More Important Than Ever — Ukrainian Studies and the Work of CIUS

Arguably, never before in history have Ukraine and Ukrainians been the focus of more public attention and sustained critical scrutiny than now. While the declara­tion of independence in 1991 and the peaceful Orange Revolution of 2004 greatly increased public awareness of Ukraine, it took the dramatic events of the Euromaidan / Revolution of Dig­nity in 2013–14, followed by Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and ongoing military aggression in the Donbas, to make Ukraine a subject of almost daily discussion around the world.

Ukrainian studies are no longer simply an interesting field of investi­gation for scholars but an area of stra­tegic significance for the global com­munity. Ukraine is once again at the centre of a geopolitical struggle in Eastern Europe, with profound impli­cations for the international order established at the end of the Second World War. It is even regarded as a bellwether for the future of the West’s liberal democracies, several of which are under threat from authoritarian movements on both ends of the polit­ical spectrum. What is particularly unsettling is that these extremist cur­rents are today making inroads into countries long considered to be strongholds of free and fair elections, the rule of law, and independent media.

For the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) the current situation represents both a great opportunity and a tre­mendous challenge. The intense interest in Ukraine and Ukrain­ians is in many ways a welcome development, following the widespread ignorance and outright indifference that often characterized attitudes toward Ukrainian affairs over the centu­ries. At the same time, the extraordinary circumstances in which Ukraine finds itself place unprecedented demands and expectations on the institute, not all of which can be effectively met with CIUS’s finite human and financial resources.

What is abundantly clear is that the study of Ukraine is more important and relevant than ever. The high stakes involved are evident in the fact that Ukraine is the target of a relentless dis­information campaign—a key feature of Putinist Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine and the West in general. This well-financed assault is not only conducted in the realm of current events, it is also directed at influencing narratives of the history of Ukrain­ian lands from the times of Kyivan Rus' to the present day. As part of this offensive targeting Ukraine, Kremlin operatives commission and promote research that supports contentious and often deliberately distorted imperial accounts of Ukraine’s history. Russian government archives selectively grant or arbi­trarily deny access to collections on the basis of political crite­ria, and Kremlin authorities intimidate critics and punish objec­tive Russian scholars who dare to question official dogma about the Russian state and Russian society. Part of the objec­tive is to discredit Ukraine’s right to an independent existence, and to under­mine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine as it struggles to leave behind its toxic legacy of inva­sion and oppression by foreign powers.

Although many scholars like to believe that they are above this con­flict and that the work they do is not affected by political considerations, in truth the academic arena is very much part of the battlefield in what is, in essence, a war of ideas and civiliza­tional values. Those who have special­ized in Russia and Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, often bring to their analysis—consciously or not—pre­conceptions and prejudices that they are loath to acknowledge. This does not prevent some of them from accus­ing Ukrainian counterparts who hold contrary views of being tainted by “émigré,” “ethnic,” or “nationalist” bias, or of “politicizing” controversial issues that are largely political in character. Some of these “experts” are little more than skilled apologists for “Third Rome” mythologies, spun over the centuries to serve the inter­ests of Russian expansionism. Others are old Sovietologists who, after being surprised and somewhat dismayed by the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, have been reinvigorated and emboldened by the resurgence of a revanchist Russia and Putin’s assertion of a “Russkii mir” Russian nationalist worldview.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of respected scholars and students of Ukraine (many of whom are not of Ukrainian ancestry) who have a much more detailed and nuanced under­standing of Ukraine’s past and current predicament. This is in part thanks to the work of CIUS, which over four decades has published almost 200 books dealing with Ukrainian history and culture, including the history of Ukrainians in Canada and of the Ukrainian diaspora. Concomitantly, CIUS has been a key player in promoting dialogue concerning Ukraine across lin­guistic boundaries—on the one hand developing innovative resources for those seeking to learn Ukrainian, and on the other providing opportunities for students and intellectuals in Ukraine to improve English-language skills, which are essential for effective participation in international academic forums. These efforts have played an important role in educating a new, post-independence generation of specialists dealing with Ukraine, who can draw with confi­dence on sources that were not pre­viously widely available and which feature interpretations that shed new light on old or questionable assumptions. Hundreds of students and Ukraine specialists have received scholarships, grants, and fellowships provided by CIUS, and have partici­pated in conferences and publica­tions or given lectures sponsored by the institute. The list of those who have benefited directly or indirectly from the work of CIUS is long and impressive, as documented annually in this Newsletter/Biuleten’.

These and other achievements of the institute are attributable in no small measure to the support that CIUS receives from the Ukrainian community. We gratefully acknowl­edge the foresight and generosity of donors who have created endowment funds to finance the institute’s undertakings in a variety of specific areas of academic endeavour.

As an institute founded primarily to promote scholarly research and publishing, and to nurture students in all facets of Ukrainian studies, CIUS has also tried whenever possible, within its means and mandate, to contribute to discussions stemming from current events in Ukraine. Sometimes this involves research associates of CIUS commenting in the media on devel­opments as they take place, as happened during the Euro­maidan, when CIUS staff members in Edmonton and Toronto gave numerous interviews with media outlets around the world. However, in many other instances it is the background material and context provided by CIUS’s published output over the years that informs commentators and political scientists who actively engage in debates on what is taking place, or hap­pened in the past, in Ukraine.

At present, CIUS is at the forefront of several major initiatives to make critical aspects of Ukrainian history better known at a time when the country faces a real existential threat. One such initiative is the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC), which on the basis of new research is expanding knowledge about the artificial famine that was unleashed upon Ukrainians with genocidal intent by the Stalin dictatorship in 1932–33. Focused on contributing to a better understanding of this crime against humanity, the work of HREC is especially timely given the incremental rehabilitation of Josef Stalin and Bolshevik rule that has characterized the Putin regime.

CIUS is no less committed to promoting discussion and dis­passionate analysis of Ukraine today, through the activities of its Contemporary Ukraine Studies Program (CUSP). CUSP has organized and hosted lectures and conferences on topics as diverse as warlordism in the Donbas, Ukraine’s financial system, and the Black Sea region as a contact zone of civilizations and cultures. Providing perspective to CUSP’s present-day focus are the translations of Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s seminal History of Ukraine-Rus’, a landmark undertaking of the Peter Jacyk Centre for Historical Research that is now nearing completion.

Another CIUS initiative involves digitizing publications and resources produced by CIUS over its history, thereby providing open access to them through the internet. In the same vein, the institute is proceeding with the updating and transformation of its English-language Encyclopedia of Ukraine into a multimedia online database that has become an important resource for researchers of all types, be they educators or students, pundits or journalists, authors, genealogists, or the public at large.

In short, the institute’s work and mission to bring forward high-quality information and analysis about Ukraine and its his­tory, culture, and current affairs continue apace. Being a univer­sity-based research institute, it is essential that the scholarship CIUS sponsors and disseminates be firmly grounded on verifia­ble facts and unimpeachable sources that can withstand rigor­ous examination and debate. All of this is happening in a period of rapid and momentous change, when Ukraine has been drawn into an unwanted war with a powerful neighbour while also grappling with serious fiscal and social challenges at home. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Canadian community and Ukrainian diaspora in general are undergoing significant changes, reflected in evolving migration patterns, demographic trends, and cultural dynamics. Together they are influencing the nature of contemporary Ukrainian studies, and will inevita­bly shape the future of this field. Finally, universities are also dealing with a daunting landscape, characterized by budgetary pressures, increasing bureaucratic demands, and many other issues that affect faculties, departments, and institutes like CIUS. Nevertheless, with the help of the Ukrainian community and our dedicated staff I am confident that we will build on our record of accomplishment, taking advantage of technological innovations and academic opportunities that are constantly opening new doors in the pursuit of knowledge that is commit­ted to the public good.


Jars Balan