Breaking Russian Lens: Time to Decolonize Knowledge about Ukraine

October 13, 2023
Do you believe it's possible to colonise knowledge? The answer - a resounding yes.

Ukraine stands as a prime example, showcasing the arduous challenge it has undertaken to assert its own identity to the world, often constrained by a Russian-originated lens. However, Russia's full-scale invasion has set in motion its own global decolonization process, paving the way for Ukraine to shape its own narrative for the world to hear.

What are the current misconceptions of knowledge on Ukraine, and how can this way of thinking about Ukraine be decolonized? UkraineWorld put this question to Nadiia Koval, the Head of Research, Analytics & Academic Programmes Department​at the Ukrainian Institute.

Colonialism is a multifaceted concept characterised by fundamentally unequal relationships. The features of Russia as a colonial state still remain a matter of research, but Ukraine faces traces of colonial relations both in culture and education, particularly during war. This is especially noticeable when Ukraine puts forward its perspective on Russian aggression and when attempting to change what a number of states believe about the war.

Such manifestations are direct evidence that the Russian discourse influenced the formation of the system of knowledge about nations previously subordinated to the Russian Empire or the USSR. And it is at this point that the need to decolonize this knowledge becomes apparent.

How does the full-scale invasion affect the Russian-led perspective on Ukraine?

The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine has posed a challenge to Western political science and international relations, as it has called into question the relevance and accuracy of a large body of knowledge in the Western intellectual community about Ukraine, Russia, and the entire Eastern European region.

Over the initial eight years of the war starting in 2014, a number of intellectual conventions had been formed.

Thus, numerous interpretations of the war, its character and possible ways of resolution overemphasised close historical and cultural links between Ukraine and Russia, borrowing uncritically the ideas of the "single nation," "historical destiny to be together," deep and irreconcilable divisions in Ukrainian society, or overall failure of Ukrainian state building project.

This shifted the focus from Russian actions to a close examination of Ukraine's internal political processes and identity politics, particularly in the regions occupied in 2014.

As a result of applying this colonial optics, the common perception was that Russia would never let go of Ukraine, and Ukraine is unable to fully emancipate, so a robust deterrence policy toward Russia was pointless. Instead, the path out of the conflict appeared to rely on "reasonable" territorial and influence compromises.

However, it was discovered in 2022 that this train of thought does not explain the reality on the ground. Years of searching for compromise solutions have culminated in a full-scale invasion on a scale unseen since the Second World War. The scale of destruction of cities, cultural objects, and forced Russification of occupied regions called into question the stories of common identity and brotherhood.

The notion of an incredibly weak, corrupt, and inept Ukrainian state doomed to collapse in a matter of days collided with a fierce and much more effective resistance. All of this called into question a lot of long-held assumptions about the region, Russia, Ukraine, and their relations in particular.

The uneven presence of Ukrainian studies institutions around the world contributes to the problem.

For example, there are almost no Ukrainian studies in Africa, South America, or the majority of Southeast Asia. As a consequence, all knowledge about Ukraine and the current war, as well as subsequent political positions and decision-making, is heavily influenced by Russia-originated interpretations.

This postcolonial knowledge order, on the other hand, influences Western studies centres on Ukraine and especially the region (Slavic, Eurasian, Postcommunist studies, etc.) as well as individual researchers.

To overcome these distortions of Ukraine, it is not enough to conduct fact-checking or debunk myths.

For a true decolonization of this knowledge order its necessary to answer the questions why the intellectual community used to think about Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, or any other country from the former Russian sphere of influence in a certain way; to analyse the origins of certain misconceptions and their failure to explain the reality and challenge this conventional thinking with local data and approaches, giving voice and agency to Ukraine itself.

How the Russian perspective was imposed

On the one hand, contemporary Russia has been consciously and actively instrumentalizing its culture, education, and foreign policy priorities through vast networks of soft-power organisations around the world, which it also actively uses to sustain and justify the current aggression and its objectives, as well as to denigrate the Ukrainian resistance. This certainly helps, but it is only one part of the story.

On the other hand, there is a less obvious yet more powerful historical factor at work.

Its essence is the desire of researchers to obtain knowledge about the region, including Ukraine, from Russia, as a former imperial centre and, as a result, the centre of knowledge production, education, and valued expertise.

Researchers translated the colonial order into internal knowledge production by working with archives, sources, specialists, and narratives formed and supported by this centre.

A scenario like this, in which the imperial centre appeared to be in charge of explaining and creating knowledge about a subjugated region, was characteristic probably to all the former empires. The piling of this knowledge takes decades and even centuries.

That’s why it takes time and effort to challenge and ultimately change long-held perceptions, research traditions, sources, hypotheses, and topics of interest. And while the colonial knowledge orders formed by former Western empires are currently actively scrutinised, in the case of Russia we are only at the beginning of this road.

What steps can Ukraine take to improve the situation?

Ukraine is engaged in a variety of initiatives, dialogues, and information campaigns aimed at making Ukraine better known to the world in the short term. However, there are more long-term strategic factors that would help Ukraine bring about qualitative changes in decolonizing knowledge about itself.

First, it's better financing and supporting research about Ukraine in the world, which our country has largely failed to do up to this moment. There are a number of new initiatives, for instance, the Ukrainian Institute has launched the Lysiak-Rudnytsky program to support Ukrainian studies, but it should be on a much larger scale to generate and support a greater interest in studying and researching Ukraine.

Second, better integration of Ukrainian academic and intellectual production in the global context is critical. The problem is that Ukrainian humanitarian knowledge is still underrepresented in global knowledge production and professional communities, which gives more space to other voices.

Here we have, however, a great deal of work to do at home, from financing to research and education to ensuring research quality and fostering connections with foreign colleagues.

Therefore, there are no quick solutions in this matter: there is a need for a long-term engagement in supporting and promoting knowledge about Ukraine throughout the world.

Nadiia Koval, the Head of Research, Analytics & Academic Programmes Department​at the Ukrainian Institute