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TCUP—the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program—is a new initiative at HURI that focuses on matters related to today's Ukraine. Here, Emily Channell-Justice, TCUP Director, discusses key points of a conference she recently attended in Ukraine.

DNU logoSmFrom September 11-14, I attended the "Borderlands and Contact Zones in Ukraine and the Black Sea Region" conference in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, co-hosted by the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland) and the Vasyl’ Stus Donets’k National University, based in Vinnytsia. The conference highlighted research related to St. Gallen’s own project on borderlands, as well as additional papers from around the region. With a roving conference space—hosted in part at the Donets’k National University, the Optima Hotel, and the Misto Zmistiv Hub (a civic co-working space)—the conference program also included city tours and regional excursions hosted by historian and Vinnytsia native Oleksandra Haidai.

The conference’s first day was hosted by the Vasyl’ Stus Donets’k National University, now based in Vinnytsia. The University was founded as a pedagogical institute in Donets’k in 1937, and it was accredited with “national university” status in 2000. Following the outbreak of violence in the Donbas in 2014, the university received an order from President Petro Poroshenko in September that the campus would move to Vinnytsia. While not all students from Donets’k were able to move to Vinnytsia to continue their studies, the university’s enrollments continue to increase and many local students now attend, in addition to displaced students from Donets’k. The university is now located in an old diamond-cutting factory. Olga Marmilova introduced the group to the university and led a tour of an exhibit about the history of the university and its recent move to Vinnytsia.

Presentations on the first day featured a discussion of several summer school programs in Dnipro and in Kharkiv, focusing on the varied models used in each program. Whereas the Kharkiv Borderlands Studies Summer School is organized as a traditional school, the Dnipro Summer Academy “After Violence” uses a non-hierarchical organization in which professors and students work together to develop their research. Both were motivated by the idea of including the city itself in the enterprise of the school, using creative methods to encourage participants to see the city in new ways. The conference also featured two newly released volumes associated with the "Borderlands and Contact Zones in Ukraine and the Black Sea Region" project, including the multi-methodological study Regionalisms Without Regions: Reconceptualizing Ukraine’s Heterogeneity (CEU Press, 2019).

Austin Charron (University of Wisconsin-Madison) shared an in-progress paper, “Crimean Tatars’ Postcolonial Condition and Strategies of Cultural Decolonization,” which used the framework of postcolonialism to consider the place of Crimean Tatars in Ukraine’s body politic. Drawing on examples of Crimean artists and musicians, Charron’s paper argues that Crimean Tatars, who have multiple experiences of displacement, are recuperating a cultural potential that was lost because of colonization. Serving as discussant, Uku Lember (Tallin University) provoked an engaging discussion about the applicability of decolonial frameworks to the case of Ukraine. He asked how using these terms pushes our scholarly perspective in certain directions, toward trauma and deprivation. He suggested that “postcolonial” is also used as a kind of accusation that encourages a group of people to place the blame for their problems onto others, the colonizers. The consideration of the intersection of postsocialism and postcolonialism is a question ten years in the making (this was a major theme of the 2019 Soyuz Symposium; see also Chari and Verdery 2009; Tlostanova 2018; Soyuz Symposium), but the diverging opinions on the status of Ukraine as postcolonial, as well as Crimean Tatars’ position in the Ukrainian state, shows that these frameworks continue to be relevant in how we think about the Black Sea Region.

DNU exhibitSmThe second and third days of the conference was a more traditional style of thematic conference panels with historical, sociological, and anthropological examples. Religion was a common theme among panelists. Yulia Yurchuk (Södertörn University) described the church-state relationship in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, in which the collapsing state drew upon the power of the Orthodox church to show its unity and strength. In this narrative—despite official Soviet policies of atheism—the church was an essential aspect of Soviet culture, history, and statehood. Yurchuk highlighted the shifting role of the Moscow and Kyiv Patriarchates over the time of Ukraine’s independence, concluding that both have attempted to establish themselves as Ukraine’s patrimonial church, despite their different genealogies. Catherine Wanner (Penn State University) focused on vernacular religious practices and the ways that religion generates feelings of belonging and attachment. She pointed out that many people in Ukraine today are not affiliated with a specific religious group, but they consider themselves spiritual, faithful, or “just Orthodox.” She highlighted the contradiction in Ukraine in which a majority of people claim to have a belief in God and life after death, and they tend to have a high degree of religious tolerance.

Yet Ukrainians have surprisingly low levels of church attendance. Wanner concluded that to a certain extent, Ukrainians believe that religion is important, but they do not necessarily practice religion in a traditional sense. One of their non-traditional practices is of pilgrimage, which anthropologist Julia Buyskykh (Research Institute of Ukrainian Studies) discussed in greater detail. Having done extensive participant observation with pilgrims who cross Ukrainian and Polish borders to visit religious sites, Buyskykh argued that pilgrims feel a strong sense of homecoming and belonging because of this practice. Non-traditional kinds of religiosity help people come to terms with their past and create new narratives of family and community history. Finally, Tornike Metreveli’s (University of St Gallen) data showed that, after Tomos (the recognition of autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church), many parishes changed official denominations because of how they were influenced by competing discourses of religious identity—the Russian world idea of a superior Russian civilization versus the Ukrainian national idea. Yet he found that parishes were more likely to be influenced by the relationships between parishioners and priests and were more inclined to be driven by their attachment to particular religious personalities, rather than by a specific affiliation with a Ukrainian or Russian Orthodox Church.

DNUSmA second common theme was that of historiography and the historical record itself. Karina Gaibulina (University of St Gallen) interrogated texts as material artifacts, looking specifically at how Poles who were exiled to Kazakhstan or who lived there and worked for Polish authorities used texts to create new knowledge about culture and history. As she described, these travelers did not speak Kazakh, so the role of the translator in creating knowledge was also crucial. The translator, as she put it, connects two worlds through one person. The historical record left behind by Polish travelers does the work of othering and Orientalizing of Kazakhs; yet because Kazakh narratives in the 19th century were based mostly on oral tradition, and because these oral traditions were banned during the Soviet period, the Polish material archive about Kazakhstan is significant. These historical materials have even reframed how Kazakhs see themselves today. Exploring historical documents from another angle, Oleksandra Haidai (Museum of History of Kyiv) considered memoirs of writers from Vinnytsia who had to leave during the revolutionary period, especially in 1918 and 1919. These memoirs, she argued, show the ways violence leaves traces on people over time. Finally, Nataliia Voloshkova (Drahomanov National Pedagogical University) used a British traveler’s diary of her visit to Crimea in the 19th century to explore Russian colonization and the external influences on the Crimean peninsula. Taken together, papers considering the role of documents themselves add a critical eye to the production of history itself.

Several presenters focused on contemporary borderlands, considering how the physical border itself influences economic activity, community makeup, and identity. Nadia Bureiko (Foreign Policy Council ‘Ukrainian Prism’) discussed the Ukraine-Romania border, which is also a border for the European Union. She argued that the region of Bukovina, which spans this border, is especially tolerant because of its long-existing ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. Using mixed methods of surveys, discourse analysis, and expert interviews, she argued in support of Ukraine’s civic national identity, rather than an ethnically grounded one. Agnes Eross (Hungarian Academy of Sciences), working with data from a Hungarian-speaking, Calvinist community in Ukraine, focused on religion as a basis of identity. She argued that ethnicity should be seen as situative, suggesting that here, religious categories established residents’ ethnic self-identification. But a new influencing factor has changed how people relate to being Hungarian: Hungarian dual citizenship allows for those who can claim Hungarian ethnicity to gain access to an EU passport. Thus, despite a declining population, there has been a renewed interest in the Hungarian language in order to secure this new status.

DNU rose SmA final paper that was particularly striking was Marta Havryshko’s (Ivan Krypiakevych Institute of Ukrianian Studies) work on gender as it relates to the war in the Donbas. She considered the construction and representation of militarized femininity, now that women are more present in the Ukrainian military (they make up 11% of military personnel; 3500 have officer-level positions). While women are motivated to join the military for various reasons (economic and personal freedoms, for instance) whether the military promotes gender equality is another question. Havryshko used the example of army beauty pageants to show that women are still valued for their looks, rather than their competence and service. There continues to be a focus on sexuality, which is itself a way to continue to control women’s bodies and behaviors.

The Borderlands conference was an excellent example of multi-disciplinary dialogue, bringing together researchers from various countries and institutions to discuss Ukraine and the Black Sea Region, past and present. Special thanks to Anna Chebotarova, Oleksii Chebotarov, Sandra King-Savic, and Ulrich Schmid for all their work on this event.


Emily Channell-Justice is the Director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. She received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from The Graduate Center, City University of New York, in 2016. Her research focuses on political participation and social movements in contemporary Ukraine, where she has done ethnographic fieldwork since 2012. She has received grants from Fulbright IIE and American Councils Title VIII Research Scholar Program, and she has taught in anthropology and international studies departments at Miami University (Ohio) and John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY).