SwatTalk: Seven Months of War in Ukraine: Reflecting on Race, Gender, and Sexuality
With Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon '12 and Professor of Russian Sibelan Forrester
Recorded on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Thank you all so much for joining us tonight for this wonderful SwatTalk. My name is Emily Anne Jacobstein. I am Class of '07 and I'll be moderating tonight. I do wanna let everybody know this SwatTalk is being recorded. The recording will be posted on the college website in a few weeks, and tonight we have two phenomenal scholars who will be sharing some of their research and thoughts on the current-day situation as well as some background on the culture in Russia and the Ukraine. So we're gonna start. I'm going to introduce each of them and then they are each going to spend some time sharing some of their work, and then we will have a Q&A session, so please feel free to leverage the chat feature, to submit questions throughout. We should have a decent amount of time for questions and we'd love for this to be interactive. When you do submit a question, please let me know your class year or affiliation with the college. And with that, I will go through our intros. So tonight we are joined by Sibelan Forrester. Sibelan is the Susan W. Lippincott Professor of Modern and Classical Languages and Russian at Swarthmore. Her academic background includes bachelor's degree from Bryn Mawr College, just down the road, and an MA and PhD from Indiana University. She spent an exchange year in Zagreb in 1986 to 1987, taught at Oberlin College for five years, and has taught Russian language and literature at Swarthmore since 1994. Sibelan's primary academic specialty is Russian poetry of the 20th and 21st centuries, with significant secondary specializations in folklore, South Slavic literature and culture, and women's and gender studies. She also does teaching and research in science fiction and literary translation, both theory and practice. She has published translations of fiction, poetry, scholarly prose, and songs from Croatian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Serbian, and original poetry in English. Then, our second panelist tonight is Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, Class of 2012 at Swarthmore. Kimberly is currently a Penn Presidential PhD fellow, a Fontaine fellow, and a Pomfret fellow. Kimberly's work examines how Black experience in the Soviet Union shaped Black identity, and how the presence of people of color shaped ideas and understandings of race, ethnicity, and nationality policy in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and post-Soviet space. Her public writing analyzes the linkages between race, foreign policy, and culture in the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. Her writing has appeared in "Foreign Policy," the "Moscow Times," and the Kennan Institute's "Russia File." She's also become a regular commentator on Ukraine and Russia in American and international media outlets. You may have seen her on TV. She's been with the AP, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBC, and BBC. Kimberly, are you trying to add a few more letters of the alphabet there? You've got a bunch of them. So we have two phenomenal panelists for tonight's discussion. Thank you both so much for taking time out of your very busy schedules to speak with us tonight. And with that, I'm going pass it over to Sibelan to get us started.
Sibelan Forrester Thank you very much, Emily, and I'm really thrilled to be speaking in the same event as Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon. I spoke to her when she was a Swarthmore student but never had the pleasure of teaching her, and wow, wow, what you can do with a lot of brains, I tell you. So I'm gonna be giving a bit of background more than contemporary stuff, but wind up with some discussion of contemporary literature. In the USSR, so going back to the beginning of the USSR, the feminist movement was rejected, first of all as being bourgeois, being a western import, but also as being unnecessary under socialism. So if you work on socialism, if you read socialist tracks in any way, that is often argued, that if we have a socialist country, we don't need to worry about race, we don't need to worry about gender, it's all gonna be wonderful equality because women won't be the property of their husbands and so on and so on. And indeed, in the Soviet period, women did have greater access to education, to professional advancement, and also to the kinds of hard physical labor that we might associate with a man's work. You know, sweeping streets, moving heavy equipment. And of course, women in the Soviet Union were told that under capitalism they would have no equality, right? "Things are much better here." And it was the same in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe post-World War II. So I bring this up because professor of physics Amy Graves, formerly Amy Bug, researched and found that before 1991, 40% of the PhDs in Hungary went to women. 40% of PhDs, sorry, in physics, this is the important thing, not just PhDs but PhDs in physics, which we think of as a very guy career, and this was because of attention to the pipeline at every stage. It just wasn't a leaky pipeline. And Hungary's also strong in math and so on, although men would typically be the majority in the high-status parts of a profession. So in the medical world, the surgeons were almost all men, whereas the pediatricians were almost all women. But there were a lot of women physicians in the Soviet Union. However, I want to hold up here Lynne Attwoods's 1998, 1988 book, excuse me, lovely cover, and this book did not get the attention it deserved because if you think of 1988, it was the height of glasnost and perestroika, and then it was superseded quickly by the end of the USSR. However, Attwood shows how intense the sex role socialization was in schools and in broader society. So the main idea of this education and socialization was that women could not be happy or fulfilled unless they had children and had this feminine aspect to their lives, dressed like women, made themselves, make up like women, had their hair nicely done like women, and so on, although they had to work as well, be it in a profession or be it in heavy industry or be it on the kolkhoz. So this was the source of the famous double burden. Natalya Baranskaya's short, I guess, novella, , or "A Week Like Any Other," came out in 1969. This was on the pretext that there was a sociological study asking women in certain workplaces to keep a diary for a week. This young scientist is writing about how incredibly busy she is, and one reason she is, is that when she got pregnant a second time, she decided to have the baby instead of having an abortion, abortion being the main form of birth control in the later Soviet Union. I've always been surprised that Reagan, with his evil empire talk, when I was a college student, did not finger abortion as part of the big Soviet evil, because it was not a secret that that was going on. But in any case, Western readers took Baranskaya's work as a feminist work, and when she was asked about that, she said, "Of course I'm not a feminist, and of course it's not a feminist novel, and the husband I depicted is actually a very good guy. Why are you all saying that he's a loser who expects his wife to do everything?" So the negative connotations of the word feminist. So this sex role socialization that Attwood is talking about was partly the need to rebuild the population after World War II, after Stalin and his camps, and then to maintain the population. Most urban families of the post-World War II period had only one child. I had a friend from Murmansk, a bit older than I am, who was one of 11 children, and she was born, I think she was born after the period in which abortion was illegal. So under Stalin abortion is made illegal and people had bigger families than they would have. But this friend had only one child, so she's one of 11 and had only one child. And in any case, there were a lot of debates and disagreements between scholars of women's issues on both sides of the Iron Curtain, coming at it with different approach, even though largely pointing to the double burden that women had if they both worked and tried to raise their family. At the end of the Soviet period, however, and this is the end of the socialist period all over Eastern Europe, you get the return of patriarchal nationalist ideology, so claiming that, "This gender equality stuff was imposed on us by the evil communists. It's not part of our culture. Women should go back to being happy housewives and having children and cooking nice meals for their husbands." And of course, some women were delighted to do that, but those who didn't want to, discovered that they had issues at work and so on. So you get the emergence of pornography, among other things, billboards showing scantily-clad young women, job ads calling for young and attractive women to work as secretaries. There's a lovely article in this collection by Vera Sokolova about gender and sexuality in public discourse in the Czech Republic in the early 2000s. And she finds that even though, I think, the Czech Republic was not one of the worst examples, nevertheless, you had these billboards, you had people making jokes, and her particular choice is a billboard that shows a woman getting bitten by a mosquito, but in a kind of a about-to-get-raped posture, and it says, "Don't get pricked," and, you know, using an unusual word, not the word for stung. So in any case, another thing that happened, especially in the Soviet Union, was a complete shift in the status of economists. Before 1991, it was a largely female profession. It was considered boring and low-status. Of course, it was a planned economy, so the economists were mostly just sort of moving the beads on the abacus, 'cause they didn't have computers. But after 1991, of course, the status jumps up with the economic changes, and suddenly you have men going into the field and dominating the field. Nevertheless, they still did not like Western feminists. There were news reports about their hysteria over sexual harassment, et cetera, probably with the confirmation of Clarence Thomas. You could just imagine how that would've been covered in Eastern Europe. So I'm gonna zero in for a moment on Russia and Ukraine since that's one of the topics for our evening. The attempts to boost the birth rate in the USSR were also, of course, aimed at trying to make the population, or keep the population, more white, less Central Asian, more Orthodox, or at least putatively Orthodox, less Islamic, or maybe more atheist, less Islamic, since it was official atheism in the Soviet period. So Ukrainians were fine, right? Let the Ukrainians have lots of kids, too. Russian ambitions were essentially, in the Soviet period, to dissolve the Ukrainians into Russian culture, to make Ukraine a mere province, like Karelia or other parts of what's now the Russian Federation, and not a culturally distinct area or a linguistically distinct area. And there were lots of more and less ways, repressive ways, of doing that. Shifting the populations. This happened a lot in the Soviet period, not just with Ukraine. The Baltic states also all saw kind of a skimming off the elite and sending them east and then sending in Russians to work in factories who probably weren't going to become an intelligentsia and threaten the local dominance. But in the case of Ukraine, also limiting the use of Ukrainian language in teaching or in publishing, and in one case, I was interested to discover, paying teachers of Russian language in Ukraine more than teachers of Ukrainian language were paid in Ukraine. The gender politics were largely the same, except that, interestingly, there are differences in the language concerning gender. So here I'm citing Prof. Marina Rojavin's substantial article on the semantic category of gender in Russian and Ukrainian languages, and Marina Rojavin's a linguist and philologist who taught at Swarthmore in the past and she now teaches at Bryn Mawr College. So like other Slavic languages, both Russia and Ukraine, have three genders. There's masculine, feminine, and neuter, and the grammars and dictionaries usually treat the masculine as the basic or neutral, unmarked, form of any semantic unit. So you read up, find an adjective, you get it in the masculine form. And indeed, her exploration of recent dictionaries and glossaries found examples of distinctly female professions, by which I mean most of the workers in them are women, with only masculine nouns given. So an extreme example is the word , which is a person who does facials at a salon or a spa. Have you ever seen a man who is a ? No, absolutely not, but they give the masculine form as the neutral, sort of covering everybody form, and that one is most likely from French, but a ton of the new names of professions came in after '91 from English, dizayner, menedzher, insayder, right, and so on, and they have been absorbed into both Russian and Ukrainian. But Prof. Rojavin finds that when Russian adds a suffix to make the terms for someone in a trade or a profession feminine in gender, or feminitives is the term for these kind of professional or career terms, the result is almost always deprecatory and it's one that women who take their work seriously don't want to be called by. Who wants to be called a poetess instead of a poet? This happens in English with just a few examples like that. In Ukrainian, on the other hand, these feminitives tend to be much more neutral and they merely indicate the gender of the doctor or realtor or poet, rather than suggesting both gender and lower quality or status, and Ukrainian also, incidentally, makes more use of the grammatically neuter forms in relation to human beings. Of course, it's tempting to expect differences in the social and professional status of women on that basis, that you're talking about women in a more respectful way. But I'm gonna stop that and quickly finish up by saying that since 2014 there's been a real upswell in translations of Ukrainian literature. And what happened in 2014, right? We begin to get infiltration and co-optation of the pro-Russian people in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, and then the annexation of Crimea, which is a story of its own. And so there had been some translations of Ukrainian literature before, quite a few, but typically it was more classical stuff. Now editors were suddenly reaching out to anglophone translators on all sides. I don't know Ukrainian. I don't speak it. I can kind of read it. Between Croatian and Russian I can sort of triangulate. But even so, I was invited to do some translations. Interestingly, the first couple were women poets. I guess they figured, okay, I would agree to this. Then there was a Russophone Ukrainian man poet. More recently, a lot of the poetry stories and novels that have been picked up since 2014 do concern the war. Several of the authors had moved out of Donetsk and Luhansk. It was such a messy appropriation that it wasn't that difficult to get out at first. You just got in your car or got in your friend's car or even got on a bus and crossed the border. But since the invasion in February of this year, it's been even more pronounced. And again, I was reached out to, again, by somebody who wanted to make the translation quickly, but also to get as many people involved as possible, because the more who were involved, the more who will tell their friends, the more who will read these things and find out about them. If you google Ukrainian poetry now there are many millions of hits. I just did it before speaking to you. 30 million hits this evening. And the thumbnails that show up at the top of the first page include not only the 19th century classic Taras Shevchenko or the fin-de-siècle figure, Lesya Ukrainka, notice, important woman in Ukrainian poetry, or the 20th century poet Oleh Lysheha, all of these had been translated before, but also the Kharkiv poet and punk-ska front-man Serhiy Zhadan, the Lviv University professor and poet Halyna Kruk, and the Ukrainian-American deaf poet Ilya Kaminsky, who was previously treated as kind of a Russian poet because he's from Odessa, where there was always a strong, very mixed, largely Russophone, largely Jewish population. And yet, Kaminsky has become one of these people who are helping to get the work of many Ukrainian poets out and into English. Additionally, prose works by Zhadan again, by Volodymyr Rafeyenko, and others. But it's striking that there are many women among the poets, more or less half the names, every time there's a selection, like the 2017 collection, "Words for War," and also featured in a variety of different online and print journals. So if you go looking for women poets translated from Ukrainian now, it's very easy to find some and some of them are great. And thank you all very much.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Thank you. That was wonderful. And just a reminder, please feel free to send in questions via the chat feature. And now I will pass it over to Kimberly.
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12 So it's always weird doing virtual talks, but particularly with Swatties 'cause I'm just imagining everyone's faces. But it's good to virtually be here, and it's funny because Sibelan never taught me in Russian. Marina terrified me with Russian and gender and plural declensions. But one of the reasons I took Russian was because I was waiting for office hours with Micheline, and I was taking French, and I heard Sibelan speaking Russian on the phone, and I was like, "This is the most gorgeous language I've ever heard, so I wanna learn Russian." So I purposely tortured myself with Russian. I decided to do that my junior year of college. But a lot of people ask me, "Why Russia? Why Ukraine? Why the Soviet Union?" I am a Black girl from rural Texas. And I try to explain and be like, "I just kinda envision Russia like Texas," and that just kind of helps me , you know, with my work in terms of we're big, we're nationalistic, we're, you know, very prideful people. And just winter extremes. It's very cold in Russia. It's very hot in Texas. I try to explain it, but really, it's because I'm a nerd, and in fifth grade I watched this eight-hour mini-series called "Russia: Land of the Tsars," and I was just, I fell in love with Russia. I fell in love with, like, this idea of this place that's super far away but has really interesting language and has these writers, like Dostoevsky and Pushkin. I had no idea who they were when I was in fifth grade, but that kind of started my love affair with the region. And it was at Swarthmore, with Prof. Bob Weinberg, was the first time I got to take a Russian history course, and it was called "Angels of Death: Russia under Lenin and Stalin," the best course name ever. And so I was a freshman and I was introduced properly to the Russian Empire and Soviet history, and since then it's been my life's work and that's kind of how I got into this weird celebrity. I'm like a Z-lister, Z.5-lister now. But it came from my work and my love of the region. And so when the war started on February 24th, 2022, I'm a doctoral student, I was doing my German homework, and I was listening to kind of reports in Russian, which you really shouldn't listen to German while doing. You know, you really shouldn't mix your languages like that. And I just started shrieking because I couldn't believe it. I didn't want to believe it. But Ukraine, this country that welcomed me in 2013 when I was a really scared master's student at Harvard, I was doing my master's thesis, I hadn't been to that far east, I'd been to Bulgaria, I'd been to Serbia, I hadn't been to Ukraine or Russia yet, and I fell in love with Ukraine. I was in Kyiv. I was in Odessa. And back then, in 2013, I spoke Russian. I only spoke Russian. I got around fine. And I remember being in my second year, master's student in 2014, when Crimea was forcibly annexed and Luhansk and Donetsk were infiltrated, and I watched my Ukrainian history professor, Serhii Plokhii, he's Ukrainian, and I watched him dive into explaining the history and context of Ukraine. And he's Ukrainian and that was what he contributed to his country's effort to remain a sovereign state, was he used his knowledge to educate the public. And I felt hopeless then. I mean, I was all of 20-something years old and, like, I don't know enough. But then on February 24th, eight years later, everything was different for me. I was like, "I have this platform." I had all of 3,000 followers on Twitter and I was like, "I'm Twitter famous." You know, and I just started tweeting the history of Ukraine. I started tweeting about why is it important to call Ukraine "Ukraine" instead of "the Ukraine"? Why is it important to know that when Putin says that Ukrainian isn't a language, that he's lying, that he's erasing centuries of history and history that predates the idea of the modern Rus' as Russia. But also, I wanted to do everything I could to help this country, because I know what it felt like to have to sit by in 2014 and I didn't want that to happen again. And it changed overnight. I went to sleep with 9,000 Twitter followers. I'm like, "Oh yeah, I'm a famous grad student," and now I have over 100,000 people who followed me and listened to me on Twitter. And I did a lot of outreach at the beginning of the war on Twitter, trying to find resources for people, trying to find resources for women who were in a bunker about to give birth in Kharkiv, talking to students directly, foreign students who were trapped in Sumy as the Russians were bombarding the city, and really trying to use this knowledge that I had gained as a historian, as a graduate student, to really help people who have no idea about the country, about the region, understand what's going on. And really to just dispel so many of the myths that the Kremlin was pushing about Russia to justify its brutality against Ukraine. And it's been hard work and I write a lot about Ukraine now. I've done, I can't remember, countless interviews. I was, at one point I was on Twitter, my phone would let me know, like, "Your screen time's increased. You've been on Twitter 12 hours today." But it was, I felt like I was doing triage, international triage, and really, the intersections of my research, my research suddenly became international news as people saw African students being denied entry to trains to go across the border, but also the ways in which the Russian Foreign Ministry used and laundered the situations of African students who were in distress in Sumy, they used that against Ukraine and this narrative of Ukraine as a Nazi country. Like, all of this kind of culminates together in my research on Blackness in the Soviet Union and East Germany. And as the war happened, then a week after the news broke about Brittney Griner's arrest and detainment in Russia. And I'm from southeast Texas. Like, I've seen Brittney Griner out at the mall. So it's my work, my research, and my life were all kind of coming together, and since Brittney's arrest in February and the news breaking in early March, I've worked with the WNBA Players Association and just, like, helping them understand her situation, helping them understand the differences between the Russian and American legal systems, the criminal justice systems. And I've written a lot about her case and I keep abreast of it, and I think of them as together. I do not think you can think of Brittney Griner's case as separate from Russia's war in Ukraine. The timing, the position that she's in, the leverage that she represents, that Russia has had, and Russia really haven't had this kind of leverage over us, the United States, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so what I try to do is to explain a lot of these things, contextualize a lot of these things, because part of my research is knowing that Russia as the Soviet Union has often used Black suffering to undermine democracy, to undermine Black freedom struggles in the United States and as well on the African continent, and I see all of these things coming together in Brittney Griner's case and the American response to Brittney Griner's case. And right now it's in this weird position of staying abreast of the news, like the most recent Ukrainian counter-offensive in places like Izyum and in Luhansk, in the east of Ukraine, but also trying to keep focus on the issue at hand, because in 2014 I watched how every, like, Serhii Plokhii was on the news every other night and then by early 2015 people didn't care. It wasn't in the news and that just works to Russia's advantage. And so I work now to try to keep that in the public eye, but also realizing that I do need to get my PhD done. It is very important that I finish my PhD, not only because I am getting older and it's a lot harder to remember languages, but I am a Black woman in a field in which people who look like me are a rarity. When it comes to Soviet and Russian history, there is Dr. Allison Blakely, who is Professor Emeritus at Boston University, who wrote the book called "Russia and the Negro" on the Black presence in Russia, and that was in 1988, if I'm correct. And there is a student at Yale, a graduate student, there's me, and there is a new assistant professor, Louis Porter, at Texas State, and that's it in our entire field. And so I take my positionality and what I look like and what my experiences are, they fundamentally have shaped my work. But also, it's one of the reasons why I think I have a viewpoint and understanding of these things a lot of people don't have because I've lived it. I've been in Ukraine. I've been, you know, I've been in all these places, I've written about these things. But also, I was at Swarthmore, and Swarthmore has this, if you're in Slavic Studies, Swarthmore has this like powerhouse of women of color who study Russian. Like, it's part of our identity in the Slavic world. And people always ask me, "How did Swarthmore do it? How does Swarthmore have all these Black female Russianists?" And it's hard to, I was like, "No one ever asked me why I did Russian at Swarthmore." No one ever said, "Kim, you're Black. Why do you do Russian?" No one ever asked Jackie, my roommate my freshman year, who, she started Russian her freshman year, I've started Russian my junior year, and I remember she started Russian. I was like, "What are you doing? Like, Black people don't, like, we don't exist in Russia." And she started Russian. And then we have Latavia, who was a junior when we were freshman, and she was a Fulbright Scholar to Kazakhstan. She was a Russianist. And so I was lucky enough to be in this environment where being a Black Russianist was normal, and it was only until I got to graduate school for my master's that I learned that it wasn't like that, that this really magical place that I was able to grow in and, you know, think about, just explore these new things as a Russianist, as a person training in Russian and Soviet histories, I didn't realize how isolating it would be until after Swarthmore. And so one of my goals as an academic, but also hopefully as a returning Swattie who becomes professor at Swarthmore, that's my life goal, I'm just putting that out there, manifesting that, is to create a field that's like what I got to experience at Swarthmore, because it truly is magical. And I'm at Penn now and I'm constantly telling my Penn students about Swarthmore and how amazing it is. But I mean, just last year I had a dinner with, I was in the middle of, when all this fame stuff was happening, and I met Black Russian students at Swarthmore and I was trying to explain to them. I said, "This is magical and enjoy this. Breathe this in, live in this moment, because when you get into the field it's not like this." Hopefully one day it will be like Swarthmore, but it's not right now. But that's my goal, is to make it like that. And hopefully through my work on Ukraine, my work on Russia, my work on race, I can show people that the diaspora is everywhere. There are Black Russian speakers or Afro-Russians or Afro-Ukrainians. They exist, and when you say things like, "Ukraine is a Nazi country," you deny their existence and their history and their presence in these countries, and it does a lot of real harm, and I think we've seen that harm. So that's what I try to do as a Swattie, who was going to be a corporate lawyer until I took Bob Weinberg's class, and I said, "Okay, this is what I wanna do with my life," so thank you.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Well that was wonderful. Thank you both so much. Please, we'd love to get some questions from our audience. We do have our first question, is from Ted Bloom, Class of '74. This one's for Sibelan, and you can use the Q&A feature or the chat. "Are there favorite American or English poets among Ukrainian poetry readers?"
Sibelan Forrester Wonderful question, and I wish I knew more, but I can say that Ukraine has a lot more literary translation coming in than any anglophone country. Maybe Canada is an exception. But if you walk into a bookstore in any big Ukrainian city, you're going to find an amazing selection. Everything from Walt Whitman and Shakespeare... Actually, one of the translators of Shakespeare was killed in the bombardment early in the, I'm forgetting his name, unfortunately, but people who devote their whole career to a particular poet. Of course, Shakespeare's , you know, Dante and everybody. But people who are fans of Sylvia Plath, people who are fans of Allen Ginsburg. Right, very broad. And I mentioned Ilya Kaminsky, who writes most of his own poetry in English. He's a deaf poet, so reads very interestingly with a really interesting accent. So there are a lot of people who are kind of both things, too. And I was surprised when the war began in February to discover how many of my colleagues who are Russian professors actually are from Ukraine. I mentioned Marina Rojavin before. She grew up in Kyiv and got her degree at Potebnia University, and speaks Ukrainian as well as Russian and English and I think some Yiddish. So just a lot of people turned out not to be who I thought they were, because I hadn't thought. I hadn't thought. There hadn't been a conversation and suddenly I was reading on Facebook. So very broad appreciation of Anglo-American poets.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Great. This one is for Kimberly. So you talked at the beginning about some of the misconceptions that you, and just the rapid-fire education you were providing. What were some of the biggest misconceptions that you found people to have? And if there are any that you think those of us listening might still have, feel free to clarify.
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12 That's a good question, and some of the biggest ones were like, Russia isn't an imperial country and it never was an empire, because Russia didn't partake in the scramble for Africa. And I'm just like, how do you think you become the largest country on earth? Do you think they just went to Siberia and said, "Hey, we'd like to join you"? You know, so it's things like that. But also, because when you think about, like, especially right now, these discourses of decolonization that are happening because of the war in Ukraine. I mean, you had Central Asian scholars who were having these conversations 20 years ago, and now, because of Russia's behavior in Ukraine, people are actually being forced to think about the former Soviet states as decolonizing countries. Another one is like Ukraine as a Nazi state, and that, like, I've studied Ukrainian history since I was 22 years old. And so ways in which people can flatten entire historical developments into a statement such as "Ukraine is a Nazi state," which comes from Putin, and he's launched this against Ukraine since 2014, after one of his close confidants was run out of Ukraine as president during Euromaidan. And it's taking a part of Ukrainian history during World War II, when Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis and the nationalist groups that aligned themselves with the Nazis, and taking those groups and then saying, "This represents an entire country in 2022," not a country under Nazi occupation in 1939. And I think, another thing that I've heard, and I've heard this so often, "Oh, you can learn Ukrainian, but it's just Russian," and people flattening Ukraine and Russian. Like, as a person who's learning Ukrainian, it is not like Russian. For me it's more difficult than Russian, 'cause if you know Russian, I know enough Russian to mess up Ukrainian, which I often do. And the language issue, where people would say, "Well, Russian speakers in Ukraine wanna be part of Russia." I was in Odessa. I was in Kyiv. I only spoke Russian and I met no one there that wanted to be part of Russia. And so you have this thinking that because you speak this language, you somehow are erased of your nationality or your ethnicity, and that's not the case. Now, something I found beautiful in Ukraine was, I would be talking to someone and then I would just stop understanding half the conversation, 'cause they'd switched in Ukrainian and didn't realize it. The fact that, like, they are able to move and live in both languages is so amazing to me. Like, I was like, "That's my goal. I wanna be able to speak like that." But I also think the biggest misconception, this was huge, was the presence of Black people, and literally having to explain... I had journalists, I'm on national TV, and they're like, "No, they're not really Black." I'm like, "Yes, there are Black people. There are thousands of African descendants in Russia and in Ukraine," and explaining that African students in Ukraine, this isn't new, this isn't 2022. This has been a practice that's been in place since the 1920s, where you had people at Comintern schools. But you have heavy presence of African students in Ukraine, and foreign students in general, starting in the 1950s, and they continued. Ukraine is still a beacon for a lot of foreign students from the Global South, particularly the African continent, and Southeast Asia to get medical training and technical training because it's so non-expensive compared to EU countries and the visas are easy to get, and they're an important part of the Ukrainian economy, too. So kind of dispelling that, but it often felt like an onslaught. I would see a tweet that was just a lie, it wasn't based on fact, and it has 100,000 retweets. And so sometimes I just feel like, "Oh, my," I'm just yelling into the void. You know, there's no way to beat this. But, you know, I'm like, at least every person who sees my tweet, at least they've seen something rooted in history.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Thank you. This next one, it could go either way, so I think it'd be great to hear from both of y'all on this, but Al Weller, Class of '68, asked, "Do you think US media covering Ukraine will ever interview some Ukrainian writers, artists, et cetera to help Americans better appreciate the culture?" And I would add to this, or do you know of examples where that has already occurred that we may be able to go and and view or read?
Sibelan Forrester It's happening in the literary journals and online conversations. So the way to find it would be to google Ukrainian poetry and then look for Serhiy Zhadan, super interesting guy. He has I don't know how many thousands of followers, too, and right now is actually fundraising more than he's writing, and stayed in Kharkiv during everything. But they should be talking to Serhii Plokhii as well. He was supposed to come to Swarthmore and speak and then the pandemic happened, so we never got him.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 And Sibelan, would you please type those names into the chat for all attendees to view?
Sibelan Forrester Will everyone see them in the chat?
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 I hope so. If we can try and then if someone can let us know if they can't?
Sibelan Forrester Sure.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Otherwise you can spell them out loud for us. That might work as well. And Kimberly, anything to add to that?
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12 I think more, my, I'm more on the history and social sciences. I've seen a lot of Ukrainian experts who have been featured in the news, who are doing NPR interviews, particularly because most of the ones I knew, they were on the ground in Ukraine, so they're talking about and living through these circumstances. But now I think it's less just because there's media exhaustion. There's less coverage of Ukraine, so there's less interviews with experts. But like Sibelan said, Serhii Plokhii, he's a gift, he's a gift to the field. He's just a good human being. But he is able to, and, like, through the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, he's the director there, he and the team he has that are really good at putting together loads of information for the public and for media to have background information. So if you can't find a Ukrainian person to interview here is, you know, material made by Ukrainians that you can draw from.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Thank you, and I have been informed that chat is disabled, so bear with me. I'm going to spell some of these for y'all. So the first is S-E-R-H-I-I and then Z-H-A-D-A-N. The second one is H-A-L-Y-N-A, last name K-R-U-K. The next one is Marianna, M-A-R-I-A-N-N-A, last name K-I-Y-A-N-O-V-S-K-A. And the last one is I-L-Y-A Kaminsky, K-A-M-I-N-S-K-Y. So thank you, Sibelan, for those recommendations. Oh, even better. Okay, she's just gonna hold that up for a minute. Thank you.
Sibelan Forrester I’ll hold this up for a minute while Kim talks.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 And then, let's see, we a great question from Kin Yik, Class of '82, who's interested in K-pop and Japanese manga and anime. "Do Ukrainian youth consume these or do they have their own version? What are those implications for cultural identity and gender politics?"
Sibelan Forrester That is such an interesting question, and I wish, wish, wish I knew what the young people were doing today, but I am sure they're listening to K-pop. Who would not be listening to K-pop? How fun and it's so easy to get to. We do have a professor in the French and Francophone program, Alexandra Gueydan, who discovered the manga and anime being adapted in North Africa into Arabic and into local languages. So if that is happening, it must be happening everywhere. That is her particular interest. William Gardner in the Japanese program is more of an expert on the sources of those things, so super question.
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12 Oh, it's, I think, I feel like I'm not, I'm an elder millennial now, so maybe I'm just old, but I've seen a lot of kind of, like, engagement with hip hop culture, and, like, Adriana Helbig wrote a really great book about hip hop in Ukraine, so I've seen a lot of that. I'm sure they're, like, interested in K-pop and things like that. But there's also just been a really big focus on kind of rediscovering Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian history in particular. So like the Holodomor or the famine in 1932, '33. That's what I wrote my master's thesis on. And when I was in Ukraine 2013, I was talking to people who had lost grandparents and, you know, people of their family and they didn't know anything about it because of the way, you know, it wasn't talked about in the Soviet Union. So what's interesting now is, you're seeing this flourishing of Ukrainian culture and interest in Ukrainian culture and history that kind of wasn't there before, and Ukrainian language and finding the roots of Ukrainian language. So it's been really interesting to see this kind of reverse of interest in Ukrainian things, like, not only in Ukraine but also outside of Ukraine. Like, Duolingo has Ukrainian now. So it's really, it's been really cool.
Sibelan Forrester And the Kalush Orchestra that won Eurovision this year, and you know it was partly the sympathy vote, 'cause, "Oh my god, poor Ukraine," but they're mixing a very traditional form of singing with instruments, with this really not originally Ukrainian hip hop performance. And so, you know, it's getting adapted, it's getting appropriated, it's getting mixed with local tradition.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 That's great. I'm curious about the gender dynamics that we are seeing through the media lens coming from the Ukraine, or from Ukraine. Now I'm catching myself, Kimberly. That'll be the next question. So I feel like at the beginning there were so many images that were being shared of, you know, wives with children, hugging and saying goodbye to the husbands who were staying behind, and then you would see the picture of the grandmother who was armed and was going to defend her homeland. I'd appreciate your thoughts on that, how much you feel is the media just trying to play up a story, and Sibelan, given your background in this area, thinking about the the broader implications.
Sibelan Forrester Well, it's the media, for sure, and yet I think, on the other hand, you know, horrible, wrenching scenes, and then there are plenty of women who stayed behind. So later there were interesting posts where they would show like four gorgeous model-quality Ukrainian women dressed up in their uniforms, and then they had four studly men with kittens on their shoulders. So they're really looking, they're using social media in a very clever way. The latest posts I saw that I had time to look at, not preparing for class, were of the lead ballet dancer who just died. So, you know, that got a lot of press. So anything that's going to make the rest of the world pay attention. And Kim, you mentioned how in 2014 interest dropped off. The moment Russia invaded, everybody who spoke to the media from Ukraine was saying, "Do not lose interest. You're gonna lose interest. Don't lose interest," 'cause they saw it happen before.
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12 I think that question of gender is interesting 'cause, like, I have a friend who, like, saved me in the archives when I was lost in Kyiv, and, like, she's alone now. She's raising her three kids because her husband's at the front. And what it's done is, a lot of, and it's, I mean, it's scary in terms of thinking about World War II Ukraine and Soviet Union, the sacrifices that women make and how so often labor at home isn't seen as labor or as contributing to the war front, but Ukrainian women are keeping society going in a lot of these occupied places. I was talking to Ukrainian women who were helping with food to the African and Middle Eastern students who had no water and, you know, little shelter in Sumy 'cause their husbands were gone. And so I think what's interesting now is you are seeing a lot of interesting developments. Like, I mean, the LGBTQ community in Ukraine is still pushing for marriage equality. Like, all of these things are still happening and I think it speaks to the strength of Ukraine and also like these marginalized groups in Ukraine, that they're still pushing for these things. You have, like, entire, like, you have celebration of LGBTQ members in the military now. So I think there's going to be a fascinating and hopefully strong change and shift for the better in Ukrainian society. And, like, I've already seen it, but I think what the war has taught so many people is that equality, gender equality is not just a statement. Like, you're living it when you have women taking up arms and fighting along their brothers and, you know, their fathers, and women who are having to maintain schools and raise children and, you know, and protect themselves from, you know, Russian invaders. All of this is happening and they're all doing it together. So it's been interesting to see. But on the flip side, we have the opposite happening in Russia where, you know, you have the de-legalization of domestic abuse and domestic assault and, you know, further crackdowns of LGBTQ community. So I really, and I wrote about this, like, I feel like we're seeing this massive break that's happening, and Russia and Putin has always called Ukraine a brother country, but I think we're seeing that that's not the case.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 So you caught me a moment ago. So "Ukraine" versus "the Ukraine." Please explain.
Sibelan Forrester Why is that? If Ukraine had said, "We're totally happy to be the Ukraine," right, that would've been a different thing. But the fact that "the Ukraine" sounds more like some province, like the south of France, the Médi, right, it makes it subsidiary. The word Ukraine, actually, Ukraina, means borderland, but Ukraine originally was called, that territory, the first historical name we know about was Rus', Rus', and Rus' is the source of Russia, as a name, but it's also the source of Ruthenia, which is the furthest west part of Ukraine, and Ukrainians used to call their country Rusyny, Rusyny, and it was stolen, essentially, stolen, right? In the 16th century, Russia, in the west, was called Muscovy. It was not called Russia. So, in fact, with this appropriation, right, Ukraine gets to say what it wants to be called, I guess is what it comes down to. Kim, maybe you have a better answer.
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12 I think, yeah, that's been a big part, is the way that Russia has been able to capitalize and take this history. So like the Rus', "The Rus' have been Christian since 988." The Rus' were not in Muscovy. The heartland is Kyiv. But also, the way I think about it, and the way I've had people explain it to me, is, like, when you say "the Ukraine," it's mostly, that was okay for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, but now, Ukraine, as a sovereign state, dropped the "the" to show, like, it's not just a province of Russia or the Soviet Union. But it also depends on the language, right? So in English we say Ukraine, but in Ukraine, I mean, in German, it's, like, the Ukraine, and then you use it because Germany uses those types of definite articles. But it really, it's just a matter of respect. Ukrainians want to say, "We are Ukraine." You know, that's what I go with. But I've always kind of framed it as being part of the Russian Empire, being part of the Soviet Union, and now dropping that article means, "We are a sovereign state."
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Very interesting. Thank you. So we have just a few minutes left. We probably have time for maybe one or two more questions from the audience. So you've got two incredible experts here. Please feel free to put your questions in the Q&A. I would like to take a moment to get your recommendations for where we should be going for more information in each of your areas. Sibelan, you shared some poets, but if there are books, news sources. Kimberly, if you wanna share your Twitter handle. I'd love to know, you know, where people can go because as, I mean, yes, we all know reputable news organizations, but looking for places that really specialize in this or that can center the voices of those in Ukraine or directly impacted.
Sibelan Forrester I've found a lot of coverage in "The Guardian," which has a very strong online presence. And you actually don't have to subscribe. You just have to click on "I'll do it later, I'll do it later," you know, 200 times. But they also-
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 And they give how many articles you've read, and they tell you to shame you.
Sibelan Forrester Yes, exactly. "Oh my God, I've been..." I actually subscribed and they still tell me how many I've read and ask me to, but they also were in the beginning of the war, and for the first couple of months, giving much more reportage on the other former Soviet republics. So they would talk to the foreign minister of Estonia or the prime minister of Lavia and getting their opinions, which I really appreciated. So it's a different anglophone focus, even though it's a now worldwide newspaper. I highly recommend them. They're continuing with strong Ukrainian coverage.
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12 "The Kyiv Independent." They are journalists located in Ukraine, mostly Ukrainian journalists, and they print in English. And so you can keep up with, like, local Ukrainian news in the war front in English with "The Kyiv Independent." I'm trying to think of other sources. If you read Russian, particularly at the beginning of the war, "Meduza" was really good with Russian coverage. They also do a lot of English language coverage and they are, like, independent journalists working in Russia, but they're located in Estonia and Latvia. So they're independent media, but they're actually really good. There are a lot of Ukrainian news sources that are in Ukrainian. So if you read, is great for keeping up with the news. Their English, they don't update their English website that often, though.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 And Kimberly, what is your Twitter handle?
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12 My Twitter handle is @ksvarnon, V-A-R-N-0-N, if you would like to follow me, although I'm currently on a slight Twitter break because my dissertation prospectus is due in 10 days and if my advisor sees me on Twitter, I'm gonna be in trouble.
Emily Anne Jacobstein ’07 Well, if there are no other questions from the audience, then I think we can stop here. Thank you both so much. I know y'all are incredibly busy and Kimberly really needs to go work on that dissertation prospectus. She's gonna get in trouble if your advisor finds out you did this tonight. This was an incredible conversation. I know I personally learned so much. I have been reading the comments coming in from the audience and they really appreciate this. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And as a reminder to everyone, SwatTalks are an initiative from Alumni Council. You can find on the website all of the upcoming SwatTalks as well as recordings of some of our prior ones. And please, we hope you enjoyed this and will join us again for our future SwatTalk. Thank you everybody and have a wonderful night.