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Ukraine: Beyond the Postsoviet

The war is shaped by global neoliberalism, sexism, and racism—not just Cold War dynamics. Only by understanding Eastern Europe beyond the old dichotomies of the free West versus the authoritarian East can we begin to grasp the war’s significance.

Kharkiv skyline before Russian invasion.,Image: Viktor O. Ledenyov // Boston Review

“Russians and Ukrainians actually understand each other well. That is perhaps the . . . saddest irony of this perverse, unnecessary war,” writes Ukrainian journalist Natalyia Gumenyuk. “We know each other’s mentalities. We understand each other’s languages. We share a Soviet past.” Gumenyuk’s comparison underscores how different two such seemingly similar countries can be.

 

The two countries’ commonalities have perplexed and misled many foreign commentators. J. D. Vance, of Hillbilly Elegy (2016) fame, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez share little in the way of politics, but they initially agreed that the war in Ukraine does not warrant U.S. military intervention. It’s nothing more than Eastern Europeans fighting other Eastern Europeans—a localized conflict—they seemed to think. Though they’ve both subsequently changed their opinions, their brief accord highlights how Western misunderstanding of Ukraine have at times created strange bedfellows.

It certainly has not helped that reporting on the war is dominated by white, mostly male faces from the West. There are very few foreign names, even fewer accents. If Ukrainians are interviewed, they are usually cast in the roles of tearful, frightened witnesses. They are rarely shown as experts in their own history. Among those rendered invisible by this are the millions of Eastern Europeans who arrived in the West during postsocialist waves of migration, which have far exceeded the small number who arrived as refugees in the 1980s. These earlier groups were celebrated because their narratives about the traumas of socialism ticked certain boxes in the context of the Cold War. Yet newer migrants, brought to the West by the tremendous shocks suffered by Eastern European societies once opened to neoliberal capitalism, have been largely ignored.

Thanks in no small part to these silences, a great misunderstanding about the war has gone largely unchecked, namely that it is simply internecine, a sequel to the Cold War that plays out simmering resentments dating from the time of the USSR. In reality, Eastern Europe has been shaped by global forces as much as any region around the world: neoliberal capitalism, patriarchal authoritarianism and other forms of sexism, racism, and global migration (contoured by all the preceding) are deeply entangled in the roots of this war. And only by understanding Eastern Europe beyond the old dichotomies of the free West versus the authoritarian East can we begin to grasp the war’s significance and imagine new solidarities.

And while the conflict is playing out in national terms—while transnational entities such as the EU and NATO hover in the background—it is critical to think of this war in the context of Eastern Europe as a region. In what follows, I revisit a time when I experienced Eastern Europe as a world of its own, with its own rules and themes and limitations. In 2000, approximately a decade after the end of socialism, I attended the Foros Summer Institute in Kharhiv, Ukraine, at a time when both Russia and Ukraine were still open to new things from the West, and intellectuals, after years of censorship, were trying to enter a dialogue with their Western colleagues. Twenty years later, in spite of economic and military alliances, Eastern Europe is still not the West and not the Third World either, and it experiences the problems of the global world in its own way.

The taxi swerved to avoid a car coming from the opposite direction, its lights blinding us for a moment. I tried to look at my watch and guess how long we had until our arrival. Were we even headed the right way? Had we gotten lost? There was no way to tell. The road had changed from a two-lane highway outside of Simferopol, partially lit, to a narrower road framed by woods. I had known that the trip would last more than an hour. I had not anticipated that it would be in complete darkness. I had no reason to mistrust the taxi driver, but I could not communicate with him either. He did not speak English, Romanian, French, or even German. I did not speak Russian or Ukrainian. It was the summer of 2000, before cell phones. I was in a foreign country whose language I did not speak, on a deserted road, at night, in a car driven by a man I did not know. I kept telling myself that I was no more likely to be abducted at night than during the day. The idea offered little comfort.

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I finally saw a cluster of lights, which turned out to be a street, and a tall building in the near distance. The driver pulled over and helped me with my bags. We walked through a garden on a winding path lit by decorative lanterns. I could hear the waves not too far off. I breathed in the Black Sea’s breeze. I had arrived at my destination, the Fourth Foros Summer Institute for Gender Studies.

The Institute was organized in Foros, a Crimean resort town on the Black Sea, by the Kharkiv Center for Gender Studies, with the help of a MacArthur Foundation grant, in an effort to establish gender studies as an academic discipline in post-Soviet countries. The institute took place every year for more than ten years, between 1997 and 2008. It encouraged faculty across Eastern Europe to teach gender studies courses and organize academic centers. The Kharkiv center published a magazine and a book series, and circulated syllabi developed by summer school attendees. I had started a women’s studies center at my own alma mater, and was, in fact, in transition after a year I had spent at the Central European University, in Budapest, a blissful time spent reading everything I wanted, as for the first time I had access to a U.S. library. I was expecting to find community at the Summer Institute. I got so much more.

No one had ever thought of me as both Western and Romanian at the same time, but that is exactly what happened that summer. Most attendees were from former Soviet republics—Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Belarus—and those of us from outside of the post-Soviet space were seen as different in a positive way. My colleagues exchanged looks of approval if I shared a bar of chocolate or cigarettes. There were three other students from outside the post-Soviet space, two young scholars from the Czech Republic, whose elegant English I envied, and my roommate Tania, with whom I became fast friends. She told me that she taught a subject that was twice inexistent: Yugoslav economics. It was in the aftermath of the Balkan wars.

The vestiges of the socialist past were evident in the hotel’s Brutalist architecture and furnishings, which could be described as socialist nice. The hotel’s balconies, which overlooked the Black Sea, were wide enough to accommodate not only a table and chairs, but a bed as well, so that one could fall asleep outside, to the sound of waves. The hotel had a sanatorium, which reminded me of the socialist era vacations I took with my grandparents, and some services, such as mud wraps, water massages, and mineral baths were complimentary if one had a referral from a doctor. During socialism, my grandparents and parents and almost everyone I knew had gone to sanatoriums and enjoyed such treatments, usually paid for by their unions. The sanatorium doctor gave me a referral, and I sunk into the hotel’s mineral bath.

The academics who attended the summer school were mostly early career or still graduate students, as I was—sociologists and historians and economists. They came from Tbilisi and St. Petersburg, Kharkiv and Moscow. The languages of the conference were Russian and English, and there was a lecture every morning and a discussion in the afternoon. In a room cooled by the sea breeze, some of us sat on the floor, others perched on chairs and sofas, fanning ourselves on hot days with the xeroxed copies of the articles we had to read. We had access to a copy machine and a library and a printer, and we received books and bound collections of essays, none of which our home institutions could afford in most cases.

Some of the scholars who taught the seminars had been associated with Women in Black, the loose network of peace activists that had protested the occupation of Palestine and the war in former Yugoslavia. Nationalism and its patriarchal underpinnings, we understood, were the enemies—a fitting message given the complicated histories of our region. I remember a long debate, filled with laughter, about the supposed feats of masculinity of nationalist leaders like Slobodan Milošević, Vladimir Putin (then in his first presidency), and Franjo Tuđman. Women sent them love letters and naked photos of themselves, we learned. Was that an improvement over the revolutionary love we had had to feel for socialist leaders, “fathers” of our nations? The discussion continued over drinks at dinnertime, and we laughed and smoked cigarettes, and, although not all of us spoke the same language—some knew English, others Russian or Ukrainian, plus a handful of other languages—it became clear that there were many historical experiences that we had in common.

Twenty years later, Eastern Europe has been divided several times: some countries have joined the European Union, others NATO, others have remained on the periphery of these spaces. Although Crimea was annexed in 2014, the Foros Sanatorium still accepts bookings. Feminists in Ukraine have continued their work. There are now women’s studies center at all major universities. In Russia, however, dissent has been squashed, as the members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot learned when they protested Putin’s tight connection with the Orthodox Church.

Thirty years of global neoliberal capitalism have also engendered an unprecedented accumulation of wealth, especially by white men. At no time in history has the wealth of the planet been concentrated in such a small number of pale-skinned, male hands. Not all these men appear interested in conjoining their enormous wealth with political power, but it is a matter of luck and disposition: today they’re launching a rocket manned by astronauts wearing tuxedo-style costumes, tomorrow they might resolve to use media to sow their most outlandish fantasies in the hearts of millions. Today they’re building yachts the size of natural formations for their girlfriends, tomorrow they might decide to invade a country of 40 million people. Who could stop them?

Of course, there have been, in the past, dictators who have amassed uncontrollable power over their subjects, and there have been men with unimaginable wealth accumulated via the suffering of many. But the sheer size of our contemporary oligarchs’ riches makes any kind of comparison with the past irrelevant. And yet they are human beings, we need to remind ourselves, aging men of fickle disposition, petty, whiny, manipulative but not necessarily wise after all. Yet their whims can destroy the lives of millions.

Putin’s actions can only be properly contextualized as being those of one of these oligarchs. Although his personal wealth is well hidden, it may exceed $200 billion, which would make him one of the top three wealthiest men on the planet. As such, Putin is not so much a product of some sort of an authoritarian past, nor simply of the legacy of communism, which after all ended thirty years ago. He is as much or more a product of neoliberal capitalism and his actions can be read as continuous with its logic of accumulation.

Never since Nicolae Ceaușescu’s final moments has a dictator sounded so unhinged, so deluded, so at war with reality. In December 1989, Ceaușescu insisted that foreign agents were manipulating an otherwise compliant population, who wanted nothing but socialism and his leadership—while workers were protesting his rule right outside the balcony where he delivered his last discourse. Nothing pierced his conviction—even, apparently, being brought in front of the execution squad. Nothing will pierce Putin’s baroque ideas about drug addicts, Nazis, and sexual deviants supposedly threatening the Russian border—nor the universal excuse for war, invented aggression by the other side.

In the same way, we must recognize that this is not a Russian war, this is Putin’s war. The nonprofit watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks Russia 150 out of 180 for freedom of press. And yet close to 6,000 people have been arrested in Russia at protests against the war. The daily Novaya Gazeta (New Gazette) published last week’s Friday edition in Ukrainian in an act of defiance, and Putin warned its editor in chief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, that international awards would not protect him. Russian feminists have also called for resistance to war, outlining how war affects mostly civilians and women.

After all, the wealthy always have ways to avoid the war’s dangers. Rich Ukrainians have been able to leave their country on private jets; they may well already have multiple citizenships and will not need refugee status anywhere. On the other side, it is poor Russians who fill the ranks of the army, from families without resources or connections, who could not avoid the compulsory military service. The inflation created by U.S. sanctions, which the Biden administration hopes will somehow affect Russian oligarchs, has already started wreaking havoc in the lives of ordinary Russians. Ordinary Ukrainians are escaping their sieged country on foot, carrying their belongings in their hands.

A class analysis was something that was surprisingly not present in our minds at the Foros Summer School. We discussed women’s history, the sociology of gender, post-structuralist and feminist theory, and read women authors such as Croatian feminist Slavenka Drakulić. Yet poverty, one experience that we all shared, was never discussed. Neither was the economic transformation taking place in our countries. We did not have a critique of neoliberalism, although we were its frontline victims.

My dream then was to travel to the West, live in Paris let’s say, or London, visit Cologne and Copenhagen, Milan and Barcelona. Lack of money never allowed it to be more than a dream—and even if I’d had the money, I did not have a visa, and at the time I needed one to travel to the West. My Eastern European colleagues were all broke. We struggled to pay our bills on meager salaries, reading post-structuralist theory from xeroxed copies shared by generous Western colleagues. As often happens for the poor, we became obsessed with hopes offered by occult economies. Friends would try the most outlandish schemes, and suddenly for a while someone would make money, nobody knowing exactly how and everyone trying to find out. But most who tried these get-rich-quick schemes ended up even worse off, having lost their savings and sometimes their homes.

On one of the last days of the Foros Summer School, we took a trip to Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea. I was walking down a sunny street leading to the Maritime Museum, in the old part of town, yellow leaves on the ground announcing the fall: that street, with its crumbling facades, could have been anywhere, from Split to Tartu, from Prague to St. Petersburg. Under socialism, it had been a vestige of the past, one we did not care much about—socialism had built modern, comfortable apartment buildings after all. After its fall, such streets had become symbols of our inescapable poverty; if only we could repair them, then we’d reconnect with the glory of our presocialist past, and our cities would look like the West. But that afternoon, I saw their wistful, imperfect poetry. Like us, they were witnesses.

It turned out that I did not have a full-time position waiting for me upon my return to Romania. By October, I had settled into a routine of three part-time gigs: managing a project on domestic violence, teaching part-time at the university, and translating. Doing so, I was able to cobble together the equivalent of U.S. $150. This is not a post-factum translation for U.S. readers; it is indeed how we made sense of our incomes back then. After several years of runaway inflation, the government diminished the value of the leu 10,000 fold, making the Romanian currency too unstable and then too incomprehensible to think in.

My income was average, not too bad according to the Romanian standards of that time, although each of the jobs demanded more time than I had initially thought, more like a fulltime position except for the paycheck. I barely had any time to sleep. I remember going to the supermarket and feeling helpless as half my salary went to yogurt, bread, pasta, and apples. At the end of the month, I had to borrow money—but then, I reasoned, so did everyone else.

And still, at the time, Romanians were earning far more than their colleagues out East, be they Russians or Ukrainians. Georgians, I had learned, lived off the equivalent of $15 a month, and there was electricity for only a few hours a day.

“You mean $50?” I remember asking.

“No, $15,” the woman answered.

The year was 2000. By then it had been a decade since socialism ended in all our countries. There were few reasons to imagine that improvement was still on the way.

I started sending applications to U.S. universities that had doctoral programs in women’s studies. I was not interested in anything else. A couple of months after I mailed four thick applications, a brief email arrived at my Yahoo address: I had been accepted as a graduate student in a doctoral program and I was going to receive a teaching assistantship for four years. The message was signed by an American professor: in sisterhood, she said. I wanted to be grateful, but I could not image any kind of equality that could overcome the difference between our statuses, whether in terms of freedom of movement, power, or wealth.

At that time, I also did not yet understand Eastern Europeans’ precarious grip on whiteness, and how it left us wedged in a complicated middle space of power and lack thereof. Now, I realize that the war in Ukraine, and the West’s reaction to it, simply cannot be understood without reflecting on the role of race. Scholars have coined various names for racialized categories adjacent to whiteness, but perhaps the simplest way to understand the racial paradox represented by Eastern Europeans is to understand that we are white but not Western. This whiteness is perhaps most visible when wielded as a cudgel against the Romani, a Ukrainian ethnic minority who have a long and painful history of being exploited, including half a millennium of slavery, in the region.

And yet, non-Western status shows our powerlessness throughout the world. “Relatively civilized,” “relatively European,” opines Charlie D’Agata on CBS News, and this extraordinary statement, for which he has apologized, shows us bluntly the global hierarchies unfolding under Western eyes. On the one hand, “civilized” and “European,” more “like us” (Westerners) than people of color from other parts of the globe. The Syrian refugee crisis, for example, received a very different press only a few years back. On the other hand, Eastern European countries are perceived as only “relatively” civilized, only “relatively” European. Only in comparison with others—people of color, people of other religions—can Ukrainians be recognized as acceptable to the West, and then it will be in some sort of subservient position.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s statement that Ukraine is fighting to be “equal members of Europe” is rather unlikely to come to fruition, even if Ukraine’s membership in the European Union is miraculously fast-tracked. Judging by the experience of other former socialist nations, even joining the European Union has not necessarily resulted in prosperity, and most Eastern European countries have experienced successive waves of outmigration. It is rather common for Eastern European families to have members living in three or four different countries, a further dissolution of community ties that began with the end of socialism. Only a small number of Polish and Romanian citizens have reaped significant economic benefits from the European Union; many remain impoverished. The ability to work abroad might have mitigated the worst effects of poverty, yet it has resulted in a brain drain, as Eastern European countries are losing their doctors and nurses to the West, which has not invested in their education. In the European Union, Eastern European workers are still viewed as undesirable, second- or third-class citizens, even though they are necessary to the local economies. At the height of the pandemic, Romanian agricultural workers were airlifted to Germany to work on farms in unsanitary, unsafe conditions.

Thus, the answer to this war is not to go back to using expressions such as “the free world” uncritically. Just as Putin is not only a product of postsocialism but also, and perhaps principally, of rapacious neoliberalism, Ukraine is not only a postsocialist country, it is also a part of global migration circuits. Among the refugees fleeing the country are not only Ukrainians and Romani, but also Indian students and Black Ukrainians of various backgrounds. The old framework of East versus West does not account for racialized experiences, nor for the measure of white privilege some Ukrainians can hope to acquire while others cannot. Yet only by accounting for race, for the way racialized language ranks experiences and pain and measures who, specifically, via their proximity to whiteness, is worthy of compassion, can we move toward true democracy, one that can be experienced regardless of skin color and nation of origin.

On Sunday, February 27, Kharkiv, with its thirty-eight universities and its forward-thinking gender studies centers, was attacked by Russians with rocket launchers. Civilians are no match for a professional army.

From Eastern Europe’s historical experience of second-class citizenship, of non-Western whiteness, and of poverty under neoliberal capitalism, a new form of solidarity should emerge, one that connects with impoverished people and people of color everywhere, from the First World to the Third. Rather than asking for whiteness, which will only be granted provisionally and partially, or “civilization,” whatever that means, from the margins, we can draw on our memories of socialism to demand an end to the rule of oligarchs around the world, an end to neoliberal capitalism, and true democracy and freedom for all.

[Ileana Nachescu is a writer and a scholar. She grew up in socialist Romania and came of age during the uprising that ended state socialism in her country and the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. She came to the United States as an international graduate student and completed a doctorate in women’s studies. Her essays have appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, the Rumpus, the Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a full-length collection, Memoirs of a Socialist Childhood.]