Barbara Törnquist-Plewa and Rory Finnin’s Concluding Remarks at the ‘Rethinking Ukrainian Studies’ Conference

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 junior researchers from Eastern and Western Europe received travel grants to attend the conference. One of these researchers, Ivan Kozachenko (University of Cambridge), has summarised the concluding remarks delivered by Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, Professor of Eastern and Central European Studies and Head of the Centre for European Studies at Lund University, and Rory Finnin, University Senior Lecturer and Founding Director of the Ukrainian Studies Programme at the University of Cambridge.

In her concluding remarks, Barbara Törnquist-Plewa stressed the importance of contextualising Ukrainian studies in European and global contexts.  She argued that such contextualisation will reduce the risks of isolationism, parochialism and provincialism. As a new state, whose sovereignty has been challenged, Ukraine is prone to assume a defensive or even isolationist position due to its existential insecurity. While such a response can be understood and defended, Ukraine also has much to gain and to contribute in the areas of memory and borderland studies, colonial and postcolonial perspectives.

Rory Finnin and Barbara Törnquist-Plewa. Photo by Roman Boichuk

According to Professor Törnquist-Plewa, Ukrainian memory studies should be embedded into broader European and global contexts of memorialisation and commemoration practices, and should partake in research on the medialisation of memory and the transmediality of memory practices. One of the challenges that such contextualisation of Ukrainian historical and cultural memory faces comes from European liberal elite circles that emphasise cosmopolitan memory and a cosmopolitan European heritage. Such ideas are rooted in Jurgen Habermas’ work on post-national communities in Europe and do not focus on the nation or national identity, but on individuals and transcultural connections. Eastern European countries that have joined the European Union are being forced to critically scrutinise their own history and to ‘confess’ the sins of their nations against others. This liberal approach to memory politics is problematic in the case of Ukraine, as it is not yet a stable national state in the European Union. States of the European Union are prepared to give away some part of sovereignty in order to create a supranational structure. In contrast, Ukraine is still fighting for sovereignty and struggling to achieve stability. Nevertheless, in the broader world context, Ukrainian intellectual elites are expected to demonstrate liberal democratic positions and to self-critically analyse Ukraine’s past. The debates surrounding the Second World War, Stepan Bandera, and the relationships with Jews and Poles reflect this crucial challenge.

Professor Törnquist-Plewa also underscored that borderland studies, particularly popular before the enlargement of the European Union in 2004 and 2007, constitute another potential research area bridging Ukraine and Europe. Her usage of ‘Europe’ refers not just to the EU, but also to the broader geographic, cultural and historical context. She referenced Liliya Berezhnaya’s presentation that addressed the ambivalence of borderlands and pointed out that on the one hand they are contact zones and on the other, places of blurred identities. The conflict in the Balkans demonstrated the fragility and instability of such zones. Border zones are often sites where nationalism flourishes and where identity is strongly articulated and politicised. Törnquist-Plewa pointed out that the founding fathers of the Second Polish Republic – Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski – both came from the borderlands: the former from the east, and the latter from the west.

Discussing Oleksandr Osipian’s presentation, Törnquist-Plewa indicated that colonial and post-colonial perspectives continue to be very important in Ukrainian studies. While colonial and post-colonial studies were met with resistance in Ukraine in the 1990s, they offer not only explanatory, but also emancipatory and empowering potential and can be utilised to emancipate Ukrainians from Russia, from Poland, and even from the West. At the same time, colonial and post-colonial studies are very politicised and can be used by politicians to encourage opposition, as, for instance, to boost anti-Western sentiments in Poland and Hungary.

Other areas of Ukrainian studies that hold potential, according to Törnquist-Plewa, are studies of diaspora, popular culture, digital media and religion, as well as the assessment of academic canons and canonical schools. In diaspora studies, a comparative approach can provide new research opportunities. Similarly, the turn to popular culture, in opposition to the excessive attention afforded to such academic areas as historiography and literature, could provide new understandings of Ukraine and Ukrainian identity. Here, the Eurovision song contest with Jamala’s victory is a very illustrative example. Scholars should also consider films and re-enactments of historical events that are popular in Eastern Europe. Finally, Ukrainian studies need to re-evaluate existing ‘canons’ and canonical schools: While in some European countries, such as Denmark, researchers advocate the propagation of a canon, other scholars, like those in Sweden, opt for abandoning it.

Ivan Kozachenko. Photo by Roman Boichuk

Rory Finnin spoke after Professor Törnquist-Plewa. He contemplated the term ‘rethinking’ that features in the conference title. According to him, there are two sets of problems related to the ‘rethinking’ of Ukrainian studies: epistemological and ethical. A relative lack of interest in the study of a country as large, diverse, and politically significant as Ukraine is related to epistemological problems. In addition, certain frameworks regarding language politics and religion, which have been proven to be false in the aftermath of the Euromaidan, continue to be employed. The ethical problems are related to studying a country at war, as scholarship on a country at war can be used in the ‘intellectual warfare’ that accompanies every military conflict.

Doctor Finnin outlined ideas that often constitute ‘conventional wisdom’ about Ukraine and Ukrainian studies. First, the question ‘Why study Ukraine?’ needs to be answered. Not too long ago an article in Foreign Affairs was to be published under the title ‘There is No Ukraine’ before being renamed to ‘Is There One Ukraine?’. Finnin describes this persistent problem to engage with Ukraine in Sigmund Freud’s terms as ‘the blindness of a seeing eye’ or a wilful blindness toward a country that has emerged out of the peripheries of three different empires and is quite often still seen as a ‘small nation’. The events and aftermath of the Euromaidan have shown that this view is misleading.

The second issue is the vision of Ukrainian studies as a niche field. Finnin argued that Ukrainian studies deserve to be an essential research area in every university. According to him, the uniqueness of Ukraine is manifested by the fact that it has emerged as largest country within Europe thanks to the power of poetry and culture, and not the power of manifestos and political declarations. Contemporary Ukraine faces military aggression, geopolitical challenges, and the annexation of its territories. Therefore, Ukrainian studies should not be seen as a niche field, but an integral element of European studies and, according to Karl Schlögel, Ukraine itself can be seen as Europe in miniature.

The third point that was addressed by Doctor Finnin was the quite common vision of Ukraine as a passive object. This is a persistent vision in political discourses where Ukraine is usually described as a pawn in various games. Ukrainians themselves are rarely considered to have active agency. When Ukraine is allotted agency in political discussions, often this agency is characterised as unsystematic, sudden, and as coming from nowhere. Finnin stressed the importance of the ‘Revolution on Granite’ that was covered at the conference by Tatiana Zhurzhenko. This event was followed by the ‘Ukraine without Kuchma’ protests, the Orange Revolution and by the Euromaidan. But even with these numerous mass mobilisations, the role of Ukrainians in their own political future is quite commonly discounted with such prophecies as: ‘There will be no protest’; ‘Ukrainians will not remove a sitting president or force his flight’, etc. The underestimation of Ukrainian agency persists and constitutes an important problem.

Rory Finnin pointed out the challenges of the borderland framework for Ukrainian studies. Here the tendency to focus on Ukraine as ‘entangled’, as a borderland, as ambivalent, ambiguous or hybrid can be problematic. While these adjectives are all relevant to a degree, it should be not overlooked that Ukraine is also its own centre, and that it can be characterised by political and cultural clarity, while also constituting a bordered land. Moreover, even though it is entangled, it has managed to disentangle itself enough to emerge as an independent political and cultural entity. Therefore, the utilisation of borderland and hybridity frameworks should consider the structural logic in three dimensions: periphery, postcoloniality, and also the coherence of the Ukrainian project. Such coherence is often presented as very political, at the expense of looking deeply into Ukrainian society and into Ukrainian culture. According to Finnin, Ukrainian civil society is very mature and even constitutes a kind of ‘proxy state’.

Rory Finnin suggested, following Michael Oakeshott on ‘practical past’, and developing something along the lines of ‘practical culture’ or ‘practical literary studies’. In this regard, he referred to the importance of the idea of Slavia Islamica, discussed in the presentation by Alexander Kratochvil. According to Finnin, Volodymyr Zelensky’s rise to power is noteworthy as the Ukrainian national project begins with the burlesque treatment of Vergil’s epic poem – ‘Eneida’ by Ivan Kotliarevsky. While the Cossack inheritance is often discussed, there is a tendency to focus on a Romantic characterisation of Zaporozhian Cossacks that begins with Taras Shevchenko. There are other interpretations of the Cossack tradition, too, for instance a neo-classical one, which stresses the importance of humour and irony. Doctor Finnin argued that there is an evident need to look at cultural discourses that demonstrate that ‘civic nationalism’ is much more present in Ukraine than typical political analysis suggests.

These two talks provided a nuanced summary of the main topics that were covered in the two-day conference and also crystallised important areas of future research and exploration within Ukrainian studies. These gathered remarks may serve as a guide for a new generation of scholars who are trying to identify areas of priority in the large and dynamic research field of Ukrainian studies.

Citation: Ivan Kozachenko, Barbara Törnquist-Plewa’s and Rory Finnin’s Concluding Remarks at the ‘Rethinking Ukrainian Studies’ Conference, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.08.2019    

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Editorial Board (2019, 15. August). Barbara Törnquist-Plewa and Rory Finnin’s Concluding Remarks at the ‘Rethinking Ukrainian Studies’ Conference. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 25. Februar 2024, von

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Eine Antwort

  1. Ksenia Maryniak sagt:

    Very good! Many thanks to Dr. Kozachenko for this summary.

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