Taking Ukraine Seriously

IWMPost Article

There is now a widespread recognition that Ukraine matters, but long-standing habits of marginalization and the refusal to treat Ukrainians as equal partners in intellectual discussions persist. Fighting against this tendency is essential for our shared future.

It has become almost a commonplace to talk about February 24, 2022 as a moment the world changed forever. Yet for people in Ukraine the bombs that fell on Kyiv early that morning did not usher in a new world. Rather, it signified a horrible amplification of the worst aspects of the world they had been dealing with for years: not only since 2014 and Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and war in Donbas but also through the much longer history of Moscow’s hostility towards the very idea of Ukraine. We might have understood this if we had genuinely been listening to Ukrainian voices all along. But the intellectual, cultural, and political marginalization of Ukraine has kept that from happening.

Academia is having to reckon with its long-standing Russocentrism. Institutional structures, funding mechanisms, and perceptions of power have made it difficult to focus on any other part of the region, including Ukraine. The historians Andrii Portnov and Tetiana Portnova have called for “full historiographical legitimacy” for Ukraine. This would also entail recognizing the insights that come from reexamining moments in history from a Ukrainian perspective. What can we learn if we tell the story of the Cold War through a Ukrainian lens? Or that of the 1917 revolution and subsequent civil war? Studying the history of Ukraine does not have to mean replicating a national paradigm; it can help us reconsider our analytical frameworks. Transnational and global approaches to history, for example, find rich subject matter in the Ukrainian case.

The cultural sphere, too, is struggling to imagine a world in which Russian cultural products are not given pride of place. Rather than panicking over “cancelling” Russian culture, we could instead reflect on the hierarchies and policies that created space for Russian culture while marginalizing or silencing other ones. Or spend some time with Ukrainian literature and film, both of which are flourishing. Or perhaps move away from the idea of reified national cultures in the first place? IWM non-residential fellows Daria Badior and Anastasiia Platonova are working on a project called Unwinding Empire, which seeks to refocus our attention from perceived centers to peripheries—changing the optics to see the complexities, interactions, and multidirectional transfers.

If the full-scale war has prompted people to pay more attention to Ukraine, there is still much work to be done, even among those—many well intentioned—who have sought to include more Ukrainian voices in the past few months. Again and again, Ukrainians encounter suspicions that they are closet nationalists, assumptions that the Ukrainian state and society are incapable of the reforms that will be necessary to join the EU, or insinuations that they should just come to terms with having to cede territory to Russia. 
All too often, Ukrainian perspectives are treated as an afterthought, a box that must be ticked. Then fellow panelists and audiences dismiss what they say, looking down on them as too emotional or biased. Ukrainian academics are held to a different standard, with their every statement scrutinized for evidence of anti-Russian fanaticism. Could we not extend to them the most generous interpretation rather than assuming the worst?

The existence of real people with real thoughts and feelings in Ukraine is treated as almost an inconvenience for intellectual discussions. It is uncouth not to acknowledge their suffering but few people want to actually engage with what that suffering means or what the wider world’s complicity and responsibility might be. Just look at any of the many articles that pay lip service to Ukrainians’ brave resistance and horrific suffering before fretting over the fate of Russia or bemoaning the potential costs of helping Ukraine. The condescension towards Ukrainians has been so noticeable that it brought the term “Westsplaining” into our vocabulary.

The implicit and occasionally explicit sense of superiority the West brings to discussions of Ukraine and the war reveals an impoverishment of thought. Acting as if intellectual inquiry can be divorced from moral considerations is an abrogation of duty. The necessary entanglement of the two has been a core tenet of the IWM from its inception forty years ago. The IWM has always been a place that takes Eastern European intellectual contributions seriously, one of which is precisely the inescapability of ethical and moral considerations. And indeed echoes of twentieth-century Eastern European dissident thought can be heard in Ukrainian discussions today.

To be clear, the responsibility to take Ukrainian perspectives seriously is not simply an act of charity or penance. It is also a way to avoid falling into despair over the future. A consistent Ukrainian message throughout this war, all the way up to President Volodymyr Zelensky, has been that Ukraine is fighting for the future: its own future and the future of the world. This is notable not only for its stark contrast to the dead-end historical mythology peddled by the Kremlin but also for offering us the chance to think seriously about the future.

Ukrainians are already doing the hard work of thinking about the long term, about the sort of state and society they want to rebuild when the war is over—“after victory,” as the refrain goes. Let us make sure we are including Ukrainians in broader discussions about the future we envision. Their insights and experience will benefit us all. This is true when it comes to some of the biggest challenges ahead of us. 

As we rethink international law in the wake of such a blatant violation of it and international justice as the Russian regime is one day held to account, Ukrainians have much to contribute to discussions of how to best make use of existing instruments or what needs to be added if they are insufficient. 

One can only hope that the war will push us to decarbonize faster, recognizing that there is a geopolitical benefit and a climate benefit. What role could Ukraine play in this as a country that has historically felt the pain of being dependent on Russian energy? As EU leaders seek to temper Ukrainian expectations over the speed of possible membership, perhaps integration into the European Green Deal could be a mutually beneficial interim step. 

Oligarchic capitalism, which is undoubtedly a problem in Ukraine, is often talked about as if it is a uniquely Ukrainian issue. In fact, much bigger conversations need to be had about money and politics on a global scale. Including Ukrainians who have pioneered certain anticorruption strategies in those conversations would be to everyone’s benefit.
Some of the most transformative things Ukrainians can contribute to our shared future might be the most abstract: a commitment to solidarity and a sense of responsibility to one another. The writer Kateryna Mishchenko has described Ukrainians’ many acts of care and mutual aid during the war as a form of resistance to the cynical brutality of the aggressor. 
The work of recognizing Ukrainians as equal partners in envisioning the world after this war begins with learning what they think. This collection brings together voices from the IWM community to reflect on aspects of the Ukrainian past and present that are thrown into sharp relief by the war. Aside from IWM Permanent Fellow Timothy Snyder, the authors are all current or former fellows of the IWM’s Ukraine in European Dialogue program. Taken together, their insights give a sense of the perspectives that the program’s geographic and disciplinary diversity provides. The two major themes are what the war reveals, above all about the Russian regime and about the West, and reflections on the pervasive discourse about who and what is and is not Ukrainian, taking personal stories as a key to understanding the complexities of Ukrainian identity.

If we want to understand what is at stake in Ukraine today, not only for Ukrainians but for all of us, there is only one place to start: to listen to Ukrainians as they tell us what this war is about, as they tell us how it affects their lives, as they tell us about Ukraine as a state and society.

This special issue features the work of Ukrainian artists: photography by Alina Smutko and artwork by Kateryna Lysovenko. Throughout her career, Smutko has focused on ethnic, social, and religious conflicts, life in post-conflict zones, historical memory, and national identity; in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion, she has brought these emphases to her work documenting the war. Likewise, Lysovenko’s long-standing focus on the natural world, human and non-human relations, and maternal care remains visible in the work she has done since February 24.

This article appeared in the special Ukraine supplement to IWMPost 129