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Professors Bring Context, Depth to Ukraine Crisis Discussion at Packed Event

Photo by blue-news.org (Creative Commons)

In-depth conversation about world events from a range of angles is a key aspect of a Pomona College education. Witness this week’s panel discussion about the Ukraine crisis, which drew an overflow crowd to hear five Pomona professors consider the context of the unfolding confrontation. Organized by students in the History Department, the discussion included Pomona faculty in disciplines ranging from sociology to politics to Russian:

Pey-Yi Chu (history) offered a historical overview, noting that by the 19th century “we're already seeing different historical trajectories for different parts of Ukraine, along with a moment of nationalist awakening among Ukrainian intellectuals.” The Russian empire pushed policies of Russification, fighting against Ukrainian identities, which "further radicalized some intellectuals." Ukraine did exist as a state later under the U.S.S.R, but the Soviet policy of collectivization led to great resistance in Ukraine and a 1930s famine, which remains a “major source of grievance.”  Crimea, meanwhile, was its own autonomous republic within the Soviet Union up until 1954, when it was transferred to Ukraine by the Soviet government, for motives unclear. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, Crimea went with it.  

Konstantine Klioutchkine (Russian) emphasized the many local identities in the Ukraine, noting that “it is very important to understand that people from one part of the country may have one kind of history in mind, and people from another part may have another kind of history …. But it is hard to say that any historical account available to Ukraine is actually viable for the country as a whole.” The professor also discussed the economics of the situation, including European and interests in Ukraine. “No one is in a position economically to escalate the crisis,” he noted, adding that though:”we have two armies fully armed and standing face-to-face, we’ve yet to have any accidents.” He concludes: “The economic dimension is probably going to resolve this situation in the long end.” 

Mietek Boduszynski (politics) reinforced the notion of multiple and complex identities resulting from Ukraine being part of numerous empires over the centuries. “You have these stories where once nationality came to the fore, one brother declared himself to be a Pole, and one decided to be a Ukrainian, and the same was true in the East between Ukrainian and Russian," Boduszynski said. "But having said that, identities harden at times of insecurity, economic collapse or changing borders."  Questions from the audience prompted the professor to delve into the European Union’s involvement. “It seems like Ukrainians have chosen Europe, but does Europe want Ukraine?" Boduszynski asked. 

Colin Beck (sociology), whose research interests include in the phenomenon of revolution, said that there is a temptation to think of the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych and the Russian intervention in Crimea as “almost two discreet events, related but different things that need to be dealt with.” Instead, “it is much better to think of intervention as part and parcel of the revolutionary situation,” Beck said. “Revolutions occur when there is uncertainty about the distribution of power in the present time and in the future, and in that sense intervention is one thing that feeds that uncertainty.” Beck also noted intervention makes it much harder for post-revolutionary governments to build a functioning state, and the international community's belief in the legality and legitimacy of international borders as something that prolong conflicts, for better or for worse.

Anne Dwyer (Russian) emphasized that the territories involved are deeply multiethnic. “This idea of a pure Ukrainian or Western Ukraine is a very recent development. The imaginary dividing line, that Jon Stewart called the ‘borscht line’ between Eastern and Western Ukraine, with Ukrainian spoken in the West, Russian spoken in the East … it never has been that simple.” Dwyer pointed to Kiev as having a relatively peaceful coexistence of Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, who speak a mix of the languages. “This gets lost in our Western representations of Ukraine.”

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