Discussion: War Against Ukraine

This page hosts moderated discussions of articles, forums, and book reviews. Letters to the editor are still welcomed and will be published in the journal (see "Information" on this website). Continuations of discussions begun in letters may also take place here. The same standards of discourse apply as for letters to the editor and authors are encourgaged to be brief and to the point. The editor, who will moderate these discussions, reserves the right to refuse to print, or to publish with cuts, contributions that contain personal abuse or otherwise fail to meet the standards of debate expected in a scholarly journal. Submissions to these discussions should be sent to the editor by email, including identification of the author's institution or city of residence.

 

February 28, 2022

They Told You So

 

From early 2014, as the Euromaidan Revolution unfolded, Ukraine’s citizens were forced to respond to countless editorials and articles in western publications, all of which assumed that they were a divided country: eastern and western regions, Russian and Ukrainian speakers, pro- and anti-Russians. Remember all those maps neatly showing fissures and dividing lines? Journalists who visited Kyiv already knew what they were expected to write. As they drank coffee on Independence Square they only posed questions about supposed neo-Nazis, antisemitism, and the possibility of ethnic violence. No amount of explanation could shake their belief in these phantoms. How foolish this looks today! How little interest journalists showed in warnings of Russia’s infiltration, manipulation, and aggression! These warnings were dismissed as the obsession of local nationalists. Putin’s speech last week prior to the invasion of February 24 made his genocidal intent clear: neither Ukraine not its people, in his mind, have a right to exist. The signs, however, had been there much earlier.

            This week the accusations of neo-Nazis and victimized Russian speakers suddenly look ridiculous. Obviously they were part of the Kremlin’s disinformation playbook, required to manipulate foreign and domestic media. In the last few days the vast majority of Ukrainians, whatever language they speak, whatever their race, religion, or political views, have put up a strong resistance to a brutal invader who is killing them and destroying their society. President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is of Jewish origin and whose family died during the Holocaust, has performed admirably with the support of the entire citizenry.

            But why did it take eight years for the penny to drop? Why were western politicians and opinion-makers unable to hear what Ukrainians were telling them? Why did analysts and professors of Russian studies remain silent, or speak only about Putin’s legitimate concerns, his grievances over NATO expansion, Russia’s security concerns and sense of humiliation after the Soviet state collapsed? No NATO country ever threatened Russia. Today even Sweden and Finland are considering joining; they too have security concerns. And if Ukraine’s security had been considered, an earlier stress on deterrence would have prevented the present situation. We are now dealing with a much more dangerous world and an individual accustomed to ignoring international rules and agreements. But should this not have been clear after the invasions of Crimea and the Donbas in 2014? After the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight, the Polonium poisonings in the UK, the cheating at the Olympic games, the interference in American elections, and the massive cyber attacks against governments and banks?

            Ukrainians already knew whom they were dealing with when Putin tore up the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, at which Kyiv gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees from the US, UK and Russia. Ironically Putin is now threatening both Ukraine and the west with nuclear strikes. So, yes, Ukrainians have a right to say “We told you so.”

 

Myroslav Shkandrij

Professor Emeritus, University of Manitoba

 

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There Can Be No “Vne”

 

As are many of us, I am reacting to Russia’s criminal and devastating war against Ukraine with tears, desperation, a sense of guilt, helplessness, disgust, and anger. But I am writing this essay with a cool head, specifically addressing the community of historians, social scientists, and students of literature and culture who are currently united under the ASEEES umbrella. Since at least the time of Mark Bloch’s The Historical Craft (1941-42) we have known that questions such as “What is history?” and “What is the role of historians in their societies?” become central to the profession at a time of war. Today this seems more obvious than ever, for Putin’s justifications for the war look irrational only if one dismisses his “coherent” historical narrative. He literally sees himself as a Great Historian correcting the “mistakes” of the past - waging war on History itself. His very real and bloody war is “historical” inside and out. The regime’s rhetoric - de-Nazification, the Big Russian Nation, Malorossia, Banderovites, Lenin, and the Bolsheviks committing crimes against the legitimate Russian empire/nation - comes from the past. If this is a “dispute” about History, let us respond as historians, as students of culture, society, and politics, not limiting ourselves to a formal statement by the ASEEES Executive Committee condemning the war and­ declaring our support for Ukraine. How can our community, formerly known as “Russian studies” - and informally called this today but including people who work on Russia and Ukraine, the Baltics and Central Asia, Poland and the Caucasus - survive if we do not initiate this conversation among ourselves?

            Putin’s national-imperial fantasies may look crazy in the proposed arrangement and as a pretext for the war, but at a structural level they correlate perfectly with the most fundamental narratives in our field, both here and in Russia. Although the latest textbooks by Ronald Grigor Suny and Valerie Kivelson, and by Nancy Shields Kollman are helpful in overcoming this dependency on the “Great Scheme of Russian history,” and my two-volume New Imperial History of Northern Eurasia offers the most consistent way out of it, the field as such continues to structure “Russian history” by the sequence of the Kievan Rus' - Moscow Tsardom - Petersburg period. How many of us took the “decolonizing” claim as an epistemological challenge to go beyond sporadic inclusions of “imperial peripheries” in mainstream teaching and research? How many have started the  difficult epistemological work on our analytical apparatus (Russia(s); Rus'; Rous'; Lithuanian Rus'; empire beyond the formal name of the state; imperial situation/formation)? Have we really succeeded in decentering the dominant literary canon? Do we realize the danger of taking our visions of the past as justification for not taking a stance in the present? Do we indeed remain neutral and objective if we accept that the late socialist “being vne” (the inside-out position of enjoying life without being politically engaged and hence responsible) was a stance available to many then and is applicable to social and political demobilization under Putin now? Or, when we normalize and relativize Russia’s politics of memory in our studies? Or when, having been carried away by cultural and material turns, we depoliticize our scholarship by focusing on “how” things were made but ignoring the context in which they were made and the human agency that they reflect? The ongoing war exposes the falsity of such assumptions. We are reminded again that history (social sciences, cultural analysis) enables and structures social imagination. They offer not “historical lessons” but possibilities for imagining and articulating the present and future. Our community is diverse. It includes people who are currently fighting and dying in Ukraine, being arrested, protesting, and being taken hostage of the regime and sanctions in Russia, and those who attended the Valdai forum, preached “neutrality,” or promoted methodological nationalism. All of us are rethinking our positions now. I call for professional self-reflection and for real decolonization of our field.    

 

Marina Mogilner 

University of Illinois at Chicago   

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March 1, 2022

 

Volodymyr Kulyk, in response to our invitation to contribute a short essay to this forum, writes

 

"I will try to have a short text ready by tomorrow evening, assuming the shelling or bombing does not grow as severe as to force me into a shelter. I am in Kyiv where Russians bombed Babyn Yar today for the sake of 'de-Nazification,' killing five civilians."

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March 3, 2022

Full Historiographical Legitimacy to Ukraine

 

In 1995 late Mark von Hagen opened his though-provoking essay “Does Ukraine Have a History?” with an observation that Ukrainian studies lack full historiographical legitimacy in major Anglo-American, German, and Japanese academic centers, and reminded of an obviously strong stereotypical association of “Eastern Europe” with nationalism, antisemitism, and ethnic irredentism.1 In 2017 in his popular German-language overview of the history of Ukrainians and Russians Andreas Kappeler repeated his observation from the Slavic Review forum on von Hagen’s text that from the western perspective “Ukraine still stands in the shadow of Russia.”2 We could add, to a great, but still not properly recognized and discussed deformation and damage to Russian, Soviet, and Jewish studies.

 

We believe that the current moment is a proper one to re-read the Forum about Ukraine after the Maidan 2013-14 arranged by one of the leading international journals in our field.3 The editorial introduction to that forum claimed “the centrality of history for the Ukrainian crisis,” and the entire discussion was centred around the question of Ukrainian far-right nationalism.4 One of the authors even asserted that it was the “Orange Revolution” 2004 that “undermined Ukraine’s pluralistic politics” and “radicalized Putin.”5 The leading authors of the Kritika forum used essentialist logic and reproduced clichés of “two Ukraines” envisioned as internally homogeneous entities divided by language (Russian versus Ukrainian) and history (European, that is, Polish-Austrian, versus Russo-Soviet); reproduced the language of  essentialist nationalism even if applied by the authors who proclaim themselves to be anti-nationalistic; and focus on “nation” and “identity” while neglecting such aspects as economic infrastructure, social problems, or the nature of violence. The convincing critic of methodological predispositions and factual inaccuracy of that forum by Andriy Zayarnyuk had not so far received a proper attention within the community.6

 

We very much hope that this time a paradigm shift as inevitable as a serious conversation about the responsibility of our discipline for the terrible events that we have all witnessed and participated in. We hope that Ukrainian researchers will finally face less “presumption of nationalism,” when the word “Ukrainian” almost automatically evokes far-right connotations and almost every text has to begin with proof of its author`s “adequacy.” We are not calling to forget about Ukrainian nationalism and its crimes, we want to focus on the intellectual counterproductivity of the reduction of Ukrainian to the nationalist aspect of its intellectual and political history.

 

We also want to emphasize that the study of Ukraine, like any other culture, requires special training, knowledge of language, understanding of contexts. To ensure this, the institutionalization of Ukrainian studies, first and foremost at the university level, is necessary. We hope that the time has come for a deep rethinking of the discipline, rather than an overnight actualization, which could open up many research perspectives and new approaches to the entire region. And we completely agree with Marina Mogilner that time has come for professional self-reflection and for real decolonization of our field.

 

The European Union recognized Ukraine’s European aspirations only in the course of cruel and devastating war, not in 2004, after the peaceful Orange Revolution, not in 2014, after the Maidan and the Russian occupation of Crimea. Let us not be too late this time. Ukraine deserves full historiographical legitimacy right now! And it should be institutionally secured for generations to come.

 

1 Mark von Hagen. “Does Ukraine Have a History?”, Slavic Review Vol. 54, No. 3 (Autumn 1995): 658-73.

2 Andreas Kappeler. Ungleiche Brüder: Russen und Ukrainer vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart (Munich, 2017): 231-32.

3 “The Ukrainian Crisis and History,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 16, no. 1 (Winter 2015).

4 Ibid., 1.

5 Faith Hillis, “Intimacy and Antipathy: Ukrainian-Russian Relations in Historical Perspective”, Kritika 16, no. 1,  121-28, here 125-26.

6 Andriy Zayarnyuk, “A Revolution`s History, A Historians’ War,” Ab Imperio, no. 1 (2015): 449-79, especially 464-65.

 

Andrii Portnov

European University Viadrina, Germany

Tetiana Portnova

Dnipro National Historical Museum, Ukraine

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Business as Usual, idi nakhui

 

Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine vividly demonstrates the Putin regime’s utmost inhumanity, social irresponsibility, anti-western ressentiment, and obsession with Ukraine. At the same time, it shows that this is not only Putin’s war but Russia’s: of Russian businesses, media organizations, universities, and ordinary people. Whether they fully support Putin’s agenda of conquering Ukraine, do not care about his policies and focus on their own needs, or oppose those policies but are afraid to protest, they enable their state’s horrific crimes against the Ukrainian people, whom most of them used to call - and some still call - “brotherly.”

 

In Ukraine, the realization of this popular complicity has unleashed an upsurge of anti-Russian sentiment far surpassing those occurring at the times of the post-Euromaidan President Petro Poroshenko and the inter-war nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, two prominent figures on Russia’s demonization list. The motto to this new sentiment was given by the response of the Ukrainian border guards to the surrender ultimatum of a Russian warship on the very first day of the full-blown war: “Russkii voennyi korabl’, idi nakhui (Russian warship, go fuck yourself). These words, which even the most educated and refined Ukrainians do not consider appropriate to censor, have been quickly extended to the whole Russian army, state, society and, in effect, all things Russian - in a civic, not ethnic sense. This, of course, includes Russian educational and research institutions, with which many Ukrainian scholars collaborated even after the Russian aggression of 2014. It is hard to imagine any such collaboration in the future.

 

In the west, however, the sentiment is obviously more ambivalent. While most scholars fully support Ukraine and condemn Russian aggression, many are reluctant to sever ties with Russian scholarly institutions, let alone individual scholars. We hear the argument that many Russian scholars oppose Putin and should not be punished for his policies, and that the west should not lose partners with whom to work on understanding and, eventually, changing Russia. These arguments are unsustainable as no Russian educational or research institution has publicly condemned the war against Ukraine, while the money Russian scholars receive from western partners are taxed by the Russian state and help finance its military might. One cannot but suspect that many westerners simply do not want to give up their own collaborative projects with Russians and thus opt for business as usual, even as Ukrainians, including academics, are being killed and displaced.

 

For scholars in Slavic and post-Soviet studies, a no less important task is to renounce business as usual in studying and teaching languages, histories, cultures, politics, and societies of the post-Soviet countries. The present catastrophe inflicted by Russia onto Ukraine and the whole world should teach those studying the region not to prioritize Russia over Ukraine and other parts of the former USSR, on the one hand, and not to prioritize language and literature over sociology, anthropology, and political science in the study of Russia, on the other. I hope western universities and research foundations will understand the urgent need to radically increase the number of chairs and courses, research centers and projects dealing with Ukraine, and Ukrainian refugee scholars will help to launch or expand them. At the same time, the focus of Russian studies should shift from texts of long-dead writers to attitudes and actions of present elites and ordinary people, even if it means discontinuing accustomed positions and preoccupations of many western academics. The scholarly community in the US and other western countries should take this tragic opportunity to reconsider its priorities to make them adequate to understanding the causes of the present disaster and suggest ways to overcome its consequences and prevent its repetition.

 

Volodymyr Kulyk

Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies

National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

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March 7, 2022

A Voice from the Past

 

The Yiddish poet David Hofshteyn was in Kyiv in 1919, when the city was attacked again and again by different forces. He writes about the experience. The city is besieged; fires are burning, even whole neighborhoods are on fire. He is guarding a building; his shift is for three hours, and he is grateful for the structure the schedule gives him, as a defense against the “terrifying form” that the next moment could bring. The inhabitants of the building take shelter in the basement, and Hofshteyn notes that in the past people used to open the door for those who rang the bell for their neighbors. He wants to know what “they,” the attackers, shooting at the city, are thinking. The question resounds loudly today.

Hofshteyn, “Bayamim ha’hem,” Davar, November 18, 1925. I am grateful to Daria Semenova, PhD. Candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Dr. Sergii Gurbych for the translation. Their home is also Kyiv.

 

Harriet Murav

University of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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What Can Force the Kremlin to Stop Its War?

 

When Russia illegally annexed Crimea and fueled the armed conflict in Donbas approximately eight years ago, Vladimir Putin experienced being punished by relatively mild sanctions that did not alter his behavior. Since February 24, 2022, Russia and Putin himself are under severe and increasing pressure from the Ukrainian military who defend the country and from international institutions and foreign governments. It is an absolutely different experience for him, and this can force the Kremlin to change its course of action. But who / what can guarantee that he would commit to any promises he might articulate during the negotiation process, after Russia’s leadership has already broken so many?

 

On February 24, 2022, Putin openly invaded Ukraine. The extent of the Kremlin’s violations of international laws and United Nations statutes had been so severe that Ukraine had already filed its evidence-based application to institute proceedings against Russia in the International Court of Justice-the judicial organ of the UN.

 

Before February 24, it was clear that Russia’s declared objectives for full-fledged military invasion in Ukraine were flawed. There was no evidence that Ukraine was about to join NATO. The Kremlin had already been a de facto patron of the self-declared DNR & LNR, whom it had officially recognized as independent states on the eve of the full invasion of Ukraine. Those territories had not been under Ukrainian government control since April-May 2014.

 

The chosen military tools are irrelevant for fulfilling Russia’s declared political objective-to change Ukraine’s foreign and internal policy priorities. Ukraine’s policy priorities usually change as a result of elections. There were numerous instances when that happened for the benefit of Russia’s foreign policy: the victory of the Orange revolution in 2004 was followed by the victory of a pro-Russian opposition in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and its leader briefly served as a prime minister, then as a president (February 2010-February 2014). Because Russia violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity in 2014, voters in the annexed Crimea and the non-government controlled territories of Donbas did not cast their ballot at the subsequent elections in Ukraine, and other voters’ pro-Russian preferences heavily declined.

 

Because both the (declared) objectives and the military tools were flawed, Russia’s threats to invade Ukraine have been often interpreted as Putin’s blackmailing/bargaining. Since  February 24, blackmailing keeps increasing (the scope of civilian casualties due to missile strikes and bombing of cities; Putin’s order to place  deterrence forces, including nuclear weapons, on “a special mode of combat duty”).

 

Since February 24, the military forces of Ukraine have been performing their duty beyond anyone’s expectations. The imposed international sanctions have quickly hit Russia’s economy. Russia’s key policymakers, Russia’s central bank, and Russia’s export of natural resources are under sanctions imposed by those who used to be Russia’s long term partners in the international arena.

 

The imposed economic sanctions have quickly made life pricy for the civilian people in Russia, and public consent is cracking. The number of public protests and the number of those who join them have been rapidly growing. The domestic military and security services block them and punish participants, but new ones burst out throughout the country.

 

There is evidence that the consolidation of Russia’s domestic elites is being undermined. Local deputies quickly signed their open statement of disapproval of the war against Ukraine even before the sanctions were imposed. One of the major Russian oligarchs, Alfa-Group’s Mikhail Fridman, stated he was against the war soon after the sanctions were introduced. Still, there are fewer soft-liners than hard-liners among domestic elites.

 

The bilateral negotiations between the aggressor and the defender started on February 28, 2022, nearly simultaneously with the emergency special session of the UN General Assembly on Ukraine. The negotiation process goes on simultaneously with the ongoing war against Ukraine and the evidence-based investigation in the International Court of Justice. The expected outcome is to force the Kremlin to stop the war, pay the price, and prevent this from happening again. If we use the terms of rationalist theories, one of the major issues seems to be the commitment problem. Previous experience has proven that promises given by the Kremlin can be easily broken. First and foremost, this is proved by its violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum’s Security Assurances, and it does not really matter that the document was vague or poorly designed. Most recently, the Kremlin’s officials have promised the whole international community that it would not invade Ukraine.

 

What can be reliable proof that the Kremlin would credibly commit to fulfilling any (potential) promises to Ukraine, to the rest of the world that is paying a very high price, when imposing sanctions and restructuring international trade and cooperation? Any results of bilateral negotiations between the aggressor and the defender would not have the desired outcome unless there are means to hold the Kremlin’s leadership accountable for what they promise to do versus what they do in practice. At the moment, this is the priority issue for the UN, and the credibility of any potential solution depends on the contribution of each country that signed the UN Charter.

 

Valentyna Romanova

Japanese Association for Russian and Ukrainian Studies

Japanese Association of Ukrainian Studies

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March 8, 2022

 

Russia’s vicious war against Ukraine is the last gasp effort to silence the narrative of a Ukrainian nation and make the world safe for Russia’s fantasy that the East Slavs are one (all-) Russian nation. There is no question that this Russian myth of Self has been eroding not only in intellectual discourses but made to look foolish by the success of Ukraine’s nation building over the last thirty years. The foundation of “Russianness”-everything from Kyiv Rus’ to Gogol’-is under threat. Without Ukraine and Ukrainians, there, apparently, is no “Russian identity.” Putin’s solution is not to build a 21st century nation but to reinstate an old imperial idea by trying to hold on to Ukraine through brute force. RIA Novosti celebrated Russia’s victory over Ukraine a little prematurely on Feb. 26, 2022, saying that “Russia is restoring its historical wholeness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together in all its totality of Great Russians, Belarusians and Little Russians (malorossov)” (https://web.archive.org/web/20220226224717/https://ria.ru/20220226/rossiya-1775162336.html).

 

Like other contributors here, I believe that Slavic Studies and Russian departments in the US (North America) bear some responsibility for helping to sustain Russia’s “national-imperial fantasies” (Marina Mogilner) in the West. When I was a graduate student at Harvard University, D. S. Mirsky’s history of Russian literature was the gospel truth, preaching: “After the Union of Lublin (1569) all the west of Russia (White Russia, Galicia, and Ukraine) came under the direct rule of Poland.“ S. Zenkovsky’s anthology told me that the “literary school of the Kievan era” was “Medieval Russian” literature. My kind Russian instructor, an elderly Russian émigré, was surprised to find out from my class presentations that Ukrainians had their own literature (“u vas tozhe est’”?). Closer to our own time (2004), a ““wide-ranging study.for students” tried to explain Russia’s alleged thousand-year-old national identity (Simon Franklin and Emma Widdis). These examples can be easily expanded. So, yes, there is clearly, every reason to “call for professional self-reflection and for real decolonization of our field.”

 

How do we deal with our Russian counterparts in Russia? It’s not easy when we see Literaturna gazeta publishing nauseating drivel signed by 500 “writers of Russia on the occasion of the special operation of our army in Donbass and on the territory of Ukraine.” Can one have a dialogue with people who endorse a fascist leader’s destruction of Ukraine, under the guise of “defending ourselves and friendly nations. age-old ties,” saying “We love the Ukrainian people, we sing Ukrainian songs, we watch Ukrainian cinema, we pray in the same churches. We have common ideas, and a keen desire to breathe, finally, the air of the approaching, common spring for our peoples” https://lgz.ru/article/-8-6822-23-02-2022/kto-khochet-zhertv/. Slavic Studies department should follow the example of the art and music world: boycott Russian institutions and individuals who act as Putin’s enablers. The tiny minority of honorable Russians naturally deserve our support.

 

Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj

Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta

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March 9, 2022

Look for the Helpers-but Remember that They’re Human

 

Whenever a mass tragedy takes place in the United States, it’s common to see a quote from children’s show host Fred Rogers circulate on social media: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

 

I can’t help but think of this quote as I watch my friends and colleagues in Ukraine mobilize to help. Of course, “help” right now is taking many forms, probably far beyond anything Mr. Rogers thought American children might see. People are taking up arms to fight in the territorial defense forces in cities around Ukraine. Outside of fighting, people are organizing supply deliveries, sewing camouflage nets, volunteering to drive people to safety, or coordinating routes to evacuate families. People are organizing to get Ukrainian women, children, elderly, and disabled people to safety, whether to safer places in Ukraine or to the borders so they can cross into Poland or Romania or another central European country. In those countries, Ukrainians are continuing to help, and locals are mobilizing too, offering their homes, their food, clothes, medicine, baby strollers, and anything else that might be needed. Outside of the border guards, state entities have largely stepped back from intervening in this mass forced movement of people, letting civic and international organizations do the work they are already trained to do. Many of them already have experience from working with displaced Ukrainians for the past eight years.

 

The stories of the helpers are already the stuff of legend-the grandma who destroyed a Russian drone with a jar of pickled tomatoes. The other grandma who screamed at Russian soldiers that she hoped they had seeds in their pockets so that sunflowers would grow over their corpses. The men who stopped a Russian tank with their bare hands. The “Ghost of Kyiv”-who turned out to be a fiction anyway.

 

But in a talk for a global audience of anthropologists, my colleague Maria Sonevytsky commented that these heroic stories aren’t necessarily good. They can be dehumanizing. Representing Ukrainians as David fighting Goliath makes us forget that these are just ordinary people faced with an extraordinary-and unacceptable-circumstance. They are doing what they can to fight and they are willing to lose their lives in the process. We can celebrate their wins-we have to, if we want to keep going-but we have to remember that these are the same people sleeping in metro stations, sending their children to family in Poland, and dying to try to feed starving animals. And we have to remember that there’s only one cause for their suffering-a megalomanic who wants to deny Ukrainian humanity.

 

So look to the helpers-but don’t forget to hold the villain accountable.

 

Emily Channell-Justice

Director, Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program

Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute

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March 10, 2022

Ukraine’s Precarity

 

In the early 2000s I was in Romania on a research trip. It’s a lovely country with a harsh modern history. While there, a colleague pointed out a huge public housing complex in Bucharest that the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had built. All the units were empty shells, constructed with neither plumbing nor electricity. This was typical for Ceausescu’s brutal dictatorship, which lasted until December 1989. I knew what had been going on there: the ubiquitous Securitate, the forced pregnancy tests of women workers, the closure of electricity in hospitals.

            But in the early 2000s, people in Romania seemed happy, and no wonder. They were slated to join the European Union, and road crews were fixing their highways to bring them up to what everyone referred to as “Eurostandard.” I shared their optimism.

            I was also disturbed. I wondered why Ukraine, which had been seeking EU membership since the 1990s, was not so fortunate. In 2002 the EU told Ukraine not to expect membership in the next 10-20 years. I knew Ukraine well, both as its historian and as someone who had spent a long time there. To me, Ukraine seemed to be in better shape than Romania. Kyiv looked more like a cosmopolitan European capital than Bucharest. L’viv’s cafes and concert halls were as nice, and certainly much more affordable, than what I knew back home in Canada.

            In my opinion, the exclusion of Ukraine from the EU at this early juncture set the trajectory that has led to Russia’s horrific invasion. It was one of many signals that Ukraine was being relegated to the Russian sphere.

            Ever since the Euromaidan of 2014, I had been worried about Ukraine’s precarious geopolitical position. In a better world, one in which Russia would have entered a “common European home” and respected the sovereignty of former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Russia might have become good neighbors. But that possibility was erased already some years before Russia invaded Crimea and supported an armed separatist movement in Ukraine’s southeast.

            The whole point of the Euromaidan, in which about a hundred protesters lost their lives, was to express Ukrainians’ desire to be part of the EU and not of the Russian world. Ukraine’s aspirations were rejected. Now, as Russian artillery and tanks devastate the country, Ukraine has made an urgent appeal to be accepted into the EU. So far, this has not happened. As everyone understands, the countries in the EU have been dependent on Russian oil and gas and therefore unwilling to risk offending their supplier. Cultural prejudice has also been a factor.

            That left only one ally for Ukraine - the United States. As a person who has closely followed US policy re: the Arab Spring, the war in Afghanistan, and Latin America, I had no faith in such an ally.

            Outside any security alliance or the community of European nations, Ukraine now fights alone. Putin’s nuclear blackmail insures this to be the case.

 

John-Paul Himka

Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta

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March 11, 2022

 

Over 1.3 million people have arrived in Poland as of March 10, with so many coming to Warsaw that they now constitute 10% of the city’s population. Poles have answered with an outpouring of generosity on an unprecedented scale. Yet there has been a troubling undercurrent to this story that must not be ignored.

 

In recent years there has been a push among scholars in our field to grapple with the role of race in the region’s history. Such efforts have often received pushback from those who say we are imposing American analytical categories where they do not apply. The events of the past year, however, cannot be explained without recognizing the power of racial categories.

 

Last summer and fall, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere appeared on Poland’s eastern border, cynically deposited there as a provocation by the Belarusian president, Aliaksandar Lukashenka. Jaros³aw Kaczyñski, the de facto ruler of Poland, responded by declaring martial law along the border, turning back all those seeking asylum, making it a crime to provide any aid to these refugees, and allowing only journalists from the pro-government state media to report on the situation.

 

Today, just a few hours’ drive to the south, people are being welcomed into Poland by the hundreds of thousands, often without even needing to show documentation. We now have a situation in which volunteers who provide assistance to (white) refugees in one part of the country are treated as heroes, while those who provide the very same assistance to (non-white) refuges in another part of the country face detention by the military.

 

A majority of Poles (58% as of December) supported the government’s policies blocking the admission of asylum seekers coming from Afghanistan, Syria, or Africa (33% disagreed). Meanwhile, a survey taken immediately prior to the Russian invasion revealed that 56% of Poles approved of accepting refugees from Ukraine, with 22% disapproving. On March 9 the Polish parliament passed a law, with a vote of 439 to 12, granting citizens of Ukraine 18 months residency, along with access to the same social services (health care, education, child support, etc.) that Polish citizens receive. None of those benefits are available to those escaping this war (or any other war) who are not Ukrainian citizens.

 

It is understandable that many Poles have considered race irrelevant to their country: after all, in the (almost total) absence of racial minorities, how could there be racial discrimination? Yet as we can see so clearly in this example, racial categorizations can thrive even when few people inhabit those categories.

 

None of this should diminish the efforts to help those fleeing Putin’s aggression. Instead, we can hope that this might be a moment of reckoning for at least some of those who opposed accepting refugees several months ago. In the words of Polish MEP Janina Ochojska, this might inspire people to “stop differentiating between refugees because of where they come from, what color their skin is, and who is more ‘deserving’ of aid.” 

 

Brian Porter-Szucs

University of Michigan