Issue 13 / July 2018
by Katja Gelinsky
The sociologist Viktoriya Sereda looks at Ukraine as a historical, linguistic, economic and political mosaic of ever-changing design
Viktoriya Sereda knows her way around interviews, knows the impertinences that can be entailed in those questions and follow-up questions of an interlocutor. The Ukrainian sociologist travels far and wide throughout her country so as to do research on it and always in quest of answers to questions that deal with existential themes such as homeland, memory, identity. She has spoken of these matters with compatriots in villages, small towns and cities, traveling to the different regions and remote areas of the country. Interwoven with these themes are experiences that have impacted the recent history of Ukraine – the Orange Revolution, Euromaidan, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, military conflict in the eastern part of the country, migration and internal displacement. Viktoriya Sereda is a professor in Lviv at the Ukrainian Catholic University, which was founded after the fall of the Soviet Union, and personally she wishes that greater heed be paid to local perspectives when people describe social developments in Ukraine as well as other countries where a large part of the population is living in small and medium-size towns. In her view the recent unforeseeable rise of support for right-wing populism in many European countries and in the United States is a reason to pay greater attention to local populations who were marginalized by sampling methods and whose mind-set and lifestyle is often insufficiently reflected in contemporary humanities and social sciences. An essential part of her sociological research is to ask personal questions; but it is far from easy to coax answers from the sociologist Viktoriya Sereda about the person Viktoriya Sereda.
She was born in 1974 in Lviv, which was then within the territory of the Soviet Union but cultivated its own urban myth due to its colorful but sometimes tragic past under many changing regimes, including imperial rule under the Habsburgs in the nineteenth century, Polish governance in the interwar period, and then under ruinous Nazi and Soviet sway – these profoundly changing the character of the city. She received her college degree in history and wished to pursue the subject in a doctoral program and forge a career in academia, but she was discouraged by the patriarchal structure which hemmed in this tradition-conscious discipline. So she went to Scotland and studied sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Now with two scholarly strings to her bow she could pursue her chosen field of research in what might be called an interdisciplinary fashion, and she was ultimately summoned back to her old university to help establish its department of sociology.
This new discipline offered more open structures and greater creative latitude. Viktoriya Sereda herself grew up in a trilingual family – she spoke Polish with her grandmother, Ukrainian with her mother, mostly Russian with her father – and so she was acculturated to a deep understanding of the historical and political variety and complexity of not only her homeland but that of her new research field: “My father was very interested in history. In the Soviet Union there were many historical topics that could not be studied or discussed publicly, but at the level of local history some issues could be researched to a certain extent. As a result, certain historians of that time turned to pre-Soviet local history as a way of escaping from the Soviet historical narrative, which was saturated with ideology. My home city Lviv – also Lvov, Lwów, Lemberg or Leopolis – was an exceptional case in the Soviet Union. Even during that period it managed to maintain a strong regional identity. The fact is that for many people like my father their interest in the city’s pre-Soviet history, when it was a multicultural metropolis, was a way of leaving behind the Soviet present. He conveyed his passion for history to me. In addition my grandmother, who had lived in the city since the early 1930s, witnessed the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust as well as repressive Stalinist policies. These issues could not be openly discussed, but certain memories were communicated in private ‘between the lines.’ And it is from this experience that I know how important the unofficial cultural memory is.”
Combating stereotypical views and patterns of thinking – this has been Viktoriya Sereda’s self-appointed scholarly task ever since. She was also involved in many other educational and research initiatives that aimed at the reform of higher education in Ukraine, such as a new research center which helped introduce gender studies into the university.
She also wishes that foreign observers would sometimes bring a more nuanced view to their reporting on Ukraine. The clichéd East-West schema propagated by the Western media fails to adequately reflect the complex reality of life in her country, for Ukraine is a historical, linguistic, economic and political mosaic of ever-changing design. Clear and vivid details of this mosaic are provided by the “Digital Atlas of Ukraine” (MAPA) which is a project of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University together with select partners in Ukraine of which Viktoriya Sereda is one. She suggests that foreign commentators on Ukraine not only take a closer look at the country but that they bring greater cultural sensitivity to their analyses. Sereda says that Ukrainian citizens are offended by the notion that they must first look to foreign actors for their political cues – citizens who during the last decade, of their own volition, twice took to the streets to protest their oppressive regime.
It is through her work on civic engagement in connection with the political protests in Ukraine that Sereda seeks to open people’s eyes to the many new activities and networks which have emerged. Numerous studies analyzing the weaknesses of civil society and democratic developments in post-communist countries focused mostly on NGOs and pointed out that they could not fulfill their task of creating greater social cooperation and that they had failed to mobilize public protests against the repressive political regimes. Sereda’s research findings indicate a need to reconsider definitions of civil society and activism. She argues that scholars of civil society and social movements tend to focus on social activism and upheavals during the revolutions in Eastern Europe and tend to overlook broader forms of activism that do not easily fit into their preconceived historical picture. Instead of focusing on specific institutionalized actors, scholars should take a closer look at the manifold ways in which people engage in seemingly mundane everyday activities that help to bring about social change and contribute to the strength of civil society.
She would most like to bring the local level out from the shadowy existence it has hitherto led: “If one only looks at the officially registered non-governmental organizations and their activities then one can easily miss the wide-ranging social engagement that takes place in the local communities.” Surveys of Euromaidan participants have shown how greatly the protest movement profited from just this form of civic engagement in both the social and cultural spheres.
Viktoriya Sereda observed a further strengthening and consolidation of Ukrainian civil society in coping with the migration and internal displacement resulting from Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the warfare in Donbas. Before the state was in a position to react, private citizens organized comprehensive help for hundreds of thousands who had lost their homeland and livelihoods. The volunteers helped in locating shelter and work, arranged for medical care, dealt with bureaucratic matters, created contact networks and set up meeting points. It is through scholarly reflection on these events that Viktoriya Sereda has made Ukrainians’ experience of the refugee movement accessible to the cross-border discourse regarding the question as to just how societies should cope with immigration and how they can absorb and integrate these immigrants. And Viktoriya Sereda’s studies do on the whole convey an encouraging picture.
The relocation of Ukraine’s internally displaced persons did not lead to any significant social conflicts. Case-control studies failed to indicate that feelings of solidarity with the newcomers were overshadowed or ousted by defensive postures the result of excessive social demands – and not even in situations where one might have expected tensions to emerge for religious reasons. As concerns Ukrainian Muslims – that is to say, Tatars who fled from the Crimean peninsula – Viktoriya Sereda says her study has shown that they consciously sought refuge in regions where the population was thought to be more religious no matter their faith (though predominantly Christian). Ukrainian Christians of various faiths – Greek Catholic, Ukrainian Orthodox pledging allegiance to either the Kiev or Moscow Patriarchate – showed understanding and a willingness to help: “In one locality the inhabitants discussed the possibility of putting the Muslim newcomers up in the former monastery’s dining room because there was no mosque.” In short, says the sociologist, Ukraine was spared any social crisis in the wake of migration and internal displacement.
Among those who had fled their home regions there were some complaints about difficulties in finding housing, and finding work was even more arduous for the newcomers. This had less to do with employers’ concerns regarding the abilities of the refugees than it did with their worry that the new arrivals would soon be returning whence they came. In addition, some internally displaced persons from Donbas have been experiencing a kind of dual isolation. They have yet to develop social networks which would include local inhabitants, and at the same time they often limit contacts with other displaced people from Donbas since they are uncertain of their political views or involvement in the war. “We are experiencing military conflict,” stresses Viktoriya Sereda, “but this hasn’t led to a significant increase in ethnic nationalism.”
Surveys of Ukrainians’ national identity also confirm that, generally speaking, it is not ultimately informed by notions of linguistic, ethnic or religious homogeneity: “When you ask Ukrainians what it means to be Ukrainian then it is primarily the feeling of being able to autonomously determine their shared future.” The Ukrainian identity is experienced as something that makes for community – not as something which drives people apart.
Sereda believes that this requires a concerted effort to enlighten the populace. When a country is involved in both a real and a propaganda war, there is a great temptation for media to use the language of “othering.” Initially there were certain instances of the media sowing mistrust – whether intentionally or not – against internally displaced people from eastern Ukraine; but these were resisted by a broad network of social organizations and institutions. For instance there were training sessions and information events for journalists who were reporting on mass migrations from the Crimea and the military conflict in Donbas. Viktoriya Sereda was among the instructors in these events. However, she doesn’t care for the label “social activist,” since it fails to incorporate the scholarly aspect.
It is in this critical period of Ukraine’s history that Viktoriya Sereda sees herself as a kind of cross-border commuter, shuttling between academia and civil society, going from the local to the international level, oscillating between East and West. This is a strenuous undertaking since it demands a constant change in perspective. “Its greatest challenge is bringing the necessary empathy to bear,” she says. “You have to understand how people see themselves and the world in order to develop useful theoretical models.” This presupposes a great deal of trust-building with people and a sense of moral responsibility – so that not only society might profit from the scholarly data but also those who have shown themselves prepared to give account of their own painful experiences and impressions. For one of her studies Viktoriya Sereda also interviewed those Crimean Tatars who had been deported from their homeland by Stalin and only been allowed to return in the 1980s. With Russia’s recent annexation of the Crimea there were thousands of Tatars who were once more deprived of their hard-earned means of existence. “When we speak to such sensitive themes,” emphasizes Viktoriya Sereda, “we are responsible for any repercussions experienced by those involved.” In preparing her research assistants for the interviews, the sociologist impresses upon them that they should “never conclude with a tragic experience!”
Circumspection and critical self-monitoring are essential attributes that Sereda brings to her research – thus making her work a constant challenge: “It can happen that you don’t recognize certain things because you are too greatly involved; on the other hand, you can miscalculate a situation because you have too much distance from it.” She says that the sole way of coping with this is to alternate the “insider” role with the “outsider” one. Viktoriya Sereda is very concerned with keeping tabs on her own biases, ignorance, lack of empathy and other personal shortcomings: “I’m worried that I could overlook something because my own views have largely been formed and the world is so complex.” That is why she places great value on working with teams whose personnel is highly heterogeneous – and the same holds for her collaborative work with scholars from other disciplines and countries. Viktoriya Sereda always has her suitcase packed, ready for research trips abroad where she can remove herself from her customary routine and gather new experiences and impressions. The Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin is both a refuge and a gateway to the world for her: “A unique place where one can critically self-evaluate and be stimulated and inspired by other views.” Where else and when again could she have the opportunity to meet with anthropologists from Africa and speak with them about the culture of remembrance and commemoration? But Viktoriya Sereda would like to continue such dialogues beyond her Berlin sojourn and include younger scholars in them. In fact she has already sent to her Lviv students an essay on the celebration of independence days in Africa authored by Carola Lentz, an anthropologist at the University of Mainz and convener of a Focus Group at the Wissenschaftskolleg.
“To outsiders this place might look like an ivory tower where scholars seek refuge to concentrate on their research,” she adds, “but once you join the community, you realize that it opens up a whole new universe of German and international academia that you can have no end of pleasure in exploring.”
More on: Viktoriya Sereda
Images: © Maurice Weiss