Report on the URIS & CEES Online Workshop, 20 November 2020

How to React to Crisis, Secessionism and War – Protest, Peace Activism, or Emigration? South Caucasus & Ukraine in a Comparative Perspective

On 20 November 2020, the research initiatives “Ukrainian Research in Switzerland” (URIS) and the “Center for Eastern European Studies” (CEES) presented their digital workshop. Those invited included young visiting scholars from Ukraine and the South Caucasus who had been researching at the Universities of Bern, Zurich, St Gallen, Geneva and Basel in the 2020 autumn semester. The workshop addressed the (frozen) conflicts between Abkhazia and Georgia and between Ukraine and Russia. These conflicts are confronting the people in the region with difficult political and social choices: Should they join the secessionist movements, support peaceful solutions through cultural and social engagement, or escape the conflicts through emigration?

The guests were invited to describe the situation in eastern Ukraine and the South Caucasus in a comparative sociological, ethnological and historical perspective. The workshop consisted of three moderated panel discussions of 75 minutes each. The participants were asked to relate their current research to the overarching theme of the event.

In the first panel “Beyond the Politics of History and Memory”, moderated by Benjamin Schenk (Basel), national historiography and individual memory in Soviet Ukraine were explored in the context of the current politics of the past. A close look at artists and historians who have helped to shape the narratives of this politics of remembrance produced unexpected insights into overlapping ideas and concepts concerning, and assumptions about, historical conflicts. In her doctoral thesis, Nataliya Borys (University of Geneva) examines academic networks between Polish and Soviet Ukrainian historians in the 1960s and 1980s. She comes to the conclusion that historical scholarship in the Soviet Union was subject to both material and ideological constraints. The ability of researchers to travel was limited, meaning that only very few transnational academic networks were able to emerge. This, in Borys’ view, was also why the prism of an ethno-national historiography continued to prevail even in the post-Soviet sphere.

The Slavonic and cultural studies scholar Bohdan Tokarskyi (URIS) also alluded to this with his discussion of the life and work of the Soviet Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl’ Stus (1938-1985). Tokarskyi urged that we expand the boundaries of our “mental maps” regarding the Soviet dissident movement and consider the diversity and the solidarity within the gulag. A national and ethnocentric perspective, he said, also opened up new ways of interpreting a “common solidarity”. The ensuing discussion highlighted the difference between a history based on events and facts and the – distinct – narratives of historiography.

The second panel, “Socioeconomic Aspects of Conflict”, moderated by Jeronim Perović (Zurich), looked at the challenges of transnational economic ties in situations of political conflict. Aspects considered included the disruption of transnational infrastructures and international economic relations as a result of international economic sanctions and their social implications. Gvantsa Salukvadze (CEES) focused on the dependence on tourism of the mountainous regions of Georgia in the face of political decisions and sanctions by the Russian Federation limiting the freedom of movement and the distribution of food. The instability of political relations between the Russian Federation and Georgia had, she said, negatively impacted the once stable economic landscape and destabilised the fragile economies of the tourism- and agriculture-based mountainous regions. In the discussion, Salukvadze highlighted the fact that Georgia was seeking to reduce its dependency by diversifying its economic contacts, including with Europe.

In the case of Crimea, Maria Shagina (CEES) believes that an expansion or resumption of economic ties between the peninsula and Europe is unlikely. In her research project she investigates the impact of the Western sanctions on the humanitarian situation in Crimea. The lack of food and medical product supplies, Shagina explained, was resulting in critical shortages. In the following discussion, she underscored the fact that at the moment – unlike in Georgia – the Crimean government could only improve supply by trading with other sanctioned states like Syria. This meant that the humanitarian situation remained extremely tense.

The third panel was titled “How to Deal With Border Conflicts” and focused on individual strategies for dealing with conflicts. Moderated by Ulrich Schmid (St Gallen), the researchers discussed how people in the conflict regions interacted with public authorities and how they can secure access to social services. In her research project on the “line of contact” between the so-called Peoples’ Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and the rest of Ukraine, Oleksandra Tarkhanova (St Gallen) concentrates on the negotiations between the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the state actors. Tarkhanova believes that the practices and understanding of citizenship are central here. The aim of her research project is to investigate how the social rights of IDPs and residents of the uncontrolled territories are regulated by law and constructed in political discourses.

Nasta Agrba, meanwhile, looked at the impossibility of participation (CEES) in her research project “The ultimate soft power: EU education as an integration instrument for de facto states through the example of Abkhazia”. Agrba set out the case that a lack of programmes for Abkhazian students at European universities was isolating Abkhazia in the field of education. Young Abkhazians were consequently choosing to study at Russian universities instead. The lack of such EU programmes made it impossible for the students to come into contact with other education systems and sociopolitical practices. Agrba reasoned that opening up EU study programmes could have a positive impact on the social participation and development of Abkhazia’s younger generation.

Tamar Demurishvili‘s (Bern) current research project focuses on religious life in (post-)Soviet Georgia and Russia. Demurishvili examined changes and continuities in the religious sphere. At the centre of her study is the concept of “nostalgia”. Demurishvili analyses the role that nostalgia plays as one aspect of faith in post-Soviet Georgia and in Russia when it comes to the construction of the collective memory. She found that religious institutions use the concept of nostalgia to influence collective memory and group behaviour in the post-Soviet region.

The audience enthusiastically took up the invitation to take part in discussions. There were particularly animated questions and lively debates in the “breakout rooms” set up by the organisers on Zoom, which served as a platform for informal interaction in place of the usual conference breaks. Despite their different research interests and academic backgrounds, the participants engaged in truly in-depth conversations with one another. A platform was thereby created where people could come together respectfully to exchange ideas and have stimulating discussions about the highly emotive subject of the conflicts in eastern Ukraine and the South Caucasus.

Report by URIS & CEES

International Conference: Ukrainian Studies Today. State of the Arts in Switzerland, January 29-31, 2020

URIS marked its three-year anniversary with the conference “Ukrainian Studies Today. State of the Art in Switzerland” in Basel. Bringing together the URIS fellowship programme scholars and numerous Switzerland-based projects, the objective was to discuss ongoing research and future perspectives. The broad range of topics from scholars with different academic backgrounds illustrated the dynamic of the still young field of Ukraine research in Switzerland as well as its growing international relevance in recent years.

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Conference Program

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Video of the Keynote lecture by Yaroslav Hrytsak (Video by: Oliver Göhler)

Picture Gallery (Pictures by: Nadine Freiermuth-Samardžić)

Brief Report: Fifth URIS Workshop

“Exploring the own West. Pilgrimage and Travel in the Russian Empire in the 19th Century”

The fifth URIS workshop “Exploring the own West. Pilgrimage and Travel in the Russian Empire in the 19th Century” was held on 20 May 2019 at the University of Basel. Together with Christine D. Worobec (Northern Illinois University), Anna Hodel Laszlo and Benjamin Schenk, we discussed geographical mobility, pilgrimages and travel in Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For more information read the workshop flyer and find some pictures from Olivier Christe here.

Brief report: Fourth URIS workshop

War and Revolution in Ukraine, 1914-1920

On the occasion of the centenary of the withdrawal of the Central Powers from Ukraine and the subsequent overthrow of Hetman Skoropads’kyi in late 1918, this workshop will examine the history of war, occupation, revolution, diplomacy, and state-building in Ukraine during the First World War and the various upheavals and conflicts to which it gave rise. Despite the great timeliness of this topic, much of the Ukrainian revolutionary period remains terra incognita for historians. The workshop’s objective is to take stock of what has been done on the subject, to share works in progress, and to point the way forward for new research.

Read the report from Oliver Sterchi on HSOZKULT

Brief report: Third URIS workshop

Contemporary Ukrainian Studies: Cross- and Interdisciplinary Perspective

The workshop invited scholars representing diverse disciplines and countries to examine the socio-political, cultural and institutional challenges Ukraine has faced during recent years. They discussed how those challenges have been addressed in contemporary Ukrainian studies and specifically in sociological studies of religion as well as political and anthropological research. The workshop also analyzed the epistemological and methodological complexities of doing fieldwork in times of political turbulence, transformation and war.

Find the short workshop report with some pictures here.

Brief report: Second URIS workshop

Language, Politics and Identity in Ukraine: History and Present

The second URIS workshop took place in Basel on 20 November 2017. The workshop examined the links between language and identity in Ukraine in historical perspective, offering a comparison between the formative Soviet decades and the period of independence. Furthermore, it discussed the role of the state and political elites in constructing national identities and manipulating the language question for their political gain in the past and the present.

Find the short workshop report with the list of participants and some pictures here.

Brief report: First URIS workshop

Scholars in the humanities, cultural studies and social sciences met on 7 and 8 July 2017 in Basel for the first URIS workshop. The aim of the event was to provide an overview of current Ukraine-related research projects at Swiss universities and to contribute to the networks of Swiss research on Ukraine. Scholars from the Universities of Geneva, Bern, Zurich, St. Gallen, Basel, Lucerne and Lausanne took part in the workshop, as well as a number of guests. The participants presented PhD and postdoctoral research as well as research projects in the fields of sociology, political science, history, art history, linguistics and literary scholarship. The first day closed with the evening presentation by URIS fellow Prof. Dr. Georgiy Kasianov on the politics of the past in the post-Soviet region.

Find the short workshop report with the list of participants here.