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

The Humanities and Democratization in Post-Soviet Lands: IAH-MAG forum in Kyiv, October 30-31, 2014

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30-31 октября 2014 г. в Киеве состоялся семинар МАГ «Гуманитарные науки и демократизация на постсоветском пространстве: что сделано, что не сделано и что делать дальше». В семинаре приняли участие ученые из Беларуси, России, Украины и США; их доклады публиковались в журнале “The Bridge-MOCT”. Семинар показал важность таких междисциплинарных и межнациональных форумов как для развития гуманитарного знания, так и для самоорганизации академии. Одним из важных результатов прошедшего семинара стало решение о проведении в партнерстве с ASEEES совместной конференции во Львове летом 2016 г. Подробности представлены ниже в отзыве о семинаре члена совета МАГ Анжея Тымовского.


As we know, the changes in the 1990s following the implosion of the USSR broke down barriers and released great hopes. Humanities scholars were affected as much as everyone else.  New initiatives in the humanities blossomed, along with new media, prompting new research topics and approaches. One of the new initiatives was the Carnegie/ACLS Humanities Program in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine (1998-2012), which distributed research grants to encourage and enable humanities scholars to continue their research in exigent economic times (758 research grants over 13 years). In 2007 the Program’s grant recipients and advisers established a new association, MAG, to consolidate and extend the international community of scholars that came to life as a result of the Program’s peer review process and annual meetings for grantees’ work-in-progress.

MAG sponsored the forum in October 2014 to cast a look back at the previous two decades of great hopes. What happened? What did not happen? Regarding MAG, what lessons were learned about the role of humanists in the public sphere and about elements of civil society in academic communities? How does this affect MAG’s mission in the next two decades?

The forum was a lively event. Speakers expressed strong opinions and substantiated them with their experiences. They had been invited to the forum based on essays they submitted in response to a Call for Papers from the organizers.

I am one of those organizers. My perspective is that of an insider-outsider. I have been closely involved with MAG since its pre-history in the Humanities Program in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. But I am not a scholar from, or even of, that region. I mention this not as a disclaimer, but because I think my position gives me the empathy of a participant as well as a certain objectivity.

The geopolitical context

The forum took place in an atmosphere of crisis. Early in 2014, the pro-European encampment on the maidan had forced a corrupt president to abdicate. New elections buoyed the popular mood, but exhilaration soon dissipated with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the eruption of open warfare in Ukraine’s eastern regions. The fighting had temporarily subsided by October 30-31, but on the streets of Kyiv, foreboding was palpable.  The site of the forum, the Budynok Vchenykh [the historic Scholars’ Building of the Academy of Science], was an oasis of calm, but the meeting room’s lack of heat signaled that the coming winter would not be a gentle one. The satisfaction participants felt and freely expressed at the opportunity to see and talk to their colleagues was as evident as their anxiety about the political situation.

For all these reasons, the international character of the forum was a clear gesture of solidarity with Ukraine. Russians, Belarusians, and Americans came to Kyiv as colleagues to talk about the fate of the humanities. Nikolai Vakhtin, Humanities Program adviser, MAG council member, and former Rector of the European University in St. Petersburg, put it bluntly, and beautifully, when he said: “Some of my friends in St. Petersburg were astounded, even worried, that I planned to travel to Kyiv. When I return to Piter, I will tell them I spent my time with a group of delightful, world-wise intellectuals – an experience I found both productive and pleasurable!”

Beyond symbolic solidarity, important practical points

I cannot give a detailed account of the forum sessions in this short piece. Let me only mention two salient points:

  1. an analysis of attempts at self-organization by academic communities in the session on “Civil Society in the Post-Soviet Academic Community”;
  2. a provocative question “Why are Russians so anti-Ukrainian?” posed by Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva of St. Petersburg State University in her presentation “On the Problems of Ukraine Studies in Russia.”

In the session on “Civil Society in the Post-Soviet Academic Community,” speakers reviewed the current state of their disciplines and unsentimentally noted a worrisome lack of critical thinking. Although complaints and criticisms are commonplace, there is very little deep critical analysis challenging fundamental assumptions, not only of opponents, but also of one’s own. Most research, the speakers commented, even in “new” communities of scholarship, mostly aims to “fulfill the parameters” mandated by the funder. Open-ended, curiosity-driven scholarly investigations are rare. Panelists called for research to pursue opportunities that arise, no matter where they might lead.

Andrei Mikhailov, from the Volga Region Federal University in Kazan, a former grant recipient of the Carnegie/ACLS Humanities Program, speaking on “‘The Time of Changes’ in Russian Scholarship: Is there room for civil society?” complained that, when historians at his university tried new approaches, such as social history or the history of everyday life, they were told not to waste time on interpretations but to concentrate only on “what really happened.”

Aliaksei Bratachkin, from the Center of European Studies in Minsk, in his talk, “Belarusian Historians Today: Problems of academic knowledge in a problematic social context,” noted that historians in Belarus, whether they oppose or support the current regime, all agree that independence was a key factor in the developments of 1990s. But they rarely problematize independence – what does it mean, how can its quality and authenticity be judged? Bratachkin went on to say that many have criticized the dominance of the old terminology, even of the Russian language. But, surely, it is not outdated academic jargon, still less the Russian language, that constrains the flow of fresh ideas and methodologies. He insisted that the real obstacles were old methods and approaches. Momentous though the collapse of the Soviet Union was, it failed to eliminate the old mentalities.

Olga Plakhotnik, the National Space University in Kharkiv, speaking on “How Have Gender Studies Changed the Ukrainian Academic Sphere and Ukrainian Society,” began with good news.  Gender studies is now legitimate. Many scholars (especially younger ones) attend conferences on gender topics, and write articles and books. However, and here came the bad news, there are currently no degree programs in Ukraine based solely on Gender Studies. She expressed concern that much research in this field tends to limit itself to biological facts and problems in the workplace, that is, to gender mainstreaming.

Echoing her two colleagues, Plakhotnik called for a more critical approach, one ready to examine assumptions and not just to apply ready-made formulas that come from abroad. Libraries at Gender Studies centers are filled with free publications circulated by NGOs; there is need for more locally-produced books that address Ukrainian problems and perspectives. She appealed not for criticizing Gender Studies, but for improving the quality of its scholarship.

A practical point of an entirely different sort, anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia, was raised by Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva in her talk on the problems of Ukraine Studies in Russia. The basic problem, she said, was the low level of knowledge in Russia about Ukraine. There are no good histories of Ukraine in Russian, and, as far as we know, no histories at all which treat Ukrainian history as the prelude to an independent state. Russian students also cannot read Ukrainian.

Beyond that, instruction is poor, even in history courses on the Soviet Union, because those are often taught by people who formerly taught the history of the KPSS (Communist Party of the Soviet Union). For their part, students do not demand better teaching. They have only a hazy conception of what life was like in Soviet times. They ask “How could people back then have been so stupid?”

Tairova-Yakovleva bemoaned the fact that despite better access to the relevant archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg since the 1990s, they are not much used for research on Ukraine.  While it is true that some Russian scholars are interested in the subject, (a few of them even accept Mazepa as not so horrible…), there are no joint Russian-Ukrainian projects, nor is there funding for them.

What, then, really changed?

First, judging by the forum participants, people changed. In the forum sessions, there was no lack of critical thinking and no willful ignorance about each other’s societies.  Speakers represented a new generation of scholars, well aware of the research that can be done and needs to be done, and of the obstacles to be overcome. For this generation, high quality scholarship is possible. Despite the encrusted old attitudes and bureaucratic restrictions, there are aspiranty, supervisors of aspiranty, university lecturers, and independent researchers committed to quality. They are willing to consider new approaches from abroad, but will not agree to transplant them uncritically into their own work.

The change in people is powerful evidence for the enormous impact of the last two decades. Forum participants – and their colleagues who are Humanities Program grant recipients and members of MAG – are clearly better prepared for scholarship than were their predecessors. They know foreign languages; they have studied and taught in other countries; they are quite well-read in new theoretical and analytical approaches. Just as important, they are not burdened by the past as are some of their elders. They are not weighed down by an uncritical pride in the great traditions of scholarship they have inherited, which often comes with resentment that those traditions are not sufficiently recognized in western countries.

My long experience as an insider-outsider convinces me that this forum could not have taken place twenty years ago, perhaps not even ten years ago. Back then, the intensity of insight and concern was not widespread. For this reason alone, gathering humanists from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to discuss critical issues in the humanities and democratization was itself an important achievement.

A second change is the growth of new initiatives and informal groups. They are green shoots breaking through the heavy layer of bureaucratic rules and old mentalities. Small affinity groups of philosophers, historians, and gender studies researchers, internet bulletins and internet archives, are today dotting the landscape of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. They face the problems of all voluntary associations. Volunteer labor can work wonders, but this energy is difficult to sustain.  Hence the importance of support for the Kyiv forum by the International Renaissance Foundation and the Batory Foundation, and the support for the Humanities Program of grants by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Discussion at the forum demonstrated the need for informal, intellectual sociability. Not just for the critical self-examination of a given field, not just for the opportunity to speak in the public sphere, but to inspire and guide better research and writing. Scholarship is a lonely enterprise that requires nurturing in the form of feedback from well-informed, independent-minded colleagues. Concepts and conclusions presented in the form of texts must be tested and cross-fertilized in mutually respectful exchanges.

What should we do now?

1.  Humanities in the public sphere:

In these times of volatile geopolitical uncertainty, it is crucial that the academic community speak in the public sphere. Nikolai Vakhtin raised this issue in the opening session of the forum, prompting intense responses on the role of public intellectuals, on whether expertise in scholarship legitimates one’s political opinions, and on whether the current state of the public sphere allows space for independent intellectuals. Opinions varied, but there was general agreement that humanists can, and indeed should, provide valuable information to unmask the pretensions and misrepresentations of political rhetoric.  Moreover, speaking to the public has a salutary performative impact, because it calls for and exemplifies open dialogue on hard questions. At its best, academic dialogue is both unsparing in its pursuit of truth and based on respect for others’ opinions.  Rigorous analysis, openness, and respect, the hallmarks of genuine dialogue, are prerequisites for the civil, civic debate so urgently needed today.

To achieve these goals, “The Bridge-MOCT”, the online periodical published by MAG,has become indispensable. “The Bridge-MOCT” circulates information, interviews, and short substantive pieces in four languages. Scholars compare notes on research in progress and on their professional concerns, as well as expressing their views on democratization, freedom of speech, and civil society initiatives in the academic community.

2.  Historically accurate, culturally sensitive information about other societies:

Given the disturbing low level of knowledge in the region about each other’s countries, humanities scholars should take the lead in cooperative studies that will not only look at others but also look at themselves through others’ eyes.  Research on the region, its histories, cultures, and societies, is the place to start. Joint research projects should be the goal. The results will be useful for academic purposes and, as such, will help ground popularizations in solid knowledge. There should be more Russian-language books on Ukraine and on Belarus by competent scholars with independent perspectives; more Ukrainian-language books on Russia and on Belarus, etc. “The Bridge-MOCT” can serve as clearinghouse for news of joint projects, translations, meetings, etc. MAG should promote joint research projects in its various grant programs and conferences.

3.  MAG and MOCT as a bridgework for developing relationships among scholars, informally and in gatherings like the Forum:

Speakers at the forum highlighted the importance of local groups. Associating with other humanities scholars who are working on similar topics, or are using similar approaches, or who simply need to exchange ideas with independent-minded colleagues in an increasingly anti-humanistic environment, provides much-needed support to individuals who otherwise work in isolation. This is surely the experience of scholars worldwide. In Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, political pressures make mutual support among peers all the more urgent.

Individuals can seek intellectual comradeship at independent universities and NGOs. However, those are few, and they are preoccupied with larger institutional objectives.  Local initiatives serve collegiality much better. They are more spontaneous, can react more quickly, and move more freely across disciplinary, institutional, and national borders.

MAG should champion the value of local, voluntary associations. It should explicitly define itself as a federation of local initiatives, letting them and their participants know they are not alone. Given the tensions that are certain to continue in the region, MAG is the only regional scholarly association able to maintain serious dialogue and collaboration among humanists within Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, as well as with their colleagues in other world areas. Just as the ACLS/Carnegie grants program provided a new generation of regional scholars with funds to remain in academia, and successfully brought imaginative new work and new people into scholarly institutions resistant to change, so MAG continues to assure that physical and political barriers to association, collaboration, mutual support, and shared respect can be bridged.

In this regard, the online journal, MOCT, is an important platform of communication and exchange. Indeed, MOCT is more than a bridge – it is a network of bridges, as Yevhen Bystrystky of the International Renaissance Foundation has suggested.

These three recommendations comprise a working definition of “civil society in the academic community”: the will and competence for speaking in the public sphere, the promotion of cooperative research across borders, and the support for informal, voluntary associations. A critical issue for everyone with a stake in the future of the region is whether these vital initiatives can find the support they need to continue. If civil society as such is to survive, it needs the engagement of the humanities community. Our energies and resources should be mustered in its support.

A prospective joint convention

Prospects for future activity were bolstered by the decision in November 2014 of the ASEEES Board of Directors to partner with MAG in organizing a joint summer convention in Lviv, hosted by the Ukrainian Catholic University and tentatively scheduled for summer 2016. The precise wording of the theme for this mini-convention has not yet been determined, but it will involve the benefit gained by all engaged in scholarship on the region by looking at ourselves through others’ eyes, and at how different scholarly environments affect our perspectives. Judging by the energy generated by the Kyiv forum, we can hope for a robust attendance by scholars from the region, if adequate funding can be obtained.

The success of the Lviv summer convention, and the prospects beyond that of the International Association of Humanists (MAG), are largely in our hands. MAG’s mission and objectives are not threatened by contentious geopolitics. On the contrary, MAG represents the best vehicle for humanistic scholars to address such problems. The prospects of the humanities, both in terms of innovative, independent-minded scholarship, as well as in terms of engaging with the public sphere, depend on our ability to mobilize our energies and resources.

On to Lviv in summer 2016!


Andrzej W. Tymowski, IAH-MAG Board Member, Director of International Programs at American Council of Learned Societies.


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