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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Robert Siegel. What does it mean when the wolf cries wolf? Timothy Snyder poses that question, referring to leaders and propagandists in Ukraine and Russia, who denounced the protestors in Kiev's Independence Square as fascists. Snyder is a Yale historian who writes about Ukraine in a forthcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, and he joins us now from Vienna. Welcome to the program.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Very glad to talk to you.
SIEGEL: We commonly say that Ukraine is torn between people who want their country inside the European Union and those who favor closer ties with Russia. I gather closer ties with Russia would mean membership in something that you write about and that I'd like you describe: the Eurasian Union.
SNYDER: Yeah, I mean, first of all, I mean, before we get into all the geopolitics, I would just want to stress that Ukrainians are people like you and me, and the first thing they're concerned about is their daily life and the predictability of their life and their schools and in their jobs. And when they say they're in favor of joining the European Union, what they really mean is they want to have the rule of law in their lives.
They want a government that's less corrupt. They want to know what's going to happen from day to day. That's what the European Union means to them. It's a little bit naive, but maybe it's basically right.
In their neighborhood, on the other side to the east, is Russia. And here's where things get a little bit interesting and complicated because Russia under Vladimir Putin has this idea of building up a rival to the European Union. This rival is going to be called the Eurasian Union, and it's going to be based upon a completely different set of values.
Rather than rejecting the worst of the 20th century, as people in Western Europe see it, rather than rejecting fascism and communism, the idea is to draw elements of fascism and communism, what seems to be most useful. Rather than being liberal and democratic, the idea is to oppose liberal democracy.
And for Putin personally, the Eurasian Union, which is at the moment his pet project and his idea of a legacy, will only be meaningful if it includes Ukraine. And for it to include Ukraine, Ukraine has to be some kind of authoritarian regime that seems to be sufficiently under his control.
SIEGEL: But when you say elements of fascism and communism in the Eurasian Union, what are you referring to exactly?
SNYDER: Yeah, it's a bit vague. I mean, what happens with the breakup of the Soviet Union is that there's a natural nostalgia among leaders in Russia to be a great power and to be a superpower. And what that often means is an attempt to rescue some part of the history of Stalinism. So perhaps not to say that the terror or the starvations of Stalinism were a good thing but to stress that Stalin was a victor in the Second World War or to stress that Stalin was some kind of good manager.
When it comes to fascism, here things get a little bit interesting because of course the identity of Russia has to do with beating the Nazis. So it generally means something like the purification of communism from its cosmopolitan elements, to making the history of communism something which is really about the Russians.
SIEGEL: Well, now this accusation that the anti-government protestors in Kiev are fascist, you write about how that kind of language resonates in Ukraine given the history of World War II there. Much of the war actually transpired in Ukraine, as you write.
SNYDER: Yeah, I mean calling them fascists is obviously a way to appeal to Russian national sentiment, calling them Nazis in particular. But it's also a play towards America and the European Union because we know, I mean if we have any core belief about history, it's that national socialism, that Nazism, was a bad thing.
So they're called Nazis and terrorists as a way to rally Russians against them but also as a way to prevent us from thinking straight. We're not to see this as a movement of citizens who want the normal rights of citizens. We're to understand that these people can just be reduced to this despicable category of national socialism. That's the way this ideology is supposed to work.
SIEGEL: You cite a Russian who is obviously against the Ukrainian protests as claiming that if Ukraine joined the European Union, they would then have to recognize same-sex marriage, that's part of the package of being European. That's the kind of argument that's being used on the Russian side here, you say.
SNYDER: Yeah, and this is really interesting and really important, I think. What's happened is that Russian society has become a little more conservative over the years. President Putin has recognized an opportunity there and has geared his domestic policy towards what some might see a far right social conservative agenda, where the discrimination of gays is front and center.
He's using that now not just in domestic policy but in foreign policy. So he's defining - Russian propaganda strangely enough also defines the opposition in Ukraine as either gay or subordinate to a European Union that is gay. The idea is that Western Europe, is decadent, and decadence includes sexual freedoms, which of course can't be allowed in Russia because they would destroy Russia's Christian civilization.
This is a kind of interesting global turn in Russian policy. It draws directly on American anti-gay Christians, who in fact have gone to Moscow to consult with President Putin about these issues. It's an attempt to create a kind of new ideology whereby Russia can have some moral standing in the world.
And it reaches out to far right groups in the U.S., and in Europe as well, and in particular it gives Eurasianism a kind of ideological backbone. What they're trying to say is that you Europeans have betrayed civilization. We Eurasians are the real Europeans because we stand for religion, and we stand for the discrimination of people who behave in a way which we don't regard as conventional.
SIEGEL: You also write that while Ukrainian authorities say the protestors are led by, or they are Nazis, they tell their own police that the Jews are actually running the protests in Kiev.
SNYDER: Yeah, I mean, this reveals the extent to which propagandists in Kiev and Moscow assume that we don't really pay attention. They think that if they tell us the protestors are Nazis, we'll be all confused, we'll scuttle around, we won't be able to formulate policy. And I think in some measure they're right.
I think we are quite - because of our perfectly legitimate convictions about the second world war, it's easy to manipulate us by referring to these things. At the same time, one of the ways to motivate violence against the protestors is to claim that they are associated with some outside force, whether those outsiders are gays or whether they're Jews.
And so in internal propaganda, the riot police are being told that the leaders of the opposition are Jews. So the same people are being defined as Nazis or as Jews depending on the circumstances.
SIEGEL: So if people of, as you would say, a fascist bent themselves cry fascist, what does it mean when the wolf cries wolf?
SNYDER: It means that we have to be very careful about our own moral symbols. If we care about the Holocaust, as we should, if we care about the Second World War as we should, this means that we have to be very careful about the kinds of people who are urging us to act on the basis of these memories.
Calling an entire nation or calling an opposition group Nazis is a very cynical move, and it's a cynical move that one has to resist, or else one gets drawn down into it oneself. And then the next time around, one finds that one no longer has anything to hold on to morally or symbolically.
SIEGEL: Timothy Snyder, thank you very much for talking with us today.
SNYDER: It's been my pleasure.
SIEGEL: Timothy Snyder article in the coming March 20th issue of the New York Review of Books is called "Fascism: Russia and Ukraine." The Yale professor is also author of "Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin." This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.