Some historians call 1913 “the last good year” of the twentieth century, the year before the Great War and the Russian Revolution set in motion horrific consequences for nations and millions of people. Will future generations look back on 2013 as the last year of relative calm and stability at the beginning of the twenty-first century? The year 2014 has already brought much unrest in Ukraine and throughout the former USSR. These are bad omens for the future. The revolution on Kiev’s Maidan, the abdication of a corrupt president, the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, and the near-civil war in Eastern Ukraine have shown how historical narratives are used in political struggles to divide neighbors from each other and to provoke violence. Beyond that, throughout the region, national myths are are being re-written to justify authoritarian laws against press liberties, against civil society initiatives, and against academic freedom.
In early 2013, when IAH started to plan a seminar on the humanities and democratization, we could not imagine that today the topic would be so timely. The IAH seminar planned for 2013 asked contributors to look back over the last two decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union raised the hopes of humanities scholars for new conditions for teaching and research. Were these hopes realized in the two decades that followed? It seemed important to take stock of what happened, and what failed to happen, as a guide for what to do next. Our primary interest was to trace the fate of of new initiatives and innovative approaches in humanities teaching and research. The events in Kiev, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine in the first six months of 2014 forced us to postpone the seminar. They also gave new urgency to the topics.
The independent initiatives, new approaches, and innovations in scholarship that appeared in the last two decades find themselves today in a changed world. It is not the world of the USSR, not the period of transition to democracy, but a new social and political framework. Is it post-modern? Or post-post modern? Or is the pre-postmodern, in the form of a new authoritarianism menacing the region again? Does history matter? How? Does the choice of language in teaching and research matter? Does it matter more than it did in 2013 or the years leading to it?
The Seminar will take place in Kiev on October 30-31, 2014. It is not a seminar in political science or in international relations. No one thinking or speaking or writing in Belarus, Russia, or Ukraine today can ignore politics, but our chief focus is the impact the two decades prior to 2013 and the six months following it have had on humanities teaching and research. What can the new initiatives do in the current conditions to maintain academic integrity and standards of quality? What has happened to freedom of inquiry? And perhaps most important, what can humanities scholarship now offer in order for us to better understand the recent shifts in the region’s socio-cultural and socio-political environments, and hence, perhaps, to better inform others through our individual scholarship and collective initiatives, such as IAH’s electronic newsletter “The Bridge-MOCT”?