Serhy Yekelchyk | A global-minded approach to teaching about Ukraine

Serhy Yekelchyk

University of Victoria



SERHY YEKELCHYK is a professor of history and Slavic studies at the University of Victoria and current president of the Canadian Association for Ukrainian Studies. Born and educated in Ukraine, he received his PhD from the University of Alberta in 2000 and taught at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). Professor Yekelchyk is the author of six books on Ukrainian history and Ukrainian-Russian relations, including Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation (2007), which has been translated into five languages. His monograph Stalin’s Citizens: Everyday Politics in the Wake of Total War (2014) received the “Best Book” award from the American Association for Ukrainian Studies. Dr. Yekelchyk’s most recent book is The Conflict in Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know (2015). He is currently completing a history of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917–20.

I am going to start by making an introductory comment about something positive, which the chair of the previous panel was asking for several times, and I thought I would finally answer with a positive starting point—namely, that I represent here a program that is brand new and actually is being built rather than being in decline or undergoing difficulties. But the challenge of being part of a small university—not really so small anymore, but one in which Ukrainian studies will always probably be a part of some wider curriculum—presents us with a number of interesting opportunities. One of them is: if you have a university with two people in Ukrainian studies, neither of whom was in fact hired as a Ukrainian specialist, then that is essentially a bonus to the university. But how do you take advantage of this bonus if you ended up there as a Russianist and then your spouse was hired as well, basically as a Slavist, and both of you want to introduce Ukrainian courses? Well, we did, teaching Ukrainian language at the beginner’s level and teaching a Ukrainian history class as well (which is rather well subscribed, with usually between thirty and forty students). In order to systematize my ideas [about our approach to establishing and developing Ukrainian studies at the University of Victoria], I thought I would engage the rather tired metaphor of “one world”—which sounds like a commercial slogan for an airline or the banking industry, or something like that, the overused and tired language of globalization—but I thought I would try to work with it and see if it can actually apply in this particular case.

From this point of view, let us start by saying that [in Victoria] we are not actually building a full-fledged Ukrainian program that would take [a student] all the way from the beginner’s level to the 400-level and graduate school, although we are in fact hoping to have graduate students [specializing in Ukrainian studies]. I thought that the starting point would be to come up with a concept of what exactly we want to do. Our take on this was to establish Ukrainian studies as an acknowledged and important component of a wider curriculum, as something that touches upon and is possibly part and parcel of well-established, recognized programs and disciplines. This, of course, means that you need to make an argument about the value of Ukrainian studies, so you would seem to be back in the same trap. But it does sound different when one argues for Ukrainian studies not as a stand-alone discipline but as a crucial component of European history and Slavic studies, as an important component of becoming globally minded. It is also a different, more inclusive notion of Ukrainian studies that is used here. When we say that Ukrainian studies can contribute to our better understanding of the world, it is not just the language and literature that we have in mind. Today we can make the argument that one cannot really understand the world and its crises, or the politics of our own government and others, without some command of the situation in Ukraine. That, as Mark has just said, still involves dealing with issues of identity and culture, now seen in a new light.

One of the possible approaches we ended up using was [studying present-day Ukraine through the lens of] the post-imperial condition, which applies in a great many places in the world, but perhaps nowhere so prominently as on the Russian-Ukrainian border these days. There is also the issue of hybrid identities, which tends to be connected to the post-imperial condition in much of scholarship, and in real life in Ukraine as well: when you have a conflict that is ostensibly about the Russian language, and yet you have people speaking Russian on both sides; when you have a conflict that is ostensibly about monuments to Lenin, but Putin is not a member of the Communist Party. With hybrid identities and proxy identities in which you encounter stand-ins, one symbol standing for something else, these are rather interesting things for today’s students to consider. [This way, one can recruit students with no Ukrainian heritage.]

Moreover, Ukraine is a wonderful example of how new social media get involved in social mobilization and revolution just by virtue of two Ukrainian revolutions, the Orange Revolution of 2004–05 and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013–14, which were started essentially by social media. The more recent one was started by the famous invitation from the Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem (of Afghani descent) to come for a stroll on the central square in Kyiv, and people did show up. Now if we think through these notions, they would actually help enormously in undermining the traditional narratives that the disciplines very often try to protect, and yet at the same time they do acknowledge that “interdisciplinarity” and a transnational approach are important. Ukraine happens to fit into these categories rather nicely.

This also means, moving now to the second part of my argument, that “one world” should also be a serious component of the subject matter of Ukrainian studies, because it is not enough, of course, to call on others to understand the importance of your field. It also imposes an obligation on the form and content of your delivery, and your open engagement with the wider world of the humanities and social studies. For instance, we need to keep up to date as a discipline and get engaged not only with the most recent theoretical developments but also with practical things, which students tend to appreciate. Among the most recent ones are travel and field schools, which students in Canada, at my university at least, just love, and those of them who end up going to the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy for summer school come back transformed—they come back essentially wearing Ukrainian dress, embroidered shirts and all, even though the majority of our students taking Ukrainian classes have nothing to do with Ukraine, really. They are not of Ukrainian background, just a typical cross-section of British Columbia’s youth.

The very modern trend of studying literature together with film, along with some history and notions of social mobilization in a single package, also works very well with them. Making guest appearances in other courses, which seemingly are not necessarily relevant to Ukrainian studies, [is also very rewarding, because] once you show up there, you are required to find some explanation of why exactly you are standing before that audience. And actually you do come up with something, persuading them to enrol in your courses [while in the process formulating for them and for yourself the importance of Ukrainian materials for challenging accepted truths and disciplinary boundaries].

Going beyond that, an important component that I would like to highlight here, given the occasion of this conference, is the actual “one world of travel,” which does involve airlines but also social communication and the Internet. This is an important function of CIUS: to create a global space of Ukrainian studies, and a great many scholars from Ukraine—like myself, who underwent schooling here at the University of Alberta—have held scholarships and have been research assistants here at CIUS.

[The Institute played an important role after Ukraine became independent.] It was a time for Ukraine to discover Canada, and Canada to discover Ukraine by way of direct contact, and this meant a unique opportunity for the previous generation of Canadian scholars to influence the way humanities and social studies would be taught and researched in Ukraine. This in fact happened, and now it is very common to have festschrifts published in Ukraine for Canadian scholars, to have significant numbers of authors from Ukraine in any given collection—edited collections and such. CIUS played a major role in fostering such connections, making it a global world of scholarship about Ukraine.

One of the last points on this list of how you implement this new world of global academy is to connect modern Canadian identity to developments in Ukraine and to position Ukrainian studies as part of the Canadian heritage, which tends to resonate very well with students. In fact, I am very happy to see that Orest Martynowych’s book about the early stages of Ukrainian settlement in Canada was distributed to the participants of this conference. I actually assign one of the chapters from this book in my class, and it tends to be by far the most popular reading. Perhaps only reading about the hairstyle of Yulia Ty­mo­sh­en­ko competes with this one in popularity. [Laughter.] The chapter I assign explains why the Ukrainian settlers accepted inferior land, and what their journey was like. This material is quite stunning [for Canadian undergraduates]. And I put it on exams too, regularly.

But now we have to move to the actual content of what we study, and what kind of issues you take from Ukrainian history and culture in order to present meaningful, interesting puzzles for Canadian students. I want to give you a few examples here, emphasizing that we have to address the issue of content as well. We need to watch the new disciplinary trends [and seek the Ukrainian reflections of global social and cultural developments] if we want to claim a place for ourselves in the global world of learning. For instance, there is the challenge of the ongoing war and how this can be connected to larger global trends, and actually to the Soviet past as well. It is rather engaging for students when you can tell them that the Ukrainian state is still struggling to find an appropriate form of commemorating the soldiers fallen in the new war with Russia and Russian-supported separatists, and that one of the proposals supported, at least temporarily, by the presidential administration was to create a new Unknown Soldier and bury this unknown soldier in the Park of Eternal Glory—a very Soviet and very large memorial complex from 1957, one of the first such memorial parks in the former Soviet Union—and in this way to add the current war to the existing Soviet cult of the “Great Patriotic War.” But of course this is not the way to imagine the recent conflict, because the Russian side is using precisely the metaphor of an “ongoing Great Patriotic War” to such a great advantage among its citizens. Then you could ask them what kind of remembrance politics would be appropriate—“How would you, a Canadian student, suggest going about commemorating and mourning the victims and celebrating those who saved lives?”—and you would hear a lot of very interesting responses informed by our Canadian experience, by memorial practices connected to the Holocaust and other Western forms of commemoration. Also, the students would suddenly feel a connection with Ukraine.

Another example that I greatly enjoy giving to students is that of a society claiming public space, which was very visible in recent commemorations of the Euromaidan Revolution, when Ukrainian dignitaries needed to go to pay their respects to the Heavenly Hundred—but the space was very public because of the very nature of the Euromaidan. A protective barrier was built, not allowing the public into this space, which of course was precisely what the revolution was all about—removing the [physical and symbolic] barriers in that very same space. So now, the new authorities have installed a barrier as well, and it took them quite a considerable time to realize that they need to find a more appropriate form of involving this new “civil society,” which now has a voice, which claims certain symbolic spaces as its own. This unfolded around the same time that the Kyiv municipal authorities decided to allow cars on Khreshchatyk Street—which had been a pedestrian zone on weekends—and suddenly those who had participated in the revolution came up with a protest against that, because they now felt themselves masters of this public space. The Ukrainian public took on an important role in controlling the urban environment. This beautiful example also resonated very well with Canadian students, who share global environmental concerns and know [that the issue of urban space can start social action. They know] about the Occupy movement and the Gezi Park revolution in Turkey as well.

The last thing I am going to mention underscores the importance of true interdisciplinarity, and it so happens that true interdisciplinarity can be rewarded by student interest. I have never taught any subject more popular with Canadian students than “The Art of the Maidan,” which somehow speaks to their own culture, to their own understanding of how you express protest, how you create a community, how you initiate social action, how you risk something in your life—and produce new culture, new meaning. This resonates enormously, and I am so grateful to colleagues of mine in various fields who now publish on the art of the Maidan, and especially online articles and exhibits.