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Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar discusses Putin, Zelenskyy and the war in Ukraine


When Russian President Vladimir Putin set out to invade Ukraine, he made his case for war by playing up several myths and conspiracy theories. The most prominent was that Ukraine was overrun by Nazis and needed to be liberated. Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar has made it his mission to dismantle some of Russia's most enduring myths in his new book, "War And Punishment." He recently spoke with our co-host, Leila Fadel.

MIKHAIL ZYGAR: I started with seven most important historical myths Putin is always using - for example, that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people, or the most ridiculous myth he continues repeating, that there was no Ukraine before Lenin and Lenin invented Ukraine. And I prove that it's just propaganda. And, unfortunately, most Russian historians used to work for those in power. And they were, in fact, propagandists. And I felt that it was really important for me to write this book just to show that we need to start from scratch. We need to destroy the imperialist historical narrative and to start the new one.


These myths that you describe, how are they instilled in the collective Russian psyche? I mean, do you just grow up learning this in school? Like, how do people end up believing these myths that you debunk in the book?

ZYGAR: That's something people are being told in school, on television. You know, Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union for 70 years, so many Ukrainians believe in the same myths as many Russians do. And in Ukraine today, there is a special name for those Ukrainians who do not fight Russian propaganda. And they are called little Russians, because back in 19th century, little Russia was another name for the country. The only version of traditional Russian history was very imperialistic. At the same time, I do not believe that 100% of Russians buy everything Russian propaganda says. But when it comes to history, it looks like a sacred cow. And it's going to take a long time for Russians to admit the fact that, yes, the Russian empire was a bloody colonial empire.

FADEL: So do you see your book, this book, "War And Punishment," as the alternative?

ZYGAR: I was trying to write the crime story written through the eyes of the murderer. So it's not the history of Ukraine. It's the history of Russian empire oppressing Ukraine. I think that it's very important to take the blame for the crimes of Russian regimes. That's very important, to confess that Russian culture and Russian literature are also to blame. And I think that other historians, that American historians, have to deal with their myths and with their empires. And British historians have to deal with their crimes and sins. And that's the work that many cultures and many nations have started. Russians are about to start that work to reconsider, to reanalyze our history. So this work is needed.

FADEL: As you point out, you wrote this book from outside of Russia because you criticized the war when it started and you had to leave. So if you could just describe why you chose to speak up and why so many Russians do not.

ZYGAR: For me, leaving Russia was not a matter of safety. Much more, it was some kind of moral obligation because when your country becomes a fascist state, you cannot live there. And, yes, obviously, now we know that thousands of people were prosecuted for their protests. Several friends of mine are now in jail. And majority of Russians definitely know what's happening.

I know that Russians are not supporting the war because otherwise, if this war was supported by lots of people, we would probably see a lot of volunteers. I know that a majority of Russians are really horrified. They are so scared, so the easier way is just to pretend that business as usual is possible - that they chose not to read anything, not to watch the news, not to seek for the information because they're helpless. They know that they cannot change the situation.

FADEL: The title of your book is "War And Punishment." And we're witnessing the first part of your title in Ukraine. Do you think there will ever be any punishment for what has happened? Putin annexed Crimea, intervened in Syria, invaded Georgia in 2008. Will there be consequences for him?

ZYGAR: So my sources in Moscow, in Russian bureaucracy, are claiming that one year is probably maximum term for President Putin to remain in power. So I'm absolutely sure that his days are numbered. And I was 100% sure from the beginning that this war means the end of Russian imperialism, because it's so obviously brutal. So it - the whole concept of Russian exceptionalism and of Russian empire as the greatest value will collapse after this war. So yes, I'm sure that the punishment is already here.

FADEL: You end your book with a call between President Biden and Ukraine's President Zelenskyy. Biden wants to discuss - and this is at the beginning of the war. The Russians are invading. Biden wants to discuss how to get the president to Lviv in the west so they can get him out. And Zelenskyy says, I need ammunition, not a ride. Why did you end there?

ZYGAR: It explains everything about Ukraine, because Zelenskyy did that because he was prepared for that role by his life and his career. But he is not the exception. He is, in that sense, an average Ukrainian. And I think that's really - my story had to end at that very moment because the story of Russian imperialism actually ends that moment.

FADEL: Mikhail Zygar is author of the new book "War And Punishment." Thank you for your time.

ZYGAR: Thank you.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.