“It’s necessary for researchers, driven by ethical values, to establish historical perspective in times of crisis” – 5in10 with Olha Labur
Olha Labur is a historian from Kyiv who researches women’s experiences in the 20th century. She works as an associate professor in the Department of History of Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. Since 2017, she teaches the post-graduate course “The Gender History of Ukraine”. She is a member of the Ukrainian Association of Women’s History Researchers and of the Gender Center at Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. In the spring of 2022, she received a scholarship from the Free University in Berlin. Previously, Olha was on the organizing committee and a participant of the fifth and sixth International Scientific and Practical Conferences, “Women in Science and in Education: The Past, the Present, the Future” (2010 and 2011). She also taught the online course “The History of Ukraine, 1917”. Of the ten lectures, one of the topics was “Interesting Women” during the revolutionary year 1917. In 2016, as a part of the screening of the film The Right to a Woman (1930), directed by Oleksiy Kapler, Olha gave the lecture “The Right to a Woman – The Right to a Burqa” in cooperation with Maryna Voronina. Olha Labur is a 2022/2023 Prisma Ukraïna Fellow.
How would you explain your research to someone who’s not an expert?
I’m interested in the female dimension of history – history based on the voices of women, and their experiences and opinions. We’ve all heard about the Amazons, the ancient Greek myth about a tribe of free and brave warrior women. And we know about the Kyiv princesses Olga, Anna, Maria, and Elyzaveta, the Nobel laureate Maria Skladovska-Curie, and Queen Victoria, Maria-Teresa, and Elizaveta, who were outstanding figures of the last century.
But we know very little about ‘ordinary’ women – peaceful and revolutionary women, women who were scientists or housewives. What were they thinking, dreaming of, doing? How did they see the world? What were their expectations and desires? I was fascinated by these questions even in my student years. I was drawn to researching my female ancestors: my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. And the further I moved in search of answers, the more intriguing their stories became for me: their victories and defeats, their protests and agreements, their everyday and their celebrations. They created an incredible kaleidoscope of the past that every inquisitive historian would want to understand and learn more about.
Understanding the stories of women, I began to look differently at the ‘other stories’ – those of men, of families and children, of people of different ethnicities, of masters and slaves, of rulers and the conquered. The hidden sides of the past were revealed to me: discriminations, inequalities, emancipations, and egalitarianism. Finally, I became more sensitive to the future, to the perspectives, to the possibilities, and to understanding what I wanted to change for the better. And now I work on research that is new for me, which can reveal the hidden stories of migrant women, especially in the unprecedented times of war.
What intrigued you when you started your academic journey? What were formative encounters or challenges?
I’ve been lucky to meet many interesting and extraordinary personalities. But I want to describe one particular experience. It was a turning point for me in many regards, from the human to the scientific. In 2010, I arrived in Lviv, with my husband Borys and my 6-month-old daughter Victoria, for an international conference. There were many researchers there studying the past of women. It’s impossible to forget the way we passionately talked, discussed, and shared our thoughts about our research topics. It was as if we all spoke the same language and used the same words; we even easily understood each other almost nonverbally.
All this happened despite the fact that most of us met for the first time. Through our conversations, the idea arose to create an organization of female researchers that would help us coordinate our efforts, spread our research, and advance women’s history in Ukraine. So, I became involved in the creation of the Ukrainian Association of Women’s History Researchers. We were supported and inspired by colleagues from the International Federation for Research in Women’s History.
But this story is not only about the creation of a scientific society of like-minded people, but primarily about sisterhood, solidarity, and human values. We helped and motivated each other, shared experiences and ideas, created research projects, and produced monographs. During the Russo-Ukrainian War, we became even closer – not just as colleagues, but almost as if we were real sisters. I can only say warm words of gratitude to the researchers Kateryna Kobchenko and Oksana Kis, who supported me and encouraged me to take action during the difficult times of the war.
How, if at all, has the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine influenced your research questions or approaches?
This is quite an interesting question for a historian who found herself as a witness to the war and a citizen of the country that is attacked. For me, the war brought a lot of changes, including in research. It made me reconsider myself, my professional activities, and my research practices. An unknown sense of space suddenly opened before me, consisting of many ‘fronts’: the historical, informational, and cultural. Interdisciplinary and international research communication became more visible.
During this period, I made many new acquaintances with researchers from Ukraine and Germany, encountered new literature, had new thoughts, and engaged in new creative endeavors. My research has been enriched with novel methodological approaches and tools, particularly from the history of emotions and medical anthropology. In parallel with these opportunities, I’ve also faced serious challenges. I began to understand, more acutely, the value of freedom in research and the pluralism of opinions, as well as the risks of the politicization and falsification of history. For me, as a historian of the Soviet era, the problems of identifying the ‘Soviet’ and the need for its legacy in independent Ukraine have become more sensitive than ever.
What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?
It all starts with a distortion of the past – this is how I would like to frame the role of the humanities and social sciences during times of war and rise of authoritarianism. Through the prism of today’s war, I see two possible roles for the researcher, one positive and one negative. This is determined by the individual choosing freedom, conscience, and knowledge – or their opposites.
Here I mean, first of all, the negative possibility of selecting ‘one true story’, without variations and hypotheses – a clear ideological matrix created by the authorities to justify their violent actions. This produces the ‘illusion of uniqueness’ and a ‘mission’ for a community, society, or state, one that is selectively chosen from a past that has been tampered with. In this case, other interpretations are rejected, or even made taboo. Each researcher must make their choice, and define their role and their understanding of ‘professionalism’. The values and positive qualities of the humanities and social sciences are formed based on the activities of those who choose conscience, freedom, dignity, human values, and professionalism as the basis of their research practice. It’s necessary for researchers, driven by ethical values, to establish historical perspective in times of crisis.
How do you think war affects memory or identity? And how does this connect to your research?
This is perhaps the most difficult question for me, because this issue is currently transforming and being reconceptualized. But war definitely affects the memory and identity of both those who attack and those who defend – and it influences these topics heavily. In the case of Ukrainians, who defend their right to exist and the right to statehood, this impact is transformative.
Historical memory is malleable: the old ‘Soviet’ identity is cut off and a new idea of the ‘national’ is born, with new heroes, and new significant places and ‘memoryscapes’ (e.g., in Bucha, Irpin, and Mariupol). The role of your own involvement in the future and your responsibility for the fate of the state acquires new meaning. This is probably the most radical format of memory change. It not only changes the old, by radically cutting off unnecessary and outdated social constructs, but also allows for new ideas, conceptions of national ideals, and values to emerge.
My research examines these transformations through the lens of the lived experiences of migrant women, focusing on those with cancer. I assume that all the above-described processes are more sensitive and tangible in their circles. They, like no one else, feel the importance of (in)dependence in life and the freedom of action, of the right to choose and decide their own destiny. To some extent, they create their own heroic pantheon and their own fronts of war, survival, and memory – which are woven into the general processes of social transformations.
Citation: “It’s necessary for researchers, driven by ethical values, to establish historical perspective in times of crisis” – 5in10 with Olha Labur, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.02.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/44799