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“I never actually learned Russian. I only learned Ukrainian” Harvard anthropologist on the new Harvard Ukrainian program

Emily Channel-Justice, Director at the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard Research University
“I never actually learned Russian. I only learned Ukrainian” Harvard anthropologist on the new Harvard Ukrainian program
Emily Channell-Justice, who heads one of the few Ukrainian academic programs in the world, the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard Research University, shares her impressions from their recent conference “Why is Ukraine a democracy?” and takeaways from her research on Ukraine.

Making Ukraine known and understandable for the world is a key tool for winning the current hybrid war with Russia and securing international support for the reintegration of occupied Donbas and Crimea into Ukraine.

While several media projects about Ukraine were launched, the academic sphere largely remains Russian-dominated. Russian studies are common for almost all leading universities, while Ukrainian studies are limited to only a few programs, one of which is the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI) managed by prof. Serhiy Plokhiy.

Founded in June 1973, the Institute remains one of the leading academic institutions researching and telling about Ukraine.

In 2019, The Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program (TCUP) of the institute was launched.

“The TCUP is a bridge between the scholarly and policy communities with the goal of promoting a deeper understanding of Ukraine in the world. Its role is to recognize, describe, and explain the complexity of contemporary Ukraine,” the program description says.

The TCUP’s primary contribution is an annual conference dealing with issues central to contemporary Ukraine. The inaugural conference for the TCUP in 2021 “Why Is Ukraine a Democracy?” was held on 1-5 February 2021.

Summarizing the conference, Euromaidan Press has talked with TCUP director and anthropologist Emily Channell-Justice about the current state of academic research of Ukraine abroad, her experience of research in Ukraine as well as de-occupation of eastern Ukraine and successful completion of reforms in general.

Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. Source: Facebook page of the institute
TCUP’s current research agenda combines a systematic study of policy and implementation of government practices of reconciliation and reintegration of occupied territories in the Donbas with analysis of interviews with internally displaced people in Ukraine. We asked Emily Channell-Justice, the Director of Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program to tell more about the program as well as her research in and about Ukraine.

Why and how did you choose Ukraine as the topic of your academic research?

Many researchers tend to study both Russia and Ukraine and I only ever studied Ukraine. I never actually learned Russian. I only learned Ukrainian because I had terrible Russian teachers and it never happened… I visited Ukraine for the first time in 2004. I visited the high school in Kyiv and made a few friends there. I stay in touch with them and that’s what brought me back much later to do my research in Ukraine. My first research project was with student activists. It coincided with Euromaidan, it happened at the same time… Now my new project is related to IDPs (internally displaced people).

What was your experience of doing research in Ukraine? Maybe you could compare the Ukrainian academic sphere with the American one?

I went to Lviv and studied Ukrainian there, at the Ukrainian Catholic University. I had a great experience, the teachers were wonderful there. I worked with several colleagues from Ukrainian universities and one of them invited me to give a talk to Ukrainian students last September. It was incredible. These students all spoke fluent English. I was impressed not only by their language but by the questions they asked. I have talked many times in the colleges in the US and students were not that engaged.

Could you compare Ukraine in 2004 and Ukraine now?

When I first visited Ukraine in 2004, almost nobody spoke English. It was really challenging. In 2004 nothing was in English in Kyiv. Now all the announcements, including in the metro, are translated. I experienced a lot of cultural shocks then. I had to pay fines in the tram so many times because I just didn’t understand how it worked and somebody was coming in and asking me for my ticket. It was always funny… The first time I visited Kyiv, I found a food very shocking but now I love Ukrainian food. I’m a vegetarian. In 2004 it was almost impossible in Kyiv [to be a vegetarian] but when I go to Ukraine now it’s not a problem to find vegetarian food. So many restaurants have opened and it’s fashionable right now. So, it’s a huge change.

Your researched Ukrainian civil activism and migration. What is unique about it Ukraine? Actually, you asked panelists in the conference this question and now it comes back to you.

In anthropology, we think about how one particular place can tell us more about a general thing that is happening. So, on the one hand, Ukraine is a very special example, but at the same time, I’m thinking about how things in Ukraine are influenced by global processes. So students with whom I was working in Ukraine in 2013-2014, they were influenced by other protests that happened in the world… Protests in Spain, the Occupy Wall Street had just happened. So, they were thinking about all these events… In my work, I try to place Ukraine in a global conversation.

Regarding migration, in my research I focused on internally displaced people in Ukraine, comparing them with IDPs in Abkhazia and Soth Ossetia in Georgia, to look into the post-Soviet context, the influence of socialism and the Soviet mentality on contemporary migration patterns… The policy of a kind of friendship of nations and a sort of sudo-equality in the USSR which wasn’t equality at all. It influences where people migrate and how people migrate within the post-Soviet world.

Post-Soviet is a very interesting term. 1991 it was post-Soviet and 30 years later it is still post-Soviet. Is it still post-Soviet, or maybe it’s time to change the brand?

It’s a perfect question. We in anthropology have been asking ourselves the same question for so many years and we keep using post-Soviet because we can’t agree on a different term… It is interesting to discover what happens when we think about Ukraine as a post-colonial country instead of a post-Soviet or are thinking about those things together so that we can clearly see the hierarchical relationship that Ukraine had, especially with Russia… We can also think about Ukraine in a colonial relationship with the EU where Ukraine is never a country that is allowed to be an actor in its own right… As a concept post-Soviet doesn’t say a lot. It is a fallback concept, but it remains for the lack of a better term.

A question about your research. What have you discovered? Please share a couple of conclusions.

My former research project focused on the students’ self-organization in Ukraine. I wrote the original research in 2016 and now I’m finishing a book about those protests of left-wing activists during Euromaidan and not only… I look at how self-organization was a really popular concept among left-wing student activists.

I think the most interesting thing is that I have maintained contact with some of the activists that I worked with originally and also spoke with them recently. A lot of their views have changed, a lot of the ideas that they said in the interviews in 2013 and 2014 differ from what they say now. One of the major things that have changed was that many people assessed Euromaidan as being a good thing, even though some of them had bad experiences or experienced a lot of violence. Almost everyone said this is a great thing. And five years later they think about this a lot differently. They think about how people protested, gave their lives for ideas, and then a lot hasn’t changed. The economic conditions didn’t improve and the oligarchs remained.

Did you interview only left-wing activists, or more general scope of NGOs like Ukrainian liberals or conservatives, who were probably the main driving force of the Maidan?

I focused on following the same group of people over time. They were targeted by neo-Nazi groups and I decided that it was unsafe for me to try to make connections with them. Also, there were a lot of people who are better at doing large-scale survey data. And so I decided other people do that large-scale data about who was in the protest and what they did. I focused on the specific cohort of people. Also, my original research was about higher education in Ukraine. So, when the protests started, I also focused on those activists who brought the agenda of higher education reform in Ukraine to the Maidan, where it wasn’t initially present. I worked mostly with organizations called Direct Action and Sotsialnyi Rukh, which is a kind of labor movement and a political party.

What can we expect from the TCUP project? What are your plans for the future?

We plan to conduct our conference each year. The conference that we had last week was held online due to covid restrictions but was a much bigger conference than we initially planned, which is fantastic. It was great to see so many people joining from Ukraine…

My plan for the future is to have some kind of hybrid conference. If we are able to have comments in person I would like to have some parts of it online to keep that wider audience because I think it was a great advantage. I really would like to try to organize some workshop type of events that will allow experts to come together around specific problems, for instance, the reintegration of Donbas. I think that would be a good topic to have academics along with policy experts come and focus on what outcomes can be like. So that outcomes of this type of conference can be policy reports and recommendations on how the US can support Ukraine.

I also do run a book club every couple of months where I pick books about contemporary Ukraine. And people from Ukraine are also welcome to join.

It was common for foreigners to associate Ukraine just with Chornobyl, with something vague post-Soviet and later there was Maidan. But maybe you can add something to this as a common association with Ukraine among Americans.

I think a lot of Americans learned a lot about Ukraine during the first impeachment trial. There were so many articles about who is Mr. Zelenskyy guy, who is Ihor Kolomoyskyi, and who are all those oligarchs. And this is actually a problem. Corruption is another major thing that people think about Ukraine. I know that many people in Ukraine and scholars of Ukraine are working to change that image… What also can help to diminish the influence of oligarchs in Ukraine and what we mentioned in the conference is who accesses political parties. Many political parties don’t even have any kind of ideology. They have a figurehead who leads the party and it creates the party. This means political parties don’t necessarily represent different people’s interests. More political pluralism and a real multiparty system could be beneficial for Ukraine.

But you in the US actually have a two-party system…

Yes, and I think the last elections have demonstrated that we also need more political pluralism. I have been advocating myself for a more multiparty system… The problem of Ukrainian political culture is having all these parties that anyone can create, they come up and disappear, come up and disappear. It is not inherently a good thing to have a multi-party system but if it works properly, like in successful Scandinavian social democracies. They do have a lot of political pluralism that I think allows different groups of people to feel more represented. It’s a very idealistic way of thinking but I think it will happen in Ukraine for sure.

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