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History Learning Political Commentary Reflection

Background on Ukraine and Russia

Watched Ukraine and Russia: What Caused the War? by vlogbrothers from

In which John explores historical and political context to understand what caused the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine, and how we arrived at this awful now. There is a LOT of misinformation in comments, so why not read directly from SOURCES? But first, CORRECTIONS:

The official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian. “National languages” as a phrase was confusing. I should’ve just said that 30% of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language. Also, the etymology of “Ukraine” is not settled as “borderlands.” Many Ukrainian linguists argue that the etymology of Ukraine comes from words meaning “In My Land,” not “borderlands.” Thirdly, I misspelled Kyiv as Kiev. If I made further mistakes, let me know and I’ll amend here.


Putin’s claims that Ukraine never had “real statehood” have been stated in both essays and speeches. Here’s some coverage of one such speech:

And a fact-check of the same speech:

If you want to read Vladimir Putin’s essay where he expounds his theory that Ukraine “was created entirely by Russia,” you can read Putin’s meandering, surreal, ahistorical essay about it here: (This is an insecure site owned by the Kremlin so bear that in mind)

This article goes into far more detail about Putin’s theory of Ukraine’s illegitimacy than I could cover in the video:

You can learn about the Holodomor here: or at this thoroughly researched wikipedia page:

And about Stalin’s forced deportation policies here:

Putin’s reference to assault in the context of invading Ukraine:

The 1991 Independence referendum results:

Huge thanks to Rosianna Halse Rojas for editing the script and help sourcing images.

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I am realizing the shortcomings of my science degree lately, that I missed out on a lot of liberal arts, including history. The only history classes I took in college were ancient / classical history, medieval art history, and Central and South American history at colonization – all of which were interesting but I’m now left with a knowledge gap of modern nation states. High school world history only spanned WWI to the Vietnam War, so I’m missing like 1500 to 1920 European history *and* 1970 to 2000 world history – two chunks of time that seem to be important in understanding current affairs. (I mean and basically all Asian history despite taking a class on India but that’s less immediately important to understanding what’s going on in Ukraine.)

I’ve also realized I know very little about what distinguishes Ukrainian culture from other former Soviet nations. 😅

I can’t beat myself up too much for not knowing this stuff, it’s not as though I’m not constantly learning new things and I have other areas of knowledge – but I think a little more attention to history and working to fill some specific gaps can help my understanding of things improve.

Things that stood out to me in this video:

  • The Terror Famine – wtf did he say 1 in 8 Ukrainians died in two years? (Or was that a different bad time)
  • Uh wow Russia has treated Ukrainians like utter shit no wonder they want nothing to do with joining Russia
  • 92% of Ukrainians voted for independence after the fall of the USSR – that’s unheard of numbers for a non rigged election – clearly these are a people with their own cultural identity who don’t want to be subsumed by Russia (again)
  • the echo of forced movement from Soviet era to today – that’s how you destroy culture and identity and frankly the world has lost more than enough uniqueness and cultural heritage