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History repeats ‘endlessly’ in Ukraine, as specter of WWII looms

Media Contact

Becka Bowyer

After five weeks of fighting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the country is ready to discuss adopting neutral status, but the Kremlin offered a grim assessment of diplomacy – insisting weeks of meetings had made no significant progress.

Cristina Florea

Assistant professor of history

Cristina Florea is an assistant professor and historian of Central and Eastern Europe at Cornell University. She says for Ukrainians this war is a throwback, if not a repetition, of their experience in World War II.

Florea says:

“Almost 80 years after the end of World War II, its specter continues to loom over Europe. Vladimir Putin has decided to re-enact The Great Fatherland War – the most important source of legitimacy for the Soviet regime and a continued source of pride for post-Soviet Russia. Ukrainians too feel this war is a throwback, if not a repetition, of their experience in World War II. For some of them these echoes of the past are not simply imaginary.

“Many World War II survivors are now experiencing displacement, mass graves, and bombings yet again. Such experiences of repeated rupture, regime change, and devastation have been crucial to the development of East European societies over the course of the past couple of centuries. And so has this process of circling back to the past and recycling bits and pieces of it.

“This has given East Europeans the impression that history repeats itself endlessly in this region, and yet somehow each time the past returns, it does so under a new guise, for which they are poorly prepared.

“One of the most important consequences of ruptures and experiences of repeated occupations and liberations in Eastern Europe was that local societies became deeply fragmented and divided, and that multiple state-building projects remained unfinished. With each war and occupation, local populations have had to make difficult choices – whether to stay or go, whether to cooperate or resist.

“More often than not, these choices drove deep wedges between individuals and ethnic groups who thus came to experience conflict on a deeply personal level. The heroes of one occupation became the traitors of the next; the result were endless cycles of punishment and retribution which sowed distrust among the population, both of state authorities and of each other.”

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