“War pushes the trivial out of memory” – 5in10 with Mykola Homanyuk
Mykola Homanyuk was born in Kakhovka, Ukraine, in 1974. He graduated from Kherson State Pedagogical Institute in 1996 and defended his PhD thesis in sociology at V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University in 2008. Currently, he is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Ecology at Kherson State University, where he teaches human geography. He is also a chairperson of the NGO Kherson Entity of the Sociological Association of Ukraine and runs the independent theater company Totem Theatre Lab. In 2003/04, he was a fellow of the Lane Kirkland’s Fellowship in M. Coure-Skłodowska University (Poland). In 2018, he won the ADAMI Media Prize for Cultural Diversity in Eastern Europe. In 2022, Homanyuk got the Virtual Visitorship Grant from Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs (USA). His current research is dedicated to ethnic minorities, the transformation of war memorials, modern toponymic practices, and problems of social representation in contemporary documentary theater. In the academic year 2022/23, he is a non-resident Fellow of Prisma Ukraïna.
How would you explain your research to someone who’s not an expert?
The same way I’d explain it to any expert in my field. Many concepts and terms from the field of ethno-sociology transfer not only into related disciplines, but also into journalism, social networks, and even everyday communication. I deal with ethnic groups in Ukraine, who are officially called ‘national minorities’. I don’t, however, like this definition, because the concept of ‘national minority’ implicitly builds a hierarchy, even at the lexical level. In any case, my research shows that the war didn’t spare anyone. There are victims, refugees, unemployed people, and separated families across all ethnic groups in Ukraine. Likewise, among all groups there is an intense rethinking of who they are, who they are with, where their land is, what their culture is, and so on. The war did not only make these questions more acute, but also formed a number of new ones. Specifically, I work with two ethnic groups: the Roma and Meskhetian Turks. I aim to find out how the war and forced migration affected the answers to the questions above among Ukrainian Turks and Roma.
What intrigued you when you started your academic journey? What were formative encounters or challenges?
Meskhetian Turks or Akhiska Turks are one of the inhabitants of the Kherson region. The largest community of Ukrainian Turks from the Meskheti region of Georgia used to live here. I worked as an interviewer in the 1990s. During one of the interviews, I happened to visit the house of some Meskhetian Turks. The history and fate of these people really moved me. Meskhetian Turks are an ethnic group that has been on the move for a long time and became refugees five times over the past 80 years. In 1944, Stalin’s regime deported the Meskhetian Turks from their historical homeland in Georgia to the Central Asian republics of the USSR. In 1988, they were forced to flee from their new home after the conflict in Uzbekistan. In 2004, Meskhetian Turks were resettled from the Krasnodar region of Russia to the United States through an initiative of the US government. In 2014, they were also evacuated from the Donetsk region in Ukraine to Turkey. And, in 2022, Meskhetian Turks from the occupied regions of Ukraine were forced to seek refuge in other regions of Ukraine and countries around the world. In all five cases, they were victims of the internal politics and external aggression of the USSR and the Russian Federation. Deportation from and the return to their homeland are the central plots of the ethnic myths of modern Meskhetian Turks. The countries and regions that they associate with their lost homeland affect their values, memories, identities, and visions for the future. Working with a group where all this happens in real time offers significant insight into these processes. The second ethnic group I work with is the Roma. To be precise, I use Roma as an umbrella name for ethnic or sub-ethnic groups that speak different languages and dialects, practice different religions, and have different levels of integration into the lives of their territorial communities. The city I was born in, for example, has a large community of Serbs – who speak Romani and Ukrainian and practice Orthodox Christianity – and Crimeans – Romani Muslims, whose Romani language is saturated with Turkisms, and whose second language is Russian. This latter group supposedly stole a tank from the Russians at the very beginning of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. It was a very widely covered event. My interest in the Roma arose under these conditions of the war.
How, if at all, has the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine influenced your research questions or approaches?
Primarily, my previous interests that were on a back burner re-emerged, and I felt increased confidence in the relevance of the research work I carried out before the February invasion. In addition to ethnic groups, I work with the politics of memory, war memorials, and toponymy in the context of the production of space and the identity of spatial objects. After having found myself in occupied Kherson, I had a chance to conduct field research and record everything that was happening in the occupied territories and within society. I spent seven months there and collected empirical data that will take years to process.
What do you consider the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?
Without exaggerating, I think their role is huge. And often, it expands beyond its primary tasks. For example, I have been carrying out three collaborative projects for different institutions in the form of series of in-depth interviews with refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs), and victims of Russian persecution. The interlocutors received compensation for taking part in these studies and this was humanitarian aid that they urgently needed. I should also mention scholars from Kherson who did not cooperate with the occupiers despite threats, violence, or attempts to bribe them into collaboration. This meant that the occupiers simply had no one to rely on. Last but not least, I believe that an understanding of current events informed by intellectual ideas can lead humanity to a better level of social existence and organization. Thinkers in the social sciences and humanities can propose something radically new, and even lay the groundwork for a new social contract.
How do you think war affects memory or identity? And how does this connect to your research?
War pushes the trivial out of memory, clears it of the insignificant details. And my research aims to understand how this works. I’m primarily interested in finding out what the pillars of memory and identity now are for different groups, and how our memory and identity does or doesn’t affect other people’s memories and identities.
Citation: “War pushes the trivial out of memory” – 5in10 with Mykola Homanyuk, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.03.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/46114