What Ukraine Can Teach Us About Understanding Human History
“If we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.”
I’ve always found this phrase obnoxious and overused. What was once a reasonable conjecture has, over the years, evolved into a truism so widely spoken that one doesn’t even need to say the second half anymore.
But, like any cliché, there’s a pervasive element of truth to it, and when I saw a headline this morning that read Ukraine warns Russia to stay out of Crimea, those twelve words were the first to cross my mind.
Admittedly, I’m not an expert on the current situation in Ukraine, nor am I a scholar of European history, but I know enough about both to recognize that this is a familiar situation. Russia attempts to exert power over Ukraine and the surrounding regions, and the rest of Europe responds negatively. In both today’s situation and during the Crimean War in the 1850s, the issue is Russia’s desire to develop soft power over neighboring regions, and in both cases, the economic consequences have been considerable. Russia is putting immense political pressure on Kiev, and the almost-imperial Russian political demeanor is beginning to take shape again, only a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’ve been here before –as recently as the Cold War, and further back, the Crimean War (and even before that).
The Crimean War was 160 years ago, so let’s take a second to think about just how long 160 years is. In 160 years, we saw the invention of the telegraph, the photograph, the light bulb, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the Internet, the atomic bomb — I could keep going. Even in the 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell, global society has undergone sweeping structural changes, with the meteoric advent of digital and mobile technology. My point is this: since the last time we saw a similar situation with Russia and Ukraine, the times have changed drastically. Isn’t it interesting that amidst all of these technological advances and societal shifts, we’re still running into the same geopolitical problems as we did before it all started? People tend to believe that humankind, as a whole, is moving forward; we are striving for gender equality, universal human rights, peace, and all those other things John Lennon sang about. Theoretically, that should be correct. I mean, ancient civilizations performed blood rituals, routinely raped women, and sometimes engaged in cannibalism. Today, those behaviors are, to say the least, frowned upon.
But we shouldn’t be too hasty to affix to mankind an endless upward trajectory and call it a day. Keep in mind that only 70 years ago the most gruesome breach of human rights in modern history facilitated the systematic murder of 11 million innocent people. Furthermore, that happened in what at the time might have been the most advanced country in the world. Call me cynical, but I have a hard time proclaiming the unassailable progress of our race when governments still exercise their power and ideology through politicized claims to history and ethnic division. Maybe it’s because the last time the moral progress of mankind was touted by leading thinkers, it was about a decade before World War I, arguably the most horrific war in recorded history. Maybe it’s because since the Holocaust, there has been no substantial cessation of egregious human rights abuses.
It has been said that history is like a moving wheel; it is cyclical, but also pushes forward. History repeats itself, but with each repetition, there are signs of progress. For me, the situation in Ukraine means something different. Humanity may advance in some areas, but certain things — like geopolitical disputes — will probably never stop occurring. So really, history is more like a yo-yo. I’m sorry that I had to bring yo-yos into this, I know you didn’t want that, and neither did I. But it’s true. History repeats itself and happens in cycles, but there’s no way of knowing the direction in which we’re headed. With each progression, there’s a step back. We aren’t controlled by an engine thrusting into modernity and advancement, we’re controlled by a string that responds to our own capricious behaviors. It’s essentially Newton’s Third Law playing out on a vast scale, adding layers of complexity to any notions of progress that we may have once had.
For what it’s worth, I still think the phrase about history repeating itself is stupid. Many historical figures have a perfectly good understanding of their historical precedents, but they act differently because they believe the times are different. You think Hitler never studied Napoleon? Of course he did, but he believed his army was stronger than Napoleon’s, and that’s why he invaded Russia in 1942. You think Brezhnev didn’t know that Afghanistan’s mountainous regions had historically been nearly impossible to invade? That was certainly brought to his attention, but he thought it would be different because he had tanks, which the Persians never did. Bush did the same thing twenty years later.
Instead of constantly reminding ourselves to study history so we don’t repeat it, it’s better that we remind ourselves not to inflate the circumstantial variability of historical moments, because as much as mankind has advanced over the last 160 years, some things may never change. So yes, history will always repeat itself and continue to do so. It’s highly doubtful that this will be the last geopolitical dispute between Russia and Ukraine. All we can do is hope that some day, we will evolve to the point that these disputes are settled peacefully and diplomatically, not with brute force and economic threats.