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Who tells your story? The politics of recounting Ukraine

by Anastasiia Omelianiuk –

There is a striking contrast between significant attention to Ukraine after the 2022 re-invasion and the pre-February abstinence of Ukraine in the global cultural and political milieu. Just a few months ago, before the invasion, the general public knew two things about Ukraine: it is somewhere near Russia, and it has a lot of corruption.

A year ago, decision-makers were admitting how little they knew about Ukraine. Today, we see Ukraine-related articles in our morning newspaper. We see Zelensky’s autobiography on the top-seller shelves in bookstores. But is the media noise enough to understand the struggle to navigate the precarity of bordering Russia? And how will Ukraine be seen beyond the first emotional reaction provoked by the war?

Being Ukrainian myself, I research the subjectivities of Ukrainian activist women. I am an anthropologist who focuses on conceptual and metaphysical, somewhat detached from policy-making phenomena such as the coloniality of erasure or feminist ethos. Yet, after re-invasion, I found myself on a rather practical side of Social Sciences — developing research on Ukrainian displaced people for various Dutch state and non-state organizations.

During this out-of-academic (comfort zone) experience, I stumbled across rather confusing interpretations of Ukraine and Ukrainians by the involved ‘experts, actors, and decision-makers. I saw how ‘expertise on Russia’ transformed into ‘expertise on Ukraine’. I met policymakers who did not believe Ukraine had a ‘civic society’. I saw efforts to ‘mediate’ peace between the Russians and Ukrainian diasporas.

Who owns the Ukrainian story?

Historically, research about the post-Soviet region often simplified and generalized experiences of cultures and nations that happened to be trapped as the Russian colony. The pre-24th portrayal of Ukraine as an appendix of the empire, as a buffer zone for EU security, is a graphic representation of this abstinence. Across Western Europe, Ukrainian (and other knowledge on ex-USSR) is produced from the prism of programs and institutes of “Eastern Europe” or “Slavic Studies”. A closer look shows that the geographical focus of many such think tanks and institutes is centered around the Moscow epistemologies. Such production of Eastern Europe knowledge through the Russian lens contributes to the reproduction of the Soviet imperial colonial narratives.

Rethinking the past, narrating present

I hope there is no need to elaborate on why knowledge production is not a neutral and objective process. Knowledge production is tied to people’s biases, connections and partnerships, funding, and social trends. At the end of the day, narratives are born in specific political and historical contexts. Colonial Soviet regimes create complex ornaments of oppression which today’s Russia has been systematically trying to blur for decades. The reason for the abstinence of Ukraine and other ex-USSR republics in the Western eye is the convenience of constructing knowledge through the familiar — Russian — lens.

Many European decision-makers claimed they should have paid closer attention to Eastern Europe’s concerns and acknowledged their naivety towards Russia. So, is there a lesson that we can learn?

To reshape the narrative, it is paramount to think about who creates the narrative. Can we recognize that expertise in Russia does not equate with expertise in Ukraine and other regions? Can we recognize that the failure to understand this war is a failure to listen (and hear) the voices on the margins? Thinking beyond Ukraine, we should acknowledge the Russian colonial history (towards neighboring countries and the republics in the Russian Federation) and its implications in the upcoming decades.

It feels ruthless to extract ‘learning lessons’ from the pain of people suffering from colonial Russia-initiated violence and war(s). However, we live in a reality where recognition requires trauma. Remembering all those who perished and thinking of those resisting now, I believe in the potency of decentering knowledge(s), decolonizing our (zero point) epistemologies, and recognizing our willful ignorance. 

Anastasiia Omelianiuk is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology

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