Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne E. Applebaum discussed her experiences reporting on regions of Ukraine occupied by Russia at the annual Petryshyn Memorial Lecture held by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute Wednesday.
During the lecture, Applebaum — who has reported on the Russia-Ukraine war since it began in February 2022 — discussed the impact of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and its historical context. HURI Director and History professor Serhii Plokhii moderated the event, attended by more than 50 people.
The Petryshyn Memorial Lecture is delivered every year by a nationally or internationally recognized Ukrainian studies scholar.
Applebaum opened by reflecting on the word “occupied,” stating, “occupied is a word that conjures up a specific set of emotions.” Applebaum said prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Eastern Europeans remembered occupations by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union but thought of such memories “as if they belong to the past.”
“It’s become pretty clear that the past, in the famous saying, the past isn’t even past, and in the territories of the old Soviet empire, that’s true in a stunning and shocking way,” Applebaum said.
Applebaum said Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, is a key source of Russia’s military strength as it is a center for Russian military bases and political prisons.
“Crimea has become the place where the [Russian] occupation emanates,” Applebaum said.
Asked whether she expected Russian soldiers to defect ahead of a predicted upcoming Russian offensive attack this summer, Applebaum said she had not seen any evidence of this yet. Applebaum said the strength of Ukrainian resistance will likely be the decisive factor in the war’s outcome, rather than Russian morale.
“In terms of the offensive, which is coming and which people are talking about, the more interesting question is how organized is Ukrainian resistance in those territories and can that make a difference?” she said.
Applebaum said propaganda from the Russian government induces “trained apathy” in its citizens, which she said encourages Russian citizens to stay out of politics.
“There isn’t really a public sphere there. There isn’t a place where people are having debates or discussions,” she said. “The idea of thinking about politics is itself dangerous.”
In an interview after the event, Applebaum said the war in Ukraine has prompted American media outlets to invest in learning about the history of the region and to use that knowledge to frame their reporting.
“It has also been a war in which false use of history has been part of the propaganda of the other side, Russian propaganda, and so being able to understand and recognize that has been an important skill,” she said.