I’m very excited about this week’s podcast. I talk with Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale. You’ve likely seen him in the news recently talking about his new book on authoritarianism. You may have read his book Bloodlands. But I wanted to talk about an almost 15 year old book called The Reconstruction of Nations.
This is at once a very distant and yet very immediate book. It’s about the evolution of national identity and the organization of national states in northeast Europe going back a bit more than four centuries in what are now the countries of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.
One simple fact that provides a window into the discussion: We now know Vilnius as the capital of Lithuania. As the capital of a state, we assume the population is made up of Lithuanians. And it is. Today. But within the lifetimes of people still alive today, there were barely any Lithuanian speakers in Vilnius at all. Most residents were Poles or Yiddish speaking Jews. And they didn’t call it Vilnius.
Or how is it that the man considered the national poet of Poland is also embraced as the national poet of Lithuania, and to a lesser degree on a similar basis by the Belorussians?
For me these are all fascinating, hard to make sense of questions. But with the history covered in this volume, they answers become clear.
Beyond this though I wanted to talk about this history in the context of the present. This is back to being a contested region again as a revanchist Russia attempts to assert a regional dominance or at least destabilize these states to ward of challenges to itself. It is also one of the cradles and victims of the kind of radical sovereignty nationalism which has been roiling Europe for the last half dozen years and controls executive power in the US.
I hope you enjoy the discussion. I’ll be posting a link to the new episode here in the Editors’ Blog when it’s released.