“Rethinking Ukrainian Studies”: Interview with Viktoria Sereda

On 16-17 May 2019, the Prisma Ukraïna conference “Rethinking Ukrainian Studies: Locally, Regionally, Transnationally” took place at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice. Ten young researchers from Eastern and Western Europe received travel grants to be able to attend this symposium. One of them – Maxim Osadchuk (Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv) – interviewed a speaker of the conference, Dr. Viktoria Sereda from the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, who is also affiliated with the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 2017-2018.

Dr. Sereda, I want to thank you and congratulate for the brilliant lecture on the new cult of heroes in Ukraine after EuroMaidan. Let me ask you a few questions that may help us to understand more deeply the transformation of historical memory and policy in Ukraine in recent years. To begin with: What are your impressions of the conference? Could all the questions posed by the conference find correct answers from the community of scholars that gathered at the Viadrina?

The conference proposed a very productive framework for an exchange of thoughts between scholars from different academic disciplines and backgrounds. What is more important, it stimulated scholars from Ukraine and their Western colleagues to think about possible methodological limitations and “sensitive issues” that both sides experience. I think that such an outcome is much more valuable than “correct answers” that might sometimes be a by-product of a prolonged immersion into a non-critical environment (which is, for example, often the case of with the traditional forms of academic life in Ukraine) that pushes aside doubts and self-reflections.

Viktoria Sereda during the conference “Rethinking Ukrainian Studies: Locally, Regionally, Transnationally”. Photo by Roman Boichuk

The thematic section to which you contributed was entitled “Researching society at war”. Tell us how it is to explore society living in war? What are some problems for sociologists working with political topics and historical memory in such circumstances?

I think scholars are confronted with a wide range of issues which require both an exchange of expert knowledge and a public debate. There is a tension between the protective reaction of some social groups to the ongoing war, which results in a demand to classify certain subjects as sensitive or potentially dangerous for people/state security, and the need for scholars to monitor the situation in all its complexity. In recent years, some Ukrainian sociologists suffered from labeling of certain questions or topics as “separatist”, while their research programs became subjected to security service enquiry. In a sense, the field of what’s possible for researchers has narrowed. On the other hand, one should notice that war-free societies also face similar challenges, but, perhaps, of a lower intensity. In addition, many western scholarly institutions have in-built mechanisms for research quality and sensitivity check (so-called ethics commissions), and do not entrust this function to external non-academic institutions.

The other challenge for me as for a sociologist is how to reconcile the scholarly need to hear different voices and later represent them (remembering that neither you yourself nor auditorium to which you are reporting your results are neutral) with your own sense of social responsibility. For me, very telling was an open discussion between the leading Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Paniotto and his Russian colleagues after he refused to participate in a joint research project. Paniotto argued that what was intended to be a liberal attempt at describing the current situation might in a way provide some legitimization to Putin’s occupation of Crimea.

Another research dilemma which strongly comes to play in such situations is the problem of the insider/outsider position of the researcher. Research conducted by a scholar, who is external to the conflict, is often automatically more valued as being allegedly more neutral and, therefore, more trustful. However, if you do not understand local sensitivities you might overlook the biases your research is producing. Just to give an example, some Western colleagues think that there is no methodological difference between research conducted in a society which experiences war or foreign occupation and a “normal” one. But could it be the same if respondents and interviewers might be arrested/tortured/killed at any moment for asking/answering a particular question? And later, how could the media outcomes of such research be shared without reinforcing certain power relations or biases, and how could one make sure that the public takes into account all the nuances, sensitivities and circumstances under which the data was collected.

According to the public statement of the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance Volodymyr Vyatrovich, the decommunization in Ukraine has been successfully completed. How, from your point of view, has historical memory changed during the last 5 years under the influence of this process?

Within a traditional paradigm, social processes are often viewed as linear, initiated from above, passing through some stages of development and then finally accomplished. A more critical approach suggests that we have to approach social change rather as a complex and ongoing process, which is embedded in power relations, is multi-layered and multi-directional. In this sense, the communist past will have many more long-lasting effects on Ukrainian society and its understanding of the past. It will be present in social identities and practices in one or the other form for much longer, although senses attributed to it will gradually change.

Decommunization completed? The Anti- Terrorist Operation Museum in Dnipro. Photo by Michal Korhel

How would you define the current model of historical policy in Ukraine? How do you think it should change in order to promote social harmony? Is there anything that needs to change here? What steps in this direction are expected from the new president?

Today the process of (re)imaging of the past and memoryscapes in Ukraine is very intense, happening on all levels of society and involving very diverse social actors. Under such circumstances, it is important to make use of all possibilities for an open public discussion about the past and to involve local civil society in moderating it. At the same time, one should be aware that local elites might try to preserve the status quo or successfully resist changes if they perceive them as unwanted and or interfering with their political orientations. Similarly, attempts to impose some visions of the past from above might provoke negative reactions, and therefore, Zelensky’s policy does not have much latitude and is likely to be constrained by the local elites as well as civil society activists.

What would you answer to some Western columnists who in recent years recognize a new cult of heroes in Ukraine as a radical nationalist political project? Is it generally true that the Maidan and the war have shifted the Ukrainian society sharply to the right?

Ukraine is a very interesting case to study. I would like to refer to the results of the last presidential elections. In spite of the ongoing war, the right-wing candidates accumulated less than 1.5% of votes. The winning candidate’s political position might be described as populism without nationalism. Recent sociological studies also show that Ukrainians demonstrate a relatively low level of anti-Semitism and a growing support for the political understanding of the nation. At the same time, we do observe increasing interference of the right-wing groups into Ukrainian political and economic life, which should be closely monitored by media and civil society.

The new cult of heroes in Ukraine can hardly be appropriated exclusively by the radical nationalists. First, the Anti-Terrorist Operation directly affected much wider circles of Ukrainian society and dead soldiers represented all possible social strata and regions of Ukraine. Second, their commemoration is not initiated by one particular group or single state institution, but is often characterized by local grassroots initiatives enacted by the local activists. Our research demonstrates that, in many localities, those new sites of memory might be intertwined with the cults of fallen soldiers of the Soviet Afghan or Great Patriotic Wars, and at the same time might also contain some right-wing symbolic elements. 

The Anti- Terrorist Operation Museum in Dnipro. Photo by Elżbieta Olzacka

In the context of the War in Donbas, which has already been going on for six years, what is the attitude to the cult of heroes of the Maidan and the Anti-Terrorist Operation /Joint Forces Operation in the East and South of Ukraine? Is it possible to observe different perspectives on historical memory in this area?

In the course of the Euromaidan and right after it, when public activism reached its peak, spontaneous local grassroots initiatives emerged that aimed at the creation of a new heroic cult. In general, over 65% of respondents think that Euromaidan events should be commemorated, but the level of support and the meanings ascribed to this commemoration would still vary in different parts of Ukraine, since Euromaidan itself did not have equal degrees of support in all oblasts. Very soon, this heroic narrative developed into a new, more powerful one associated with the armed conflict in the Donbas. Opinion polls demonstrate that, for the first time in Ukraine’s recent history, a new cult of heroes has emerged and is supported by 3\4 of respondents in practically all regions of Ukraine. However, shifting our perspective from macro-level trends to local-level practices reveals that this cult of heroes also provokes many debates over the nature of the conflict and forms of commemoration. An important indicator of emerging counter-memories, voiced by those who have alternative interpretations of events, are acts of vandalism all over the country.

Finally, I suggest turning back to history, which is, so to speak, your first academic passion. Was there something similar to the Ukrainian “memory revolution” in Eastern and Western Europe? If so, which examples would you deem most useful to compare with the Ukrainian experience?

Pierre Nora argued that in the second half of the 20th century the western world led the global trend of the ideological and internal decolonization of memory. Fifteen years ago, Harvard historian, Charles Maier, examining debates about historical memory in Europe, described them as divided between the “hot” discussions about the memory of the Nazi crimes, and the “cold” memory about the communist past. Since that time, Eastern Europe had merged the “hot” debate zone with decommunization debates (and here Ukraine is rather a latecomer), and Western Europe went into a second cycle of memory debates, which can be described as new anti-colonialist ones. Which European country could serve as a good case for comparison? I think that Ukrainian society shares many common traits with both Western and Eastern European societies. However, as Ukrainian society faces its own unique challenges over the last few years, it is not easy to select a comparable case.  No other European country is currently under the direct military attack of a global superpower, and nowhere else in Europe are ordinary citizens mobilized and deployed to the front line of the armed conflict. Therefore, a comparison with any of the immediate European neighbors of Ukraine might be misleading.


Citation: “Rethinking Ukrainian Studies”: Interview with Viktoria Sereda, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.07.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19157



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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