Interview: Kateryna Ruban on Decolonization in Slavic Studies

Ukraine in Focus

Still, the real tectonic shift occurred with the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia, previously only reluctantly conceptualized as an empire in both its historical and contemporary forms, was now indisputably seen as such. Its wars, foreign policy, cultural and social life came to be seen by many predominantly though colonial lenses. As such, Slavic studies also had to reckon with its own fixation on Russia at the expense of other subjects. Ukrainian scholars have been particularly vocal about the decolonization of area studies that has long prioritized Russia, producing inequalities, blind spots, and hierarchies of knowledge. The questions Ukrainian scholars raise are political, uncomfortable, and in many ways, aimed at disrupting the status quo. I sat down with the Ukrainian historian Kateryna Ruban to talk about the impact of the Russo-Ukrainian War on Slavic studies and the struggle to decolonize the field.  

MS: Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, you became one of the most vocal voices calling on Western academic institutions to terminate cooperation with Russian scholars affiliated with Russian universities. What do you mean by this, and why, in your opinion, it is important to do that? 

Originally, I did not use the term “terminate”, instead I preferred the term “suspend.” “Suspend” was the term that seemed best in February 2022, but as the situation has developed and we have observed the role of Russian academia in this war, now I would use the term “terminate” cooperation with Russian scholars and scholars affiliated with academic institutions in Russia.  

Why? First of all, I think it is important to understand what is going on now in Russian universities, what kind of ideological work they are doing there. It is not hard to see it even from their own websites. They openly support the war, call Ukrainians Nazis, and cultivate hatred toward Ukrainians. On a more practical level, they collect money for the drones that kill Ukrainian civilians. This is the most obvious reason why I am calling for this termination. 

MS: How would you characterize the reaction of Western academia to these calls?  

When I started boycotting events, such as conferences, expressing my public position, I was met with such response: "Yes, Katia, we understand your concerns, but this cooperation is something we have been developing for many years, it is communication, it is connections, and we need to think about the future of our field." Connections and communications cannot justify the participation of those who support Russian aggression and continue their lives as usual in Russia. A lot of people in Western academia want to have it both ways. They write very strong statements on Russia’s war in Ukraine, but they still work with scholars affiliated with Russian institutions. It diminishes the value of their statements and means that they do not have a strong political position on the war.   

Also, they see continued cooperation as a way to support those Russians who are currently in Russia because they are seen as victims of Putin's regime. Western scholars of Russia have created an imaginary subject that is “supposed to oppose”. In psychoanalysis, your therapist is the “subject supposed to know”. So, here we have the “subject supposed to oppose”. No matter what Russian scholars say or do, they are perceived as a collective “subject supposed to oppose.” Though we have not seen any collective opposition from Russian scholars, any collective protest of students and professors that would support this thesis, but only individual protests.  

MS: It almost looks like wishful thinking on the part of Western academia to imagine the “Russian liberal subject”, just as they did in Soviet times. Do you see the parallels between mythologization of the Soviet dissident in the Soviet Union and the Russian liberal today?  

I think there are parallels, and these parallels can go even further back in time to the 19th century and the intelligentsia, highly educated people who lived double lives. They served the tsar, but at the same time they were dreaming of a new Russia. But the problem is not that Russian liberals do not exist – I have no doubt that they do -- but that these people have nothing to do with the real Russia.  

Western institutions gave and continue to give a lot of money and symbolic capital to these people by promoting, inviting, giving them scholarships, etc. But it turned out that these people had no influence on Russia for the last thirty years. They did not do anything to really transform Russia. First they lived in their own bubbles, and now they have just fled.  

MS: This reminded me of the recent conversation we had with Timothy Snyder, where he said that only empires have the privilege of being a victim. It seems to me that the root of this solidarity between some Western and Russian scholars lies precisely in their mutual understanding of each other on the level of empires. Throughout this war, it became apparent how easy it was for the Western academic institutions to buy into the narrative of Russian victimhood. What do you think about that?  

I of course agree that there is some kind of academic imperialism, both in the US and in a lot of places in Europe. But, to me, this is about more practical issues. What Western academic institutions are doing right now is trying to preserve the status quo. They are trying to preserve the same structure that they have had before. If, let’s say, Russia is not a great country, if it does not have a great culture, then why do we have so many institutions, courses, professors who teach about Russia?  

MS: Judging from Western academia’s reaction to the Russo-Ukrainian War, how they are interpreting what is happening and how they are refusing to acknowledge certain things, we see that there is a lack of knowledge not only about Ukraine, but also about Russia, despite the enormous resources spent on studying it. What contributes to this lack of understanding, even despite the resources and power Russian studies enjoy?  

Yes, you are right. There is also a lack of understanding of Russia, but I would still call it maybe not a misunderstanding of Russia, but deliberate or wishful thinking about Russia. So many scholars can read Russian, follow Russian news, have access to Russian sources. And in the case of Ukraine, it is very different. For example, in the History Department at George Washington University, earlier this year there was an event devoted to the anniversary of the full-scale war. It was stunning for me to see that they did not invite anyone who really knows Ukraine. The professors were talking mostly about Russia, Putin, China, but it was not about Ukraine at all. A lot of Western academics who are now talking about Ukraine don't have any background in Ukrainian history, they do not read or speak Ukrainian. It is very common in US universities that professors who have devoted their entire careers to Russia are now the only experts who are talking about Ukraine. So what we get is a Russia-centric prospective on the war.   

MS: One of the terms that we have not yet mentioned in this conversation is decolonization. Can we call the changes that we are talking about as an effort to decolonize the field? What does this term mean to you?  

It is a buzzword, everyone now talks about decolonization, and therefore there are lot of empty conversations that will not lead to any changes. But I do not think we need to come up with a new term to describe all the work that should be done. I have a very simple test to see if someone who is talking about decolonization really wants any changes: if someone is calling for decolonization, and at the same time says that Russia is a great country, that means that they are not sincere. I think decolonization starts with rethinking Russian history and how Russian history has been taught, how this field of knowledge production of Russian and Soviet studies is structured. 

I would say that it was only in the last couple of years that I realized how much I myself am a product of this colonial thinking. I was writing my dissertation about Transcarpathia, a region that became part of the Soviet Union only in 1946, but I was still writing it as Soviet history. And for me, it was always about Soviet women, Soviet doctors, Soviet authorities. Only now, after I finished my dissertation, have I started to rethink and question this framework.  

What we really need to focus on is not proclamations but results. And the easiest way to see the results is to look at university classrooms more than a year after the full-scale war. We can just look at numbers of Russian courses and their syllabi. Have there been any changes? Another thing to look out for is structures: how many academic positions are now offered in Russian studies and non-Russian studies, and how are these positions framed, what do they expect people to do? 

I would say that if the proportion of courses and positions dedicated to Russian literature, Russian culture, Russian history shrinks, then there will be more space for non-Russian studies. But I do not currently see this happening. I see that many universities are actually using this war as an opportunity to expand Russian studies, making the argument that we need to understand Russia better.  

MS: One observation I have is that North American academia has been treating Russian studies as a serious object of inquiry and Russian scholars as colleagues. At the same time, Ukrainian studies have not been taken seriously and Ukrainian scholars have been treated as primary data providers, at best. We also see that that attitude did not necessarily change with the full-scale invasion, as many of the “emergency scholarships” for Ukrainians are really perceived as humanitarian aid rather than an opportunity to reverse this inequality in knowledge production. Do you have any optimism that this new encounter between Western academics and Ukrainian academics would grow into a more equal and respectful relationship in the long run?  

I totally agree. That is exactly what I observed in the last year and a half. Those emergency scholarships for Ukrainian scholars are mostly seen as a humanitarian aid. And that is why I am very pessimistic. If these are just short-term fellowships, and these programs will end in a few years, then there is no chance of changing the field of Ukrainian studies. Often these fellowships do not include teaching, just individual research. Part of the problem stems from how these scholarships are designed; there are lower expectations for the scholars selected. It is, of course, an emergency situation and the selection process is dictated by this emergency situation. My feeling is that in five years this wave of fellowships for Ukrainians will be gone without any significant influence on the institutions that hosted Ukrainian scholars.   

MS: One last question for you: could you name a few things that academics who study Ukraine in North American/Western institutions can do to decolonize the field? 

It is important to keep pressure on institutions that have Russian studies programs and who now either trumpet decolonization or just continue to work as if this war has nothing to do with their courses and syllabi. We need to find ways to hold them accountable for what they say and to keep pressure on changing this field. Decolonization is a political process, its ultimate goal is the liberation of the oppressed, and decolonization in the field of knowledge production reflects what is happening in Russia and in countries under its oppression. The ultimate goal is to decolonize Russia, and Ukrainians are now the driving force of this process.  

Kateryna Ruban studies the role of abortion in Soviet life, especially as it pertained to the proclaimed goal of female emancipation. She received her PhD at New York University and is a post-doctoral fellow at George Washington University. This summer, Kateryna is a Ukraine in European Dialogue Fellow at the IWM.