historical subject.  Back then, Ukrainians themselves had a difficult time telling their own story.

Since that debacle, for the last eight years, my colleagues at the Institute have brought Ukrainian scholars, reporters, artists, and activists to Vienna and, more broadly, into larger European and American and international discussions.  Amidst the atrocities of the latest Russian invasion, it has at least been gratifying to watch the alumni of our programs at work.  If the image of Ukraine is clearer in 2022 than it was in 2014, it is in some measure thanks to them.

Almost all of the alumni of Ukraine in European Dialogue program are in Ukraine.  All of them are doing something in this war.  They and countless other Ukrainians have talents and skills that put them in a position to document this war.  This is work that must be done.  The battles and the war crimes must be documented to be understood.   Ukrainians (and the rest of us) will need to be able to write the history of this war.  Lies and disinformation must be resisted and overcome.  There will be trials, and these trials will require evidence.  This is a war for oblivion, where Russian weapons target archives, libraries, museums, monuments, and schools.  More broadly: human experience remains only so long as other humans care for it.  And even as people struggle and risk their lives, they feel a need to leave a mark, to try to make sense of things.

My colleagues and I had all of this in mind — the world war, the cold war, our Institute’s traditions, the war of 2014, the Russian atrocities of 2022 — when we established a new program:  „Documenting Ukraine.“ It supports people inside Ukraine — reporters, archivists, scholars, and others — who are documenting this war.  In the first stage of the program, we fund documentary work in Ukraine in various media; in a second stage, we will archive and share.  Given our wide network in Ukraine, our knowledge of the languages and the country, and our experienced staff, we are in a position to make grants quickly.

We have made the first few dozen grants already, and by the end of this month we will have awarded about one hundred grants.  Some of the projects in Ukraine that we have supported thus far include: ecologists monitoring environmental damage in marine ecosystems; a sociologist conducting interviews with medical professionals; anthropologists looking at mutual aid among religious communities; historians of the Holocaust documenting events in specific localities; soldiers engaged in combat fighting capturing their experience employing their professional experience (as sociologists, photographers, and so on); and leading Ukrainian writers reflecting on the war.

I would like to see this continue.  Anyone can make a credit card donation now to support „Documenting Ukraine“ by clicking these links or hitting the botton below.  Americans can take a tax deduction for doing so — we have established through a partner a U.S. 501(c)(3).  If you would like to make a large donation through another means than a credit card, feel free to write me at my Yale email address with the subject line „Documenting Ukraine“ and I will follow up.  As you all know, I have been publishing lists of organizations doing good work in Ukraine.  This is the project I have helped to design and am working on myself.  If you are able, I would appreciate your support in helping Ukrainians to document the war.

A good way to commemorate the Second World War is to create the conditions whereby this war can be remembered and understood. This war can be documented better than any prior war in history. Perhaps this will make future war less likely.

Donate to Documenting Ukraine



May 10th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 05