The two-day conference that took place at UCL on 6-7 June was a culmination of Platform Ukraine as a multidisciplinary academic platform that throughout the year has been organising events and discussions using Ukraine and the current crisis as a lens to explore the post-socialist space. The conference tackled a wide range of topics: from the war to everyday and gendered experiences of the conflict, from corruption to arts and literature, from methodological challenges of research in the post-Soviet space to memory and identity.
Keynote speakers included notable experts on Ukraine such as Rory Finnin (University of Cambridge) and Olga Onuch (University of Manchester). However, it is worth mentioning the same time, Richard Sakwa (University of Kent) was also present, probably as a result of the conference organisers’ desire to achieve a fictitious ‘pluralism of opinions’. Sakwa has little expertise on Ukraine and is a member of Valdai Discussion Club, Russia’s soft power tool. His views on the ongoing conflict are largely based on whitewashing Russia. Predictably, the only thing the organisers achieved in this respect was a whole session of Sakwa-bashing. The rest of the participants were mainly PhD students and young academics.
The participants raised topical and interesting issues, such as people’s dispossession in the conflict, journalism during the war, foreign fighters, and protesters’ art. In line with Platform Ukraine’s general idea of using Ukraine as a means to engage in a fruitful multidisciplinary discussion about the wider post-socialist reality, some presentations did not just focus on the current war but also targeted the Chernobyl disaster, the Orange Revolution, and the Georgian War. The diversity of angles and approaches also helped to present a variety of academic discourse aiming to explain why Ukraine is way more than a doomed borderland. Unfortunately, parallel sessions set bounds to the options of hearing the presentations.
One of the most interesting panels was focused on everyday and gendered experiences of conflict. Julie Fedor discussed soldiers’ mothers’ activism in connection with the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Ukraine. It seems that reality is more complicated than the movies portraying the tragedy of parents watching their sons going to war. Fedor explained that while some mothers might go straight to the conflict zones to bring their children back or help in counting and recognising bodies, others might be manipulated and their image used for propaganda purposes. Experiences like mass travelling of soldiers’ parents to the war zone during 1994 war in Chechnya, and creation of mothers’ committees, contributed to the development of civil society and the recognition of a new level of civil responsibility. But now these individual movements are shrinking, fake organizations are being created and manipulative attempts to curb this kind of activism are on the rise. Fedor quoted an interview with the Head of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, Valentina Melnikova saying: ‘They [mothers] are not resisting [their children being sent to war]! I don’t have an explanation. This has never happened [in our country] before.’ Moreover, it was interesting to hear that one of the reasons why older soldiers are more appreciated by military recruitment is that they have weaker relationships with their relatives, don’t use that much mobile technologies or internet, and seem less likely to fuel the resistance.
Julia Holdsworth looked into broader perspective, aiming to understand the position of individual in the conflict in the Donbas region. According to her, the problem is that way before the crisis, the individual has lost his position: after the break-up of the USSR, a lot of people from post-Soviet countries found themselves dispossessed, and the unrest might have been an effort to take these positions back. While some were succeeding in the independent world, the others realised that they are no longer part of the large cooperative project, they lost their property, but yet they still might define themselves as Soviets, workers, miners, narod, not to mention the complexities of national identities. Younger people inherited this feeling of loss from their relatives, creating a confused army of lost people.
These people don’t necessarily want to part of contemporary Ukraine, underlined Holdsworth. Some of them see the Western world as a space where people live ‘normal lives’. But while trying to position themselves in relation to the West, they find themselves left alone, lost, or even missing from the picture.
Donbas region plays the key role here. This region was important in the USSR, when miners and workers felt they had a chance to have their voice heard. After Ukraine gained its independence, for some people life didn’t improve, but rather radically deteriorated. Lately, the people from the East of Ukraine had a feeling of being ignored: few of them went to Kyiv during Maidan and Orange revolution. Was turning to Russia the only solution? It is hard to say, but Holdsworth stressed a crucial observation: the current events are part of the disappointment and disillusionment that the population has been experiencing for a couple of decades.
The role of the social media in providing the means to not just see and judge but also participate in current events in Ukraine was another key topic to cover. Tetyana Lokot (University of Maryland) stressed that the concept of political participation and involvement has changed during the last years. It is no longer implies just voting, but also involves reacting to political events and mobilizing with the help of social media. She discussed the example of the American-Ukrainian society. Social media during the protests gave them a chance to rediscover their Ukrainian identity and roots. ‘Now it’s a fashionable thing. And now if you say that you are from Ukraine people know what are you talking about,’ she said.
The conference concluded with an insightful discussion between Olga Onuch, Rory Finnin and Pete Duncan (UCL) focusing on Onuch’s book ‘Mapping Mass Mobilization’ (2014). Her work compares two cases of mass mobilization: the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004) and the upheaval in Argentina (2001), and explores the reasons and implications of the mass involvement of ‘ordinary citizens’ in large-scale political activism. Onuch’s book is a timely work based on volumes of research data that analyses the currently topical issue of public political engagement without overemphasizing the roles of elites or structural factors.
While Richard Sakwa’s talk on the first day of the conference raised quite a few eyebrows and invoked criticism for his attempts to diminish or justify Russia’s political actions, lack of understanding of Ukraine’s history and the current war, the final expert panel was a decent conclusion to the otherwise engaging and truly multidisciplinary conference.