Re: Ukraine

Ukraine Research Group Blog

In need of new language or challenges for area studies

Last six months in Ukraine have been demonstrating an unprecedented mixture of human solidarity in time of social turmoil and the potential of unrestricted violence to be unleashed with unbelievable speed. The comments from experts evaluating the events in Ukraine often demonstrate pitfalls of the “expert” language established in the area studies. More adequate and nuanced analysis requires from the scholars to think on new concepts and theoretical schemes which could help better describe and understand the societies under question.

Starting from November 2013, when mass protests later to be called Euromaidan began in Kyiv,  many commentators kept warning their audiences of high popularity of nationalists in Ukraine. The fact that protesters on Euromaidan used symbols of Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists made it easy for some area experts to label the whole protest as “nationalist”. In the elections for the Ukrainian presidency that took place last Sunday, 25th May, won Petro Poroshenko, the candidate that ran on a pro-EU platform. The far-right candidates (Oleg Tyahnybok and Dmytro Yarosh) got about 2 percent. Results of the elections considerably undermined statements of those commentators who failed to see more nuances of the protests than the presence of  nationalist symbols and the presence of Oleg Tyahnybok, the leader of far-right Svoboda party, on the scene.
It is not the first time in history of Eastern Europe that specialists got in the trap of categorizing grassroots people’s protests as “nationalist”.

Indeed, “antitotalitarian dissidence in east-central Europe was much too often treated in the west as framed within right-wing politics ” (Kolodiejczyk and Sandru 2012: 113). The emancipating element of the protests gets lost as soon as it is typified as nationalist. Such oversimplification blurs the picture of the society which is much more complex than pro- or anti-nationalist, or pro-European and pro-Russian. In his lecture in Berlin Ukrainian historian Andriy Portnov drew attention to obvious drawbacks of evaluation of Ukraine as “nationalizing” state and called for sensitivity to the inherent hybridity that has to be taken into account in its wholeness.

Anti-communist politics of national democrats in Ukraine in early 1990s were also often misread as right-wing, although it went hand in hand with the ideas of European integration, liberalization of market economy and protection human rights. Indeed, the national democratic movement of 1980s and early 1990s takes their roots in human right movement that included many dissidents representing the generation of 1960s (shestydesiatnyky).
At the same time, scholars have to be very careful and not underestimate the role of far-right parties, rise of populist politics and their public support. Rodger Brubaker speaks about the need to differentiate between nationalism as a category that works in exclusivist way aiming to challenge the political order by claiming a polity of and for the distinguished ethno-cultural group from nationalism as a category that can work in inclusive way aiming to create a sense of national unity in states whose populations are divided along regional, ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines (Brubaker 2004: 117) . The nationalism in such an inclusive sense has mobilizing and integrating potential. It can be called patriotism or national allegiance, the feeling that reveals one’s attachment to Ukrainian state, that in view of Anne Applebaum may be “country’s only hope of escaping apathy, rapacious corruption, and, eventually, dismemberment” .

Besides the need of re-evaluation of established analytic language area studies face structural challenge. No multi-faceted analysis is possible without expertise in one specific locality in relation to bigger contexts. It is not enough to be expert in one country and claim expertise in a neighboring country without deep understanding of local specificity. Only in this way, the society can be studied as an agent of its own history not as a mere object in the game of “superpowers”.


Works mentioned:

Dorota Kolodiejczyk and Cristina Sandru (2012) Introduction: On colonialism, communism and east-central Europe – some reflections, Kołodziejczyk, Sandru, eds.: Postcolonialism/ Postcommunism: confluences, intersections and discontents special issue of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 48 no 2, Routledge.

Rogers Brubaker (2004) In the name of the nation: reflections on nationalism and patriotism, Citizenship Studies, 8:2, 115-127

Andriy Portnov’s lecture:

Anne Applebaum’s article:

Games from the past: the continuity and change of the identity dynamic in Donbas from a historical perspective

Commentary by Roman Horbyk, for “Baltic Worlds”

In January 1929 Kharkiv-based illustrated magazine Vsesvit reported on a delegation from Donbas visiting the capital of the Soviet Ukraine. Over 300 workers from Artemivsk, the journalists wrote, wanted to “familiarise themselves with Ukrainian culture, see the proletarian capital and its achievements”. The workers toured museums, exhibitions, “zoological garden”, newspapers and radio newsrooms, met a bunch of writers and attended an avant-garde operetta. Some of them were given an honour of hearing a speech by Mykola Skrypnyk, narkom of education and the promoter of Ukrainianization. “Ukrainian proletariat, largely Russified in the times of tsarism, will gradually re-appropriate its national culture”, he was quoted by Vsevsit as saying.

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