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March 1, 2012 10:23 am

Ukrainian Academic Freedom and Democracy Under Siege

avatar by Per Anders Rudling and Jared McBride

The Maidan Nezalezhnosti square in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: wiki commons.

It has been a sad and disturbing week for democracy and academic freedom in Ukraine. A scholar has been harassed and intimidated during a visit to the country, and Serhii Kvit, the rector of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (or NaUKMA), has tried to close a scholarly center at the university.

Historian Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe was scheduled to lecture in three cities under the auspices of the German embassy, DAAD, and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The Polish native is completing a doctoral thesis titled “Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Fascist (1909-2009)” at the University of Hamburg. His research on Bandera and the Ukrainian right has appeared in a number of peer-reviewed journals.

The lecture tour aimed to have Rossolinski-Liebe discuss his research at academic centers in L’viv, Dnipropetrovs’k, and Kyiv and to give interviews. Yet in the week before the lectures were to be held, they were cancelled, one after another. The reasons varied. Some venues claimed that they could not sponsor “political” lectures. Others cancelled without providing an explanation. It is clear that some were threatened by ultra-nationalist groups and became the target of vocal protests by the right-wing party Svoboda. Given the fear of violence, many chose to avoid confrontation. Rossolinski-Liebe himself has become a target of threats. When he arrived in Kyiv, he received an intimidating phone call at his apartment. At this moment, he is under the protection of the German embassy.

Although it would easy to blame this ugly incident on Ukraine’s radical right political parties and organizations, a full explanation is not so simple. The very popular online historical journal Istorychna Pravda (or Historical Truth) first drew attention to the lecture series with the headline “The Germans are going to tell us about Bandera, the OUN, and the UPA.” (The website has since edited the posting to something more respectable without noting the change.) The journal, which sees itself as apolitical and moderate, knew precisely what it was doing with such a headline. This type of essentialist language that reduces scholarly exchange to a matter of ethnicity is always a clarion call to radicals that Ukraine will come under attack if a foreign scholar speaks in their country. The far right certainly has responded. Svoboda described Rossolinski-Liebe as a “liberal fascist” and said that he should not be allowed to speak in this country under any circumstances. Svoboda politician Andrii Illienko published a number of essentializing blog posts and articles at the Svoboda website, equating Germans with National Socialism and eugenics. In his quasi-open forum on his Facebook account Illienko stated, “In the past, the Germans told us that we are of inferior race, that our skulls are not the right shape. Now the Germans say that we are of inferior race (today that is called ‘not real Europeans’) because we honor our heroes and do not like pederasts. I suspect that the outcome will be as tearful as last time.” He also noted gleefully that “the ground was burning under [Rossolinski-Liebe’s] feet.” Others suggested that the Hamburg historian ought to be greeted by the football hooligans of Dynamo Kyiv.

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Rossolinski-Liebe’s story also intersects with the tendentious situation at NaUKMA regarding the Visual Research Cultural Center (VCRC). The left-leaning center, which is composed of faculty and graduate and undergraduate students, has devoted itself over the years to intelligent scholarly discussion on a range of issues from art to history to social activism. Many foreign scholars have spoken at its conferences, and the center has routinely used university space for debates. Dr. Kvit, who is known in Ukraine as author of an admiring biography of the Ukrainian fascist thinker Dmytro Dontsov and as a Svoboda supporter, has long sought to silence the center because it does not reflect his brand of politics.

Because of his opinions about a recent art exhibition at the VCRC (“The Ukrainian Body”), Dr. Kvit officially shut down the center. At the time of the closing, the VCRC was in discussions with Rossolinski-Liebe about speaking in its space after another center on campus shunned him. Dr. Kvit made it to clear to the center that it would receive further rebuke if it hosted Rossolinski-Liebe. In correspondence with the center he referred to the theme of Rossolinski-Liebe’s lecture as having a “scandalous and propagandistic, and not scholarly, character,” and he even cited Istorychna Pravda as evidence to support this claim. It is interesting to note that the rector of NaUKMA believes that the University of Hamburg is in the business of producing propagandists and not scholars, and it is startling to think that activities that are commonplace on Western university campuses can serve as a reason for closure at one of Ukraine’s finest universities.

The irony of this predicament was palpable this past Monday at a protest in support of the center. As groups of students and activists amassed at the university, there was a visible contingent of Ukrainian skinheads who came to support the Dontsov biographer and his decision to censor the center and prevent Rossolinski-Liebe’s appearance. “We’re with Kvit,” they chanted. Despite efforts by local and foreign scholars, in addition to the student body, to keep it open, the center remains in very contentious negotiations with the university, which is still trying to limit its academic freedom. Like Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe, the staff members of the VCRC have received anonymous threats.

When one looks at all the criticism fired at Rossolinski-Liebe and the VCRC it is difficult to find anything resembling a scholarly argument. Asked about the sources Rossolinski-Liebe employs, Illienko retorted that this does not matter, since Rossolinski-Liebe is a “primitive Ukrainophobe,” laboring under delusions and driven by phobia. The scholar Vasyl’ Rasevych has argued that Rossolinski-Liebe is not an “expert” yet and is therefore unqualified to lecture about the five-hundred page dissertation he has just written on the basis of hundreds of archival sources.

Any scholar who has lived and worked in Ukraine understands that most Ukrainians, including scholars, support academic freedom and pluralism. Ukrainians are thirsty for debate and discussion. They want to live in a country where ideas are exchanged in safe venues. Sadly, it takes only a small group of thugs to derail academic freedom. It is important to realize that the effort to intimidate scholars does not end with foreigners. Those of our Ukrainian colleagues who have had the courage to criticize certain aspects of Ukraine’s past have been threatened as well. Even more troublesome, the Ukrainians who do share democratic values are often too scared to speak up. We know how hard it is for them openly to support academic freedom. We write this letter in unflinching support of this silent majority who want to take down the sign on Ukraine’s door that reads, “Foreign scholars, stay away.

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