Resilience and Connection. A field report on the international congress “Rethinking Ukraine and Europe: New Challenges for Historians”
By Denys Shatalov
From September 15-17, 2023, the international congress titled “Rethinking Ukraine and Europe: New Challenges for Historians” took place in Vilnius. This event was organized by the Lithuanian Institute of History, in collaboration with partner organizations from Germany, Ukraine, Poland, and Ukraine. Among these partners was Prisma Ukraïna – Research Network Eastern Europe of the Forum Transregionale Studien. Vilnius University hosted the congress.
Vilnius left a strong impression on me with its numerous Ukrainian flags adorning every building and institution, as well as stickers and slogans expressing support for Ukrainians. In essence, the entire congress served as a motivating event in support of Ukrainian researchers. It served as a potent reminder that we have not been abandoned or forgotten by our European colleagues and that issues related to Ukraine now occupy a central place in the humanities.
The congress brought together over a hundred participants, with more than half of them being Ukrainian scholars. A few dozens of them made the challenging journey from Ukraine. For instance, my one-way trip from Kryvyi Rih took 36 hours, a similar experience to that of participants from other cities. The return journey was equally arduous.
Nevertheless, the time invested in travel was not in vain. For me, the congress marked the first major offline event since the COVID crisis, offering a sense of returning to “normalcy,” albeit temporarily. It provided an opportunity to meet some of my colleagues in person for the first time, despite years of continuous online meetings.
However, this pleasure was tinged with a sense of sadness. Everything around me served as a reminder of the losses endured by all Ukrainians in the war. Not too long ago, the flight from Kyiv to Vilnius took only about 90 minutes. Apart from logistical challenges, several male researchers were unable to secure official permission to leave Ukraine for the event due to the government’s ban on men of military age leaving the country following the full-scale invasion. Thus, on one hand, the war (but at what price!) has provided Ukrainian scholars with a unique opportunity to integrate into Western research institutions and academic life through support programs, albeit temporarily for most of them. On the other hand, it has significantly restricted the possibilities for live communication with colleagues for academics who remained in Ukraine. Needless to say, mentioning these wartime inconveniences, I also think about much more painful losses, than only communication problems for scholars: fallen fellow citizens, destruction and devastation, occupation, and Russian terror. This made the congress even more meaningful to me.
The program was packed and intense, spanning over two and a half days. It was divided into three components: the first featured a keynote lecture by Professor Robert I. Frost titled “The Past in the Present: Rethinking Ukraine, Europe, and the Role of the Nation-State in the Global Age,” followed by two successive panel discussions: “Do Ukraine and East Central Europe Have a History?” and “Historia i polityka zagraniczna. Jak należy rozwiązywać konflikty?” Their overall content revolved around a discussion of Ukraine’s and Ukrainians’ place in the modern world, particularly Ukrainian historians, and their position within global hierarchies.
The second part included presentations by foundations and organizations supporting researchers. Its primary objective was to introduce Ukrainian scholars to grant opportunities for their projects.
The third element of the congress consisted of presentations and discussions within thematic panels. In total, there were 18 panels, with six taking place concurrently each day. Unfortunately, this density made it impossible to attend all the presentations that piqued my interest. Broadly, their topics were diverse. Some focused on the central theme of the congress – searching for a new narrative for the history of Ukraine and the region. Another portion of the panels delved into issues related to the ongoing war, such as Russia’s crimes, the destruction of cultural heritage, and the impact of the war on historical memory. Finally, the third and largest group comprised case studies examining the history of the region from the medieval period to the present.
My presentation on the use of the topic of World War II in the official communication of the Ukrainian authorities during the ongoing war was part of the panel titled “Russian-Ukrainian Conflicts (Wars) and Historical Memory.” This section featured a strong representation from Prisma Ukraїna. In addition to my presentation, there was a presentation by Senior Advisor to the War, Migration, Memory Research Group, Viktoria Sereda, and the panel was moderated by the Prisma Ukraїna program director, Andrii Portnov.
In summary, it is challenging for me to formulate a definitive thesis about the congress. Perhaps this is because it is still too early to assess its results. The discussions and presentations reflected the current state of Ukrainian studies in the region, encompassing the focal topics, the search for a new narrative, and the organizational aspects. The process of reevaluating Ukraine’s history remains ongoing and open-ended. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that this congress will yield positive outcomes, including a better understanding among representatives of European institutions of the needs of their Ukrainian colleagues in the context of the war, new cooperation projects, and research topics inspired by the interactions in Vilnius.
About the author
Denys Shatalov obtained his PhD in History in 2016 from Oles Honchar Dnipro National University, Ukraine, with a thesis on Ukrainian Cossacks in public discourse from the second half of the 18th to the first half of the 19th century. From 2015 until 2021, Denys was a Research Fellow at the “Tkuma” Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies and the Jewish Memory and Holocaust in Ukraine Museum; now he is an independent scholar. He has been a Prisma Ukraïna visiting fellow in 2019/20. His current research focuses on representations of WWII in Soviet memoirs published after the war. Along with his engagement in memory and memory politics studies, he also conducts research on the history of the ‘Cossack Myth’. His recent publications include “The City of the One-Eyed Cossack Rih: The Cossack Myth at the Local Level – The Case of Kryvyi Rih” (2021) and “On German Orders: The Volhynian Massacre in Soviet Partisans’ Memoirs” (2019). Denys Shatalov is a 2022/2023 non-resident Prisma Ukraïna Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
Citation: Denys Shatalov, Resilience and Connection. A field report on the international congress “Rethinking Ukraine and Europe: New Challenges for Historians”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.09.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48908