Prairie Centre for the Study of Ukrainian Heritage ST. THOMAS MORE COLLEGE, UNIVERSITY OF SASKATCHEWAN

Oksana Dudko: “The fascination with Russia resulted in a decreased sensitivity to the peoples and regions that suffered from Romanov imperial and Soviet violence.”

Oksana Dudko, a Petro Jacyk Postdoctoral Fellow in Ukrainian Studies, was interviewed by OrienteMedio News. During the interview, Dudko discussed how Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has changed the perception of Ukraine in the world and sparked public interest in eastern Europe. She also talked about how this invasion has led to discussions on transforming eastern and central European studies to go beyond Russo-centric narratives.

Read the interview in Spanish:

Read an English translation of the interview:

Manuel Ferez Gil: Thank you very much, Oksana for your time. To start the interview, we would like to know something about your biography and academic career, especially your research areas.

Oksana Dudko: I specialize in the history of Ukraine, the Soviet Union, and Europe with a particular focus on Eastern Europe and such topics as the First World War, revolutions, gender, violence, and cultural history. I began my academic career in Ukraine, where I completed my doctoral dissertation on Habsburg Galicia. Later, I moved to Canada and pursued another Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. Currently, I am a postdoctoral fellow in Ukrainian studies at the University of Saskatchewan and have spent the past two years in the beautiful Canadian Prairies. My recent research has focused on the experiences of Galician Ukrainian soldiers during the First World War and subsequent revolutions and armed conflicts in Ukraine. This is a particularly fascinating case: these soldiers were either conscripted into the Austrian Army or volunteered for a Ukrainian riflemen unit within the Austrian army. When the war ended, they continued fighting in two Ukrainian armies: the army of newly proclaimed Ukraine in Kyiv and the West Ukraine’s army. The latter state emerged on the debris of the Habsburg Empire in eastern Galicia, with its capital in Lviv. Because of the multilayered armed conflicts in Ukraine, these soldiers fought various wars with the Polish Army, the Bolsheviks, and the White Denikin Army. What is more striking, however, is that they also cooperated with most of these armies. In 1919, the Galician Army signed a treaty with the White Denikin Army, the ultimate enemy of independent Ukraine. However, they went even further in 1920 when they broke this contract and signed a new treaty, this time with the Bolshevik Red Army (against whom they had previously fought). This case study shows how complex war and armed struggles were on the former borderlands of the Habsburg and Romanov empires. It also highlights how unexpected and counterintuitive soldiers’ decisions can be during times of prolonged violence. So it is essential not to jump to conclusions.

MFG: Russian aggression against Ukraine has aroused much interest in academia about the countries of Eastern and Central Europe but the vision of these countries has been conditioned by a greater interest and attention in Russia and not directly in these ex-Soviet countries (a term that we will discuss later). To what do you attribute this academic dynamic that today is seriously questioned?

OD: It’s true that Russia and Moscow attract more attention than Kyiv, Riga, Chișinău, or Dushanbe do. There is more than one explanation for this interest in Russia that goes beyond the geography and curiosity of people who want to know more about the largest country in the world by territory. Two of these reasons are tied to the Cold War and the Russian Revolution. The Cold War triggered the development of centres in North America to study Russia and the Soviet Union. Empires like to study themselves or ones similar to them. One of the outcomes of the Cold War is that North American scholars produced really captivating work about Russia and the Soviet Union. As a result, Russia as a country became an object of fascination, an almost mysterious place to study and travel to. This academic excitement and public curiosity is not a bad thing. However, the fascination with Russia resulted in a decreased sensitivity to the peoples and regions that suffered from Romanov imperial and Soviet violence. The other reason why Russia is a topic of fascination around the world is because of the Russian Revolution and the radical social transformation that the Soviet project promised to the world. In theory, they are, indeed, breathtaking. The Russian Revolution also promised an alternative to people’s suffering under capitalism. It is not surprising that people had high hopes for the Soviet experiment. The Russian Revolution inspired other revolutionaries and leftist movements worldwide, who often romanticized it. However, you can be fascinated with a Russian revolution only if you live in the centre both geographically and hierarchically—if you have a privileged position in society. Those living on the periphery or borderlands, which made up most of the Soviet Union’s population, did not share this fascination. Therefore, there is a discrepancy between those who study and are interested in Russia from other parts of the world and those who lived through the Romanov imperial and Soviet experiments. If you visit Chechnya or Ukraine and physically experience Russian imperial politics, your fascination with Russia will rapidly diminish.

MFG: The term “ex-Soviet countries” has been questioned by specialized academia. I believe that this is part of a broader process that invites us to rethink the historical and social concepts and frameworks from which we see and study the countries of Eastern and Central Europe but also Russia. What is your opinion on this topic?

OD: You are right. Recently, scholars have suggested that the term “post-Soviet” should be abandoned when referring to the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. This is because the Soviet period, while significant, lasted for only a few decades. In comparison, these countries have much richer histories that extend over centuries. This discussion highlights, however, much more important questions about the politics of naming and the terminology we use. Terms and concepts are not neutral, and we should be mindful of the historical contexts in which they emerged. The term “post-Soviet” may be limited and outdated, as demonstrated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If we view Ukraine solely through this lens, we may struggle to understand the current Russo–Ukrainian war and risk accepting unfounded beliefs about Ukraine being a “puppet” of Western or NATO forces or a “pawn” of American imperialism. By exploring the complex and tense history of Ukrainian–Russian relations beyond the post-Soviet era, we may gain a better understanding of the current Russian invasion.

MFG: I believe that an important task is to find and establish bridges of communication between Latin American academia and that specialized in Ukraine and the other countries of the area. Among your areas of research are cultural history, political violence and gender issues. What would be the similar dynamics and issues that could be addressed from Latin America and Eastern Europe?

OD: Some topics that I think might be of mutual interest to Latin American and Ukrainian scholars are imperialism, oppression, and resilience. What are the similarities and differences in our ways of thinking about and conceptualizing imperialism and colonialism? How do we fight oppression? What made us resilient? For many Latin American countries, the US is the ultimate imperial power that has to be challenged whereas for Ukraine, it is Russia. It’s precisely this difference that could make a dialogue between scholars of Latin America and Ukraine very productive. Also, Latin America and Ukraine experience various kinds of socialism and communism (albeit in different ways), and I think a number of comparative studies could be done in this field. Finally, grassroots protest movements and activism may be another topic of mutual interest and relevance. Examining these topics through the lenses of cultural history and gender studies can enable individuals to view imperialism and colonialism as pervasive phenomena that penetrate deeply into their personal lives, affecting not only political and economic aspects but also physical and intimate aspects.

MFG:  Theater is another subject that you are passionate about and if we think about it a little theater has been linked to the processes of national and cultural identification of various nations and peoples. Tell us a little about the modern Ukrainian theater and if you can give us some references of works that we can consult.

OD: I have a strong passion for Ukrainian theater that began during my student years when I participated in student theater. This passion eventually became a professional endeavor when I became a founding director and curator of two Ukrainian theater festivals: “Drabyna” and “Drama.UA” and a new dramaturgy theater called “Drama.UA.” I have also researched theater, focusing specifically on Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish theater during the First World War and the Russian occupation of 1914–15 in my hometown of Lviv, which is located in western Ukraine. I firmly believe that the history of theater can provide insight into the history of a country because theater is often a reflection of social and political transformations. What I appreciate about contemporary Ukrainian theater is its willingness to engage in open and honest conversations about the issues facing our society, no matter how difficult they may be. Many Ukrainian theater makers have also made significant contributions to the film industry. For example, Natalia Vorozhbyt, a prominent Ukrainian playwright, directed the influential film “Bad Roads” about the Donbas War. Oxana Cherkashyna, another influential Ukrainian actress, has recently gained international acclaim for her role in the Ukrainian war drama “Klondike,” for which she earned a FIPRESCI Prize for Best Actress at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. These individuals are worth keeping an eye on, but there are many other excellent Ukrainian artists to discover, such as the talented theater director Roza Sarkisian.

MFG: Art is another space in which Russian aggression against Ukraine has gained strength. While some artists are presented as “Russians”, hiding their true origins, the ex-Soviet countries claim their place in the art world. What is your reflection on this “confrontation” in the art world and how the specialized academy has approached it?

OD: Recent research and curatorial efforts of scholars of Ukrainian art have revealed that not all artwork traditionally perceived as “Russian” was actually created by Russians. Much of what is considered “Russian art” was a product of either the Romanov or Soviet empire. These empires were multinational formations, where artists of various national and ethnic origins worked and created and were persecuted and celebrated (or both). Following the collapse of these empires, Russia claimed the imperial legacy as its own, even though only a portion of the artists were Russian. Scholars of Ukrainian art have since challenged the concept of “great Russian culture,” leading to more accurate representations of the artistic legacy and acknowledging the role of indigenous cultures, including Ukrainians, in many museums worldwide. Rethinking the concept of “great Russian culture” is crucial because it was a strategy for imperial maintenance, and challenging this concept shows us both how empires consolidate power and how this power can be challenged.

MFG: History, as an academic specialty, also invites us to rethink many events of the past. In that sense the Ukrainian resistance is also a resistance to history centered on the Russian Empire and the USSR. How do you think Latin Americans could approach these new trends in the way they see and make history? Do you think there is enough material for Latin Americans to approach Ukrainian history or should more efforts be made in this regard?

OD: I am not very familiar with the current state of academia in Latin America because I do not speak the languages and have limited connections with academics in the region. However, it seems that there is a significant interest in the Russian Revolution in Mexico, which is understandable given that the Mexican Revolution occurred around the same time and both revolutions rattled the world. Russia has been viewed as a valuable ally in Latin America for decades, especially in response to American imperial expansion. It is crucial to recognize the significance of Russia in the region. Nevertheless, I believe that studying Ukraine and its history could create a sense of solidarity between Latin America and Eastern Europe. We could learn from each other about anti-imperial struggles, and I think that Ukraine has more in common with Latin American countries than Russia does, particularly in terms of resistance. It would be intriguing to explore these similarities while acknowledging our differences.

8.- The Ukrainian diaspora has demonstrated a high degree of solidarity and professionalism throughout the Russian aggression. In many countries there are young voices like yours that propose interesting projects. To finish the interview, tell us about the projects you have done and that you have in the future and in which there could be Latin American academics and students.

In the early days of the invasion, I volunteered to deliver medication to older adults in Kharkiv, which had been hit hard by Russian bombing. Once the initial shock subsided, I returned to my professional work as a theater curator and historian. I spent four months in Ukraine studying the impact of the war on theater, as many theaters in Lviv had become shelters and volunteer centers while still putting on performances. I conducted interviews with theater professionals and attended numerous shows. Additionally, I participated in public talks, round tables, and interviews about Ukraine to raise awareness of the situation on the ground. In Canadian universities, I taught courses about Ukrainian and Soviet history to deepen understanding of the region. However, my main focus has been to return to my professional activities as a historian and write articles and organize academic events about how to teach history after a full-scale invasion. In May 2023, I organized the Prairie Workshop: Decolonizing European and Soviet History Curricula in Saskatoon, where we discussed how to teach a more inclusive and diverse history and provide a space for marginalized voices. I was pleased that Manuel was able to participate and bring a valuable perspective from Latin America. I believe that horizontal networks of solidarity and cooperation are crucial, and I hope to continue the dialogue with scholars from around the world on wider issues of imperialism and resistance.