“I plead for a dispassionate dialogue on memory” – Interview with Iuliia Buyskykh


From October 2017 to January 2018, Iuliia Buyskykh is a Visiting Fellow at Prisma Ukraina – Research Network Eastern Europe. She is an ethnologist currently working with the National Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine in Kyiv. In Berlin, she will focus on the question of how imaginary borders between “us” and “them” are fabricated in the local discourse of ethnically and religiously mixed borderland regions between Poland and Ukraine and how disparate memories of a traumatic past contribute to this. For more information on Julia and her fellowship, see here.

Julia, you are a researcher of Ukrainian origin, working on the presence of divergent, sometimes contradictory memories in different segments of the local population in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands around Przemyśl and the Polish-Belorussian-Ukrainian border region of Włodawa. How did you first get interested in your research topic?

I have to admit that ‘memory studies’ did not form the main focus of my research agenda when I started my research in Poland in September 2014. My PhD and previous fieldwork in the Polesie (Polissya in Ukrainian) ethnographic region (North-West Ukraine, mostly Ukrainian-Belarusian borderland) concerned questions of ‘folk religiosity’, healing and magic practices in post-kolkhoz rural areas. Since 2015 I worked and partly still work as a participant of two projects focusing on lived religious practices in Poland, which were financed by the Polish National Centre of Science (Narodowe Centrum Nauki).

As you can see, the initial subject of my research in Poland had been religious culture, and performative religious practices in local communities as well as inter-confessional relations between Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. However, during my interaction with people here themes came to light that seemed little related to religiousness. My status as a researcher from Ukraine and even more so, my being a young single woman from Ukraine, gave rise to a number of other topics that my interlocutors were eager to discuss. One of the most important themes in these conversations was the Polish-Ukrainian relations in the interwar period, during WW II and after it. Not wanting or intending to, I was involved in discussions about reciprocal traumas and the bloodiest pages in Polish-Ukrainian history, like the ethnic cleansings and forcible resettlements of 1944-1947. These discussions were very difficult for me, too. Still, the material I received helped me to better understand the complexity of factors contributing to religious identity of average persons. Thus, memory and especially the concept of ‘postmemory’ (initially formulated by Marianne Hirsch) became very important for me and my research. ‘Postmemory’ refers to the memory of a second and even third generation, who themselves never experienced trauma but inherited it from their parents and grandparents. It is a part of their cultural background. Using also the elaborations of Danièle Hervieu-Léger and her conception of religion as a ‘chain of memory’ in my research I now aim to show in what sense religion can be conceived of as memory which produces collective meanings. My current study offers analyses of religious memory as a source of collective meanings, as seen from the perspective of marginal religious communities (Orthodox and Greek Catholic) on the periphery of the EU, in Eastern Poland.

Can you give us an example for ‘contradictory memories’ in these regions?

The traumas of WW II, of ethnic cleansings and forcible resettlements are still palpable in local frontier communities in Eastern Poland. I assume that the situation is similar in the Western Ukrainian counterparts, but I didn’t conduct research there. With ‘contradictory memories’ I refer on one hand to the nostalgic vision of a ‘multicultural past’ before WW II, when Polish and Ukrainian neighbours were purportedly living peacefully together and celebrating both Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic (or Orthodox) feasts together. This vision, I found, on the other hand contradicts the memory and quite strong postmemory of past violence perpetrated by neighbours against each other during the Nazi occupation and after WW II. This seems quite characteristic for the second generation of both Polish and Ukrainian respondents who were born after WW II and who hadn’t experienced any traumas of this period themselves. Still, they tended to blame neighbours of other nationality and denomination for sufferings of their parents or grandparents. My fieldwork also revealed that the collective memory of Orthodox and Roman Catholic neighbours (or Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics) in the same local community was often quite different and influenced by church institutions.

What role did your origins play for those you worked with?

In each of the regions in Poland where I conducted research, being an ‘alien’ – because of my status as a scholar, but also because I am foreigner from an unstable neighboring state whose citizens massively come to Poland to study and to work – influenced the progress and results of my research. I have even written an article about it, too, trying to frame both my anthropological and personal reflections (A Ukrainian Scholar in Poland: Notes in the Margins, in Lud, Vol. 100, 2016, pp. 153-160). After finding out that I was Ukrainian, topics that related to religiousness in a stricter sense were pushed to the background because, as said, both my Polish and Ukrainian interlocutors wanted to discuss traumatic moments of Polish-Ukrainian history and current economic and political issues with me. I tried to avoid these topics, but I didn’t succeed.

Przemyśl and surroundings

In one of the areas I worked in, the Podkarpacie region (Przemyśl and surroundings) the first stereotype I faced was a negative image of Ukrainians as ‘banderivtsi’. After recognizing the ‘eastern’ accent of my Polish, often the story about the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) and banderivtsi (soldiers of UPA) was the first thing that potential informants who identified themselves as Roman Catholic Poles would mention. The first question they put to me was: “Was your grandfather in the UPA?” Or they would demand: “I want you to apologize to me for Volhynia massacre, and then we will talk.” I felt confused because I had been asking about local sacred sites and pilgrimages, about mixed Polish-Ukrainian families and personal religiousness. Instead, I had to listen to introductory talks about the UPA. I had never been exposed to such stereotypes before and hadn’t been confronted with the perception of Ukrainians as a homogeneous group bearing collective responsibility for past crimes committed by some representatives of the group. My nationality and gender also induced a widespread stereotype. People sometimes didn’t perceive me as a researcher. Instead, they considered me to be a young girl from Ukraine, who spoke with a nice ‘eastern’ accent and was looking for work as a cleaner, babysitter, caretaker, or for some sort of seasonal work. Some of them also thought I had come to find a husband in Poland. Some friendly women, particularly those who gave me shelter during my travels in the borderlands, made attempts to introduce me to older men, explaining that my marriage to a Pole, accompanied by a work permit and longer stay in Poland, would give me a ticket to a better life. In addition, I was confronted with an apparent fear of a large influx of Ukrainian workers in reaction to the political instability and economic crisis in Ukraine.

On the other hand, working among those locals in the Przemyśl area who identified themselves as Ukrainians (Greek Catholic and Orthodox), I sometimes faced fear and mistrust. I expected from local Ukrainians that they would totally accept me as their ‘own’, but they didn’t. Being from Ukraine, speaking Ukrainian in a different way, I was someone ‘not truly own’, but an ‘alien Ukrainian’. People frequently felt threatened because of the events of the distant past (like Polish-Ukrainian guerilla war in the Transcarpathian region (Podkarpacie) which resulted in ethnic cleansing and forcible resettlements). They thought I intended to research the Nazi occupation period, the activities of the UPA, and to look for their family ties to the UPA partisans. The majority of them refused to be recorded and asked me to sign some papers that I wouldn’t use the information from our talks against them. The fact that until today people feel responsible for and threatened by something they hadn’t done (and in the majority of cases neither had their parents and grandparents) was overwhelming for me. I had to be quite sensitive and delicate not to injure anybody and to preserve the total anonymity of our talks.

It is well known and has been thoroughly described that anthropologists have been seen as being ‘betwixt and between’. It is too early to draw far-going conclusions from the ‘stereotyping’ I experienced from the two main groups of respondents. Diplomacy in the field was a huge challenge for me. I could observe the imaginary borders between me, as a ‘foreign other’, and several ethnically and religiously diverse groups of neighbours, who have been forged together by their memories of alien locals or ‘our others’. This observation could become the starting point for a further stage of research. I believe that reframing the main research problem by responding to what the field ‘throws’ to the ethnographer was more effective for me than the initial research intentions and plans. Now I would like to focus on questions like how religion affects memories in particular communities, how it strengthens or, on the contrary, breaks ‘imaginary’ borders, influencing the whole process of reconciliation in the area.

Inscriptions in three languages at the entrance to the Church Of The Nativity Of The Blessed Virgin Mary, Orthodox Parish in Włodawa: ‘I was someone who did this for you! And what have you done for me?’ (photo: Iuliia Buyskykh)

In recent years, the role memory – especially of violent and traumatic events – plays in perpetuating conflict or enabling reconciliation has become acknowledged by scholars and practitioners alike. In your recent talk here at the Prisma Ukraina Lecture Series, you stress the role of local grassroots initiatives in any process of reconciliation. Why do you think are there efforts more important than, say, national ones that aim at the reform of school textbooks?

I am convinced that we all, ordinary people and scholars alike, can and should learn important lessons from past violence in order to never let it revert in any forms. I plead for a constructive and dispassionate dialogue on memory and specifically on controversial issues like ‘national heroes’ on both sides of the Polish-Ukrainian border. This should of course take place through professional research seminars, conferences, schools, scholarly exchange, common projects, etc., but at the same time, it should happen on the level of local governmental activities or non-governmental grassroots initiatives (festivals, concerts, volunteering camps, etc.). To learn lessons from Polish-Ukrainian history and to transform them into palpable action to improve the neighbourly relations is a great responsibility.

One of the most important lesson I learned working in Eastern Poland was quite ordinary and common, but very important. The truth is that there is no entirely good or entirely evil nation (people, ethnic or religious group). There are various persons with their particular deeds. And those who are living today are not responsible for crimes committed decades ago by representatives of a nation they identify themselves with. Grandchildren are not responsible for something their grandparents did. Of course, this argument is a slippery slope. I avoid talking about a general ‘historically justified’ ‘collective responsibility’ of Ukrainians towards Poles or Poles towards Ukrainians.

Of course, my opinion is rather subjective and based on my communication with ordinary people in several local communities on the periphery, in Eastern Poland. I didn’t talk to representatives of local government or other people who are ‘burdened with power’. Thus, my starting point is the perspective of ordinary people, their world view and their relationships to their neighbors – and I learned that these include two types of ‘others’: ‘own others’, members of the respective other confessional group (Orthodox, Roman or Greek Catholic) who live in their own community; and ‘foreign others’ who live across the state border. In my opinion in order to develop good neighborly relations both with neighbouring ‘foreign others’ and ‘own others’, it is quite important to have common leisure activities like festivals, concerts, youth movements, common volunteer work concerning the restauration of old abandoned cemeteries etc. In this regard, the ‘Days of Good Neighborhood’ which are organized by local governments both from Polish and Ukrainian sides in those areas of the state boundary that still don’t have an official border crossing are of great importance. On these days, people from Ukraine are allowed to cross the border without visas, and trade markets, excursions and concerts are being organized on both sides. This is a local, grassroots way of building a ‘good neighborhood’, because it breaks down post-communist imaginary walls of the ‘other’ and addresses some stereotypical perceptions of ‘Ukrainians’ – like those I had experienced during my research here. I suggest that ‘foreign others’ like me or even inhabitants of border communities in Ukraine could hardly become ‘own others’. However, I believe that the existing imaginary borders between all the actors of Polish-Ukrainian borderlands in that particular area may be erased with the development of these activities. In my opinion, this is a very promising and productive way of reconciliation: It addresses the immediate context and everyday environment of local people and thus are a lot more palpable and important to local communities than abstract political rhetoric and decisions on much higher levels. Of course, with the new, liberal visa regime between Ukraine and the EU the whole situation on the Polish-Ukrainian borderland may change for better. We shall see.


Questions: Ulrike Gatzemeier


Citation: “I plead for a dispassionate dialogue on memory on both sides of the Polish-Ukrainian border” – Interview with Iuliia Buyskykh, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.10.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7848.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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