Critical Juncture: Why Supporting Projects in Ukrainian Studies is Essential

Critical Juncture: Why Supporting Projects in Ukrainian Studies is Essential

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / seregalsv
30 August 2023
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Ukrainian studies can open the entire new perspective in colonial studies and studies of history of Europe and the world. For people free from pro-Russian biases Ukrainian studies can provide plenty of new ideas and senses. Ukrainian scholars not only implement high-quality research but also advocate for a more balanced approach to Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia and are open for cooperation.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine marked the end of the post-Cold War era and sparked discussions about the new international order, the concept of Europe, the unity of the West, and the lack of unity in the rest of the world. “The war in Ukraine has changed Europe more than any other event since the end of the Cold War in 1989,” says Roger Cohen in his article for the NYT. Russian aggression has forced European countries to abandon their illusions about post-Cold War achievements and agreements. 

Moreover, their vision of the modern world has been significantly undermined. It also raised the questions of the colonial perspective that Western academics take on  Central and Eastern Europe and the dominance of Russian studies, which leads to the marginalisation of other countries in the region. The case of Ukraine is at the centre of the debate. Although more and more people are emphasising the need to develop Ukrainian studies in the West, and the public and media are generally showing interest in Ukraine, Ukrainian studies remain isolated and fragmented. At the same time, Russian studies retain their status or become even more prominent in academic programmes, as evidenced by the data published by VoxUkraine

Ukrainian Studies Centres could have become “the drivers of change”, but as the Ukrainian Institute’s research shows, they have faced numerous institutional and intellectual challenges. Institutional weaknesses and instability make it difficult to sustain long-term academic programmes, and projects are becoming the dominant form of research activity (which has both advantages and disadvantages). Thus, scholars involved in international projects are at the forefront of promoting Ukrainian studies and the process [1] of integrating Ukrainian and Western academic environments. With this in mind, we asked scholars, who had experience in implementing international projects under the Lusiak-Rudnytsky Ukrainian Studies Programme [2], to share their thoughts on the work in the field, prospects and priorities for the development of Ukrainian studies.  

Away from Moscow

VoxUkraine analysed the 2021/2022 and 2022/2023 academic programmes at top American universities and found that more than a third of courses on Eastern European history focus exclusively on Russia. An additional problem is the blurred distinction and, in fact, identification of Russia as the USSR, which is reflected even in the titles of some courses, such as “Russia: History of the Soviet Union”. Some of the courses are fully aligned with Russian historical narratives and combine the past of the Eastern Slavs or the Soviet republics into a single “Russian” history, despite the unique and distinct histories of Eastern European and Central Asian nations, many of which were occupied by Russia. 

This status quo is a serious problem for researchers trying to enter the field of Ukrainian studies. Jessica Zychowicz, Director of the Institute of International Education in Ukraine, shared her experience: “It was really difficult [to find mentors] because in many universities in the US the majority of expertise on Ukraine is under the wing of professors who specialise in Russia and Russian history. And this is a structural [issue] since the era of the Cold War, when much of the regional studies (Russian, East European, Ukrainian studies), were all wrapped around close study of the Russian language and Russian history.” 

The dominance of Russian studies creates additional resource pressure on scholars working in various disciplines of Ukrainian studies. They may be distracted from their primary role as teachers or researchers by the need to involve into advocacy activities to promote and strengthen Ukrainian studies. Fighting Russian narratives can also become an additional burden. According to Natalia Otrishchenko, a sociologist and head of the Voices of Euromaidan project, “Instead of forming our own agenda, we will be constantly caught up in the response situation.” 

Curator and researcher Anastasiia Tsisar notes: “There is no point in denying the common history (with Russia). However, it makes sense to build a fresh perspective on Ukrainian history and culture in Ukrainian studies abroad.” [3] This can be done by fitting Ukrainian stories into the general European or global context. As Natalia Otrishchenko emphasises, “This is the essence of decolonisation: not to be limited to this binary Ukraine-Russia relationship but to go outside, that is, to see other connections, to talk about Ukraine in other ways, to change the optics.” Rethinking relations with Russian culture, revising and restructuring hierarchies, focusing on the Central European context – these are the programmatic tasks of contemporary Ukrainian studies, according to musicologist and editor of the Krytyka magazine Iuliia Bentia. She observes: “It has to be constant work, there are no structures that will sustainably last for centuries.”

Ukraine in European and Global Studies

All of our interlocutors mentioned the importance of including Ukrainian studies in the general framework of knowledge about Europe. At the same time, while fitting into the European context, there should be an internal process of adjusting the vision of “self” (Ukrainian society) as a part of the European community, understanding that Ukraine’s past is inextricably linked to the history of Europe. Thus, most of the projects and studies of our respondents are focused on revealing these connections and fitting the Ukrainian experience into the experience of Central and Eastern European countries. Sofia Dyak, a historian and director of the Centre for Urban History, is convinced: “In order to persuade others of something, [we] also need to tell it to ourselves. How does Ukraine see itself as part of these different stories? What does it mean to be part of European history, what does it mean to be part of the Soviet Union, what does it mean to be part of the Russian Empire?” This complex process involves separation of Ukrainian experience first (translating  the sources and texts, researching), and then integration, a certain level of dissolution of Ukrainian studies in European ones. As Sofia Dyak notes, “We need Ukraine to be a part of European studies or global studies. But for sure, the road to this goes through defining our place and focus, and based on that focus we will be included in the history of Europe. The history of Europe cannot end in Berlin or on the Rhine. Together we will reconsider what Europe is.”

The Ukrainian experience is so universal that it can and should be used to build a dialogue with communities outside the European continent. Natalia Otrischenko believes: “We can speak globally through Ukrainian context. We are talking about what solidarity is in the modern world, what values are, and how these values are the basis for action…” This approach to Ukrainian studies will help to revitalise and expand the field of East European and Slavic studies, and at the same time offer a more dynamic approach to issues relevant to the countries of this region. It will also provide an opportunity to take a fresh look at the problems of the modern world in the context of global studies. In fact, it is necessary to step away from considering Ukraine only as an object of study. Instead, Ukrainian studies should be recognised as a lens through which we can analyse and comprehend global or regional processes, current and past. 

For this purpose, it is important to diversify the topics of Ukrainian studies by studying various regions and the multiethnicity of Ukraine. The colourful history of the Crimean Tatars and the Black Sea region, as well as the peculiarities of the past of the South and East of Ukraine, have the potential to shed light on the regional nuances that shape Ukrainian identity, and can be an invaluable case study for understanding the concept of national identity in general. And now, when the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine, it is the best time to start this process. As Jessica Zychowicz notes: “The conversation about indigenous culture, Crimean Tatars, and Muslim identity in Ukraine suddenly became internationally visible in a way that it wasn’t visible before. The war created attention that suddenly turned to Ukraine in a new way.” 

Together with colleagues, Jessica Zychowicz initiated  the creation of the Race and Postcolonialism in Ukraine and North America Forum online, which has become extremely relevant now, given Russia’s instrumentalisation of ethnicity and its attempts to present the attack on Ukraine as a fight against “fascism”. Not only the diversity of topics but also inclusiveness in attracting specialists is of paramount importance for the process of “globalisation” of Ukrainian studies. As Jessica Zychowicz puts it: “[…] institutions should have more leaders who come from minority groups in Ukraine. Maybe Roma, maybe Crimean Tatar [one of Ukraine’s indigenous peoples – Ed], maybe Jewish, a few more voices, also maybe from LGBT communities [and other].” This inclusion of researchers representing diverse groups will contribute to a more holistic and inclusive approach to raising research questions and offering solutions. According to Jessica Zychowicz, the intersection of different scientific fields with Ukrainian studies can provide valuable information not only for understanding Ukraine, but also for promoting global knowledge. Environmental sustainability, military technology, prosthetics, and political geography for example, are areas where Ukraine can offer unique case studies that will be useful to many other countries. 

However, it is important not only what to tell, but also how one should  tell it. Therefore finding successful formats for different audiences is one of the key tasks when planning projects. It is not enough, for example, to simply translate the sources. The material should be arranged  into a comprehensible structure and adapted to the needs of the educational process. A good case of this is the Ukrainian culture platform UCULTURE, which works with the currently popular visual formats of presenting knowledge. According to its founder and head, Professor Larysa Dovha of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, “Culture becomes interesting when it is filled with flesh and blood. And you can only fill it by taking a closer look, not just from up high. This is the part we call the interview.” The Centre for Urban History in Lviv is also working in a similar domain, using video and audio materials for their educational projects, including translating and  providing access to the Voices of Euromaidan and Urban Twentieth Century sources’ databases.

The Need for Networking and Establishing Connections 

In the dynamic and complex landscape of Ukrainian studies that has largely developed through horizontal cooperation, the value of human resources – academics, researchers, professionals – cannot be overstated. The importance of communication and maintaining connections has become even more evident now, when a large number of researchers are outside Ukraine due to the war.  Networking has become a prerequisite for the existence of Ukrainian studies, which can only thrive as a vibrant, inclusive conversation. According to Jessica Zychowicz, “we need many partners, we need our Ukrainian counterparts, we need North Americans, we need Europeans – it’s going to be a village of people to build Ukrainian studies. No one institute can do it alone.” Networking is successful if it goes beyond mere interaction and formulates a common approach that will stimulate joint projects, foster a collaborative research environment so that researchers can fully use their potential. Zhanna Chepela, director and composer, head of the Kharkiv. Culture. Fortress project, agrees: “Through this interaction, critical needs and urgent problems are identified. And that makes the cornerstone for comprehensive, future-oriented projects and research.”

The success of such cooperation depends, among other things, on the ability of Ukrainian scholars to “hear” other voices, to learn from other experiences, especially those of neighbouring countries. Iuliia Bentia comments on her participation in a conference in Bulgaria: “I had a feeling that we could definitely have a peer-to-peer discussion with our Bulgarian colleagues. And I believe the same also applies to other countries that have often fallen out of our sight. […] we should not think about it only in terms of a hierarchy (again, very Soviet hierarchy) and strive to the top; we should reconsider the world in a different way and build connections, see other countries, and thus they will see us better.” It takes years to build professional networks, but the success of specific projects and Ukrainian studies in general depends on the existence of these networks. 

How to Ensure the Sustainability of Ukrainian Studies? 

A sustainable environment that facilitates networking and development of Ukrainian studies is impossible without institutions. As Anastasiia Tsisar rightly notes: “While people manage projects, it is institutions that ensure the continuity of these initiatives, even if the staff changes over time.” The impact of the institutions goes beyond the mere implementation of the project, as Nataliia Otrishchenko says, they provide a critical platform for long-term thinking and strategic planning. Institutions, by their very nature, are built to last. “Having an institution, we can think long term, because an institution is about continuity… Institutional continuity allows us to think not only about completed projects, but also about how these projects will live in the future,” she adds. Overall, institutions constitute a strong backbone that supports the continuous flow of intellectual work and ensures the durability of its results over time. 

Proper, stable funding is an important condition for the preservation and development of Ukrainian studies: we need to make sure that professionals, regardless of their career stage, have adequate working conditions. Traditionally, Ukrainian studies depended largely on individual donors. However, no matter how generous this support may be, it depends on the interest of the donor and what generation they belong to, and is therefore not a sustainable model for the future. Grant support, which is a significant component of current funding, also has its limitations. As Anastasiia Tsisar notes, grants often allow for innovative, forward-thinking projects that may not be of an “obvious commercial value”. Still, these projects are often not financially sustainable in the long term due to the nature of grant funding: “Grant support is not designed for continuity in the sense that it cannot sustainably fund the project.” In addition, most foundations are focused on supporting short-term projects that produce results within a year, and sometimes even faster. It requires searching for alternative sources of funding and strategies that can ensure the long-term sustainability of initiatives. In Ukraine, the International Renaissance Foundation, which has traditionally supported the education and research sector, has become a notable partner of the Ukrainian Institute in many of its academic and educational programmes. 

A transformation of the financing model is needed to ensure the viability and progress of the industry. This change should mirror the business models of other well-funded academic disciplines, allowing Ukrainian studies to compete effectively in the academic world. 

What’s Next?

The Ukrainian academic community has demonstrated extraordinary resilience during the war. Scholars realise the importance of sharing knowledge and understanding about Ukraine for building solidarity with Ukraine and resisting Russian aggression. Narratives matter, and in the long run, this is one of the key elements of recovery. That is why changes that will ensure the sustainability of Ukrainian studies in the future should begin today.  

Having diverse ways of funding, creating sustainable funds and programmes to support Ukrainian studies is an important next step. It is worth considering endowment options, as well as looking for opportunities to raise public funds or get financial support from universities or businesses.

Moreover, industry depends on partnerships and the formation of strong institutional alliances. That kind of cooperation will foster innovation and a more sustainable future. Therefore, the key tasks for the Ukrainian state and a call to action for foreign governments are as follows: prioritise institutional cooperation with Ukrainian counterparts, coordinate and join forces to establish connections, initiate joint projects, and foster a spirit of openness and shared vision.

The positioning of Ukrainian studies in relation to global/European studies should also undergo a transformation. Ukrainian studies should expand its topics and contribute to  research on global and regional issues. In particular, this covers the involvement of Ukrainian scholars and managers in the development of the agenda, programme, and topics of projects or events (the role of a speaker or participant should change to a co-creator role). 

Research and education projects are often a “long game” with the efforts made today showing results in years to come, but this investment is more sustainable and long-lasting. Today, we come to see how the projects implemented under the Lysiak-Rudnytsky Ukrainian Studies Programme contribute to sharing knowledge about Ukraine, networking and establishing cooperation between scholars and institutions. Being a part of broader academic and educational activity, the projects develop and play their part in establishing expert knowledge about Ukraine. And if we continue to develop the potential of Ukrainian studies now, we might have different narratives and different optics in the next few years.

[1] Seven in-depth interviews were conducted in June-July 2023  by zoom based on a prepared questionnaire. A list of participants includes: Jessica Zychowicz, Director of the Institute of International Education in Ukraine, Natalia Otrishchenko, a sociologist and head of the Voices of Euromaidan project by the Center of Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv, Anastasiia Tsisar, art curator and scholar, Iuliia Bentia, musicologist and editor of the Krytyka magazine, Sofia Dyak, a historian and director of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv, Larysa Dovha, Professor of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, head of the project UCulture, Zhanna Chepela, director and composer, head of the Kharkiv. Culture. Fortress project. The research was done within the project Lysiak-Rudnytsky Ukrainian Studies Programme of 2022/2023 implemented by the Ukrainian Institute and Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation and supported by a grant from the International Renaissance Foundation.

[2] Launched in 2020 by the Ukrainian Institute, the programme sees strengthening the educational component as one of its main objectives by making sources available and creating resources in English and other languages. The programme is currently completing its second edition with 11 projects supported in 2020-2023.

[3] In 2020, within the Lysiak-Rudnytsky Programme, under Anastasiia’s leadership, the first publication on Ukrainian art was published in Poland: a translation of the book “Why There Are Great Women Artists in Ukrainian Art”. This publication experienced a leap in popularity after February 24th,  2022.

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