Cover Image for Ukraine as an Object of Knowledge: The State of Ukrainian Studies

Ukraine as an Object of Knowledge: The State of Ukrainian Studies

Sasha Dovzhyk
Special Issue 1 (2021)

The Ukrainian Studies programme at the University of Cambridge will enable students to study Ukrainian language, culture, and history at the highest level for as long as the University exists. One of the key people responsible for this achievement is Rory Finnin, the Founding Director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, whose career became linked to Ukraine in what he describes as a ‘wonderful twist of fate’. Editor of the London Ukrainian Review Sasha Dovzhyk talks with Rory Finnin about his background, the challenges of advancing Ukraine as a field of study on the international level, and the lessons that Ukraine can teach the world.

From Peace Corps volunteer to the founding director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies

SD: For academics in Ukrainian Studies, a familial or diasporic connection to the country of their research is almost a prerequisite. I know that your Ukrainian Studies origin story is somewhat more unusual. Could you share it with us? 

RF: I came to Ukraine rather accidentally. After university, where I did a degree in English Literature and Classical Languages, I joined the US Peace Corps as a naive, idealistic twenty-two-year-old. The process of the Peace Corps application is really elaborate and unfolds over about a year. At one stage, they ‘invite’ you to a particular country. And that country for me was Fiji. I remember opening the envelope, seeing this letter, and thinking to myself, ‘I’ll have to get used to living on the beach’. As someone with an Irish ethnic background, getting a suntan is a dangerous proposition. But then, about two weeks before the departure, my Peace Corps recruiter called me up and asked me, ‘Rory, would you be willing to go to Ukraine? We need some more volunteers for a group leaving in a few weeks’ time’.

So I went to Ukraine. It was a wonderful twist of fate. I lived there between 1995 and 1997 and worked as a teacher of English in a village south of Kyiv called Chapaivka. My school had never offered teaching in English before, so it was a really interesting experience. I got to teach every form, every grade. I loved it. Ukraine constantly surprised me. Over two and a half years I had the opportunity to travel all over the country, to places like Luhansk, Kryvyi Rih, Donetsk, and Berdiansk, not to mention Lviv and Odesa.

Just when I thought I had some sense of Ukraine, it would quickly change my mind, or it would cause me to rethink my assumptions.

After returning from Ukraine, I worked in the private sector in Chicago and New York City for some time. I could not shake this persistent feeling, though. I remained troubled by what had been my prior ignorance of Ukraine. How had I known so little about the largest country within Europe before living there? How had it been possible that Ukraine had not been on my intellectual map, especially in university? The problem of this ignorance bothered me, and I wanted to do something about it. So I decided to embark on a postgraduate degree in Ukrainian Studies and to enrol at Columbia University, a very interdisciplinary, exciting place to study and grow. I was able to learn from people like Vitaly Chernetsky and Mark von Hagen, and from wonderful scholars who didn’t have much of a background in Ukrainian Studies but realised the need for it, including Catharine Nepomnyashchy, Cathy Popkin, and Irina Reyfman, who were very supportive of my interests in Ukraine.

SD: This path eventually led you to founding one of the most important academic research centres focused on Ukraine in the world. How did Cambridge Ukrainian Studies come to be?

RF: Initially, it was a five-year pilot project. The idea was to come here to establish a curriculum in Ukrainian Studies and show that it could be popular and sustainable. And I really wanted to add a public-facing programme too, with film festivals, exhibitions, concerts, and literary evenings – in order to reach out to new audiences and especially to the younger generation, to future undergrads. In an environment where Ukraine remains poorly studied, we need to promote conditions for intellectual serendipity outside the academic setting, where young people can make that first unexpected, surprising encounter with Ukrainian culture, with Ukraine as an object of knowledge. Film and music are wonderful matchmakers in this respect.

In 2010, I organised an exhibition at Trinity College, Cambridge of the diaries of Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist who had been a student in our department at Cambridge. Gareth witnessed the Holodomor and became the only Western journalist to put his name on stories that revealed the tragic extent of the famine to the world. I worked very closely on the project with Gareth’s extraordinary family, Nigel and Margaret Siriol Colley. The exhibition had a lot of international resonance and received much more media interest than I had initially expected. So events like the Jones exhibition made clear that this public-facing programme had to stay a key component of the work of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, even if our research and teaching objectives are technically more primary.

We started the pilot programme in 2008. Around 2010, it became clear that our curricular offerings were sustainable. Our enrolments were strong, and public interest was growing. And so we were fortunate to receive generous endowment funding, which means that students here at Cambridge will be able to study Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian history, and Ukrainian language forever. It is such an exciting thing, and I still don’t think it has truly sunk in. The success that Ukrainian Studies has had in North America is being replicated on this permanent basis here in Britain. 

A ‘small nation’? Countering stereotypes about Ukraine

SD: What are some of the challenges in trying to advance a better understanding of Ukraine here and, as you say, making this knowledge more publicly accessible?

The challenge remains the West’s – I don’t like the term, but I am going to use it here as shorthand – the West’s stale view of Ukraine. Old bad habits persist. Last week, for instance, there was a wonderful article in the New York Times about intrepid forces of the Ukrainian military running rescue missions in Afghanistan when no other countries were doing so. And even this well-done piece described Ukraine as a ‘small nation’. What a casual, absurd, but also enlightening detail, right? Because Ukraine is in no way small! It is the largest country within the European continent, with a population of over 45 million people, in a very geopolitically significant position, a country at war over liberal values of democracy and the rule of law.

What you can see in that NYT description, in that quick throwaway detail, is that on the intellectual map of many people in the West, Ukraine still remains small. It’s diverse, it’s complex, and it’s really poorly understood.

Looking at Ukraine as a country populated by people with agency, as a country that needs to be the subject of its own story – we haven’t done that very well in Britain. But the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas have placed Ukraine on the international agenda with urgency. The conflict and transition have brought to the fore Ukraine’s vibrant, robust Ukrainian civil society and contemporary culture. Academics and analysts who might not have taken Ukraine seriously before can no longer look away and ignore what is happening. More and more, they are fascinated with initiatives like Hromadske or ProZorro or with the music of Dakha Brakha or Alyona Alyona, for instance.

Right now we are not only learning about Ukraine, but we are learning from Ukraine in a way we never have before.

Culture and imperialism

SD: Having completed my PhD at the English Department at Birkbeck, where no pre-existing knowledge of Ukraine could be assumed, I understand the difficulty of sparking that initial interest outside the Ukrainian Studies bubble. In the UK, the geographies that get most attention are understandably those linked to the ex-metropolis through colonial history. The ongoing Russian war against Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea foregrounded the colonial aspect of Ukrainian history as well and made it possible for me, for us, to draw parallels and situate Ukrainian culture within the post-colonial conceptual framework.

RF: In our field and in Slavonic Studies more generally, or in Post-Soviet Studies, there has been a tendency to get hung up on the term ‘empire’. Was the Soviet Union an ‘empire’? The term sticks in many respects, but not consistently. That’s the problem with static, catch-all concepts. But if we step back and think instead about various projects of colonialism within the Soviet frame, then we can see things much more clearly. Projects of cultural colonialism in Ukraine, economic colonialism in Ukraine, political colonialism in Ukraine were all active at different junctures in Soviet history. And these projects make one thing clear today: that countries like Ukraine had to and still need to undergo an explicit process of decolonisation. In Western scholarship, I don’t think we have underscored this point enough.

Take Crimea, for example. If one looks at the study of Crimea in the West between 1991 and 2013, it becomes clear that we did not sufficiently take on board the fact that Crimea had been subjected to many projects of settler colonialism, whereby the native peoples of the peninsula – especially the Crimean Tatars – were erased and then replaced by others. Instead, our analytical and academic discourse about Crimea framed post-Soviet politics on the peninsula as a tense negotiation between different ethnic groups without bringing up the colonial frame at all. That failure meant that we avoided topics like reparations, electoral quotas, and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, all of which could have tempered what Gwendolyn Sasse calls Crimea’s ‘structural predisposition’ to conflict. Crimea is just one particularly pronounced example of a broader problem. So I completely agree with you about the need for us to adopt a colonial frame to understand a lot of what is going on in Ukraine and to grapple with the subterranean movements of the colonial legacy through culture.

SD: You are bringing forward these questions in your own research, which is very much culture-centred. You are looking into the problems of language, literature, cultural memory, and national identity. How fruitful is it, in your view, to approach Ukraine from these perspectives rather than from seemingly more topical areas, like current affairs and the economy?

Not long ago, if Ukraine existed as an object of knowledge in Britain, it was often presented as a creature of economics, political science, and international relations. But it was not presented as a creature of culture. Or if it was presented in this way, then Ukraine as a cultural phenomenon was framed as somehow dependent on Russian or Polish culture. In my opinion, this view is terribly misleading and intellectually lazy.

The emergence of Ukraine is very much a story of culture penetrating the political sphere, not the other way round.

We simply would not have a political Ukraine today were it not for cultural Ukraine – for Cossack dumas [sung epic poems], for Romantic poetry, for modernist prose, all of which examined, among many other things, what it meant to be Ukrainian in the first place. As we discussed in our conversations about Shevchenko, for instance, his great contribution was making sense of Ukraine’s past and present in a colonial frame and promoting a Ukrainian identity driven by ideas of liberty, justice, and freedom – in contrast to the ideas of Russian autocracy to the east and Polish aristocracy to the west.

Culture is so pivotal here. If we don’t centre our study of Ukraine on culture to the extent we do on international relations, history, or political science, then we are really missing the point. This disciplinary imbalance has caused us to misread Ukraine repeatedly, in my opinion. Political scientists in the West barely paid attention to the granite revolution in 1990. I recall a number of colleagues in the social sciences in early 2004 playing down the potential for public protests, and those protests evolved into something we now call the Orange Revolution. Similarly, few foresaw the Euromaidan in 2013-14. I don’t expect fortune-tellers, of course, but what concerns me is the consistent underestimation of the agency of Ukraine and Ukrainians in the West, this prevailing notion of a ‘weak’ national identity without much clarity about what strength and weakness mean in the first place. What makes all these underestimations and misreadings possible? Is it the case that these revolutions are all just black swan events? Or are we failing to chart the waters in which these swans are swimming? The answer is, in part, our academic tendency to focus on statecraft at the expense of a deeper understanding of what Ukrainians experience every day. Focusing on culture – film, music, literature – gives us a much better sense of this ‘every day’ than press releases from Bankova or statistical polling, in my view.

When we study culture, we delve more deeply into what makes Ukraine tick. It can be a risky and fraught venture, because fiction and the imagination do not play by clear rules. But in my view, it is an approach intensely attuned to the diversity of individual human experience, one that can reveal more about Ukraine’s present and future than we realise.

The Ukrainian – Crimean Tatar encounter

SD: Speaking of taking risks, some may think that your focus on the Crimean Tatar literature is risky because you are choosing a marginal subfield within an already marginalised field. Your interest in that specific culture of Ukraine is longstanding. As far as I know, you have been studying Crimea for more than ten years. I am curious what drives this interest and if you have witnessed any major shifts in this subfield after 2014.

RF: My study of culture has always been fascinated by the question of solidarity. How do literature and the arts make us attuned to the welfare of others who are very different from ourselves? In reading Ukrainian literature, you can encounter, of course, depictions of Crimean Tatar raids on Ukrainian villages in various dumas, or stories about struggles between the Crimean Tatars and the Cossacks. But from the nineteenth century, you also start to encounter prominent voices like Lesia Ukrainka’s, who spent a lot of time in Crimea and always saw Crimea as Tatar land. She wrote a great deal about the Crimean Tatars – not from an Orientalist perspective like Mickiewicz or Pushkin, who ruminated about Crimean ruins and their significance for the advance and future of empire – but rather with a sense of sympathy and understanding, even mutual identification, as if the ruins of Tatar political sovereignty reflected in some profound way the loss of Ukrainian political and cultural sovereignty.

This view of the Crimean Tatars blossoms in a great deal of Ukrainian culture over the 20th century, and I became fascinated with the agenda of writers like Mykola Rudenko, Ivan Sokul’s’kyi, Roman Ivanychuk and others who put aside narratives of Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar antagonism and meditated instead on interrelationship and connection. These writers helped promote public support in Soviet Ukraine for the Crimean Tatar national movement after their brutal deportation in 1944. And today we are seeing a real flourishing of solidarity between Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, which to me has an outsized meaning and impact for European security and even for the study of global Islam.

We see the Crimean Tatars in effect influencing the growth of Ukrainian civic nationalism, which frames citizenship and belonging as something other than a byproduct of ethnicity, language, or religion. In other words, a small Sunni Muslim nation is helping shape the identity of the largest country within Europe. This is an important model of inter-ethnic communion and solidarity, and it has implications for the entire Black Sea region.

You are right that it may be a marginal question in a marginalised field. But in many respects, the collision of these two margins is producing a new centre of its own. That is, the Crimean Tatar-Ukrainian project is generating a new, evolving narrative about what it means to be ‘at home’ in Ukraine, about what it means to understand Ukraine as a homeland of homelands. In the midst of war and transition, some countries might avoid such questions. But Ukraine’s openness to national belonging as multiple under such challenging conditions is precisely what makes it so distinctive and so deserving of more academic and public attention.

The next three decades of Ukrainian Studies

SD: I think you are absolutely right, this newly found Ukrainian-Tatar solidarity is a phenomenon we will be exploring for the next 30 years. It underlines this productive concept of Ukraine as a place of border-crossing, of crossroads, where all kinds of transitions and transformations are possible. Maybe you could point out other areas in Ukrainian Studies that will be trending, so to speak, in the following years.

RF: I think you put your finger on it: Ukrainian Studies will be trending for a long time to come. To be honest, I am sometimes apprehensive of talking about Ukraine as a crossroads or borderland, because it is at the same time a bordered land. That is, the intersections of different ethnic and linguistic groups over and across borders have also created a sense of community, a sense of home with its own contours and boundaries. I find this dynamic – this meeting of peripheries that forges a centre of its own, however imperfectly – so fascinating. Our political vocabulary often fails to capture it.

But Ukrainian culture thrives on this dynamic. What I find to be, let’s say, ‘trendy’ in Ukrainian culture is what has been trendy about it for quite some time: its defiance of expectations, its unconventional marriages of opposites that generate something new. One of my favourite texts to read with students, for instance, is a poem by Mykhail’ Semenko called ‘Sil’skyi peizazh’ (‘Rural landscape’). It goes like this:


It’s fun to recite, all those open vowels! The poem is laid out in this deliberate way, with the play of typography producing its own unique geometry. Semenko was a Futurist, but here he is, with tongue in cheek, refusing to abandon the pastoral and vocalising someone shouting to Pavlo to go out and graze the cow. It is a wonderfully amusing confluence and collision of old and new, rural and urban, city and countryside that feels like it’s waiting for something new to emerge. A similar, more contemporary example is Dakha Brakha, who marry Ukrainian folk songs with hip hop rhythms and use instrumentation from different parts of the world. Dakha Brakha also play with gender roles, particularly through their sartorial display on stage, which riffs on imperial as well as national costumes.

DakhaBrakha, Ukrainian Tour 2018. Photo by Yuri Gryaznov

Alina Pash has also channelled folk sounds into her catchy ‘hip-pop’ sound, and Onuka and Go-A are doing something similar with electronica. Their passionate embrace of old and new has generated a new cool Ukrainian sound which has become increasingly identifiable in world music. And there is no better ‘soft power’ than music.

These new Ukrainian sounds call into question what the traditional means for the contemporary.

When my students and I study the poetry of Taras Shevchenko, I like to play a rendition of ‘Kavkaz’ (1845) by Tanya Havryliuk of Dakh Daughters. She performed it on a piano in the Miska rada premises during the Maidan protests in December 2013. I feel like I’ve read ‘Kavkaz’ 100 times, but her version makes me feel like I am discovering the poem for the very first time. She gives it a bluesy vibe, a jazz vibe, completely changing what I used to read as a more solemn tone in the poem.

In growing numbers Ukrainian artists today are playing with the traditional; they are not running away from it. Artists and musicians are finding new ways to invigorate the Ukrainian cultural past, some of it previously banned or effaced, and finding new ways to use the past to invigorate the present.

Of course, Ukraine is a multilingual country, and this multilingualism also offers fascinating opportunities for research and study. The Ukrainian language should always occupy a place of privilege in work, and there is still so, so much to do to bring Ukrainian-language works to British and European audiences, particularly via translation. But at the same time, there is room in Ukrainian Studies for works grounded in Ukrainian experiences but produced in languages like Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Crimean Tatar, or Hungarian. Uilleam Blacker and Amelia Glaser, among many others, have helped highlight the multilinguality of Ukrainian culture, and it is an exciting area of study.

At Cambridge I have sought to explore the reality of the different languages spoken in Ukraine and the primacy of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine through an event called The Annual Cambridge Vsesvit Evening, in which we recite works by poets and prose writers from around the world and then read the corresponding Ukrainian translations published in journal Vsesvit – Ukraine’s oldest active cultural journal. It is always an uplifting and, I have to say, productively disorientating linguistic experience. On a given evening, you’ll hear Yiddish, Polish, Hebrew, and Russian texts, for instance, followed by their Ukrainian translations, making Ukrainian the language that, in effect, unites them all.

So I would say these creative intersections between old and new, between tradition and the future, between languages and peoples, are only a few examples of the fertile territory for students and scholars in Ukrainian Studies to explore over the next thirty years.


Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, an academic centre at the University of Cambridge, aims to promote and contribute to the study of Ukraine in the United Kingdom and beyond.

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