МАГ/The International Association for the Humanities     ЖУРНАЛ МЕЖДУНАРОДНОЙ АССОЦИАЦИИ ГУМАНИТАРИЕВ | Volume 5, Issue 1 (34), 2016.

Academia in Crisis: 20 Years of Post-Colonial Academia in Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine

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Публикуемый ниже материал посвящен заключительной конференции Программы CASE, состоявшейся в конце весны  в Европейском гуманитарном университете (беларусский университет, с 2005 г. работающий “в изгнании” в Вильнюсе). Программа CASE, просуществовавшая десять лет и включавшая в сферу своего действия Беларусь, Украину и Молдову, имела  целью поддержку исследований и академических инициатив, связанных с восточноевропейским пограничьем (borderlands).  В рамках Программы CASE проводились конференции и летние школы, издавался журнал “Перекрестки” (большинство выпусков доступно в интернете); существовала программа малых исследовательских грантов. Автор нижеследующего эссе немецкий исследователь восточноевропейского пограничья Феликс Аккерман ставит важные вопросы об идеологии “постколониальности”, которая может лежать в основании таких программ; он также размышляет об изучении “пограничий” (важная тема последних десятилетий в различных регионах мира) и нации в начале XXI в. Редакция журнала “The Bridge-MOCT” приглашает читателей принять участие в этом разговоре. 


1 case logoThis year’s annual conference of the Centre for Advanced Studies and Education (CASE) affiliated with European Humanities University (EHU) and supported by the Carnegie Cooperation brought together scholars from Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine for the last time in Vilnius in April, 2014. The conference was special because of three circumstances:

  1. After ten years the support program that combined lectures, small research grants, and a publication series will be discontinued;
  2. Most participants of the conference came from Ukraine where the political situation continues to be highly unstable;
  3. It was formally the last event at European Humanities University with Pavel Tereshkovich, who has been running CASE for a decade and who lost his job as professor of history at EHU after organizing protests on behalf of EHU’s Senate against the universities reforms earlier this year.

How do we bring together these three issues, which at first glance are separate from each other? Can we unite them in a simple and dramatic question: How to continue doing academic work in Eastern Europe in times of rising autocratic tendencies, an ongoing structural-material crisis for the academic class, and a rather blurred outlook for the development of the humanities within a broader shift towards societies with rapidly changing patterns of knowledge production. The specific obstacles in Eastern Europe include a highly unequal distribution of uncertainty among academics, limited access to academic resources allocated outside of the region, and further limitation of academic freedom in the societies at stake.

The participants of the CASE conference showed their own strategies of dealing with the above-mentioned situation. Their participation itself is part of a widespread mobility pattern, which on the one hand shows the willingness to share one’s own research insights but, on the other hand, it also shows the need to gain additional funding for the everyday survival in their home-country academias. During the conference the participants presented the outcomes of their short-term research projects which were mainly funded by small grants of $1,000. The broad range of panels covered legal, historical, political and cultural accounts of the borderlands region between Russia and Western Europe. The presentations demonstrated different research qualities and exposed a dilemma: being schooled in the Eastern European universities formally does not limit the interactions with different discursive fields, including going beyond local contexts. Many presenters at the CASE conference were young scholars who completed their Ph.D.s in the 21st century and worked within Western European and Anglo-Saxon academia stepped away from empirical repercussions of Marxist materialism as it was interpreted in the late Soviet academia. In this sense, mobility can be understood as the ability to freely move between certain geographical and discursive positions; yet mobility is not the privilege of those who were born late. The CASE experience also shows that there are certain structural limitations in particular in the peripheral universities in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. For this matter the CASE project has a strong impact: it brought together scholars who in their everyday work struggle with the above-mentioned structural challenges to promote critical approaches in a increasingly streamlined environment. This is not specific for Eastern Europe and can be seen as an outcome of the Bologna process. All participants of the CASE project educate hundreds of students in their regions; many often work over 1,000 hours per year.

The Belarusian-Ukrainian-Moldovan CASE program started with approaching the borderlands as something in-between, as a region in transition, and as something special because of a specific constellation of overlapping multiple identities on the peripheries of former Empires. Among the project’s ideological “founding fathers” was the Belarusian poet Ihar Babkou who established its conceptual framework. It partially reminds the Central Europe discourse in the 1980s when intellectuals from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland proclaimed the existence of something in-between the blocks that culturally were not parts of Russian culture,  nor fully included into Western Europe. Thematically the borderland theme evolved; this years conference showed evidence it such development which offers new venues for academic inquiry. However conceptually the idea of borderlands was not further developed after Ihar Babkou left the project. It remained a combination of geographical and cultural definitions of a region being characterized as peripheral in relation to the post-imperial centers in East and West. The borderlands are also understood as a metaphor for a successful practice of co-existence of diverse social groups (usually defined in ethnic terms). The attempts to discuss the borderland as a research category during this years conference demonstrated that the concept is understood broadly today and it is hard to define its regional specificity clearly.

One conceptual reason for the weakness of the borderland paradigm is its incapacity to bring together the multiple identities of the 19th century – at the time expressed by religious, linguistic, ethnic, national and political means – with new patterns of shifting identities in the 21st century, which are expressed with bigger diversity and more vivid dynamic. While most of the 19th century based concepts still showed a strong link with both territory and the newly occurring idea of the nation state, we face today in the region societies, which formally are organized as nation states. This was not the result of a long-term nation building processes but rather circumstantial of political processes in which ethnicity, territory, and borders became important cornerstones. As Svitlana Odenets, Social Anthropologist from Lviv, put it: “We got stuck in-between Modernity and Post-Modernity.” In the presented research papers we see that identities are still transforming. We know that those identities are multiple and not prescribed. An important reason for this dilemma is the newly emerged national context in which all participants of the CASE program have to find their own academic way. Regardless the mentioned post-colonial situation and all weaknesses of nation-building in the region all three states – Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus – formally are still going through nation building projects. Therefore, the production of knowledge in this broader political context is part of the attempt to gather empirical evidence on issues relevant for the particular and quite different national settings. This is not to be misunderstood as a direct force to nationalize research designs. This is the way in which many colleagues working at the state-run universities throughout the region put their questions within a strongly nationalist frames. While in all three countries the recent developments shows a dynamic clearly different from the national projects dynamics in 19th century – the Euro-Majdan in Kiev might be read as such – the academic research in the region often operates with Herderian concepts which essentialize identities along the ethnic lines.

An intriguing detail of the work of CASE in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine is the dominance of Russian as lingua franca. First of all, Russian is the language shared by all in the best possible way. As far as not all participants are fluent in English but are in Russian, the choice made by the organizers to use Russian as formal working language is rational and creates an effective space for communication. Second, there is a discursive academic field outside of Russia which is Russian-speaking; it would be shortsighted to ignore it. Third, the debates in the Russian language are linked to discourses intertwined with the debates inside the Russian academia.

As a result of this language perception we have a double twist in the post-colonial situation: theoretically defined as the region between Russia and the European Union the CASE program confronts scholars who submit to the Western Superiority. Given the broad range of issues covered by CASE, this approach led to a specific situation when scholars from Sumy or Gomel were expected to come to Vilnius in order to receive their grants but they also needed to attend Western scholars’ lectures. I was invited to teach at CASE in 2012; I remember how post-Soviet scholars who were 10-15 years older then me listened to my ideas which represent the education I gained in Germany and Great Britain. Of course, in this approach CASE is not alone: the asymmetrical relations between “indigenous” academic practices and Anglophone Western discourses are at the core of academia today. Such post-colonial asymmetry as represented by Russian lingua franca became obvious during the CASE project. While Russian scholars were not eligible for the support program, as well as few Russian scholars were invited to give lectures at CASE (probably because there are similar CASE programs in the Russian Federation) the work of the support program showed clearly that the humanities discourses about the region in historical, economical, legal and political branches of post-soviet academia still have and will have the Russian nexus which still links the anticipated borderlands as the periphery to the former imperial center.

This year CASE conference was under the strong impact of the Ukrainian crisis. Colleagues from Donetsk, Odessa, Kharkiv, Vinnitsa, Kiev and Lviv told us about the first months of 2014 and underlined that “academia in crisis” is not a metaphor of some dilemmas in the humanities; it is the challenge to continue academic work in times of growing political instability, economic uncertainty, and institutional weaknesses. After twenty years of shifting away from the Soviet practices today we know that there will be no easy shifts towards any model produced in the West or Russia. At the same time, we have to state that very few scholars follow up attempts to create something different in the region itself; there is a strong need to find material and non-material support outside their own communities. We simply do not know how things will develop in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. This was an important insight of this years conference: the attempt to find a language to described what happened in Ukraine during the Euro-Majdan in earlier 2014 and also to understand what is going on today in the East of Ukraine. One of the Ukrainian participants put it: “Help us to find a new language to describe, what happens!” For Moldova and Belarus the experiences of their Ukrainian colleagues were not just mere stories about the aftermath of a revolution; they are accounts of what might happen in their societies under different circumstances. What remains is the individual need to find strategies to do meaningful work in times of academia in crisis. Our colleagues in Eastern Europe are not alone in this.


Felix Ackermann, Ph.D., Visiting DAAD Associate Professor of Applied Humanities, European Humanities University (Vilnius).


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