In December, researchers from countries such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Poland, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland and the US visited the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies, CBEES, to attend its annual conference. The conference was affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine, both in its theme and for the guests.
“One issue I know many people are trying to grasp is how much focus there should be on Russian Studies. Studying Russia itself, or the former USSR, has always been the heart of the research area in the US. However, my perception is that the researchers at CBEES, Södertörn University, have already initiated that discussion. They have a greater focus on the Baltic, Central and Eastern Europe outside a post-Soviet context,” says Sarah D. Phillips, anthropologist and director of the Robert F. Byrnes Russian and East European Institute at Indiana University.
The programme for the two-day conference had around 20 sessions, including everything from how area studies is defined, challenges to knowledge creation in the region, decolonisation, language and teaching in Eastern European studies. One person participating in discussions about decolonialisation was Olha Voznyuk, from the Ukrainian Free University in Munich. She reflects on a very rewarding conference where the theme was, for tragic reasons, very topical. She also highlights the focus on Russian Studies within Slavic Studies, ahead of other Slavic cultures. This has led to other areas, such as Ukrainian studies, being under-represented in Western research, she says.
“The subjects and problems that were discussed at the conference have strong links to my subject, Slavic Studies, but also all post-Soviet studies using terms such as decolonisation. We talked a great deal about what this entails, and in that discussion I raised how many universities have Russian Studies and Slavic, Baltic Studies. There is a lot of focus on Russia and the question is why the area has not expanded more towards discovering other Slavic cultures. Other disciplines and cultures are pushed into the background,” says Olha Voznyuk.
Looking at old research with new eyes
One issue that she particularly highlights and which was often discussed at the conference was how, despite all the available expertise and research, it was not possible to predict what is now occurring in Ukraine, a tragedy on a huge scale, she says.
“We have an entire world of research that analyses culture, politics, history – but we were still not able to predict what was happening. The major cause of this is the focus on Russian Studies, which led to misunderstandings about the similarities between the countries. This is not just a military action, there is so much more involved. We have to reorganise how we conduct Russian Studies, this is a significant issue for the entire research area. Not just studying new and perhaps unresearched areas, but also looking at old research with new eyes,” she says.
New ideas and perspectives
After two years of a pandemic, many people welcomed the opportunity to meet up outside the digital meeting spaces. Seeing in real life brings added value, even if there were elements of hybridity for those who were unable to be on site. The organisers’ efforts, the theme and discussions with new and old acquaintances meant that participants really appreciated the conference. Sarah D. Phillips took many new ideas back with her to the US.
“One interesting discussion dealt with the boundaries that should be established between academia and applied research or policy research. We talked about what the motivating factor is for a project and how being “policy relevant” is often built into the funding mechanisms. One such discussion with a colleague really helped me see this issue in a new light, while I also realised that being policy relevant can mean different things to different people. That is something I will continue to think about,” says Phillips.