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The full-on hysteria that surrounded the announcement of Tucker Carlson’s arrival in Moscow and his subsequent interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin—including Hillary Clinton branding Carlson a “useful idiot” and Bill Kristol’s call to bar him from re-entering the US—was, upon release of the interview itself, quickly overtaken by a different (but equally misguided) reaction: “Why on earth did Putin spend so much time talking about ancient history?”

That reaction says a lot about our historical ignorance. Not just our ignorance of history itself, but our ignorance of the role history plays in understanding what is happening in the world today.

We tend to think of arguments among historians as purely academic affairs: a bunch of stuffy, grey-templed, pipe-smoking, tweed jacket-wearing professors debating over tea and crumpets the colour of Alexander the Great’s hair or Frederick the Great’s talent as a flutist.

But we are wrong.

Far from a boring, scholarly pursuit, the study of history has high-stakes, real-world consequences. Just ask the Ukrainians.

For centuries, the subject of Ukrainian history—including the origins of the Ukrainian state, the struggle for Ukrainian independence, and even the nature of Ukrainian identity itself—has been weaponized by various forces as part of a broader political conflict. As journalist Christian Esch has observed of this ongoing battle over Ukraine’s past: “As always, war is fought in the symbolic field as well as on the battlefield[.] [. . .] History, it seems, has itself become the battlefield.”

The fact that Putin spent a significant portion of his time with American deep state operative Tucker Carlson expounding on medieval history, then, is baffling only to those who continue to labour under the impression that history isn’t important.

So, what do we know about Ukraine’s history? What is up for debate? And what does the controversy tell us about the conflicts raging in that part of the world today? Let’s find out.

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