Rory Finnin | Ukrainian studies today: War, ethics, and the importance of the humanities

Rory Finnin

University of Cambridge



RORY FINNIN is the head of the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, where he also directs the Ukrainian Studies programme and chairs the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies (CamCREES). He received his PhD (with distinction) in Slavic languages and comparative literature from Columbia University. He also holds certificates from the Harriman Institute and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. In 2015 Finnin won a Teaching Award for Outstanding Lecturer from the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU).

First of all, I would like to thank all of the organizers of this terrific conference for their warm hospitality and Professor Kravchenko for the kind invitation. I would also like to thank the entire CIUS team, past and present, for forty years of outstanding scholarly achievement, for forty years of generous support for students and scholars around the world, for forty years of many sleepless nights rigorously annotating the letters of Volodymyr Vynnychenko or the translation of Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s Istoriia Ukraïny-Rusy. And on behalf of the University of Cambridge, I would like to thank the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies for the past eight years of your guidance and support, and for offering us very firm academic ground to stand on. I said the same things at Harvard a few months ago: it is impossible to imagine Ukrainian studies without HURI or CIUS, and I would particularly like to thank the donors who have shared this vision with generations of scholars. Thank you for your support.

This panel is entitled “New Challenges for Ukrainian Studies.” I am from the Midwest of the United States, where we tend to be by nature optimistic Pollyannas, always looking for the bright side of things, and I do feel that cataloguing challenges can be more or less tantamount to shaking your fist at the sky. It tends to be counterproductive, because after all, as a number of presenters in our first session noted, our challenges are really perennial. They are familiar to us. They are largely financial, institutional, and intellectual. They nearly always relate to a familiar problem, to a failure, I think, in the academy—not in our field, actually, but outside our field—to disentangle intellectual merit from rather inert, stale perceptions of politico-cultural power. This is a logic that we are very familiar with, a logic by which might is not only right but read. This is a logic that puts us in a position of often having to state the obvious: that Ukraine—the largest country within Europe, the most geopolitically contested country in Europe—is worthy of more advanced study.

When I am speaking of challenges today, I am of the view that we need to be expanding our work in such institutes. I really believe that, and I will raise a couple of examples from the Cambridge case to illustrate my point.

Earlier, Professor Magocsi mentioned the very helpful questions that we were furnished with to help ground our discussion and stimulate thought, and I am very grateful for them. I want to begin with a question that actually was not included, however, and that is the question of this armed conflict in our work, particularly the ethical consequences of studying a country at war. I think this is a conversation that we have not had very often. Obviously, Ukraine is a place, a country with which we have many personal and professional bonds. It is a country that is now subject to consistent political and military aggression. This raises a lot of professional questions for us that we need to tackle, and at least, by my lights, we have not done so yet. I think we can improve in that respect, because if, as Tim Snyder has suggested, “the Russian annexation of Crimea and the revolution of Ukraine have transformed the world,” then I think we have to consider and take stock of the ethical implications of that transformation for our work—not only in the realm of our own research and teaching, but also in the way we reach out to the public: how we, for instance, consult with political analysts, diplomats, and in particular how we relate to journalistic media.

This is a really important point that we need to take on board. Perhaps it is impossible for us in a venue like this (although it is a really welcome suggestion) to articulate a very basic, simple message about the mandate and mission of Ukrainian studies at a time of armed conflict. But I think it is certainly worthwhile to try to do so.

We simply cannot conduct business as usual. Certainly we can hope against hope for an imminent end to this conflict, but we also need to be prepared for more escalation. In 2014 we were all caught off-guard by the invasion of Crimea by Russian forces. We were thrust in front of cameras. Some of us were media-ready, some were not. Many of us were in Ukraine, some of us were farther afield. To speak about a war in real time, as events are unfolding, carries a tremendous responsibility that we need to support each other in understanding. And that is where I think a venue like this and an institute like CIUS are extremely valuable.

With this in mind, I think that very practical things like media training should be requirements for all of us. We also need to be building more public-facing online repositories of information about who we are and what we do. This was a point that Professor Kuzio made in relation to Facebook, but we all know also of the tremendous organic emergence of initiatives like the Ukraine Crisis Media Center,[1] which really filled a vacuum. There are also more local, more modest initiatives such as the website “Ukraine Scholars of North America,”[2] developed by an environmental scientist based in the United States, Motria [Poshyvanyk] Caudill. These types of initiatives point to a need for us to actually show the public who we are, to show what we do, to consolidate our commentary, and to offer ourselves a venue to share knowledge about editors and media producers.

In my experience, media [coverage] is really a game of arbitrary interpersonal relations. It is about an assistant to some editor somewhere who is either going to stick his or her hand into a hat of well-worn names or reach out at the last minute to a university, looking for expert commentary so they can fill a particular hit time. A lot of scholars who often represent the Kremlin’s point of view (I will not name them here) are very savvy about such things. I think we can be just as savvy. Meeting together here in this type of context and occasion can perhaps offer us an opportunity to share ideas about how to do so without sacrificing what we are also here to do, which is to advance knowledge about Ukraine and conduct scholarship.

Another general challenge to Ukrainian studies that I think has been foregrounded by the Russian-Ukrainian war is something psychiatrists often refer to as perseveration—that is, the persistence or repetition of various narratives and frameworks despite countervailing evidence that actually they are not that applicable or topical any longer. And the kinds of concepts and narratives I am thinking about are these Huntingtonian concepts of Ukraine as a cleft country. The extraordinary and tragic events of the past three years belie this thesis, or at the very least they problematize it hugely. Nonetheless, despite the fact that we see Russian-speaking Ukrainians from eastern Ukraine—whose families perhaps took pride in the Soviet legacy, the legacy of the Red Army—dying for the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, we still see this idea sticking around. I have seen it repeatedly in keynote addresses by very well-known and very intelligent historians and political scientists who work on Eastern Europe and Eurasia, who keep speaking about a “pro-EU west” and a “pro-Russian east” [of Ukraine] as if the cliché still matters to us, when in fact we have seen it disproven in many ways.

We also see it from the other side (and I have unfortunately encountered this with some of my students): an expression from our Ukrainian colleagues that somehow Russian is the language of the occupier. This is a tremendously dangerous concept. Russian is the language of the occupier, but it is also the language of the IDP,[3] of patriotic soldiers, of victims in this conflict. We need to get past a lot of these various narratives; we need to be thinking differently about the way we approach Ukrainian studies. I do think we need to consider approaching and persuading our colleagues [outside of Ukrainian studies], not simply countering them or correcting them but really trying to reach out to them in new ways.

At a deeper level, I think a large part of this challenge relates to the way we tend to cast Ukraine as an object of knowledge. If we look at English-language scholarship on Ukraine, one might say that there is a lot of the past, so to speak, in our work, and not enough present and future. There is much focus on what rhetoricians call constative rhetoric, assertive rhetoric, rather than on performative rhetoric. There is much focus on meta-narrative, and little on paralogy, to use a postmodern term—that is, an instrument of knowledge that is comfortable with uncertainty and play. What I am trying to get at is that culture is often left out of the picture in Ukrainian studies. I was very pleased when Professor Magocsi mentioned the idea of launching new institutes for music and art; I think that is a tremendously interesting idea. Certainly in Great Britain this is a problem, and that is very clear. If one takes even just the most cursory glance at dissertations produced in the United Kingdom, you will see that the humanities are woefully under-represented. Beyond a few recent notable exceptions, Ukraine tends to be presented in British scholarship as a creature of politics, history, and economics, but not culture.

Similarly, if one looks at the pages of the Slavic Review, the landmark journal in the field of Slavic studies, at least over the past decade, I think you will find one feature article on Ukrainian literature. It is on Gogol, of course, although I could be wrong about that; Taras Koznarsky would know better than I. But in my exploration of the Slavic Review of the past ten years, that was as much as I could find. In English-language scholarship there is very little work being done on probably the most successful, the most daring independent theatre in Europe, that is, Vladyslav Troitskyi’s Dakh  Centre of Contemporary Art, which has produced DakhaBrakha, Dakh Daughters, and the annual Gogolfest, which is a major European cultural event. There are no better ambassadors for contemporary Ukrainian culture than the practitioners at Dakh; they operate in music, in drama, clearly, and also in visual art. At least to my knowledge, they are largely outside our scholarly radar, and this is something that we need to address.

When I speak about the humanities being woefully under-represented, I suppose it is understandable, because there is certainly a crisis in the humanities more generally. There is a crisis in Slavic studies, and Ukrainian studies sits in the interstice between these two areas. Nonetheless, it is still quizzical for us in the field of Ukrainian studies. Professor Magocsi, in the first session, suggested that we launch, perhaps, an institute for the study of Ukrainian statehood, also an intriguing idea. I would love to pursue it, but it is very hard for me personally to imagine a study of Ukrainian statehood that excludes culture from the picture.

In my opinion, Ukraine owes its existence to culture, to Cossack dumy, to folk music, to popular ethnography, and to Romantic poems written in the Ukrainian vernacular that cajoled and invited people to join the Ukrainian national project. This is of course why the study of Ukrainian is sine qua non for any scholar of the country. It is a matter of simple professional competence. If you do not understand Ukrainian, you simply cannot speak or understand the language of the national idea. I think, in the same way, if we do not study Russian, we do not understand one of the living, breathing languages of Ukraine as well. The same goes for Crimean Tatar, Yiddish, Polish, and many other languages. We need to create particular pathways to studying these languages for our students so that we can access cultural material that shows us something beyond black and white, something that complicates the familiar picture. I think students gravitate to this kind of fascinating material, and we need to clear the path for them.

Another thing, and this was mentioned earlier: certainly the study of Ukrainian culture, as we all know, stands in the wake of two centuries of colonial exploitation. We can stand here and perhaps debate the existence of Ukraine as a political or an economic colony, but its fate as a cultural colony of its neighbours is not in doubt. And this colonial legacy, I keep feeling, comes up in our conversations in ways we don’t always understand, very implicitly; I heard it in many ways in the first session today. That is, we are constantly dealing with a kind of haunting, in which we see a provincialization of Ukrainian culture on the one hand, and on the other hand a politicization, or making political, of Ukrainian culture. These are practices that we might say reduce very vibrant, complex cultural figures to either zeroes or heroes, as people unworthy of study or unassailable beyond various norms. This type of thinking, this bifurcation of thinking, can stifle conception innovation.

And that is where I want to conclude, because as much as we can, let us say, enumerate these challenges, the situation today represents for us a remarkable opening. It is an opportunity for our scholarly entrepreneurism. I am personally very intrigued by something completely fantastical in the context of literary studies, and that is the application of computational criticism to a large corpus of Ukrainian literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Many of you have perhaps heard of Franco Moretti at Stanford, who is “pushing” large texts—hundreds and thousands of texts—through various computers and seeing very formal features that are not, let us say, apparent to us reading the texts individually. And we have long been awaiting from the Shevchenko Institute of Literature the preparation and publication of the 100 volumes of the works of Ivan Franko. We are essentially waiting for something that none of us individually can ever consume or analyze in any holistic fashion—unless we are Yaroslav Hrytsak, for instance. [Laughter.] But imagine taking all these volumes, [processing them through computers,] and doing something like Tamara Hundorova has done really admirably in her literary scholarship: combining them with works from Moloda Muza or Volodymyr Vynnychenko, to start to see Ukrainian literary modernism in a new way. That is an extremely exciting possibility.

I just want to conclude with, again, a word of thanks and gratitude for the work of all the Ukrainianists and all the supporters of Ukrainianists out there. I think ours is a tremendous, uplifting story. We at Cambridge have seen, in the past eight years, close to two hundred undergraduates who have studied Ukrainian, of whom I think there have probably been two who have any kind of Ukrainian ethnicity in their background. So there is a lot that we can do—a lot that I look forward to doing with you and with the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.

Yaroslav Hrytsak:

Dr. Finnin testifies to one new trend, and Andrii Portnov is kind of a symbol of another new trend. Rory is not Ukrainian but is in Ukrainian studies at Cambridge. Andrii is Ukrainian, born in eastern Ukraine and raised in Ukraine. He made his career there but then moved to the West, to Berlin, and he is continuing his career very effectively, I believe. This is quite a new trend—a group of young Ukrainian scholars who are now normalizing the field in leading centres in the West.


[2]    See

[3]    Internally Displaced Persons.