Mark Von Hagen | Achievements and challenges for Ukrainian studies: A view from New York, Arizona, and Germany

Mark Von Hagen

Arizona State University



MARK VON HAGEN teaches the history of Eastern Europe and Russia, with a focus on Ukrainian-Russian relations, at Arizona State University (ASU), after having taught for 24 years at Columbia University, where he also chaired the Department of History and directed the Harriman Institute. He was president of the International Association for Ukrainian Studies in 2002–05 and presided over its congress in Donetsk in 2005. He also served as president of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (2009). Among his recent publications are the introduction, “The Entangled Eastern Front in the First World War,” in Empire and Nationalism at War, (2014), a volume in Slavica’s series Russia’s Great War and Revolution; and The Entangled Eastern Front and the Making of the Ukrainian State: A Forgotten Peace, A Forgotten War, and Nation-Building, 1917–1918, a forthcoming publication of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Currently he is  the interim director of the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies at ASU; he is also chair of the international advisory board of the German-Ukrainian Historians’ Commission and a member of the international advisory board for the 1917 centennial projects of the Leonid Nevzlin Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Like Bishop Borys, our first speaker this morning, I am a bit intimidated, awed, and humbled by speaking in front of people who have been my teachers in Ukrainian studies, who have helped “Ukrainianize” me, who have converted me to the mission and made me a disciple. It is a bit intimidating, but I rise to the challenge as best I can.

I am also glad that Andrii [Portnov] right before me raised the German question, because that is another perspective I have something to say about. I have been dean of the Philosophy Faculty at the Ukrainian Free University for the past few years—again, thanks to a lot of you people here—and I could not have done that or taught what I am teaching there without CIUS, without HURI, without the Lypynsky Institute, everybody that you have heard from now. I owe a great personal and intellectual debt to the Ukrainian diaspora more broadly, but particularly to the institutions that you have built, which have helped translate your culture and history to non-Ukrainians, even though I have some Habsburg blood—well, Austrian, not Habsburg—but that is the closest I come to Galicia.

For me as a historian, the work of the institutes in preserving archives, in the teaching of Ukrainian language, literature, and history, and their engagement with independent Ukraine, and even pre-independent Ukraine, is something we cannot praise too much. I had a text prepared for this, but I have been rethinking things as I have been listening, so I am going to try to say what I want to say when I get there. But I want to focus on a few other things.

First of all are the achievements, from my point of view, of CIUS and Ukrainian studies; second, the new context and the challenge it poses for us; and finally, some strategies and opportunities. Dr. Lupul spoke from the beginning about power, and power has to do with strategies—and strategies for us, as sort of marginal, small-time players in the big picture, involve building coalitions and seizing opportunities for coalition building in and outside the universities. Twenty-five years ago, the end of the Soviet Empire across Eastern Europe brought all sorts of positive moments, and I was able to take part in many of them. The biggest moment was the change from isolation and the Cold War ideological warfare of the past to something much more open and free, and exchange was collaborative. I was involved most intimately with CIUS through the Ukraine-Russia Encounters Project with Frank [Sysyn], Zenon [Kohut], and Andreas Kappeler in Germany, and the Humboldt Foundation, and that did get published. We had all sorts of dreams back then, not just of getting Ukrainian historians and Russian historians to talk to each other, and Ukrainians and Russians to talk to each other, but even fantasies about writing a collaborative Ukrainian-Russian history book on the French-German model that has gone before us.

There has been a lot of progress in training a new generation of historians, anthropologists, cultural studies scholars, with a focus on expertise on Ukraine. They are now getting tenure in some of their home universities. As Andrii reminded us, even in Germany lately there have been some positive developments against a generally not-so-positive background, with the German-Ukrainian Historians’ Commission, another institution that was funded by the German Foreign Office—again, not a university and not a private foundation, but the German Foreign Office in the wake of Russia’s war with Ukraine—and the position at Viadrina University that Andrii also mentioned, in Frankfurt an der Oder.

But there is the problem of replacement. There is no one in a position at German-speaking universities, and that includes Switzerland and Austria, to replace Andreas Kappeler—neither in Vienna nor in Berlin. But before we get on to the challenges, I want to say that for me, and for the field of history, Ukraine has been (and again, thanks to CIUS and HURI above all) the most important factor in what we now call the “imperial turn” in Russian and East European history. Ukraine’s example has forced Russian historians (the most important audience for some of us) and Polish historians to rethink a lot of their own history—at least they had to do so for a while. And again, the Russian-Ukrainian Encounter[1] was part of a moment of opportunity which is very lamentably lost since 2014, if not before. So I think you all have to give yourself more credit for the “imperial turn.” We do not think of Russia anymore as a nation-state as much as we think of it as an empire, and that includes Communist Russia, the Communist Soviet Union, and Putin’s Russia as well. It is still parting very painfully with its imperial legacy; whether it will ever do so is another question. I want to leave that achievement as the most important one for me and for historians and, by extension, for those who read history.

Most Americans and Europeans now have some sense of Ukraine but still have trouble distinguishing it from Russia, and that is the problem that I am going to focus on a bit more. Most ominously, it is the shadow of Russia and its war with Ukraine, and I am glad Rory [Finnin] brought it up, because I think that the ethical challenges we face now in area studies and history—teaching about Russia, teaching about Ukraine—are something that we need to talk about more and share experiences. This is indeed one of the most important challenges we are facing, and it is not going to go away anytime soon.

The shadow of Russia and its war with Ukraine is a constant challenge, indeed to the very survival not just of Ukrainian studies but of the Ukrainian state, or at least one with the borders of 1991. “Shche ne vmerla Ukraïna[2] has taken on a new urgency and poignancy in the face of this new existential threat. But as one colleague recently noted, one of the positive things to come out of the war, if you can find a silver lining, is Ukrainians’ definitive divorce from Russian identities and loyalties, perhaps inevitable though still very painful. Last year, here in Edmonton, I compared Austria’s long co-dependency on Germany, the Anschluss complex—even Nazi Germany, when Austrians thought that they had to live with a powerful Germany because they did not have enough faith in Austria to survive as an independent country. And I think the war of the last two years has helped Ukraine get over its Anschluss complex, and wars do have ways of shaping and creating nations and national identity. We know that from Charles Tilly, if not a few other people.

After my first trip to Israel, I think Israel may be [a possible model for] Ukraine’s future as a militarized democracy. That is my latest thing: […] if Ukraine is going to survive as a democracy, it is going to be a militarized democracy, because Russia is not going to go away soon, just as the Arab nations around Israel are not going to go away soon, and war is not going to be something that we can forget about.

Another consequence of the war has been the prospect of long-term non-access to Russian archives and to exchanges with Russian scholars, given the important role of Russia in Ukraine’s history. In my own case, I have been working on Pavlo Khrystiuk and on Oleksander Shulhyn, from the first Ukrainian government a hundred years ago—another important anniversary that we need to think about—[and considering] how we can best make use of raising Ukraine’s role in 1917, in what we still call the “Russian Revolution.” But Oleksander Shulhyn and Khrystiuk’s archives were in Prague and then ended up not just in Kyiv but in Moscow, so we are not going to get to see those archives anytime soon. And that is just one example of many cases of disruption.

At the same time, historical narratives and identities, as we heard also, starting with Bishop Borys this morning, are themselves becoming in some sense weaponized, and I am going to try to make a case that Russia is currently waging civilizational conflict against Ukraine and the West, up to and including denial of the Ukrainian nation, and with it the denial of the legitimacy of any independent Ukrainian state. Again, this is something we have known: Patricia [Kennedy] Grimsted’s work on the trophies of war and empire, the archives of the Museum of Ukraine’s Struggle for Independence [in Prague]—all these things are not new to us, but they are back in our lap. Another challenge we have heard from the beginning is the changing political economy of contemporary higher education in the West, in the United States, and in Ukraine itself. This means the nearly across-the-board decline of funding for the humanities, both in the West and in Ukraine, and together with the humanities, area-studies centres that focus on international relations and foreign cultures and societies. In Ukraine, the recent austerity measures introduced in the National Academy of Sciences have also produced similar declines in humanities education, in the reform of higher education there. The humanities are being made less and less attractive, as is the teaching profession in general, all the way down to the primary-school level, and this crisis is bigger than just Ukraine but is particularly hard-hitting in Ukraine.

It is hard to keep straight my several hats that I have been wearing lately. My immediate context is that I am the interim director of the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies at Arizona State University, and there we face many of the same challenges, I think, that the University of Alberta has faced and all public universities face. And I think Arizona and Alberta probably at some point shared an unenviable place in how much public education had been cut and privatized, together with the social net, by neo-conservative politicians. I have long contended that we did not need Communism to destroy the free world. We had, in our case, the Republican Party, or neo-conservative party, which starved public education and would very likely starve it further. Unfortunately, they have been abetted (only sometimes resisted) by university presidents, provosts, and deans who have pursued short-term solutions for constantly expanding not only their missions but also their administrative staffs. And again, the biggest victim of this sort of corporate—neo-corporate, whatever you want to call it—new political economy of universities is the humanities. This applies even to the more humanistic sides of some of the social sciences, like political science, which we discussed earlier.

Just as we did not need Putin to destroy Ukrainian studies—we probably did not—because we had the neo-conservatives destroying the humanities more generally, that leaves us with a very presentist focus in the American case, very provincial in its America-centrism. I mentioned the Las Vegas complex[3]—I do not know what the Canadian equivalent of a Las Vegas complex is, but the idea that we [in the USA] do not need to know what happens around the world is reflected in the miserable coverage of the world in American media. Whether it is MSNBC, Fox News, or anything, you can hardly find news these days about anything but the horrible [US presidential] election campaign that we are enduring.

A final challenge to the survival of Ukrainian studies is the continuing crisis of the Ukrainian political system and its culture, and its half-heartedness in overcoming decades of corruption, abuse of power, and repression. […] Along these lines, the brain drain from Ukraine is another one of the symptoms of that, not just at the younger level. The students we teach at the Ukrainian Free University are those who decided that Ukraine does not offer them an attractive future, and they want to see if they can enhance their chances by getting a German degree. But Ukrainian studies centres in the West will face more and more requests from scholars from displaced institutions, as in Donetsk and Luhansk—not just the ones from displaced institutions but also those with failing finances, or we face losing a whole generation of post-Soviet scholarship.

Now to where I think we have some opportunities in all this bleakness. The function and mission of area studies and Ukrainian studies is a wonderful exemplar that has been above all about helping our fellow citizens and one another to better understand the cultures and societies of foreign countries, but also to help educate our fellow citizens about the diasporas connected to, and broken off from, those countries and civilizations. It has also been about translating our own cultures, and someone mentioned American studies or Canadian studies as something we should all probably think more seriously about, too. Helping students and scholars from our part of the world to understand our own culture, wherever possible in the language of our guests, we have helped our international colleagues to navigate their way through our bureaucratic Byzantine universities and communities in the first place, and in our nations more broadly. That mission is more than ever vital for universities, given the mobility (for some, a forced mobility) of our colleagues in the regions that we study.

Another area of opportunity—and again, this is thanks to “comrade Putin”; as I say, he has made our cause a bit more visible than it had been for a long time—I am helping to plan a new online Master’s degree in global security, where the Russian war with Ukraine, unfortunately and tragically, is at the centre of this new MA. I work together with an international humanitarian lawyer and a lawyer-engineer colleague named Brad Allenby, who is responsible for my use of the phrase “civilizational conflict.” We have heard about “hybrid war,” as NATO calls it—the Russians call it “new generational warfare,” the Chinese call it “unrestricted warfare”—and this is how my colleague defines [civilizational conflict]: “All dimensions of a civilization in the process of long-term intentional coordinated conflict, one aspect of which may be, or may not be, conventional combat.” Narratives and identities are at the centre of this kind of civilizational conflict, and who does narratives and identities if not [those involved in] the humanities, above all? Again—literature, history, anthropology, the arts—what we are talking about in this sort of civilizational conflict is “the creation of belief systems that can be maintained within a much larger, chaotic information system by adroit manipulation of culture, psychology, beliefs, ideologies, perceptions, opinions, and religions of subgroups using appropriate levers such as comment boards, blogs, websites, and yes, even traditional print and broadcast media.”

[…] So this sort of civilizational conflict is competition across economics, social media, propaganda, disinformation, cyber-war, and again, only occasionally resorting to conventional military confrontation; usually those are special operations disguised as humanitarian missions, as we have seen more recently. But it is above all about narratives and identities, which brings us back to the humanities and area studies and Ukrainian studies. This image of weaponizing narratives and identities sounds too militaristic and, for me, too geopolitically focused.

I want to leave you at least with a more upbeat mission of the humanities and Ukrainian studies, not in my own words but some other person’s words, in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

For humanity doesn’t just exist; it has to be created, over and over again. If our violent history shows anything, it is that we are not born with an innate sympathy for, or understanding of, all humankind; and without those, “humanity” is just a word. So humanity has to be built, and the only way to build it is to show young people already rooted in their own birth culture that they can move beyond that culture without abandoning it—that what is foreign to that culture can remain foreign and still be worthy of thought and respect.

Humanists thus build humanity, one work of art at a time. In this function, the humanities are useful to individuals, to be sure, but indirectly: Rather than helping an individual to a more interesting and prosperous life, they first build a shared and—let’s call it “humane”—world, in which such lives can subsequently find a place. It follows that cultures which do not teach the humanities to as many people as possible (or who adopt, for example, a narrowly nationalistic view of them) are inviting serious trouble; for continuation of the current dystopia is not the worst possibility before us.[4]

This is the kind of argument our university presidents, provosts, and deans can and should make to their governments, corporate sponsors, and other private funders, not to mention their legislatures and governors. The humanities and Ukrainian studies, with a strong humanities core, are a national security priority, if only we expand [beyond] our overly militarized understanding of what makes our nations, societies, and the world secure.

Yaroslav Hrytsak:

Mark mentioned the “imperial turn” in Russian studies. Among those who have contributed to helping people to rethink what is Russian and Soviet in Ukrainian studies, I would put Serhy Yekelchyk at the top. His works on 19th-century Ukrainian history, and most importantly his book on the Second World War and the representations of that war, have been important for rebuilding and rethinking Russian history. They have also contributed to the field of Russian history rethinking Ukrainian history a lot.

[1]    Four sessions held alternately at Columbia University and Cologne University from June 1994 to September 1995, co-organized by the Seminar for East European History at Cologne, the Harriman Institute at Columbia, and CIUS.

[2]    National anthem lyrics: lit. “Ukraine has not yet perished.”

[3]    A bond of confidentiality: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

[4]    McCumber, J. “How humanities can help fix the world,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 63, no. 6 (7 Oct. 2016).