Eyeing the future, grappling with the past

History professor Marci Shore studies events in Ukraine with a sense of empathy.

Debra Spark’s novel Discipline is due out in 2024.

Bob Handelman

Bob Handelman

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In the fall of 2022, Colby College, where I teach fiction writing, held a three-day conference on Václav Havel. The times being what they were, the presenters—who would have included Madeleine Albright, had she not died earlier in the year—were considering Havel’s values in light of the crisis in Ukraine.

Marci Shore and Timothy Snyder, a married couple who are both professors of history at Yale, were among the intellectually enthralling speakers who sent me down a rabbit hole, post-conference. I read both Shore’s and Snyder’s many books on Eastern Europe and their op-eds in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. I “took” Snyder’s free Yale online course on The Making of Modern Ukraine—along with 1.3 million others who viewed the course’s first lecture on YouTube. Later, I interviewed Milan Babik, the conference organizer and a visiting professor of government at Colby, about Shore, because her presentation had particularly moved me.

“What stands out is her really intimate knowledge of the region and Ukraine and the people involved in the fight right now,” Babik told me. “Marci has a totally different energy, tone, and approach. That sort of empathy—and really, it’s about empathy—is missing from our scholarly world. It is closely connected to activism, to actually wanting to help the people you’re writing about.”  

In 2004 and 2014, Shore was a senior visiting fellow at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, a position that gave her a unique vantage point on two enormously important years in Ukraine’s recent history. But her talent for conveying the lived experience of Eastern Europeans marks all her scholarship—whether she is writing about the Polish poets drawn to Marxism in her first book, Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968; or post-Communist psychology in The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe; or political protesters in The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution.

In April of 2023, Marci and I spoke via Zoom about her initial attraction to Eastern Europe, her approach to writing history, and her experience as a pacifist advising governments on weapons to send to Ukraine, among other matters.

DS: In The Ukrainian Night, you described how, during the uprising in 2014, then-president Victor Yanukovych’s government attacked youthful protesters who were upset with his decision not to sign a planned agreement with the European Union. After the violence, the older generation did not call their children home in order to keep them safe as, say, with the protesters in Hong Kong. Instead, they went down to the Maidan—the central square in Kyiv—to protest with their children. You described the critical mass of people who decided, at that point, that they were willing to die on the Maidan. Collectively, they resisted and set up a horizontal, civil society right there on the ground, supplying food, shelter, and medicine to each other. You described this as a beautiful, extraordinary, and terrifying thing to watch.

When I first heard you talk about the Maidan, your words gave me the chills, in part because they gave me hope at a time when I see so little positive change, when the arc of the universe is not tending to justice. I wonder how you interpret that moment now that ten years have passed and Ukraine is obviously in a battle for its existence.

MS: I clung to that moment of the Maidan, certainly through all the dark Trump years, because the fact that this kind of solidarity, generosity, and moral clarity could happen even for just a moment, a flicker of a second, was a reminder that we human beings are capable of something better. Even if it happens rarely. Even if it happens contingently. Even if there is no moral arc of the universe bending towards justice, we have that capacity, and that’s a source of hope.

DS: In your second book, Taste of Ashes, you describe yourself as a sophomore at Stanford reading Václav Havel’s essays at a Grateful Dead concert. What drew you to Havel, and how did you come to be interested in Eastern Europe in the first place?

MS: At the time, I felt like I was living in a terribly bourgeois, unbearably superficial world. I was interested in politics—in pacifism, in civil rights, and gay rights, and nothing was happening. Then came these revolutions.

Throughout my childhood, the world was divided by the Iron Curtain, and on the other side was an Evil Empire, and you were never going to go there. Then the Berlin Wall came down. The door that had been seemingly shut for all time suddenly opened. Just for that reason, I wanted to go through that door. When I first came to Prague in the 1990s, it was full of young Americans like myself wanting to experience revolution by contiguity. The difference is only that most of those other young Americans eventually got over it and went home. I never did.

Another part of the story was that the language of American politics in the 1980s was so uninspiring. Then Havel appeared, speaking this entirely different language, a language of politics that transcended politics. Havel’s writing was my gateway drug.

DS: Well, you quote when Havel goes to the Senate and says—

MS: “Consciousness precedes Being. And not the other way around, as the Marxists claim.”

DS: And I wonder if you even knew what that meant at the time?

MS: No, I had no idea what that meant. I doubt anyone in Washington did either. But it sounded magical anyway. Years later at a conference, a US ambassador, Martin Palouš, told me that one senator who was there listening to Havel said, “Wow, if I could talk like that, I would run for God.”

DS: I love the way you write. In The Ukrainian Night, you quote the Polish philosopher Stanislaw Brzozowski saying, “What is not biography—is nothing at all.” Your writing is not dry history. It’s more like biography. It’s a mixture of factual history, memoir, and stories of your friendships as you have traveled, worked, and visited archives in Eastern Europe. I wonder how you came to that as a way of writing.

MS: I could talk about why I became a historian, not a novelist—and then why I became a historian, not a political scientist. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and at a certain point I realized that I enjoyed telling stories that were true more than the stories I made up. There are still moments in which I find myself frustrated, because I can see what scene and which details are needed to make a chapter work, and I can almost set the scene, but my sources are not quite fine-grained enough to flesh them out. If I were a novelist, I could make up the details, but as a historian, I’m limited.
There is also that split between political science and history. As a college student, my frustration with political science came from its frequent premises that ceteris paribus—“all other things being equal”—people will act rationally. But all other things are never equal. And people act irrationally all the time. To claim otherwise is to expand the definition of rationality until it becomes so capacious as to be meaningless.

DS: That’s interesting, about the political side, because I think of you as an activist historian. Would you describe yourself that way or is that an unfair description?

MS: No, it’s a good description. In some ways, it’s not
my most natural mode. I’m better at being an intellectual than an activist. I don’t like the reductionism that often comes with activism. That said, I’ve never found it morally sustainable to stand aside.

I was a teenage peace activist. I have never even let my kids have a squirt gun. And now, paradoxically enough, I spend my time pleading with Germans to immediately send lethal weapons to Ukrainians.

DS: You said that—about weapons—when you were speaking at Colby. I was struck by that because I’m so anti-gun, and I could see that you felt about violence as I do, and here you were arguing for weapons.

MS: I’ve done this with no ambivalence at all, despite my hatred for guns and my passionate conviction about the need for gun control. I’m usually a person who feels a lot of ambivalence. But, in this case, I’ve understood from the first moments that it absolutely  has to be this way. I’ve pleaded for these weapons with a keen self-awareness of the surrealism but above all with a sense of despair that it has come to this. But not with ambivalence: all of my historian’s intuition, and everything I have come to understand about this part of the world, is that Putin will bleed his own people until he’s defeated. So even if one only cares about Russian lives, as opposed to Ukrainian lives, the only way to save Russian lives at this point is by sending weapons to the Ukrainians.

DS: I listened to your husband’s The Making of Modern Ukraine course, in which you give one of the lectures. You start by saying something like, “I’m not going to be objective here. I can’t be objective. These are my friends and colleagues who are dying, so I can’t be a neutral observer of the conflict.” I’m wondering how you understand subjectivity and objectivity when writing about this part of the world.  

MS: That question’s been with my whole career. Here I would go back to the philospher Edmund Husserl’s example of the cube: no one can see all six sides of the cube at once. There is no such vantage point. Any position you occupy will only give you partial visual access. Another person sitting or standing in a different place can see the other sides—but again, not all of them at once. In this sense, knowledge is ultimately intersubjective.

DS: Reading your work, I can see that you have a talent for friendship. And part of what I love about all your writing is how empathetic you are. Clearly, you’ve lost people that you’ve befriended. You must be frightened for those you know in Ukraine. There’s obviously so much tragedy in Eastern European history, so many hideous things. I wonder how you handle that emotionally.

MS: I don’t deal with it well. I’m constantly distraught, aware of the horror going on. I don’t think it ends until Putin’s regime falls. I don’t think it’s a negotiation kind of situation. And the idea that we shouldn’t provoke Putin, he might escalate—I think that’s the wrong paradigm. Putin’s regime needs to be defeated decisively, otherwise life will provoke him and no one will be safe. Then there’s the big question of what happens in Russia. This goes back to your first question: what is that mysterious cocktail, that chemistry of factors that pushes people across a boundary to revolution? What will make that happen?

The very same thing that seems absolutely impossible looking into the future can seem absolutely inevitable in retrospect. And I try to keep that in  mind: the thing that now seems impossible, revolution in Russia, could happen at any moment.

DS: In the summer of 2022, there was a story in the New Yorker by Sana Krasikov about a woman trying to persuade her Ukrainian friend to move to Canada. At one point, the point-of-view character thinks, “The surprise about the Ukrainians was not just that they’d elected a Jew, but that this seemed of so much less consequence to the Ukrainians themselves than it was to the press. It had made her feel that the world really could change, that its surprises were worth sticking around for.” I love that sentence. Again, it’s something hopeful. At what point did values became more important than identity in Ukraine? I ask because identity is such a problematic issue in this country. And one that gets in the way of us having a politics of values.

MS: All of my Ukrainian friends and colleagues would say that was the Maidan. That was the great existential transformation. It was the birth of the civic nation. During the first days of the war, Slava Vakarchuk, our Ukrainian rock star friend, texted and said, “Marci, despite everything, you can’t imagine how happy I am when I see how people are coming together. When I see that finally we’re becoming a real political nation.”

That kind of miraculous solidarity and generosity was the miracle of the Maidan. Whether or not this can ever be sustained in “ordinary times” is another question. But that it is ever possible gives us hope for the human condition.

Once, a woman came up to me after a lecture and said, “My bubbe would turn over in her grave if she could hear a Jew defending Ukrainians.” Jewish audiences often ask me about the history of pogroms, about what Ukrainians did to the Jews in 1918 and 1919 during the Bolshevik Civil War. My answer continues to be that the people who are alive now need to be judged by how they themselves confront that past today. You have to give them that chance.

We have to disentangle guilt and responsibility. You and I, as Americans, are not guilty of having enslaved people. Yet that we are not guilty does not make us not responsible. We are responsible. We are responsible not for atoning on behalf of those who lived before us, but for seeing the past with eyes wide open. We are responsible for facing the truth, and for dealing with the consequences of that truth in the present.  

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