“I was never afraid of moving to other countries” – 5in10 with Yuliya Yurchuk

Yuliya Yurchuk. Photo: Ewa Dabrowska

Yuliya Yurchuk is a postdoctoral researcher at the History Department at Södertörn University, Sweden. She received her PhD for a doctoral dissertation entitled “Reordering of Meaningful Worlds: Memory of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in Post-Soviet Ukraine” at Stockholm University. Her ongoing research deals with memory and religion in Ukraine and with historians’ responses to the Ukraine–Russia conflict, funded by the Baltic Sea Foundation. She specializes in memory studies, the study of nationalism in East European countries, and postcolonial studies. Yuliya is currently a Research Fellow of Prisma Ukraïna Research Network Eastern Europe at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien.


What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

As a child born in a little Ukrainian town in Rivne oblast, I was always intrigued about the “big world”. My grandparents on both sides were from different parts of Europe and the two great wars made them end up in Ukraine, but their everyday talks were full of descriptions of other places. My paternal family moved from Warsaw to the East during the First World War while my maternal family moved from Polish “kresy” (Eastern borderlands of the Second Polish Republic) to Wolhynia after the Second World War. They had their roots in Poland but because they were Orthodox they were forced to move after the war. Many of their neighbors and friends stayed in Poland. When I was a child we often visited them back in 1980s. It was my first “window” to Europe, a peep to the life which differed from ours.

My family led an urban life, but almost all of my grandparents’ neighbors and friends lived in the villages. They had beehives, worked in the fields, it was fascinating for me. They were so beautiful and open-minded people. My parental grandparents, on the other hand, had very close friends in Czechoslovakia, because they lived in the part of Wolhynia where many Czechs had been living in the 19th and the early 20th century. We still have many “Czech” villages there, although without Czechs anymore. So, almost all neighbors and friends from those “Czech” villages moved to Czechoslovakia (they live in Slovakia nowadays). But they hold close contacts to my grandmother and when it was possible to travel to them, we did it quite often. So, this part of the world – East-Central Europe – became a kind of second home for me. However, I always dreamt to see more of the world. Absolutely everything was interesting for me: foreign languages, unknown food, and other customs. In a certain way, all the contacts back then, showed me that all the people are the same; we all have similar dreams and fears. Perhaps that is why I was never afraid of moving to other countries when I grew up. I always felt safe everywhere.

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative for you?

Particularly formative for me was the period between 2006 and 2008 when I left a very nice job I had in Kyiv and moved to Göttingen to start my second MA there. It was an adult and well-planned decision. By then, I had already got my first degree in Ukraine and had worked for two years in Kyiv. But I wanted to change something and I applied for an Erasmus Mundus scholarship for MA studies and I was completely happy when I succeeded. So, I spent a year in Göttingen and half a year in San Sebastian. It was a truly interdisciplinary program. For the first time in my life I could choose the courses myself. So, besides very interesting obligatory classes I took a lot of extra courses. I learned Japanese and French, took courses in postcolonial theory and gender studies. I was very happy. I graduated with distinction and with all my professors recommending me to continue the career in academia and to apply for a PhD position. Academic life was so far from what I imagined for me, but then, I started to seriously think that maybe they all were right and I should at least try and apply for a PhD. This meant practically that those professors, with their ability to see something what I could not see myself, had completely changed the direction of my life. That is why, I believe, this experience was so decisive for me.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

I studied for my first MA in Ukraine, I did my second MA in Germany and Spain, I completed my PhD in Sweden. Besides, I had internships in Berlin and Bremen. During my PhD years, I was a visiting researcher in Florence. Now, I am a Prisma Ukraïna Fellow in Berlin. Of course, all these trips and experiences mean a lot of new professional and personal contacts. Because of these contacts I was invited to different international projects which enriched not only my professional network but also the way I think. I highly appreciate academic mobility and I will certainly try to have more of such experience in the future, but I hope to get a tenure position so that my future is not only exiting but also secured. Without the academic mobility one can hardly speak about high quality research nowadays, as a researcher needs to communicate with others. I am convinced that living an isolated life with books in an ivory tower does not work well for the quality of your research.

Which key insights from your research do you consider to be the most surprising for general audiences? Why do you believe this to be the case?

For me, the most unexpected outcome is a general understanding and appreciation of my work in Ukraine. As I am working on collective memory, I am often involved in “deconstructing” some images and ideas which are dear to other people. After publishing my dissertation (which is in open access so that everyone can read it), I expected that even some of my friends would be angry with me. But, to my surprise, most of the readers told me that finally they can understand better why Russian and some other media are talking about “Ukrainian nationalists”. My dissertation was published in 2014, exactly when Ukraine was undergoing the hardest time in its contemporary history. Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin, talked about Ukrainian “fascists” and many of my friends who are not scholars wrote to me that they are happy that my dissertation was such timely, as it explained a lot on how history is being used in the information war. Of course, when I chose my topic and when I was writing the book, I could not imagine in my worst dreams that this research will be so “up to date”. I felt sad about that because all the theories, hypothetical arguments proved real, not hypothetical anymore.

Now I am dealing with history-writing after the Euromaidan in Ukraine. And here I am again positively surprised. I was expecting that the history produced after the Euromaidan will be highly nationalistic (taking into account the ongoing war in Ukraine), but life proved to be more manifold than expected. The histories produced even within the same umbrella project of self-organized historians who became civil activists are too diverse to be pushed into a single theory. This makes my work more difficult but also more exciting. It would have been very boring to realize that the thought you had two years ago when starting the project proved just right after so much work. I like it to be surprised and I must say I am often surprised while conducting my research.

My new project is about memory and religion. Everyone expects clear-cut answers as it seems so clear on the first sight that the Churches in Ukraine would promote either “pro-Moscow” or “pro-Ukrainian” memory politics depending on the patriarchate. But what I can see now, is an immensely complex picture, very much situational and dependent on personalities.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

The recent workshop at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin with Aleida and Jan Assmann was very inspiring. It was not a usual workshop, but rather a meeting where they discussed their new project on “Memory in the City” and introduced other scholars who will be working with them. It was nice to meet all those researchers who are interested in the topics I am concerned with. The presentation of Andreas Kappeler’s new book on the entangled history of Russia and Ukraine “Ungleiche Brüder. Russen und Ukrainer vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart” at the Centre Marc Bloch and the following discussion was also very stimulating. In this regard, it was exciting to think that history does not predetermine everything. There are always a lot of possibilities for the future despite the past. The recent Russian-Ukrainian conflict is not the consequence of a long history of unequal relations throughout hundreds of years. It is rather a result of decisions of particular people made in particular moments of the time. If many “ifs” in the present were different, the present and the future would be different as well.



Citation: “I was never afraid of moving to other countries” – 5in10 with Yuliya Yurchuk, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.05.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10241.


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