Deborah Jones, Ukraine, Russia conflict

Q&A | Deborah Jones on the conflict in Ukraine

When we think about the current war in Ukraine, it’s likely we immediately think of Russia, and possibly Crimea. But how much do we actually know about the roots of the crisis and the impact it’s having on those who call the country home? Impolitikal has been searching for a way to shed some light on the conflict between Ukraine, Russia and the European Union without oversimplifying it as an East vs West dichotomy.

Here, Evelyn asks academic researcher Deborah Jones a few questions about her experiences in Ukraine, and media representations of the conflict. The Q&A untangles some of the historical, political and cultural complexities Ukrainians have been facing for multiple generations and raises questions about the possibility of a peaceful resolution.

Can you give us some background on your interest in Ukraine and the current focus of your research?
I actually became interested in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution in December 2004. I was living in Irkutsk, Russia (i.e. Siberia) at the time, and the idea that a country could possibly split along ethnolinguistic lines was fascinating to me. A few years later, I had the opportunity to study Ukrainian as part of my Masters in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Once I went to Ukraine it became very, very clear to me that the situation there was much more complex than the news outlets were suggesting, and that language preference is rarely a good shorthand for political preference. Some of my early academic work was on non-accommodating bilingual conversation (i.e. you speak Ukrainian, and I speak Russian, and we have a perfectly pleasant, non-politically-charged conversation; these occur every day in Ukraine, and worldwide, too – we have to keep in mind that, globally, monolingualism isn’t the norm). Later on, I became interested in mixed-dialect spaces, specifically former collective farming communities. The Ukrainian countryside, although extremely important to the Ukrainian national imaginary, has undergone immense changes since the country gained independence in 1991. There was a lot of research done on these agricultural spaces in the 90s, but a generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, they deserve another look.

Where is your research located and who are you talking to?
I have two village field sites in neighboring provinces in Ukraine. This is in the central and southern part of the country, that is, in places that are more difficult to tag as ‘east’ or ‘west’. In addition to conducting ethnographic fieldwork in these villages – I can make cheese and all manner of pickles, tolerate (somewhat) homemade wine and spirits, and have serious conversations about all manner of garden pests – I have spent a lot of time learning about the new systems of land tenure in these villages. Unlike in Poland, Romania or many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, there was extremely little restitution of farmland in Ukraine. Rather, decollectivization meant that people received shares of land (about 2-4 hectares per qualified worker in the regions I work in) that they could, in theory, farm themselves, rent out or use as collateral when taking out loans.

Most of the people I work with haven’t been able to really make use of their land beyond renting it out (at pitifully low prices, or perhaps just an in-kind payment of grain, sunflower oil, maybe some peas) because they are older, poor, lack access to credit and have no means of securing transportation to or equipment for farming their shares, much less bringing product to market. Nevertheless, they invest huge amounts of time, energy and money they don’t have into securing the documentation that, in theory, guarantees their right to their allocated land. Given the fragility of the legal system, and the lack of an open farmland market, the people I work with tend to view their land deeds as paper with potential. One of my big interests is in how people relate to legal documents like land deeds, and what they imagine the legal word is capable of. Another puzzle I’ve dealt with is that, while my informants are very proud of their land deeds, they often have never visited their physical plots, and sometimes don’t really know where they are. There are certainly some good reasons for this – lack of transportation, for example – but I’m interested in what such seeming paradoxes can tell us about people’s attachments to property and place.

What language(s) do you use during your research?
I use both Ukrainian and Russian, depending on where I am, what I’m doing and with whom I’m speaking. Overall, my fluency in Russian, which I learned first, is much greater, but my agricultural and legal vocabulary is actually better in Ukrainian. Again, it’s pretty common to code-switch, or to engage in non-accommodating bilingual conversation, and, since I’m a foreigner, I’m not subjected to as many criticisms about the ‘purity’ of my speech. Thank goodness, as Slavic languages are hard enough to begin with!

Many of the villagers I work with speak non-standard dialects that have features of both Ukrainian and Russian. Non-standard dialects in Ukraine, often known as ‘surzhyk’, are not so much ‘mixed’ or ‘improper’ language as dialects with their own rules and logic that fall somewhere on the spectrum between the ‘standard’ versions of Russian and Ukrainian, or even involve vocabulary from other area languages, such as Polish, Romanian, German or Hungarian. The reality is that, to do successful research in most parts of Ukraine, or even to watch the nightly news, you need to have at least passive understanding of both Ukrainian and Russian. People code-switch constantly, and bilingualism is assumed. Gameshows may have one Russian speaking host and one Ukrainian speaking one; the most popular sketch comedy show uses Russian as its primary language, but employs wordplay that presumes excellent knowledge of the Ukrainian language, and possibly some English too! Young people, particularly those from educated Russophone families, but who completed their own education in Ukrainian, often wield both languages extremely well, and an increasing number are developing fluency in English too.

Ukrainians’ tendency to code-switch, and to draw on the resources of both languages, has been both an intriguing part and a big challenge in my research. For example, I spent some time working with a team of land rights lawyers who were based in a Russophone city in east-central Ukraine. We would go to villages where the people spoke in dialect, and the lawyers would give presentations on the latest legislation in Ukrainian, and then the lawyers would debrief what had happened in Russian, using Ukrainian legal terms when necessary, or perhaps reporting the speech of a Ukrainian-speaker in Ukrainian. I should note that I worked predominately in Russian-speaking regions, and I never had the slightest impression that Russian language or Russian speakers were being suppressed or oppressed. Quite the opposite: it was Ukrainian language that was struggling for space. Ultimately, however, Ukrainians have become quite aware in the past year how language politics have been deployed to divide them, and while I have no doubt Ukrainian will remain the sole official language – as it has been since 1991 – I don’t think we’ll be seeing any restrictions on the speaking of Russian in media or everyday life.

What are some of the significant events that have occurred during your research, and how have they affected your research?
I actually came to Ukraine to study the opening of the farmland market – there has been a complete moratorium on farmland sales for the past decade – which was scheduled for January 2013, but canceled in November 2012. Such is life in Ukraine: the things you think will for sure happen don’t happen, and the things that you never see coming, come. I’m referring, of course, to the Maidan Revolution and the subsequent war in the Donbas region. While I’d completed much of my research before these events, they certainly prompted me to interpret my findings in different ways, and then conduct quite a bit of follow-up research. For example, after the Russian annexation of Crimea a year ago, several of the small landowners and land rights activists I worked with analogized their own struggle to protect their land to Ukraine’s struggle to protect its borders. They invoked the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which the US, the UK and Russia signed in 1994, when Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era arsenal of nuclear weapons.

In the Memorandum, Ukraine (as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan, which also held nuclear weapons during the Soviet era) was assured that the signatories would defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity. While I’m not qualified to split legal hairs on the wording of the agreement, I can say with confidence that the people I worked with in Ukraine, particularly those from or with family in Crimea, viewed the annexation of the peninsula as a grave crime, and they questioned the efficacy of international law, and the legal word more generally. For sure, they were jumping scales when they compared their struggles with local land rights to Ukraine’s struggles in the international arena, but the questions that they had about ‘rule of law’ and under what circumstances the legal word is meaningful resonate through many domains of life.

Ukraine is often represented by international media as a dichotomy between the EU-oriented West and pro-Russian separatists in the eastern and southern parts of the country. What is your interpretation of the media coverage?
While there are significant regional differences in Ukraine, they are much more complicated than is suggested by the ethnolinguistic and voting pattern maps international media was so fond of using in 2014. To start with, these maps, which depict province-level trends, completely erase other highly relevant demographic divides, such as urban / rural, class, education and generational differences. They also say nothing about the motivations for language choice or voting patterns; for example, Odessa, a Russophone city, prides itself on its ethnically diverse population, and Russian is considered an international language there, not one in any way associated with being Russian. While Kyiv’s Maidan protests were conducted primarily in Ukrainian, Odessa’s were largely in Russian. So there were multiple Maidans, each with local particularities, and diverse populations within them. It’s a mistake to think of the Maidan revolution as having been uniform in its population, methodologies, or goals. (Note: Odessa suffered tragic clashes between its pro-European and pro-Russian activists on May 2, 2014. 48 people were killed, most of them pro-Russians who died in a massive fire. There are many different narratives as to what happened that day; some of them are readily identifiable as disinformation, and others speak to the multiple truths witnesses experienced. I recommend extreme caution when reading about these events).

Another thing to keep in mind is that talk of ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ Ukraine, as deployed by international mass media, is often a metonymical reference to Russia and the EU (and to some extent the US and Canada, which both have large Ukrainian diasporas, and other obvious interests in the region). Thus, these depictions of a clear-cut east / west divide are not only inaccurate, but they subordinate Ukrainian aspirations to those of a few global power-players. Moreover, they turn the gruesome experiences of people on all sides of the conflict into mere backdrops. Honestly, I used to follow media coverage of Ukraine pretty obsessively, but I’ve been trying to scale back as it can be too frustrating, too focused on grand – and antiquated – Cold War narratives and not on human experience.

What are some of the issues we not hearing about through popular media?
I think it’s rather unfortunate that Crimea has pretty much dropped out of the news. Many people are not aware of the tragic story of the indigenous population of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars, who were deported from their homeland late during World War II because of the supposed collaboration of a small number of their group with the Nazis. Certainly, many, many more Crimean Tatars were serving in the Soviet Army at that time, and yet their reward for their service was the deportation of their families to poor and inhospitable parts of Uzbekistan and the Urals (the most desolate parts of Central Asia and Siberia were Stalin’s preferred dumping ground for dissidents and troublesome minorities). Crimean Tatar activists estimate that well over a third of their population perished from trauma, exposure, and starvation during the population transfer and the famines that followed World War II. The population was stripped of its ethnonym, and could be known only as ‘Tatars’, and were only rehabilitated and able to return to Crimea in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet period.

In the meantime, Crimea had been settled primarily by ethnic Russians, completely changing the demographics such that the idea that Crimea was Russian, and historically so, seemed more believable. Crimean Tatar populations, who tend to be very pro-Kyiv, boycotted as illegitimate the ‘referendum’ in which Crimeans supposedly elected to join Russia, have either been forced to leave their homeland since the Russian takeover, or had to deal with a new government that is hostile to their politics and way of life. Their mosques have been raided; their leaders have been forbidden to return to the peninsula; missing members of the community have been found dead with signs of torture. The Crimean Tatars have a long history of non-violent resistance, but I suspect it won’t be long before the Russian government accuses them of being ‘terrorists’.

Speaking of which, there is much to be said about the names that the various parties on the conflict in Ukraine call each other. The pro-Ukrainians have a litany of insults for the separatists, ranging from kolorady, a dehumanizing analogy between the orange and black (St George) ribbon-wearing pro-Russians and orange and black striped Colorado potato beetles (an invasive species and scourge upon fields), to ‘terrorists’, which is actually how the Kyiv government refers to separatist fighters. Pro-Russians are apt to refer to pro-Ukrainians, including the new government led by Petro Poroshenko, as ‘fascist’. I’ve noticed that this has caused some confusion for people who are unfamiliar with Ukrainian and Soviet history.

The use of the term fascist to refer to Ukrainians stems from World War II, in which some people in the far west of Ukraine (which had been, pre-World War I, Austria-Hungary, and between the wars, Poland), and also some in the already Soviet central regions, had collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviets. That some Ukrainians collaborated, or at least cooperated, with the Nazis (who had suggested Ukrainians could have their own state – of course, this didn’t happen) is not in doubt; that some were involved in massacre of local Jewish and Polish populations is not in doubt either. Certainly, Ukrainians could do much more to recognize their ancestors’ role in these atrocities, and I, and many other scholars of Ukraine, as well as many Ukrainians, have serious concerns about the resurgence of the far right (and particularly their celebration of Stepan Bandera, the Nazi collaborator and leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) during the current conflict.

Of particular concern are independent battalions of far-right fighters who are beyond the control of the Ukrainian army, block humanitarian aid shipments (even those from Ukraine and its allies), have committed atrocities in the Donbas region, and are unlikely to yield to the ceasefire brokered in Minsk, or any other form of international law. Still, it is important to keep in mind that the vast, vast majority of Ukrainians are not ‘fascist’, not ‘neo-Nazi’ and not even particularly nationalistic. The term ‘fascist’, as used by pro-Russians, and the Soviets before them, actually has little to do with the present-day political orientations of most Ukrainians, but rather with the collaboration of a relatively small number of Ukrainians with the Nazis four generations ago. (Again, as with the Crimean Tatars, there were far more Ukrainians fighting with the Soviet army than against it). Thus, accusations of ‘fascism’ in Ukraine have been, and continue to be, a tool for delegitimizing Ukrainians and their right to self-determination.

Will your work in Ukraine be ongoing? Will the outcome(s) of your research change because of the conflict in Ukraine?
I am trying to finish my work on agrarian life, land law and semiotics, but have started to work a bit with internally displaced people from the Donbas region. This actually started when I went to look for people displaced from rural areas in the conflict zone. The seeming interchangeability of place in the former Soviet Union is something of a cliche, but I think it can also encourage some amount of empathy. A couple of the villagers I worked with in southern Ukraine, seeing media coverage of the battles in rural Donbas, or the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in a sunflower field, observed, “that could have been us; the war could have been here.” What if it had been? Where would they have gone? While there has been some coverage of the plight of the over one million people displaced from Eastern Ukraine, it’s been difficult to recover the voices of those from the countryside who have been affected by the war. This is some work I would like to do in the future, but we’ll see what’s possible. Sadly, I don’t anticipate a peaceful resolution to this situation anytime soon.

Deborah Jones is a PhD candidate in linguistic anthropology at the University of Michigan.