University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Francine Hirsch studies Russia and the Soviet Union, yet even she didn’t know the war in Ukraine would be so arduous.
“It has been a completely brutal war of aggression with all kinds of war crimes and crimes against humanity. I don’t think anyone expected that,” Hirsch said.
In the months leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, Hirsch was meeting remotely twice a week with her Russian language tutor based in Kyiv. She said they both were hearing about the buildup of Russian forces at the border, but that no one could have predicted the events to come.
As a historian, Hirsch believes it is important to analyze current events from a historical perspective, drawing connections when history seems to be repeating itself. She sees many similarities connecting the current war in Ukraine to prior Russian invasions and World War II.
“Ukraine is a sovereign state, and it declared its independence in 1991,” Hirsch said. “All of the other talk that initiated with Putin, about the historical unity of Ukraine and Russia, about Ukraine being an artificial creation of the Bolsheviks, that’s all said with a particular purpose of arguing that Ukraine doesn’t have a right to exist.”
Hirsch sees striking similarities between the Russian invasion of Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and the current situation in Ukraine, as all were attacks to reclaim territory that had once been part of the Soviet empire.
“We see a replay of imperialism and imperialist aims. We see a replay of invasions of countries under false pretenses. We see invasions where the invading power is not calling it a war,” Hirsch said.
There are also parallels to the invasion of the Nazis during World War II, Hirsch said. She wrote a book about the Nuremberg trials, and after spending years going through the evidentiary record and the transcripts of the trials, Hirsch noticed that many of the cities that are now getting invaded by the Russians are the same cities that suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
According to Hirsch, most older people in Russia believe that “de-Nazification” and “de-Ukrainization” justifies Putin’s actions due to the complete suppression of the independent press. She thinks that some younger people are able to find true information about the atrocities with the help of private networks and Western social media, but that is based on her anecdotal insight. The harsh prison sentences for protesting or speaking out against the war in Russia make it impossible to know how Russians truly feel about Putin.
“The Soviet Union under Stalin was a totalitarian state. And when we look at Russia today, and the full suppression of civil society, I’ve actually started to use the term totalitarianism.”
As for what the Wisconsin community can do to help Ukrainians, Hirsch urges people to continue talking about Ukraine.
”It’s very important right now to keep this in the news and to keep people’s focus on it, to make sure that people understand what’s happening, the atrocities, the war crimes, to try to influence Congress to do as much as they can to support Ukraine,” Hirsch said.