Marina Mogilner: "I had always thought that the Ukrainian intellectual milieu was different from the intellectual milieu in Russia precisely because there were various voices in the Ukrainian one, and genuine, interesting dialogue was taking place there."
Our conversation with Marina Mogilner, Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, USA, focuses on the ongoing decolonizing discussions in academia in the United States and Western Europe. Some historians are accusing Western academic institutions of working for the Kremlin. Others deny this allegation, calling it an ill-conceived insinuation. Where does the truth lie? How can strategies for decolonizing historical narratives be optimal for Ukraine? How can we make the discussion process more democratic and inclusive without adopting the Kremlin's Manichaean practices of "whoever is not with us is against us"? Explicitly or implicitly, these questions were at the heart of our frank conversation with Marina Mogilner.
"No one in American academia would consciously be engaged in propaganda and be a target of Kremlin manipulations."
In recent times, there have been increasingly frequent discussions around the role of historians in popularizing pro-Russian narratives in the West and the neocolonial/imperial character of Eastern European Studies in Western academia. What is your position on these discussions? To what extent do these critical comments about East European studies in North America reflect the actual state of affairs?
I don't quite understand the meaning of the phrase "pro-Russian narratives." In my opinion, the problem is actually more complex than it appears at first glance. There is almost no one in American academia who would consciously engage in propaganda and be a target of Kremlin manipulations. So, I think that this question somewhat simplifies the problem. I personally do not know of anyone who would deliberately spread pro-Kremlin narratives. Historians hold various positions, but it’s not like narratives are formulated somewhere in Moscow around the Putin regime and then disseminated in North America. The North American academic milieu functions according to a somewhat different logic.
Last year, Sergei Zhuk announced his departure from ASEEES[i] because of the presence of pro-Kremlin historians in this association and their substantial influence on East European studies. In your opinion, how influential are the supporters of pro-Kremlin historical narratives in this association?
Sergei Zhuk is not the only one who has left ASEEES; other historians have as well. I have the greatest respect for Zhuk as a historian. He has adopted a firm, negative position toward ASEEES and published a lot of criticism on this question, raising an important problem that deserves more detailed discussion. The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies is an organization that was founded in 1948. At the time, it was called the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS), reflecting the postwar reality. The association united all researchers interested in Slavic and Russian Studies.[ii]
In 2010, a discussion flared up around the need to change the association’s name. ASEEES was a compromise resulting from this discussion. The new name is not an abstract one, as it reflects the collective vision of very different experts regarding space and the states that turned out to be historically connected. The reason behind this is not only the existence of the Russian Empire in the territories under study ("Eurasia" and Eastern Europe). There were many political formations in this geographic area that replaced each other. The history of this space is extremely complex and conflictual. However, one way or another, it developed within a shared imperial space. Today, it would be quite difficult to deny these connections.
ASEEES is a multidisciplinary organization. Among its members are anthropologists, philologists, sociologists, and political scientists. Unlike other professional associations, ASEEES, regardless of whether we identify ourselves as historians of Ukraine, Eastern Europe, or Central Asia, propels us out of the narrow framework of the national paradigm and forces us to find common ground with colleagues from other countries, who have different methodological approaches to the study of history. This is the huge advantage of an international association. In 2022, ASEEES held its most recent meeting in Chicago, featuring many panel discussions attended by many representatives from Ukraine. There were complex and contentious discussions about decolonizing the research field.
As of today, ASEEES is the organizer of a series of virtual seminars on the decolonization of East European Studies. On 3 February 2023, I spoke at the first panel of this seminar series, together with my colleague from Ukraine, Svitlana Biedarieva. She studies the development of the contemporary decolonization process. Another participant in the panel represented Estonia. The event was moderated by an anthropologist who studies Armenia. Nearly 180 people took part in this virtual panel. This kind of large-scale participation has become possible thanks to ASEEES. The findings of the discussion were recorded and posted on YouTube.
So, in my opinion, this radical repudiation of this communication format within the discipline is incorrect and counterproductive. We can protest against political decisions. Moreover, I realize that in war conditions, a boycott of Russian institutions that support Russia's war against Russia is normal.
However, ASEEES is a space for dialogue that contributes to the presentation of the findings of Ukrainian research on the international level. It is very important for such people as Sergiy Zhuk, Andriy Zayarnyuk, and other Ukrainian historians to have an opportunity to be heard. I participated in a panel on decolonization, whose specific aim was to popularize and convey the importance of Ukrainian studies in our field of research. When Ukraine wins, and I firmly believe this, it is very important that the current discussions not stop at the level of a simple political reaction. Already today, we need to change the narratives and conceptual apparatus of East European and "Eurasian" studies. All this is possible only via a discussion within ASEEES.
Furthermore, it is crucial to understand that ASEEES is not an elitist organization, as Zayarnyuk calls it. He says that this is an organization that benefits, above all, highly-paid historians, sociologists, and anthropologists — people in Western academia on the whole. Of course, nowhere in the world but in the United States was there such strong interest in the entire post-Soviet region and so much research in this field. From the Russian perspective, it is quite likely that the center of Russian studies has always been in America. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, an opportunity arose to change this state of affairs, but for various reasons, this never happened. Of course, flying to the U.S. to attend ASEEES congresses is expensive. But right now, there is no other similar interdisciplinary and global organization.
Moreover, ASEEES has offered many research grants over the past years. It is very important that this organization is creating conditions to become more inclusive because it is not an elitist association. On the contrary, it reflects the mechanisms by which American academia operates.
Self-organization and mutual aid play a huge role in this. For example, the work of the grant committees of ASEEES is unpaid. This is "service to the profession," which is customary for all researchers. All this is part of the self-organization of the American academic community. This makes ASEEES an entirely "vital" and dynamic association and an important space in which it is worthwhile to remain as a member, holding conversations, initiating discussions, dialogue, etc.
As of today, I do not see the Kremlin’s agents of influence in ASEEES. There are various generations of historians with various stances on the war and how it is possible or necessary to change the discipline of history. However, these conversations are taking place within the professional field on a proper, specialist level. I think that right now, it would be absolutely incorrect to accuse someone and leave this field.
The moderator of the next virtual panel devoted to decolonization was the American Slavic and literary historian Vitaly Chernetsky. Today he is doing a lot of work to ensure that the questions raised in Ukrainian studies become not just an organic part of the international academic space but also an avant-garde launch of a new field of research. Iryna Sklokina, from the Center for Urban History (one of Ukraine’s most highly regarded academic urban history centers), participated in this panel. All this is taking place within the ASEEES framework.
"I don't agree with Andriy Zayarnyuk's opinion that the concept of 'Eurasia" in the ASEEES name is utilized as a certain notion connected with historical Eurasianism or some kind of Eurasian fascism."
In his interview with Ukraina Moderna, Zayarnyuk noted that he is generally not against membership in the association. Still, he thinks it is unacceptable that the name of the organization contains the concept of "Eurasian Studies" because the latter words bring us not to the continent as such, but to the Russian imperial space. What is your position on this question?
Andriy Zayarnyuk has this argument concerning "Eurasia." I was astonished that he compared the use of the "Eurasia" concept in ASEEES's name to the German imperial notion of Lebensraum (“living space” in the East, the lands which were supposed to be conquered first by the German Empire and then by the Nazi one). The name of the association was changed in 2010. That was when it rejected the dominance of Russian and Slavic studies. This didn't just happen in ASEEES. All former Slavic studies and Russian centers were renamed. Today they are called "Centers for Eurasian Studies."
There is no ideal language, and the work of changing discourses is part of the decolonizing processes. Language is always overloaded with terms (senses); it carries senses from the past. That is why it is important to use terms as analytical categories and differentiate between categories of practice and categories of analysis. This is the basic difference for any research.
I don't agree with Zayarnyuk's opinion that the concept of "Eurasia" in the ASEEES name is utilized as a certain notion connected with historical Eurasianism or some kind of Eurasian fascism. The term "Eurasia" is not ideal and quite problematic, but the association’s new name is a compromise solution aimed at reflecting the idea of a common research framework. If a better name is found, that's fine; we can accept it. If Ukrainian researchers think differently about this framework, ASEEES proposes "Eastern Europe." This is a definite alternative to the breakdown of a potentially global research field into small national branches.
The same goes for the names of research positions in American institutions of higher learning. In contemporary American academia, it is unlikely that someone will want to add separate positions for the history of Ukraine, Belarus, and Armenia to the existing history of Russia or the USSR. If they are created according to a national framework, this may lead to the collapse of a larger research space. In my view, the goal today is to have someone whose dissertation is devoted to the history of Ukraine teaching Soviet history. For example, this year, my doctoral student is defending her dissertation on hybrid Soviet modernity in Central Asia. She has been offered a position, and she will become a fine specialist in the study of the Soviet empire. This path is the most productive one, and ASEEES is also moving in this direction. The concept of "Eurasia" is only a generalized framework in which we can include our studies from various areas and disciplines. This kind of approach encourages us to conduct current global research and avoid the traps of methodological nationalism.
What can you say about ASEEES's policy after 24 February 2022?
An official declaration in support of Ukraine and condemning Russian aggression was released. At the start of the war, I wrote a short statement for ASEEES saying that it would be good to adopt a clear-cut position on the current political situation and begin a serious analysis of the things in our discipline that could contribute to understanding this war. My colleagues promptly began to respond. They issued many more similar statements. Discussions of this topic began around the association's journal Slavic Review (the old name was retained because it is already a brand name). Harriet Murav immediately created a separate web page with statements from historians, anthropologists, and sociologists on Russia's war against Ukraine, as well as various political positions and the academic problems connected with them, etc. Many conversations and discussions took place within the association itself, which is further proof that it is functioning, developing, and changing. It is an essential platform for anyone seeking to reinterpret Ukrainian studies in the context of a common disciplinary field.
"Decolonization should begin with language."
In your view, what key, top-priority changes should be made to decolonize historical narratives in East European, Ukrainian, and Russian studies?
This is a complex conversation about a large number of problems. For example, there is no difference in English between "Russian" as a concept defining an ethnic identity and "Russian" as a general imperial framework. This gives rise to considerable terminological confusion. Decolonization must begin with language. The structural decolonization of narratives is no less important. Both in Russia and the West, the structural model of the medieval and early modern history of Russia is as follows: The point of departure is Kyivan Rus′; the next important period is the Muscovite state, and finally, the Petersburg period of the Russian Empire. My colleague, Ilya Gerasimov, has published an excellent book about Akunin's textbook.
Although the latter claims to explain the history of Russia from the liberal perspective (in the context of an anti-Putin position), we are dealing with the same narrative here. In other words, regardless of whether a person espouses right-wing or left-wing views, for some reason, the structural thinking remains stable and dovetails beautifully with Putin's logic. It is not because the narrative proposed by Akunin is pro-Kremlin. There is a problem here of understanding how we recount history and (do not) work with the language we borrowed back in the nineteenth century. We often do not reflect on the methodological nationalism that lies in the foundation of such a narrative. There is also a problem in history itself as a type of narrative: Historians recount history. When we analyze medieval sources, as soon as we start multiplying the objects of our history and splitting the concept of "Rus′," we realize that it is worthwhile talking about several Rus′ and how several political centers with various scenarios of political development were consolidated. Here and there, the genesis and formation of an empire do not contain anything deterministic. We also understand that imperial formations are very diverse.
In order to create a narrative about imperial history, another type of thinking is required. I am talking about a considerably more complex national history that always refers to its own canons of heroics. In the two-volume publication The New Imperial History of Northern Eurasia, created on the basis of the journal Ab Imperio, we tried to utilize all our experience of working with the methodology of the new imperial history and research on Northern Eurasia. On the one hand, we know that the empire is a contextual category.
We transform it into an analytical category. In this case, it's just about context. It cannot be the history of a single center, in a single language, and with a single dominant identification. If a narrative about the empire recreates it, not as a "hostile agent," but as a contextual category in need of hybridization, focus is required on interactions, self-organization, hybridity, etc. We must work with language. In other words, we cannot simply recount history; we should also analyze the language in which an account is narrated. This is a very complex aspect of interpreting and writing history. Stop and look closely at historical narratives; they are nationalizing narratives. They Russify not out of some ill will but because Russianness is present in them as something "ancient," something that is a systematizing base of the account. This natural perception of Russianness requires deconstruction. The concept of the state is also subject to decolonization. All the concepts that we perceive as a given require interpretation and deconstruction. That is why new narratives are crucial.
It is essential to begin with the transformation of the basic aspects. When I began working at the University of Illinois Chicago, I renamed the course "Pre-Modern Russian History," utilizing the concept of Northern Eurasia and transformed the course "Modern Russian History" by introducing the concept of the Russian Empire. Such an approach creates a completely different perspective. But I encountered other problems. When students chose their academic disciplines, they didn't quite understand what was what. They registered for a course whose title included the word Russia, because this term was familiar to them. But when a course title contains the term Northern Eurasia, they don't know which nations and cultures are meant. And this work with making changes to the narrative is necessary, even if we lose students. Otherwise, there will be no result. In other words, if we continue to teach "Russian history," even if we change something within the discipline, this will not change anything fundamentally.
The next aspect is how we relate these histories. Another crucial aspect is the training of graduate students. I can offer you an example from my own professional activities. At the University of Illinois Chicago, the graduate students working with my colleague Keely Stauter-Halsted, who specializes in the history of Poland, must learn Polish, German, Yiddish, and Ukrainian in order to conduct research. In other words, a graduate student studying the history of the Russian Empire cannot be fluent in only one language. First of all, the requirements within the discipline and the field of research must be changed. My graduate student, who studies the history of the archaeology of pastoral nomadism in the Russian Empire and the early Soviet Union, will be defending his dissertation soon. He learned the Ukrainian language. Vladyslava Moskalets, a colleague of mine from Ukrainian Catholic University, who is a Visiting Researcher now at our university, recently administered a test to him. He knows Kazakh and Russian, but while working in the archives in Lviv, he had to master Polish as well. Thus, in working with sources written in several languages, he wrote a lengthy account of the past and future of the empire, as it was viewed by various participants of archaeological digs (Ukrainian, Mongol, Kazakh, etc.). This type of approach should be the norm in our subject area in order to make changes possible.
Then, all the questions relating to Ukraine will be important, not because there is a war going on, but because we can spot through this research certain common global patterns that are important for researchers in Africa, Asia, and Western Europe. It is important to organize everything connected with Ukrainian studies, but not as a narrow version of national history, which many researchers now reject because the national framework gives rise to a considerable number of methodological problems. This raises the question: What is the value of such an approach for those who work in other research frameworks, and how does one build a dialogue with them? At the same time, of course, everything historically connected with the culture, politics, and other spheres in Ukraine is a very important part of European and world history and the history of Northern Eurasia.
I think it is very important to work with language and how the history of large imperial formations is taught. It is impossible to excise Ukrainian history from Soviet history, no matter what one's attitude to the Soviet past is. It is impossible to understand the Holodomor without the Soviet context, and the version of Ukrainian nation-building was formulated in many ways within the framework of the Soviet version of the "affirmative action empire." To shrink all this to a certain version of national history by ignoring broader contexts and frameworks would be counterproductive. Although they demonstrate the hierarchical nature of development and introduce conflict, they also allow us to show the subjectivity of people who identified with one version of Ukrainianness or another, with one political project or another in a variety of situations. I think that subjectivity is also very important because this entire discussion about decolonization is based on (at least one would hope that it is) a critical reinterpretation of the experience of postcolonial studies. In postcolonial studies, there is a very strong mechanism for rejecting subjectivity — this subaltern who is incapable of speaking (in other words, we were colonized, and the entire time we did not have our own subjectivity). In my opinion, this is also an incorrect mechanism because Ukrainian subjectivity is a key theme in Ukrainian historiography.
I teach the Soviet period after the Second World War, and I really like Serhy Yekelchyk's book Stalin's Citizens: Everyday Politics in the Wake of Total War, which is about postwar politics in Ukraine. In fact, this book is not just about Stalinism but about the model of political participation and subjectivity, using Kyiv as an example. In my opinion, teaching this period through the lens of this book is much more beneficial, interesting, and productive, but this is no longer national history. In my estimation, such an approach guarantees that Ukrainian research will be integrated into global research and the decolonizing agenda. In that event, positive changes will truly take place. This is my opinion, but many alternative approaches exist in the disciplinary field. Of course, there is resistance — not because there are some Russian agents of the Kremlin but because there are very unstable patterns within the subject field and people who identify with them. In other words, this is a discussion in which Zayarnyuk, Zhuk, and others should participate.
"Ukrainian society, too, is an imperial society in the sense that it is very diversified and encompasses many different ethnic identities, languages, and cultures."
Can misunderstandings around the term "Russian," which you mentioned earlier, be partly conditioned by certain features of the English-language discourse, whereas the Ukrainian discourse operates according to a more Eastern European understanding of this and often equates nationality with ethnicity? I have a second question. Ukraine's historical and historiographic discourse also includes teleological questions and seeks to copy this imperial discourse by adapting it to the national framework. We, too, seek to begin our history from Kyivan Rus′ as our own national state, competing in this matter, since the times of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, with the Russian nationalizing project. How can we better decolonize our own historical narratives?
You are absolutely correct in saying that the problem is with categories. In the English-speaking discourse, the term "Russian" simultaneously denotes ethnic Russianness, state Russianness, and cultural Russianness, which leads to the interlaying of these identifications. This occurs automatically, and people do not especially reflect on this topic. At present, of course, people are starting to reflect, but there is no appropriate word. In Ab Imperio, we are experimenting with language and introducing the terms "Russian" and "Rusian" to denote these differences. This is the first formal step and, just like with "Eurasia," it may not be the most ideal option. When we work with language, any innovations sound strange. But we must abstract ourselves from the language of practice and work with the language of analysis; in our analytical language, the concept of "Russian" must be split.
In my view, we must also introduce conceptual differentiation into the term "Ukrainian" because Ukrainian society, too, is an imperial society in the sense that it is very diversified and encompasses many different ethnic identities, languages, and cultures. The confusion surrounding the concepts of "Ukrainian" in the sense of ethnic Ukrainianness can lead to the same consequences as in the case of Russianness. That is why researchers in Ukraine should work with language the same way as researchers of the Russian imperial formation are doing.
You are also correct in saying that similar teleological reasoning is present in both the narrative of "Russian history" and the narratives of "Ukrainian history." It stems from the context of the nineteenth–early twentieth centuries, which is described as a "nationalizing empire" in neo-imperial history. Empire is a specific, generalizing framework. And even though Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper write that the main history of humankind unfolded within imperial formations, these are very different formations nonetheless. The case we are discussing is the modern, nationalizing empire in which the national framework, national teleology, and national historical narrative become structure-creating. But when these nationalizing "optics" appear, the empire in and of itself is transformed into a problem. In other words, what was previously not accepted and not examined as a problem (because everything was the empire) becomes a problem. The empire begins to connote archaism and pre-modernity, while these supposedly more organic national forms are associated with modernity and the future. And all this is happening inside the empire. The narratives that we have now are narratives supposedly not about national states but narratives of the nationalizing empire. This also pertains to Ukrainian narratives. The way that the imperial formations of Northern Eurasia ultimately come into being is largely the result of specific historical constellations. There is nothing here of the Hegelian national narrative, in which there is a teleological certainty about everything in advance, and the absolute idea of the nation is eventually realized or not realized during the implementation of a political project.
I am amenable to working with any major historical narrative that will allow us to overcome our dependence on this nationalizing model. However, this is a very complicated issue because there are people who are resisting this in both Western and non-Western academia. Of course, the ongoing war forces people to adopt hard positions and does not foster a complex dialogue. But I think that such an approach is very important and guarantees that not only Russian but also Ukrainian historiography will become an avant-garde example of thinking about the past, the present, and the future.
"In American academia on the whole and Cold War-era Russian Studies in particular, historical revisionism was always connected with the left-wing position."
In Ukraine, there has been much criticism of certain Western scholars, such as Sheila Fitzpatrick, Ronald Suny, and Tarik Cyril Amar, in connection with their positions on the Russo-Ukrainian War. We have even heard accusations that they are agents of the Kremlin. In your opinion, how can this be explained?
I don't know about Tarik Amar because I think this is a separate case that should not be generalized. He is a person with his own views and problems. He is not an important reference figure in current historiography. But people like Sheila Fitzpatrick and Ronald Suny are exceptionally prominent, important, and influential, especially in English-language historiography. To call them "agents of the Kremlin" is a presumptively incorrect approach that explains nothing. Fitzpatrick, Suny, and many others are, first and foremost, intellectuals who revolutionized the field of study at one time. This is a generation of social historians who, during the latter years of the Cold War, reviewed the approaches of the totalitarian school and created a contemporary, "living" social history. Suny began studying the empire and how important nationality was in the "Soviet project." He also has publications on the Armenian genocide, the collapse of the empire, and other topics. These researchers created scholarly schools, and today their students hold leading positions at American universities. They also supervise many graduate students who are transmitting what they received from their teachers. In many ways, they are continuing to shape the field of study.
The problem is not that they identify themselves with the Putin regime but that, in American academia on the whole and Cold War-era Russian studies in particular, historical revisionism was always connected with the left-wing position. This position was essentially very American and was formulated within the American context, where the Soviet Union persisted as an abstract symbol of an alternative to American Western capitalism. Fundamentally, the left-wing paradigm is critical; it allows for the formulation of new approaches because it has a powerful critical potential. But it is also true that much of the Western domestic political agenda was projected onto the Soviet Union because in the tripolar world, the Soviet Union was the second pole that symbolized an alternative — non-capitalist — modernity. The need for this pole to be preserved remains to this day. In this picture of the world (absolutely inadequate, in my opinion), any regime, including Putin's, continues to be perceived as an alternative to capitalism and NATO. At the same time, Ukraine personifies nationalism in this geopolitical vision.
This is like a reflection in a crooked mirror. But in practice, it is in no way connected with the activities of propaganda organizations from Russia. It is the logic of "tentatively" left-wing intellectuals within American academia. I criticize this position, even though I am not a right-wing intellectual. In my opinion, this type of "leftism" is essentially colonial. From the milieu of the hegemonic Western discourse, projections are made on an environment with which people are, in fact, unfamiliar, or they know very little about it. At the same time, most of these researchers are not fluent in Ukrainian. For example, Suny reads sources in Armenian but does not understand Ukrainian, so he obtains information about Ukraine from Russian sources. These people were raised in a discipline — and here Zayarnyuk is right — in which the Russian language seemed to be the only one, and knowledge of it opened up an opportunity to be a specialist in the entire (post)Soviet space. The diversity and complexity of this space were not wholly known even to those scholars who, like Suny, were creating imperial history and claimed that the Soviet empire was an empire of a nation and the Russian Empire was an empire but not a Russian state.
In this sense, Suny is a fascinating figure because, without him, it is impossible to imagine contemporary imperial research and the departure from Russocentrism. At the same time, he certainly expresses political views that, in many ways, resonate with what the Putin regime is articulating right now, although I think that in the last while, he has backtracked on such statements. In other words, this is not a question of manipulation. It is not a political question but a problem that stems from the specific ways in which the field of study functions. That is why it is very important to conduct a dialogue within the academic community and express academic arguments, not just political ones. If we do not break the structural foundations of recreating these narratives, these patterns of the discipline's organization, and the training of graduate students, unfortunately, we will not change anything, regardless of how actively some organizations work in Russia or not.
"Before the war, I had always thought that the Ukrainian intellectual milieu was different from the intellectual milieu in Russia precisely because there were various voices in the Ukrainian one, and genuine, interesting dialogue was taking place there."
Olga Bertelsen recently published an article that raises a number of questions connected with the Russian secret services, whose goal is to influence historical narratives about Ukraine. She writes about two organizations that work closely with the Russian secret services: SVOP (Council for Foreign and Defense Policy) and the Izborsky Club. Is this influence really at play?
My first impression of this article may be encapsulated by the phrase "beyond Good and Evil." In other words, this is a text that should be viewed outside of the professional field. It is written along the lines of conspiracy theories, like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I don't know whether there is any sense at all in discussing such texts. I understand that there are people who specialize in the discipline of intelligence studies. I have never dealt with this field, but if we are to examine this, it is necessary to cite concrete facts on the basis of which conclusions can be drawn. But this article is full of uninformed invective and insinuations, and I think discussing them would be unwise and unprofessional.
The propaganda organizations mentioned in the article do exist and operate. But the people who somehow sound in unison with some ideological messages come from completely different considerations, paradigms, and contexts. And Suny will never shake hands with Naryshkin; he is too intelligent and professional to do this. And it is utterly shameful when someone’s name, for example, Georgiy Kasianov’s, appears in relation to such questions or in this particular article. Before the war, I had always thought that the Ukrainian intellectual milieu was different from the intellectual milieu in Russia precisely because there were various voices in the Ukrainian one, and genuine, interesting dialogue was taking place there. I had always read Krytyka with pleasure. It was interesting for me to see how Ukrainian intellectuals position themselves as public intellectuals. I might agree or disagree with a certain issue. But I thought it was very important to see that there are diverse professional voices (for example, Georgiy Kasianov, Volodymyr Viatrovych, and critiques of Viatrovych), this being an example of a healthy democratic process. This is part of the work with language and how the type of social perceptions is changing. It is fundamentally important [to know] that Kasianov never worked for the regime and went against the mainstream here and there. So, to compare him to Alexei Miller, who truly worked for the regime, developing approaches to the politics of memory that were subsequently included in narratives justifying the war, is bizarre and ignorant. In my opinion, this devalues all the intellectual work done in Ukraine before the war.
Is it possible to view the ethnocentric narrative as a certain postcolonial syndrome? Is it connected with Ukraine's ongoing quest for its own model of nation-building and the fact that many historians continue attempting, not always so well, to play the role of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the historian and nation-builder?
Of course, this is a postcolonial syndrome. Moreover, the critique of this was very productive because, in addition to political dominance, there is epistemological dominance — how we think and impart history. The Soviet system is gone; there are no structures of its domination (I am not talking about the war here), but it is still present on the level of language and thinking. Therefore, the critique of epistemological postcolonial dominance is very important. That we critiqued the Western type (I am referring here to postcolonial criticism of the 1960s and 1970s), capitalism, and Western modernity and that we critiqued history itself and history writing as a product of Western modernity is very productive and important. But how do we tell this history, especially if we acknowledge that we are subalterns and, therefore, do not have a language in which to express ourselves? Not in the sense of a national language but a political language that would not be determined by imperialists/colonialists, but would permit the expression of our political, social, and cultural views.
There can be two alternatives here: Either we go right back to the pre-colonial past, that is, to Hrushevsky, and we launch this project from the place where we left off (naturally, this means that we are returning to the national history paradigm), or we create that which is called the "usable past," a version of national history precisely for use today. This seems to be the most obvious answer. But, in looking at the experience of previous postcolonial historiographies from today's perspective, we can understand that this is a hopeless scenario. This "methodological nationalism" is a dead end, even from the standpoint of mobilizing the nation, because ideas about purity and ethnic homogeneity are simply ideas (only ethnic cleansing can really make everyone identical).
I had always thought that in Ukraine, especially after the Maidan, a process of genuine postcolonial liberation was taking place. This was a process of liberation from epistemological dominance connected with the past by means of creating other senses, words, and stories. This was a truly creative process, but it was not an ethnic or national one. People with the most diverse identities (ethnic ones: Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, etc.; sexual ones: gays, transsexuals) were involved. They were all united by the fact that they identified as Ukrainians. In this way, a new Ukrainianness was being created. Accordingly, a historical narrative is required to justify and enroot this version of Ukrainianness. I think that this version of Ukrainianness corresponds to reality in Ukraine and is also a potentially good and correct version for the future. From the standpoint of history, the narrative of such Ukrainianness makes it important and relevant to others.
I work in a department where most of my colleagues are Americanists, but there are some who study the history of China, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. In order for our research studies to resonate with one another, it is necessary to find common topics and have a common language. I think that the development of an alternate, complex (not ethnonational) version of Ukrainian history is essential right now. In our department, Vladyslava Moskalets is teaching "The History of Ukraine" from the point of view of the complexity and diversity of Ukrainianness. This approach is productive because there are non-Ukrainians in the classroom, and they need to be shown the things in this history that not only make it "exotic" and therefore marginal (all exotica is interesting but marginal), but also carry value for them, helping them to see themselves in this unfamiliar material.
Given the war circumstances, how can we continue to conduct this type of discussion?
The war is not the context for such discussions. Of course, this conversation should begin seriously after the war ends, when Ukraine wins, and life returns to a relatively normal course. But even in the war situation, when I met Sofia Dyak in Chicago at the ASEEES meeting, I consulted with her about a topic for my graduate student from Ukraine. Her research topic was quite comparative and global, connected with Mexico and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. But as a result of the war, she wanted to change her topic to Ukrainian national history. I consulted with Sofia, and she said that Ukraine needs a global history because it is very worthwhile having people who know Spanish, are familiar with the archives in Mexico, and can understand where Ukraine emerges in this global context. No less important is that some people articulate similar views on the current context of the war.
The photographs featured in this article are from the author's personal archive and open sources.
An apology from Marina Mogilner:
I am writing to publicly apologize to Professor Alexei Yurchak for claiming in my interview with the website of Ukraina Moderna Journal that he attended The Valdai Discussion Club. He never attended this propaganda forum. This was a terrible slip-up, and I failed to catch this in the proofs sent to me by the interviewer. The responsibility for this is entirely mine, and I sincerely apologize to Professor Yurchak, and the editors and readers of the rubric “Overcoming the Past” on the Ukraina Moderna website and the website of the Canadian charitable non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter that republished the interview. I absolutely had no right to make this false accusation.
Marina B. Mogilner is Edward and Marianna Thaden Chair in Russian and East European Intellectual History and Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, USA. She is also a founding coeditor of the quarterly Ab Imperio, dedicated to new imperial history and studies of nationalism in the post-Soviet space. Her recent publications include A Race for the Future: Scientific Visions of Modern Russian Jewishness (Harvard University Press, 2022); her edited volume A Cultural History of Race in the Age of Empire and Nation State (1760–1920), one of the six volumes in The Cultural Histories Series (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021); Homo Imperii : A History of Physical Anthropology in Russia (University of Nebraska Press, 2013). Her new book, Jews, Race, and the Politics of Difference: The Case of Vladimir Jabotinsky against the Russian Empire, will be published in July 2023 by Indiana University Press. Her articles on race and empire, the history of the humanities in the Russian Empire, and other topics have appeared in various journals and anthologies.
Originally appeared in Ukrainian @Ukraina Moderna
This article was published as part of a project supported by the Canadian non-profit charitable organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.
[i] Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) is a leading international academic association that brings together scholars in the humanities and social sciences worldwide who study Central and Eastern Europe and Northern Eurasia (Russia and the post-Soviet republics in Central Asia).
[ii] In the first years of the association’s existence, the research done by its members focused mainly on Russia. Here and there, the very name of the association was regarded as a synonym of Russian studies. The aspects of the association’s activities that would eventually be criticized included an excessive focus on Russian studies and the ethnic approach to research. This led to the exclusion of the non-Slavic peoples of the “Eurasian space” from the association’s research focus. The name change to ASEEES now includes the concept of “Eastern European and Eurasian studies,” which has significantly expanded the research space beyond the limits of ethnic approaches.