“I was intrigued by how a familiar space, when destroyed, reveals both its essence and the nature of the war” – 5in10 with Vadym Ilin
Vadym Ilin was an associate professor of the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities at Kharkiv National University of Construction and Architecture. He received his PhD in Ukrainian History from V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University. For his dissertation, he researched the local development of Soviet health care in 1945–1991. His current academic interests span identities during the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917–1921 and the late Soviet period, the history of medical infrastructure, and urban space. Vadym Ilin was a short-term remote Fellow of Prisma Ukraïna (April to July 2022) in Kharkiv and is a 2022/2023 non-resident Fellow of the research group Prisma Ukraïna: War, Migration and Memory at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
How would you explain your research to someone who’s not an expert?
A clear and short explanation of my research to a nonexpert is a challenge for me, because my current topic is quite complex and abstract. Additionally, it connects to the sensitive experiences and traumas of my respondents. Broadly, my research aims to verify whether urban space shapes inhabitants’ identities, attitudes, and everyday practices. Within this, I have the methodological issue of trying to grasp and verify the existence of identities. The roots of this problem lie in the elusiveness of a phenomenon like identity, which is arbitrary, subjective, and, ultimately, constructed, including by researchers themselves. Without claiming to be objective but aiming for this, I’ve set out to analyze similar research by other scholars, some of whom already made conclusions on the basis of interviews. I compare these findings with surveys of Soviet apartment block residents from different Ukrainian cities. The sociological aspects of conducting proper face-to-face interviews, as well as explaining the essence of my research to respondents, are also challenging for me.
What intrigued you when you started your academic journey? What were formative encounters or challenges?
My desire to work on this topic was prompted by my impressions of the surrealism of modern urban warfare and by prior knowledge – the shelling of the White House in Moscow that I saw on TV as a child became for me a symbol of unnecessary abnormality and the destruction of the boundaries of the permissible. This was combined with an interest in socialist city planning and an acquaintance with the work of Ukrainian urbanists; the experience of living in former Soviet districts; and watching a documentary called Soviet-Era Panel Buildings: Did They Shape the Reality of Russia?, which stated that the human-centric space of Soviet mass housing “still unites post-Soviet countries”. All this evoked a desire to study these perceptions from a historical point of view. In the context of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, I was intrigued by how a familiar space, when destroyed, reveals both its essence and the nature of the war.
How, if at all, has the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine influenced your research questions or approaches?
The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine radically changed my research plans. Before the war, I worked on an absolutely different topic – the Semashko health care system and overcoming epidemics caused by infectious diseases. The new focus requires applying an interdisciplinary approach, with methods and concepts from sociology, urban studies, and imagology. However, I can’t say that I began the new research from scratch, as certain elements, like the spatial configuration of Soviet cities or identities, were already the subjects of my previous studies. Rather, the new work is an ‘expansion’ into adjacent areas and topics under the impressions of the war.
What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?
The primary task of the social sciences in times of historical turmoil is to stay within the framework of research practices and scientific ethics, and to refrain from becoming a tool of manipulation and propaganda. For me personally, this means avoiding affirmative (i.e., propagandistic) or didactic narratives and, instead, conducting analytic historical research. Sometimes, international research also becomes a medium to pose practical questions necessary for citizens’ survival and the preservation of truth, rights, and self-respect – questions that can’t be asked anywhere else.
How do you think war affects memory or identity? And how does this connect to your research?
I think that Russia’s war against Ukraine, and in particular this full-scale phase, definitely influences memory. It highlights how warring states and societies rethink and radicalize their memory policies. But no less interesting is the overwhelming loss or acquisition of value of previously pivotal events, such as the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917–21, the Holodomor, or World War II. Reassessments of these events occurred without discussion and irrevocably – by default or publicly. In case of the revolution, this was a categorization of the Bolsheviks as a solely external force, occupiers analogous to the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas today. Meanwhile, against the background of Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, the Holodomor of 1932–33 was recognized as a genocide by a number of European countries, including Germany, in the fall of 2022. The political purpose of this rushed recognition is clear, but, as it’s done after years of international scholarly discussions that indicated the complex reasons and nature for the artificial famine, it creates a bad precedent when scientific conclusions are substituted by legal decisions based on political expediency. Finally, Putin’s play with the memory of the Second World War to justify the invasion undermines, distorts, and discredits that memory. Paradoxically, in Ukraine, the active nationalist parts of society readily accepted Putin’s association of the USSR with present-day Russia and use it as a chance to finally get rid of the Soviet ‘occupation’ legacy and demolish WWII monuments. The roots of all three issues lead back into the past, but the war ‘resolved’ them in strange and at times problematic ways – by creating new sets of historical and historiographical mistakes. If we want history to remain a science, my stance is to avoid such destructive momentary analogies and to consider historical phenomena in the context of their historical time – not solely through the lens of the present.
Citation: “I was intrigued by how a familiar space, when destroyed, reveals both its essence and the nature of the war” – 5in10 with Vadym Ilin, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.03.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/45556