Discussions with Western Colleagues Over the Rumblings of the War


SONIAKH digest publishes articles in translation that provide key insight into the creative and intellectual discussions going on in Ukraine. This article was originally published in Ukrainian in Krytyka, No. 1–2, April 2022.

From the early days of the war, whenever I was able to distract myself from the news and work in one way or another, a large part of my time was spent exchanging letters with my Western colleagues on topics having to do with the war. These letters have been for the most part less about the war and its consequences, and more about the assistance the world was providing to Ukrainians in general and to scholars in particular, as well as about the effort of the academics to limit ties with Russia and raise knowledge about Ukraine. We mostly agree about the war and the assistance: colleagues unanimously support Ukraine in its resistance to Russian aggression (those who do not support do not write me personally and never participate in collective discussions I have access to), and search for effective ways to help (if not the army, then refugees, and scholars in particular). But when it comes to the restructuring of their own activities in order to get rid of any orientation towards Russia and give the world a better understanding of Ukraine, the majority of Western academics surprise their Ukrainian colleagues with their indecision and insensitivity, while we surprise them with our excessive radicalism and unwillingness to take the realities of their lives into account. 

In fact, there are also some discrepancies in the evaluation of the war itself. Everyone agrees that it is horrible, but Western scholars somewhat differ from their Ukrainian colleagues in their attribution of blame for the crimes and suffering. Already in late February, the PONARS Eurasia network bringing together American and local researchers of the Eurasian space discussed how the thematic section on the network’s website having to do with the war was supposed to be named. I suggested the title “Russia’s War Against Ukraine”, but one of the Americans argued that it would be more appropriate to call it “Putin’s War Against Ukraine”, because the decision to start the war was made by the dictator personally without taking into consideration the will of the masses and even elites. Together with several other colleagues, including Russian ones, I objected, responding that thousands of Russians were taking part in the war and that it was enabled by the support or at the least indifference of millions. In the end, the section was titled “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine”, but the discussion over the role and responsibility of the ordinary and not-so-ordinary Russians went on. Opinion polls have indicated clearly that the majority of Russians do support what their government cynically calls “the special military operation in Ukraine”, and their number is growing. Some of the participants in the discussion noted that in totalitarian states, one of which Russia is becoming, opinion polls do not reflect the mood of the population as a vast majority of respondents say not what they really think but what they assume those around them want to hear. It is partly true, but a survey experiment recently conducted by Western researchers has revealed that such falsification of preferences is not very high, and the majority of respondents genuinely support “the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine”. Nevertheless, such evidence still fails to convince many Western scholars that it is not only Putin but also Russians who are to blame for the war and the killings, and that it is not only the government that we have to fight but also the loyal population. 

The difference in the attitude to Russian academics has to do with the same questions: should one subject them to the maximum isolation or, on the contrary, provide maximum support to those who do not approve of the aggressive actions of their state? Ukrainian participants in a variety of forum discussions argue that Russian scholars are responsible for the aggression against Ukraine even more than average Russians, since many of them have more or less openly supported imperialist and anti-democratic policies and the ideology of Putin’s regime, while at the same time having criticized or at least ignored the liberal and national liberation program of the Ukrainian people and other peoples of the former empire. In their texts, Russia comes across as a perfectly normal country, while Ukraine is portrayed as a dysfunctional state controlled by nationalists and neo-Nazis. Only a small fraction of researchers and university lecturers joined the protests on the streets and resolutely criticized the actions of the government in their publications. Western participants, to the contrary, think that most Russian scholars have democratic views, that they do not approve of the politics of the regime, and if they do not protest against it it is only because of fear of repression and the wish to be able to continue working. Accordingly, Western colleagues do not support our calls to sever all ties with Russian academics and educational institutions and continue individual collaborations only with those scholars who explicitly condemn Russian aggression. Even those Western discussants who fully sympathize with Ukraine say that in order to study Russia one has to continue working with Russian scholars and institutions, with the exception of those who have voiced public support for the “special operation”. Hearing such arguments, Ukrainians find it hard to dispel the impression that Western colleagues simply want to preserve comfortable conditions for the continuation of their own studies in Russia, which naturally benefit from having local partners. 

This orientation towards preserving familiar and comfortable ties with Russian colleagues is well demonstrated by the actions of the largest Western network of researchers studying post-Soviet space: the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), which unites scholars from the United States and many other countries, including Russia and Ukraine. Right after the full-scale war started, the Association condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine, but several days later, together with other professional associations, it voiced its objection to the “calls for blanket bans on the participation of individual Russians and Belarusians in scholarly events and scholarly exchange”.[1] While I understand that many academics do not support the aggressive politics of their governments, with some even protesting against them and being consequently subjected to repressions, I still found unacceptable the exclusive focus of the call on the undesirable consequences for the “good” Russians and Belarusians and the unwillingness to resolutely separate them from “the bad ones” (the authors of the call proposed to sever “official ties” only with those institutions and individuals that “actively support Russian military actions”). Writing about this statement on Facebook, I was trying to prove that any kind of cooperation is only possible with those scholars who publicly and unequivocally condemn aggression (and not those who just refrain from supporting it, basically trying to wait it out until the war is over). Several Western colleagues notified me privately that they addressed the leadership of ASEEES with a call to express a clear position concerning further cooperation with Russians (among others, referring to my post as evidence that many Ukrainian scholars consider business as usual unacceptable). But, in the end, the board of the Association only issued a statement (again, together with several other professional unions), that condemned the notorious call issued by rectors of Russian universities in support of the “special operation”, and did not even go as far as to repeat the call to sever ties with the universities whose reputation had been tainted.[2] Granted, otherwise Western specialists in Russian studies would have virtually no one left to collaborate with in Russia, as the shameful subservient statement was signed by the rectors of almost all universities. And Western academics are even less ready to fully sever ties with Russian colleagues and institutions than their politicians are to stop buying Russian oil and gas that provides Putin funding for the war.

What is more, the West is striving to provide refuge to Russian colleagues who due to their disagreement with the governmental politics have already left or would like to leave Russia. Numerous European and North American universities and foundations are providing such Russians (and Belarusians) support through programs that are designed to help all the academics ‘affected by the war’, regardless of their citizenship. During the war Ukrainian men mostly cannot, or even do not want to, leave the country, while many women do not feel like going far from them and/or have to look after their children, so there are often more Russian than Ukrainian applicants at such programs. Therefore, Ukrainian applicants can only make use of the offered help if they are given explicit preference, which Western donors, with their adherence to equal treatment for all, are usually not ready to do. For Ukrainians, such “equal rights” with Russians and Belarusians appear not only unproductive but also morally unacceptable, since this approach virtually equates the two categories of persons who find themselves in very different circumstances. We are surprised at the fact that our Western colleagues are unable to understand that fleeing from an authoritarian regime which was consolidated through the appeasement of its citizens and which now prevents scholars from expressing themselves freely, is not the same as fleeing from bombs this very regime is hurling at another country. 

In fact, Ukrainian scholars need not only scholarships in the peaceful West, but also support at home where most of us remain, which renders already existing schemes of support, such as “scholars at risk”, not suitable or at least not sufficient for our purposes. After all, it is not only charity that we expect but partnerships as well: shared research, publications, and studies which, as far as social sciences and humanities are concerned, would not just deepen the integration of Ukrainian specialists into the global academic space but would also respond to and, at the same time, stimulate, a greater interest to Ukraine in the world. The heroic resistance and horrific sufferings of Ukrainians have urged citizens of many countries to learn more about Ukraine and its distinction from Russia, of which most used to think Ukraine was a part or at least a satellite. To fulfill this wish, the media of a number of countries are sending correspondents to our cities and are organizing discussions about the war and Ukraine in general in their programs on TV and radio. The academic response to this newly discovered interest is taking longer to shape than in the media, and thus for now we are witnessing only the first signs of change. This is expressed in a multitude of academic and educational events dedicated to the horrifying war and little-known Ukraine, organized offline and online by experts from the respective countries with the greater or lesser engagement of their colleagues from Ukraine, and sometimes from Russia. Although analysis of Russian military and political processes is no less important for explaining the war than analysis of Ukrainian ones, engaging Ukrainian and Russian experts for the purposes of “symmetrical” addition to the Western perspective demonstrates, among other things, a lack of understanding on the part of the organizers of the fact that Ukrainians find such grouping together and equating of the roles highly problematic. The same goes for a popular engagement of Ukrainian participants in these discussions in the role of “local voices” who are basically expected to show partiality and emotion, rather than be the bearers of expert knowledge as deep as that of their Western colleagues who are seen as impartial experts. Apart from the understandable wish to rely on their own experts who are more trusted by the local audience, such asymmetry additionally reflects orientalist and, in effect, imperialist prejudice towards expert knowledge of the little-known post-colonial country. 

One would hope that this asymmetry would be at least partially overcome in the semesters to come by providing numerous courses about Ukraine (and about the post-communist space, with an important role for Ukraine), which could become the main scholarly response to the growing interest in our country. Considering the very limited number of experts in Ukrainian language, history, politics, economics, etc. in most countries, the introduction of numerous new courses will be hardly possible without engaging academics from Ukraine itself—both those who left for the West during the war or even earlier, and those who remain in Ukraine but can teach online. For the Ukrainians who have lost their homes and/or work, this could be an opportunity to earn some money and make connections with Western institutions, while for the institutions themselves it would be a chance to swiftly establish new courses dedicated to lesser-known subjects on a decent level. In order to engage foreign lecturers, especially online, one would have to overcome not only a widespread bias towards their qualifications, but also some bureaucratic restrictions regarding their employment. Some universities simply do not permit contracts with Ukrainian citizens who find themselves not in the West but in their country where, according to Western governments and media, corruption is rampant. However, I have already heard from my Western colleagues that they understand the importance of this task and are willing to put effort into handling it—for instance, by convincing the administration of their universities to classify the payment for online teaching as an honorarium rather than a salary. It is a bit bizarre, but as long as it works, let it be.

However, Ukrainian scholars are needed not just for the short-term teaching of educational courses designed to satisfy current interest but also for the introduction of some long-term changes in the scientific and educational sector aimed at overcoming a long-standing lack of attention from the Western world towards Ukraine and an unconditional priority of Russia within the field of post-Soviet studies. It is in this aspect of communication with Western colleagues that I see the strongest reluctance to accept our proposals. Alongside other Ukrainian participants in such discussions I am trying to make the case for the establishment of Ukrainian departments in the leading Western universities, research centers that focus on Ukrainian studies, specialized magazines and book series to publish the output of this research, scholarships for students, and awards for academic excellence. Western colleagues generally agree to that but they note that great changes require a lot of money and organizational effort, and therefore, a lot of time, and that we should not overestimate the durability in the West of the interest created by the war. Thus, they say, one should be realistic and curb one’s appetites.

Even more discord appears when we add that these new and active Ukrainian studies programs must be an important part of the research on post-Soviet space, East-Central Europe, and Europe on the whole. We need radical change in educational programs and research paradigms that would end Russia-centric aberrations and establish new scholarship on Ukraine and Eastern Europe which would look at the region in its diversity and the interconnectedness of its parts. We require scholarship that would not identify Kyivan Rus as part of Russia’s history, nor would it start Ukrainian history with Cossacks, reduce Ukrainian culture to exclusively Ukrainian-speaking artifacts, or postulate the division of Ukraine into a nationalistic west and a pro-Russian east. Such scholarship would identify in Russian culture—in Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, and other classics—not only and not so much humanism, but rather imperialism, and thus would realize that the aggressive attitude of the majority of modern Russians towards Ukraine and the West—the very thing that has made the contemporary horrors of Mariupol and Bucha possible—has been formed not contrary to the distinguished works of the national culture, but rather under their pernicious influence. Such scholarship would not maintain that Pushkin should be necessarily studied more than Shevchenko, or that the Russian language should be studied more than Ukrainian. Western Slavic scholars, especially of the older generation, will certainly not agree to all this, because such a change would undermine their professional qualifications and identity, placing them in the position of the people who spent their entire lives doing something wrong. Well, who would like that?

But what Western scholars probably like least is when we call on them to acknowledge their own mistakes and their responsibility for either deliberate or inadvertent support of the wrong policies, and thus for the unwanted effects of those policies. We call out political scientists and military experts—for stating that Putin would not attack Ukraine, and if he did, Ukraine would have fallen within days or even hours, because the insistent repetition of these statements encouraged Western politicians to underestimate the threat of war and to refrain from giving weapons to Ukraine till the very last weeks before the attack, even when the high likelihood of war was reported by their own intelligence services. We call out the scholars of Russia—for underestimating authoritarian tendencies and classifying Russia as a normal, even if not fully democratic, country that the West can and should cooperate with on political, economic, and cultural levels. We call out the scholars of Ukraine—for their obsession with radical nationalists and emphasis on internal causes of the conflict in Donbas which most of them refused to see as Russian aggression, and some even called a civil war. 

Some scholars have radically changed their position after February 24, but I have encountered only one admission—that of the Swedish political scientist Bo Petersson—that “If more of us so-called experts had only cried wolf a little more often and decidedly louder, then maybe the Western political community would have taken appropriate action”.[3] For the experts in less politically relevant disciplines, professional mistakes are less obvious, and their admission, accordingly, appears as something even less necessary. Indeed, who would repent for having found the origins of Russian history in Kyiv (instead of deconstructing such origins as an ideological project justifying Russian claims on Ukraine and Belarus), for having portrayed the victory of the USSR over Nazi Germany as Russian first and foremost (thus implicitly supporting Moscow’s claim on the monopoly on the international political capital that the victory created) or for having uncritically taken Pushkin’s self-presentation as a singer of freedom (and not a herald of imperial subjugation, as non-Russian nationalists claimed)? It will be good if they write and teach in a different way from now on, although this cannot be taken for granted. Professional associations are also unlikely to admit their responsibility for the long-term preservation of the colonial hierarchies in the studies of the post-Soviet realm and Eastern Europe, even if they will slowly begin to abandon these hierarchies in their future research programs.

But Ukrainian (and, hopefully, not only Ukrainian) scholars will remember who wrote what before, and what kind of mistakes were not admitted. And they will keep reminding us in their publications on the history of research of certain topics, in their commentary to the texts and speeches of the colleagues who have changed their positions, and, most importantly, when advising students and PhD candidates on how not to interpret certain events and processes. For these reminders and exhortations to not be exclusively locked in our national space, they need to be published and pronounced in English in Western journals and forums, in particular at conventions of disciplinary associations like ASEEES. For this purpose, perhaps, Ukrainians should remain in these associations, despite the unwillingness of the latter to admit their mistakes and expel Russians members. Although, perhaps, it is not worth it; I have still not decided for myself. 

Translated by Viktoria Grivina.
Published 14 November 2022
  1. ASEEES Board Condemns Russia’s Military Assault on Ukraine, February 24, 2022, https://www.aseees.org/advocacy/aseees-executive-committee-condemns-russias-military-assault-ukraine; Joint Statement of Opposition to Banning Scholars Based on Citizenship, March 9, 2022, https://www.aseees.org/advocacy/joint-statement-opposition-banning-scholars-based-citizenship.
  2. Joint Statement Condemning Russian University Presidents’ Statement of Support for Russia’s Assault on Ukraine, March 17, 2022, https://www.aseees.org/advocacy/statement-condemning-russian-university-presidents-statement-support-russias-assault
  3. Bo Petersson, «The signs were there for all to see, but we did not read them right», Forum for Ukrainian Studies, 7 March 2022, https://ukrainian-studies.ca/2022/03/07/russia-war/.
Volodymyr Kulyk is a head research fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. He is the author of four books, the latest being Language Policies in Multilingual Countries: Foreign Experience and Its Applicability to Ukraine (in Ukrainian; Kyiv: Dukh i Litera, 2021).