Conference Report: “Rethinking Ukrainian Studies: Locally, Regionally, Transnationally”
By Antonina Rybka
On 16–17 May, Frankfurt an der Oder, a city on the German-Polish border, welcomed international scholars, young researchers and students to the Prisma Ukraïna Conference Rethinking Ukrainian Studies: Locally, Regionally, Transnationally where the future of Ukrainian studies was discussed. European University Viadrina is the only German university with a Chair for Ukrainian Studies, which means that Ukrainian Studies are taught there not within the realm of European history, but independently from it. For the first time, under the initiative of Andrii Portnov, Professor at the European University Viadrina and Director of Prisma Ukraïna, scholars from the universities of Potsdam, Münster, Cambridge, Berlin, Lviv, Lund, London, Victoria (Canada), Vienna and Frankfurt/Oder came together to consolidate Ukrainian Studies as an interdisciplinary academic field.
The conference had an intense 2-day programme starting with an opening keynote lecture from the Professor of History and Germanic & Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria, Serhy Yekelchyk, about “writing the history of the revolution in the time of war”. Serhy Yekelchyk touched upon several revolutions and wars of the 20th-21st century and mentioned how the hybridity of memory in Ukraine was caused by different regional historical discourses and the attempts of Ukrainian governments to institutionalise it. According to Yekelchyk, Russian aggression changed the narrative of the Second World War in Ukraine. He also argued that “the Russian authorities are creating the Other while projecting upon Ukraine certain categories (sets of values, evaluation criteria and visions) that would fit neatly into Russian historical memory”. In conclusion, Yekelchyk argued that the new national mythology of Ukraine has become more open and now provides room for dialogue.
Aleksandr Osipian, Guest Lecturer of Eastern European History at the Faculty of History and Cultural Studies at Justus-Liebig-University Giessen and Prisma Ukraïna Fellow 2017, opened the second day of the conference with the panel “Rethinking Ukrainian History” and presented the under-researched areas of Ukrainian history. He considers the transition from pre-modern to modern Ukrainian history to be absent in the historical mainstream of Ukraine. He also highlighted the self-isolation of the academic discipline of Ukrainian history since it tends to separate itself both from Polish and Soviet history. Moreover, Russian imperial rule is mainly narrated as external, consolidated and anonymous. According to Osipian, there is a need to reintegrate Ukrainian history into a broader context of imperial and world history. Research in a global comparative context was also a topic of interest for panelist Liliya Berezhnaya, Research Assistant at the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” of the University of Münster. Berezhnaya discussed the historiography of borderland studies. In her opinion, the lacunas in Ukrainian Border Studies might have contributed to the dramatic escalation of the recent ideological crisis accompanying the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. The panel was chaired by Werner Benecke, Professor for Culture and History of Eastern and Central Europe at the European University Viadrina (Frankfurt/Oder) and commentated by Jan C. Behrends, Research Associate at the Centre for Contemporary History (Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung, Potsdam) and Lecturer of East European and Modern History at Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Behrends paid particular attention to the matter of perspective and the importance of not praising one grand narrative but instead striving for plurality. From his point of view, one should also be careful with Western epistemology and the concepts applied to Ukraine. All scholars emphasised that the history of Ukraine should not be used as a tool to legitimise Ukrainian statehood and should be more than merely a national one. Therefore, some of the tasks for the field should be to denationalise history, to normalise Ukrainian studies and tell the Ukrainian story as part of a common history of world making.
The second panel, on “Ukrainian Literature in the World Context”, was opened with a presentationgiven by Olena Haleta, Professor of Literary Theory and Comparative Literary Studies at the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv and Professor of Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Humanities, Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. In her research, Haleta investigated the problems of hierarchy and canon in the context of assembling anthologies. The discussion was followed with a contribution by Alexander Kratochvil, Lecturer of Ukrainian Literature at the European University Viadrina, who outlined the concept of Slavia Islamica in Slavic studies. Annette Werberger, Professor of European Literatures and Dean of the Faculty for Cultural and Social Studies at the European University Viadrina, moderated the session, while Susi K. Frank, Professor of East Slavic Literatures and Cultures at the Institute for Slavic Studies at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin commented on the presentations. The productive discussion continued with questions on the canon in school books and Ukrainian literature abroad.
During the short break, participants had the chance to view the opening of a photo exhibition by Roman Boichuk, a student of Viadrina University from Ukraine who shared impressions of his home region. Later, the fruitful and inspiring cooperation continued. In the third panel, “Researching Society at War”, Tatiana Zhurzhenko, Guest Professor for East European Studies at the Institute for Political Studies at the University of Vienna, covered the contested urban memories of the recent conflict. She described how the confrontation of different historical narratives and the creation of new ones are reflected in the spaces of Ukrainian cities. Victoriya Sereda, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, presented the results of recent sociological surveys on the cult of heroes in post-Maidan Ukraine. The panel was chaired by Timm Beichelt, Professor of European Studies at the European University Viadrina. Andrew Wilson, Professor in Ukrainian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, provided his critical commentary. An important question was asked by Oleh Kotsyuba, the Manager of Publications at the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University. He pointed out the numerous mentioning of the word “reconciliation” during the panel and in general debates without giving a solid explanation to what it can mean in the context of the current Ukrainian political situation, how we can measure reconciliation and how it affects the research. This question was left open for future scholarly investigations.
Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, Professor of Eastern and Central European Studies and Head of the Centre for European Studies at Lund University, and Rory Finnin, Associate Professor in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge, contributed to the concluding discussion. They mentioned two problems in Ukrainian Studies: an epistemological and an ethical one. The epistemological one relates to the theories and methods used; the ethical problem refers to the studying of a country at war. Since Ukraine is frequently represented as a pawn in the international arena and is viewed in Europe through the lenses of Russian Studies, does the scholar have a duty to spread more knowledge about Ukraine in an educational and an activist sense, or do they need to solely concentrate on doing research? Hopefully there will be new opportunities to contemplate these vital issues at future meetings, following the prospective aims of this conference to establish a new tradition of symposiums on the future of Ukrainian studies.
Citation: Antonina Rybka, Conference Report: “Rethinking Ukrainian Studies: Locally, Regionally, Transnationally”, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.07.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19040