By Becky Craft, Graduate Student, Russian & East European Institute and the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering
On October 29, Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed, IU Ph.D student, gave a presentation on contestations in today’s Ukraine. Shpylova-Saeed spoke about the differing forms of contestations and how they are different from conflicts. We often hear about contested identities today, and these contestations influence the shape of political landscapes.
A centuries-old backdrop exists for the contestations present in Ukraine today. Looking at recent years, the Revolution of Dignity in response to the Ukrainian president’s decision not to sign the European Agreement is one example of contestation. A more recent example is the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In many ways, this was a shock to Ukrainians, especially because it occurred during a time of confrontation between Ukrainian citizens and their government. Referring to this event, in Russia, only the term “reintegration” is used; while in Ukraine, either “annexation” or “occupation” is preferred. The activation of narratives by both countries is absolutely key in understanding these contestations. A final recent episode of contestation is the occupation of portions of Donbas. Long-existing narratives have come into play there as well.
What do these narratives reveal? There are multiple perspectives here – an attempt to restore the Soviet past or even the ambitions of the Russian Empire, as well as heavy involvement of language issues. These language issues are very problematic and significant in Ukraine today.
Shpylova-Saeed noted that these contestations between Ukraine and Russia all but demand a choice of each person – you must choose Russia or Ukraine. This problem is not a new one. The question is asked – what is at the basis of these contestations? A desire for otherness; competing narratives like we have seen above; subtleties and nuanced stories are among some of the bases. These can be seen in the contestations between Russia and Ukraine all the way back in the 19th century when Ukraine was struggling for this very otherness. To conduct her research, Shpylova-Saeed has referenced letters written by ethnic Ukrainians born in the 19th century and raised under the Russian Empire, who knew Ukrainian. Many of the letters studied were written by Gogol, Shevchenko, Ukrainka and Franko.
Shpylova-Saeed’s talk was very informative, and gave much context to the events we see playing out in the news between Ukraine and Russia today. This semester, I have had the opportunity to explore Ukrainian history in Professor Hiroaki Kuromiya’s Modern Ukraine class, where we have discussed many of the struggles referenced in this talk, as well as some of the authors whose letters were studied for this research. Shpylova-Saeed’s comments in that class have always provided a lot of insight into our discussions, and this presentation was an excellent opportunity to gain an understanding of her research. I look forward to hearing more about her research as it continues to progress.