On October 14-15, the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) held its 40th anniversary conference at Lister Hall, University of Alberta. For the first time in twenty years, most experts on Ukraine and Ukrainian Canadian studies resident in Canada, and several from the United States, as well as one from the UK and two from Ukraine, assembled to discuss the state of Ukrainian studies in North America.
I will not comment at length on the questions that surfaced regarding the lack of a student panel–students submitted posters and were given priority during question time but some clearly wanted a forum of their own. The Ukrainian Canadian panel also led to some heated discussion regarding the difficult position of that field. CIUS’ first director, Manoly R. Lupul, lamented the lack of current experts in the field (those who have tenure-tracked positions were hired for other fields) and suggested closer connections with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) for future conferences and fund raising.
The directors’ panel included Lupul, Kohut, Paul Robert Magocsi, the long-time Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto, and Frank Sysyn, with Serhii Plokhy, director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI) as moderator. Missing was Bohdan Krawchenko, now running the Central Asian University in Bishkek. Neither Lupul nor Magocsi seemed very happy with the state of Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Canadian studies and there was throughout an undercurrent of tension between them that owed more to past events than anything in the 21st century.
Three other questions are worthy of comment. First, Andrii Portnov (Berlin) made the very pertinent point that Ukrainian scholars are not in the same position as Western scholars in terms of salaries and living conditions. He cited the example of one professor who returned to student life as the Western stipend he would receive was considerably higher than his salary at university in Ukraine. There is also the related problem of acquiring expensive visas to leave the country, and the short-term nature of research positions in favoured destinations, such as Germany. At present therefore Western and Ukrainian scholars live in two parallel worlds.
Taras Kuzio, both at the conference and in a subsequent Youtube podcast (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIyJw9Hvq-A), focused on the lack of attention paid by HURI and CIUS to the events and aftermath of Euromaidan, and in particular the dearth of political scientists at both institutes, universities and centres. He commented that Serhii Plokhy is the first HURI director to have an interest in contemporary Ukraine or to have published monographs, and that neither of these two institute’s journals have taken much interest in publishing articles about the crisis in Ukraine. He also noted the reluctance among some of the featured panelists to use modern technology and social media–in a couple of cases not even the Internet.
Just prior to the conference, University of Alberta’s Natalia Pylypiuk made a comment on Facebook page of the Canadian Association for Ukrainian Studies, run by Serhii Yekelchyk, about the collapse of Ukrainian studies at the university, specifically language programs at the degree level. Small classes have been cancelled because they have failed to meet the mandatory minimum enrolment level of 12 students, and modern languages have borne the brunt of the general assault on the humanities across North American universities.
In a response of sorts–not to Kuzio but to Yaroslav Hrytsak of Lviv University, who reported that he was resorting to short blog posts to reach a wider audience–Magocsi, rose to his feet to declare that “it’s not our job” to write blogs or take an active role in the Ukrainian political crisis. One cannot be a scholar and a public intellectual was the essence of his comment. But the University of Alberta, at least, is one at which the role of public intellectuals among the academy is not only recommended but is also becoming an obligatory part of scholarly activity and modern-day relevance.
Lupul also pointed out correctly that when he was director of CIUS (1976-86), the institute was much more independent, as it remained under the following directorships of Bohdan Krawchenko (1986-91) and Zenon Kohut (1992-2012). Today it is part of the Faculty of Arts, which monitors its activities carefully, both through the official structure as well as something called the Arts Collaborative Enterprise. There is a general trend in the faculty, in an atmosphere of stringent budgets, to “circle wagons” and centralize all units behind common goals. And while CIUS may have received more endowments from the community than most other institutes and centres, many of these are for specific projects, historical and literary. There has to my knowledge never been a large endowment focused on contemporary Ukraine.
The problem with Lupul’s suggestion, and I would suggest a fundamental dilemma for all areas of Ukrainian studies, is the ambiguous and undefined role of the community. Frank Sysyn criticized Per Rudling (University of Singapore) for referring to both CIUS and HURI as “ethnic institutes.” Yet the Ukrainian community was often vocal in the United States prior to Plokhy’s term in claiming it should play a stronger role in HURI’s activities. In Canada, one recalls the influential role of UCC (KYK) in Ukraine during the Harper administration and it has been very vocal on the Ukraine crisis. UCC president Paul Grod appears frequently at scholarly conferences and indeed, took part in this one during its latter stages.
Ultimately, it is not Ukrainian studies that is in crisis so much as Ukraine itself. The loss of Crimea and draining war in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have strengthened political activism and, as at least one participant stated, served to unite Ukraine as never before. But there can no longer be complacency. The country remains mired in corruption and in search of a clear identity. In the Soviet period, when CIUS began, the mission was much more obvious, namely to pursue scholarly activity through publications and conferences, and to maintain a bastion of Ukrainian culture and language outside the homeland. That was also the era of multiculturalism, of which Manoly Lupul was one of the pioneers on both the provincial and national level.
Today, however, the situation is much more complex. Those Western scholars, however well meaning, who are reticent about Ukraine’s direction or write critical pieces about its policies, are often dismissed offhand as Kremlin agents by sensitive locals (both politicians and some scholars), and while Russia has resorted to a hybrid war based on mass propaganda (in short, lies), Ukraine’s response in some respects has been unclear and sometimes downright foolish. Of course, any critique should be tempered by the observation that no nation at war can be expected to prioritize democracy or the rule of law, but the same mistakes are being repeated and genuine reformers ousted from Cabinet positions in Kyiv.
Ultimately, on this question at least. and despite his apparent overlooking of some prominent Ukrainian Canadian political scientists (not least Dominique Arel, who was present at the conference, and Marta Dyczok, who was not), Kuzio is correct. CIUS could increase its focus on contemporary Ukraine. In fact that is the path the current director ostensibly wishes to undertake. On campus we have the requisite coterie of exceptional graduate students and CIUS now has acquired two first-rate postdoctoral fellows (Oleksandr Melnyk and Ivan Kozachenko), as well as excellent resources and faculty support.
But it would involve some sacrifices in more traditional areas and support from donors who have been generous in the past but have rarely wished to leave their life savings to such modern projects. Further, CIUS would also require at least a modicum of independence to pursue its new goals, which seems reasonable given the relevance of contemporary Ukraine in international politics.