When Crisis hits: Historians in Ukraine

Leibniz Graduate School

On October 27, 2017, the quarterly colloquium of the Leibniz Graduate School hosted the roundtable discussion Blogging Historians in Moments of Crisis with Paul Vickers (GCSC Gießen), Anna Veronika Wendland and Svetlana Boltovskaja (both Herder Institute, Marburg) about their experiences living and working in Ukraine.

 

The Ukraine Crisis

The debate focused on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the role of scholars and experts in such moments. At its center was Paul Vicker’s “Revolution, Lecturing, Life in Western Ukraine,” which documented life in Ivano-Frankivsk, a mid-sized town where Paul worked as an English-language lecturer between 2012 and 2014. The protests against the government in Kyiv starting in late 2013, usually known by the shorthand “Euromaidan,” also dramatically changed life in far-away Ivano-Frankivsk. Every day protests took place, busses with activists and supplies left for the capital, authority and power were renegotiated. “I felt a duty that I had to record [what was happening],” he explained the motivation for the blog, which is now dormant but still accessible. Today, it represents a treasure trove for all interested in local and micro history.

From Paul’s blog. Original caption: “What a building that hasn’t been subject to an arson attack looks like, apparently, according to frankivsk.net.”
Controversies

Many posts dealt with everyday life, teaching, and the aspirations of pro-Maidan activists. Much had to do with an invented, almost magical space called “Europe and how it supposedly functioned,” Paul explained.

But one particular theme, “The Rise of the Far-Right” (which he later renamed “The Rise and Fade of the Far-Right”) stirred controversies. Some readers took offense at his coverage of right wing and extremist groups, oftentimes armed, which organized torch-lit marches, intimidated peaceful demonstrators, and dominated the public space for days. He also commented critically upon the newly emerging iconography and slogans, such as “Glory to the Heroes, Glory to Ukraine,” which has since become almost ubiquitous.

Despite the negative feedback and unwanted readers among the Russian alt-right, Paul did not back down.  He researched organizers and origins of funding and objectionable symbols, which proved his misgivings were justified and reconciled irritated friends and readers.

Expertise in Demand

Whereas Paul considered his blog less a corrective to mainstream media in Ukraine, Germany, England and Poland – all languages that he speaks – but rather an “alternative perspective,” Anna Veronika Wendland has deliberately used blogging to intervene in and shape public debates.

During the Ukraine crisis, she found many commentators, alleged and self-proclaimed experts, too Russophile and too little informed about what was happening on the ground, taking almost exclusively“ the perspective of Russian imperialism” (see her article “Hilflos im Dunkeln. ‘Experten’ in der Ukraine-Krise. Osteuropa 9-10/2014). In such moments, she argued, blogging is an appropriate means which allows quicker interventions in public debates than the standard peer-reviewed and extensively footnoted academic article. The two formats serve different audiences and different purposes, but both are equally valid means to apply one’s expertise for the greater good.

Unlikely Champions

Svetlana Boltovskaja has been working for the Russian-language program of the Freiburg-based Radio Dreyeckland for over twenty years. The Ukraine crisis presented several new challenges: for instance, Svetlana and her colleagues found themselves accused of being CIA stooges. Due to the drumbeat of nationalistic propaganda, previously unfazed friends in her hometown of Chelyabinsk, Russia, suddenly worried about her personal safetyduring trips to Kyiv and Polesia, the swamp region around the nuclear plant Chernobyl where she conducts research. She countered media-fed prejudices with her own trouble-free experiences: the fact that she was a visitor from Germany, that she speaks Russian and Ukrainian and has specialized in the region’s history, has made her an object of a curiosity in Polesia rather than a target of animosity. As a result, she has been invited to schools to talk to children about her work and findings.

Nuklearia: Nicht ohne mein Kernkraftwerk
Nuklearia: Nicht ohne mein Kernkraftwerk

 

Straight from a (Spy) Novel

Fieldwork and research at times make for bizarre stories. Paul shared an entertaining anecdote about the three times he has been invited as “expert” by Russia Today, the Russian government-funded international broadcaster. They played him twice, but ultimately he got them back, he snickered.

Similarly entertaining were Svetlana’s and Veronika’s stories about “Yuri,” the assistant to the director for international affairs in the nuclear plant in Varazh who is in fact a Ukrainian security agent. “They are all called Yuri,” they laughed when Paul recalled his own encounters with the security agent of the university in Ivano-Frankivsk, also named “Yuri.” But, joking aside, Paul pointed out that he and his wife had in fact drafted escape plans in case there had been a full invasion of Ukraine.

What’s Left?

The Ukraine crisis drags on and continues to impact the speakers’ work and lives: all three have multinational families and backgrounds, which sensitizes them to nuanced considerations of past and current affairs. Unfortunately, many of the hopes reflected in the “Revolution of Dignity” – the alternative, largely forgotten name of Euromaidan – have not been fulfilled, Paul reminds his audience: among them were “concerns to improve everyday life, [such as] not having to pay a bribe – or what they call ‘a voluntary donation’ – every time they go to the hospital or to get your kid into the ‘right’ pre-school.” Ultimately, Paul concluded about his blog: “it did keep me from peer-reviewed articles or my book, that’s one side. But I assume it is going to be the most-read thing that I’ll ever write, […] I mean I’ll try but I doubt that I’ll have 35,000 reads again.”

 

If this summary caught your interest, please listen to the full recording

 

You can find Paul’s blog at https://uauk.wordpress.com

Veronika has contributed to such blogs as

https://ukraine-nachrichten.de/eigene-nicht-schlimm-integraler-nationalismus-kiewer-prospekt_4636

https://ukraine-nachrichten.de/geburtstag_4487

http://www.achgut.com/artikel/40_jahre_schlacht_um_grohnde_wer_hat_die_deutungshoheit_in_der_nuklearen_lo

http://nuklearia.de/2016/02/04/belgische-rissreaktoren-wie-sicher-sind-tihange-2-und-doel-3/

http://nuklearia.de/2016/07/11/nicht-ohne-mein-kernkraftwerk/

The Russian-language website of Svetlana’s polyglot Radio Dreyeckland can be found here: https://rdl.de/vielsprachig/ru

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