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As scholars gather to grapple with the ongoing war in Ukraine, they do more than grieve for what is lost. To congregate and speak is also a way of anthropological and human becoming—together and in solidarity.

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

protested
but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. …

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

… we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.
Ilya Kaminsky, “We Lived Happily During the War

What does it mean to gather to speak about events of war as they unfold in hastily put together virtual mediums propelled by the pandemic? What do these intellectual gatherings produce that might stay relevant to other events yet to happen? Knowing, as Sebouh David Aslanian suggests, that drones are mightier than the pen, anthropologists still gather to share scholarly insight in a gesture of mutual aid, professing and processing grief, trauma, and shock of losing a home, a loved one, a world as they knew it. But they also grieve the loss of field research, of concepts organizing research, and of belief in the validity or power of scholarly insight, of ethnographic authority. At the same time, they glean a possibility for finding excitement in the ethnographic insight, as they contemplate temporalities of ethnographic knowledge production.

On February 24, 2022, after months of accumulating military troops and weaponry along its borders with Ukraine, Russia started a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Western observers across the political spectrum have interpreted this war in terms of competing imperialisms or NATO/Russia rivalry, obscuring and, as Olena Lyubchenko suggests, separating regional histories of “internationalism, communism, and anti-fascism…from ‘self-determination’ through Eurocentric maneuvers.” The international attention to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and compassion for Ukrainian refugees, considering Vladimir Putin’s threats of deploying “tactical nuclear weapons,” has been both heartwarming and heart-wrenching, given the ongoing violent exclusion and expulsion many racialized refugees face, fleeing other wars that have not garnered as much international attention or compassion.

How to speak with?

Amid this ongoing war, a group of anthropologists of Ukraine and Russia gathered online on March 10, 2022, to think through the shock of war and what that shock reveals, the role of local histories and shifting political orientations, geopolitical resonance, solidarity, and knowledge production. Critically aware of their different positionalities, they drew on their ethnographic knowledge to illuminate the sociopolitical conditions shaping this war, cognizant of the geopolitical processes that render some wars and their sufferers more important than others. They spoke with each other as a form of collective care, simultaneously realizing that the world as they knew it is gradually unfolding into something else, while the abundance of explanations of the events about which they gathered to speak are stuck in the past, as Dace Dzenovska observed. They spoke about an unspeakable experience, keeping in mind Ukrainian leftist critique of the Western Left as failing to see that Russia has a degree of autonomy, if imperially so.

The shock of a full-scale war

Dafna Rachok started the conversation, reflecting on the fact that the seduction of optimism and ideas of rationality left many in Ukraine and Russia in disbelief when the war broke out. And as Julie Hemment pointed out, despite months of accumulation of Russian military equipment and personnel along the Ukrainian border, most had dismissed the possibility of a full-scale war, considering war rhetoric as performative, a calculation that Dzenovska noted the Russian military had probably made as well. Rachok posited that the war and its concomitant feeling of shock serves as a lesson in the workings of ideology and the need to take it seriously. She reported that the initial shock has been followed by large-scale and often decentralized efforts of mobilization and mutual aid both within and outside of Ukraine. The eight-year anti-Ukraine propaganda notwithstanding, the experience in Russia, too, was one of deep shock, with different levels of self-reflexivity, complicity, and disorientation, according to Hemment. And yet, as she noted, robust mobilization took place across 100 cities in Russia, with initial protests, petitions, and digital forms of dissent. These protests were followed by thousands of arbitrary police arrests as well as Goskom Nadzor (State Surveillance Agency) clampdowns of digital activities as conditions became increasingly violent and repressive.

The history of the past and the present as a future-making tool

Catherine Wanner situated Putin’s current rhetoric of denazification in the context of World War II, which evokes a range of affects for a population that remains traumatized by that war. For some people invested in Ukrainian statehood, World War II increasingly connotes an earlier attempt at independence that was crushed by the Soviet Red Army; for others it was a victorious war against Nazism that Russians and Ukrainians fought together. In other words, history itself has been weaponized as a political tool to promote or thwart Ukrainian sovereignty.

Rachok observed that to explain the committed organizing and mobilization work in Ukraine—where it is hard to find an initiative for which to volunteer because there are more people offering help than help needed—many in Ukraine have been drawing on three historical narratives: of Ukrainians as always being anarchists (referencing Nestor Makhno or Makhnovites of the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine, a Ukrainian anarchist army fighting in the civil war of 1917–1920s), Cossack narratives, and Ukrainians’ ongoing discontent with their government.

If it is the histories of anti-imperialist struggles that have been reanimated in Ukraine to articulate continuity in political orientation, this political moment of historical continuity is fundamentally imperialist for Russia, which informs religious and political paradigms from Wanner’s perspective. The Russian Orthodox Church maps onto Russia’s imperial past to position itself as serving the Russian World, a concept that unites Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians to protect traditional Christian values. The Church contrasts itself with a European/Western orientation that the Church claims is about sexual liberties and even perversion. As a result, the subversion of the truth that actively promotes alternative facts and realities serves to produce ignorance that affects us all.

Ethnolinguistic heterogeneity is another area where historical orientations are being reworked anew. Wanner noted that while practices of nonreciprocal bilingualism are pervasive in Ukraine, language is becoming a means to express a political position. There is a sharp increase in the use of Ukrainian to reaffirm state sovereignty. Meanwhile, Denys Gorbach observed that while in a Russian-speaking city (like Kryvyi Rih), people embrace East Slavic identity rather than ethnic Ukrainian identity, in light of the unfolding war, the linguistic duality seems to be in the process of losing its relevance at least temporarily, since elites legitimating themselves as protecting Russian speakers have publicly expressed their pro-Ukrainian support. Unlike in Crimea, where it would not be surprising that people share Russian state propaganda, Russian-speaking people in Ukrainian-controlled territories in Eastern Ukraine have changed their perspective and are pro-Ukrainian (it is hard to support a government that rains bombs on your house). Similarly, Rachok’s interlocuters—Russian-speaking commercial sex workers, people using drugs, and people living with HIV—who had been voting for politicians classified in Ukraine as pro-Russian, have been participating in Ukrainian volunteer efforts since the start of the war. Rachok concluded that scholars discussing linguistic and ethnic identities seem to have overestimated the role of language and ethnicities in identity formations. She suggested that we might locate hope in the newly emergent civic nation of Ukraine, a nation to be born from many collective affects, a collective body that runs the risk of losing a part of its humanity and forgetting to empathize with others. Yet Gorbach expressed skepticism, given that the constant duality of identities has prevented the establishing of a stable hegemony.

Geopolitical significance

Dzenovska drew participants’ attention to the fact that if the 1990s was a period of potential freedom and danger, the current moment seems to be filled only with danger, given that Russia is reshaping the world by war and the Western response to it. Douglas Rogers focused on the fact that like other petrostates, Russia depends on recirculated oil wealth rather than transformation of production. He suggested that the transmutation of oil wealth into culture and spectacle is important, particularly because Russian oil is often transformed into Russian national identity. Rogers noted that as a postsocialist petrostate, Russia has imperial dimensions so far not well understood other than by scholars of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova—states toward which Russia has exercised a particular kind of sovereignty (of imperial design) through new forms of warfare, taking on the role of what Elizabeth Cullen Dunn and Michael Bobick characterize as the “provocateur, enabler, aggressor, and peacemaker.” Tens of thousands of kilometers of gas pipelines traverse Ukraine to provide oil and gas to Ukraine and transit gas and oil to Europe from Siberia. Energy, then, as Rogers reminded us, is not just a natural resource, money accumulated in the national budget, or the price of a commodity, but a force and material intertwining of people, culture, society, and history. He called attention to the fact that the Russian economy can be sanctioned by disconnecting its banks from the SWIFT system and businesses like McDonalds can be closed in Moscow and across Russia, yet gas and oil still flow to Europe. The durability of the pipeline system, going back to the Cold War, and its implications for European, Russian, Ukrainian, and formerly Soviet modes of life, fueled disbelief that this war would happen, according to Rogers. If collective affects and new forms of politics might be emerging, as Rachok suggested, how will these play into the existing energy infrastructure and politics of the region? Jennifer Carroll reminded us that as people discuss worst-case scenarios (e.g., Is Putin going to use the Aleppo strategy?), we should remember that Syria was also Putin’s war. And an important question we want to ask ourselves as scholars is, What are we missing and why are we missing it?

From state actors to collectives and households

Wanner posited that under the current geopolitical circumstances, great empathy can be generated for one group at the expense of others, often because in-group empathy rises with the deliberate withholding of empathy for others. At the same time, Carroll raised the issue of the asymmetrical global response to the conflict: Why so much empathy for Ukrainians, but not for the bombing of Aleppo or Grozny?

Poland, Finland, and Romania have been quick to accommodate the flows of refugees, understanding Ukraine’s fate as tied to their own. A shared historical trauma of WWII and postwar Russian interventions in socialist Europe further increases empathy for Ukraine, raising a moral obligation for solidarity. Wanner connected the global response in part to the sharing of personal experiences of suffering and displacement on social media. But this leaves us with questions about why similar sharing of experiences of other wars in other places failed to generate similar outpourings of empathy and support. Carroll indicated that people living in majority-white nations pay attention to the war in Ukraine as it seems easy to identify with white people (however imperfect the term white, emerging from a North American settler-colonial context, might be). At the same time, she explained that because of a level of historical discrimination against former Soviet states, the welcoming of Ukrainians into Europe strikes many as jarring and fast.

The new immigrant whiteness emerging from this war affirms the existing hierarchy of refugees. While Gorbach was skeptical that Ukrainian refugees will trouble the existing moral order, given that many were anti-immigrant prior to the war, he sees an opportunity to challenge it in the West. Dzenovska proposed to pay attention not just to the moral order, whether there is solidarity or not, but to the forms of solidarity and what we can learn from them. People open intimate spaces in their homes, and the intimacy they are willing to provide shows that given regional proximity and often familial interrelatedness, people think of refugees as kin—historical rather than cultural or racial, shaped by webs of mutual obligations.

Different forms of solidarity both inside and outside of Ukraine reveal a range of support, from territorial defense to providing insulin or antiviral treatment for people with HIV, as well as tuberculosis treatment. Drawing on insight from medical anthropology, Carroll spoke of the deep mental, psychological, and physical exhaustion that can emerge when the state of exception—as the only frame to understand a chronic illness, and, in the conditions of this war, displacement and need for support—is ongoing. As Carroll put it, it remains to be seen how long the solidarity from Europeans and North Americans lasts and how tied it is to the state of exception we are in. We will see states, institutions, and people getting tired. And it will be important to see what happens to the discourse of solidarity when the exhaustion sets in.

On relevance, expertise, and the ethics of knowledge production

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in [their] mouth
gazing at the clouds.
—Wisława Szymorska, “The End and the Beginning

Anthropologists, who typically stay close to the ground and the field, turned their attention to this unfolding war to think across scales and continents. Is it not too quick to reflect? What questions to ask? What can anthropology learn from wars? What to do if unable to do anthropological fieldwork? Are we in crisis? were some of the questions attendees asked, as the event was drawing to a close. For Rogers, the panel itself was an exercise in doing anthropology, as he echoed the sentiment that anthropology has a unique skill to speak across scale, connecting the local to the global in terms of affect and energy. Who can be here to speak and who cannot? is a haunting question for Rogers. What new forms of new knowledge exchange and solidarity can emerge? Drawing our attention to the multiple ways solidarities are being extended to Ukrainians, Dzenovska located optimism in the knowledge anthropology can produce through mapping these ways precisely to allow us to understand what is going on, how this sorting of humans is happening, and how we can intervene more equitably.

As Sara Ahmed reminds us, accumulating pressure can result in an end that can be a potential beginning. In the face of accelerating and shifting consolidation of geopolitical allegiances, gathering as scholars to speak with each other is not only scholarly grieving, but also part of anthropological becoming, which in turn is part of human becoming, a process by which scholars do the kind of after-war work that Szymborska evokes, as they unearth “rusted-out arguments” (e.g., that ideological discourses are performative, that language and ethnicity are first-order organizing principles in identity formations). In the words of Roseann Liu and Savannah Shange, by sharing “a radical belief in the inherent value of each other’s lives despite never being able to fully understand or fully share in the experience of those lives,” anthroplogists gaze at the clouds together as they imagine forms of thick solidarity, weaving together interpersonal empathy, scholarly knowledge, historical analysis, and willingness to be led by people most affected. The trick? They do all this amid raging wars because it looks like there is never an after, or an end, but always amidst, until it becomes possible to think and live and love so deeply that war is an anachronism.


Panelists from the “Anthropological Perspectives on the War in Ukraine” online panel organized by the American Anthropological Association (AAA), Society for the Anthropology of Europe (SAE), and Soyuz: The Research Network for Postsocialist Cultural Studies, and cosponsored by the European Association for Social Anthropologists (EASA).

Jennifer J. Carroll is assistant professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University, an adjunct assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, and consultant for the Division of Overdose Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She has been researching harm reduction in the United States and Ukraine for nearly two decades.

Dace Dzenovska, “Anthropological Perspectives on the War in Ukraine” panel moderator, is associate professor in the anthropology of migration at the University of Oxford. She studies the changing relationships between people, territory, political authority, and capital in Eastern Europe. She is the author of School of Europeanness: Tolerance and Other Lessons in Political Liberalism in Latvia (2018).

Denys Gorbach is a postdoctoral fellow at Sciences Po Paris. His academic interests revolve around the politics of the post-socialist working class. His previous research focused on the paradox of the political weakness of Ukrainian trade unions. His current work analyses the moral economy and everyday politics in Ukraine. 

Julie Hemment is professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of Empowering Women in Russia: Aid, NGOs and Activism (2007) and Youth Politics in Putin’s Russia: Producing Patriots and Entrepreneurs (2015). Her most recent writing focuses on satire in US-Russian political communication.

Dafna Rachok is a PhD candidate at Indiana University Bloomington. Her interests lie at the intersection of political and medical anthropology. Her dissertation explores HIV prevention and treatment programs in Ukraine: how they are designed, implemented, and what vulnerable populations like sex workers think about these programs.

Douglas Rogers is professor of anthropology at Yale University and author of The Depths of Russia: Oil, Power, and Culture after Socialism (2015) as well as other works about energy, corporations, religion, ethics, and history in Russia.

Catherine Wanner is professor of history, anthropology, and religious studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She is the author or editor of six books on Ukraine, most recently Everyday Religiosity and the Politics of Belonging in Ukraine (2022). 

Authors

Nelli Sargsyan

Nelli Sargsyan is associate professor of anthropology at Emerson College. As a feminist, Sargsyan situates herself in the multidisciplinary embrace of political anthropology, queer studies, and affect studies. Most recently she has been interested in creative political work that cultivates feminist consciousness and collective care.

Cite as

Sargsyan, Nelli. 2022. “When We Speak with Each Other Amidst.” Anthropology News website, June 1, 2022.

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