On Monday 7 March, the Association for the Study of Nationalities held a webinar entitled ‘Voices from Ukraine under siege’ ,to hear from five young university academics about the impact Putin’s war is having on their field of study and how their lives have been affected. Hosted by Dr Olga Onuch of Manchester University, the session was informative, moving and inspiring.
The powerful takeaway message came from Natalia Kudriavtseva, a sociolinguist at Kherson Technical University, who warned the world: “this is not just a local war”.
Lives changed by war in Ukraine
Yuliya Bidenko, a political scientist and sociologist from Karazin Kharkiv National University , has felt the full impact of the invasion. As part of what she described as a “cruel” onslaught on her city by the Russians, her university has been bombed and she has had to flee. This is the scene at Kharkiv railway station on 6 March, as posted by Bidenko on Twitter:
Alexander Rodnyansky, on sabbatical in Kyiv from his post as assistant professor in economics at Cambridge University, is an economic adviser to President Zelenskyy and also on the board of Ukraine’s Oschadbank. The war has meant that specialist advisers like himself are now having to pitch in on all strategic matters, including sanctions and military operations.
His work with the bank had previously been to help prepare it for privatisation – plans that have collapsed in “a shambles”. The priorities now are to keep the banking system operational and stop Russia from getting its hands on the cash. Out of the bank’s 1,600 branches, 80 have been destroyed or occupied so far.
Tymofii Brik, a sociologist at Kyiv School of Economics, said that people in Kyiv were afraid that what had happened in Kharkiv was coming their way, but for the moment there was no panic. Supplies are adequate and there is trust in the city’s defences. It was notable, however, that he was taking part in the webinar from his shower – a part of his house that would offer some protection against attack.
The myth of a ‘divided’ Ukraine
Lives may have been changed but so too have perceptions of Ukraine, even within the country itself.
Mariia Shuvalova, a literature specialist from the National University of Kyiv, said that the idea perpetrated (and seemingly mistakenly believed) by Moscow that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” is a myth. The ‘narrative’ of current events is not one of the reuniting of a brotherhood of nations, but is rather summed up by the famously defiant stand taken against an invading Russian warship:
Still, might it be the case that there are parts of Ukraine who see themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian? According to Brik, this belief was held even by President Zelenskyy’s incoming administration. Having invited researchers like himself to be involved in developing the country, the question posed was “How can we heal our divided nation?”
But in fact, what data-based research had already proven beyond doubt is that this was baseless Russian propaganda; Ukrainians are not divided at all in terms of their sense of national identity.
A cohesive and increasingly patriotic country
True, there are Russian-speaking Ukrainians. But, according to Kudriavtseva, research shows this does not mean they see themselves as Russian. The country may be multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, but there is a common identification as ‘Ukrainian’. As Brik says in a Twitter thread debunking the ‘divided nation’ myth:
The war experience has confirmed what research was showing. Ukrainian civil society is supportive, cohesive and resilient (Bidenko). Ukrainians are proud of their country, and the good leadership they are now seeing from the president is resulting in unprecedented levels of trust in national institutions (Brik).
What’s more, as reported in the Guardian, the war is making a further contribution to cohesion. In Odesa, where until now there was some significant allegiance to Russia, resident Boris Kheronsky tells the paper that “the current war has brought many people in Odesa closer to patriotic Ukrainian positions. ‘Putin has worked had to make that happen’”.
Warnings for the West
As evidence of her warning that the war is not just Ukraine’s local problem, Kudriavtseva reminded us of the threat of the Russian invasion to the safety of the country’s nuclear power plants and thus to the wider world. Many of us will recall the Chernobyl disaster, while others will have seen the excellent mini-series. It’s not something we would want to happen again.
Rodnyansky was unequivocal: it’s naïve to think that Russia will enter into a serious dialogue to restore peace. Russia lies, he said. The West is going to have to engage, and better sooner than later. Nato should create a no-fly zone (which he can be heard arguing for on Channel 4 News), but if it won’t, then let it give Ukraine the capacity to create it for itself.
A vital job, in Rodnyansky’s view, is to ensure that Russia can’t afford to continue to wage war. Currently, he told us, the ruble is being supported by Gazprom, the Russian gas company. It’s vital that it should be brought under financial pressure through an embargo by the west on Russian oil and gas.
He also said we might have seen this coming. Russia had been building up huge financial reserves, which it ominously did not use to support people during the pandemic. This war is what they were preparing for.
Bidenko made a plea for the West to impose and maintain comprehensive sanctions and also to “revise our approach to Russia” at least for the next few years. Forget the Bolshoi Ballet for a while and remember the bombing of civilians.
What of the future?
Ukraine has applied for EU candidacy, which, in Rodnyansky’s view, the EU should urgently accept. It will be just the first step on a very long and uncertain process towards accession, but it would send an important signal to Moscow.
We don’t know exactly what the future holds for Ukraine, but Bidenko’s ability to express hope was very inspiring. She foresees that if stability can be achieved, the huge percentage of people who now feel a strongly cohesive sense of national identity will create one of the strongest societies in Europe.
The self-belief and belief in Ukraine so eloquently and passionately expressed by this group of young academics have been much in evidence in news reports from the war, for example this video showing the bravery of protestors in occupied Kherson. When Rodnyansky says to Matt Frei on Channel 4 that “We’re not willing to compromise on our sovereignty”, you feel that Vladimir Putin had better believe it.
Thanks to Mariia, Yuliya, Natalia, Tymofii and Alexander for their contributions to this excellent webinar. May they stay safe.