Ukrainian-American professor shares his views on ‘heartbreaking’ events in Ukraine


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March 4, 2022

A supporter of Ukraine waves the Ukrainian flag in Red Square as part of a rally on February 24. The gathering was organized by visiting scholars Sofiia Fedzhora and Olena Bidovanets, with help from Laada Bilaniuk, professor of anthropology at UW. misty shock rule

Laada Bilaniuk is a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington whose expertise is Ukrainian culture and society. The daughter of Ukrainian Americans, she wanted to return to Ukraine to complete her research on her next book. Now she can’t wait to go back, and she may not go back alone.

“My daughter is 17 and she said to me, ‘Mom, you know, I talked about this gap year in Ukraine. Maybe I can help rebuild,’ Bilaniuk said.

While his family fled the country during World War II, Bilaniuk has colleagues and close friends in Ukraine. Watching the events there was “heartbreaking,” she says, but it motivated her to take action.

Bilaniuk helped two visiting scholars from Ukraine — Sofiia Fedzhora, a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, and Olena Bidovanets, a graduate student in global health — organize a rally in support of the country on the UW campus last week. She has also participated in other rallies and is part of other organizing efforts.

Laada BilaniukUniversity of Washington

“I’m torn between feeling completely helpless and fearful of what may happen – in terms of mass murder and loss of life,” she said. “And I’m inspired by what these people are doing and their strength of spirit and their willingness to lay down their lives.”

Everyday Ukrainians join the Territorial Defense Forces, a voluntary branch of civilian reservists led by professional soldiers, and fight back amid Russian tanks and shelling. And if they don’t join the resistance through fighting, they find other ways to contribute, whether it’s distributing food, donating blood or more.

These are signs of a “new kind of nation” that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not expect to encounter, says Bilaniuk.

When Putin came to power, the Ukrainian people were emerging from the Soviet era and used to the state taking care of them, she adds. This changed over time, reaching a turning point with the Dignity Revolution of 2014. Government forces killed protesters and then-President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power, which also led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia and an intervention to establish the separatist regions of Donbass. The Ukrainian people’s distrust of the government that followed led to an increase in volunteerism and grassroots organizing.

“People realized this was their country and they had to make it what they wanted it to be,” Bilaniuk said.

Ukrainians are now fighting for their lives and for their vision of their country: “Those outside Ukraine say, ‘We don’t want World War III.’ For Ukraine, it is already the third world war.

Bilaniuk is a linguistic anthropologist who has written about how language in Ukraine is linked to social divisions deeply rooted in history and ideology. Both Russian and Ukrainian are spoken — a bilingualism that is reflected, for example, in the two versions of the name of the national capital: Kyiv (pronounced KAY-YEEV), which is the Ukrainian pronunciation of the name, and Kyiv (pronounced KEE-YEV), the Russian counterpart.

During the Soviet era, the Russian language was encouraged and Ukrainian was suppressed. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, however, speaking Russian or Ukrainian was more a sign of your profession or whether you lived in urban or rural settings – where, respectively, Russian and Ukrainian are more common – rather than a sign of nationalism.

But that changed, says Bilaniuk, when Putin politicized the language in 2014. He said Russian speakers were oppressed by having to learn Ukrainian as the state language, using that as an excuse to intervene in Donbass. . Since then, speaking Ukrainian has become “powerfully symbolic” and has motivated more people to learn the language.

Today, many leaders of militant groups fighting the Russian invasion use Ukrainian, even if they are ethnically Russian or grew up speaking Russian.

Bilaniuk uses his expertise on Ukrainian culture and spoke to the media about the views of local Ukrainians.

She says local Ukrainian community groups are focused on several priorities: combating misinformation spread by the Russian government that Ukraine is a fascist puppet of the United States; and counter messages in the United States that intervention in Ukraine is an extension of imperialism.

Community groups are coordinating the aid and have already chartered a plane to fly supplies, including diapers, food and body armor, to Poland for distribution in Ukraine. There is also a lobbying effort to encourage the state government to sever ties with Russian companies.

For those in the United States who feel powerless about what is happening in Ukraine, Bilaniuk has a simple message: look at the Ukrainian people.

“In Ukraine they have tasted freedom and they don’t think a life without it is worth it. So they are ready to put everything on the line,” she said. “They reject pathos. They said, ‘Don’t cry for me. Don’t tell us how scared you are. Worry, yes, but do something.

Bilaniuk is a panelist for the event “In Brief: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine”, taking place on Zoom at 4 p.m. on Monday, March 7. The event is sponsored by UW’s Ellison Center for Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies; Jackson School of International Studies; Center for West European Studies; and the European, Russian and Central Asian Initiative.

Tag(s): College of Arts and Sciences • Department of Anthropology • Laada Bilaniuk


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