Political kinship: Receiving Ukrainian refugees while bordering Europe

Published 25 March 2022 / By Dace Dzenovska

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In the 1930s, most of Russia’s original revolutionaries perished in Stalin’s purges. Their children were left without parents. These children were either taken in by surviving family members or placed in state institutions if family members refused to adopt them. As Yuri Slezkine (2017) writes in his book about the revolutionaries who lived in Moscow’s House of Government, this revealed a particular kind of morality. Someone who would refuse to take in a child of close kin or a family friend was thought of as a bad person. On the other hand, those who risked the survival of their immediate families by taking care of the children of close kin or family friends were considered good people. However, if someone took in too many children or complete strangers, they were thought of as saintly to the point of madness. To be good, then, meant to be able to discern, at a time of crisis, how far to extend help, how wide to open the door and to whom. Kinship—biological and social (where friendship is surrogate kinship)—was important for drawing that line.

This kind of social morality is different from the Russian revolutionary morality, which required the sacrifice of one's biological family for the sake of revolutionary brotherhood (Slezkine 2017). It is also different from Christian morality where unconditional hospitality towards strangers—with no expectation of reciprocity and at the expense of one’s own family—is the highest of virtues (Houston 2015: 152; see also Derrida 2000: 79). And it is different from the secularized version of Christian morality, namely political liberalism, which until recently dominated in the public sphere of Western liberal democracies. Political liberalism requires abandoning kinship and entering the public sphere as a stranger among strangers. It is precisely for that reason that hospitality emerged as a central moral and political category among self-proclaimed liberals during the 2015 European “migration crisis.” To extend hospitality meant to overcome fears, to welcome strangers, and to be open to the risks and uncertainty that such welcoming might bring.

The problem that kinship poses for contemporary forms of liberalism became particularly visible during the post-Cold War liberalization efforts in Latvia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Eastern Europeans routinely brought “too much kinship to the wrong places” (Herzfeld 2017, Thelen and Alber 2017). Oligarchs used family members to channel illegal funds and hide wealth, while citizens were too embedded in cultural and descent communities to become critically thinking individuals (Dzenovska 2018, Larson 2013). The 2015 “migration crisis” was a case in point. In liberal media, Eastern Europeans were depicted as collectively refusing to welcome strangers, instead preferring the safety, whether actual or imagined, of their families and, by extension, nations. The reception of Ukrainian refugees—almost exclusively women and children—seems at first sight to prove the opposite, namely that Eastern Europeans—and Europeans more generally—are able to open their hearts and homes to strangers. However, Ukrainians are not strangers. They are political kin, and their reception is largely linked to the same concerns about the safety of families and nations that hold Middle Eastern and North African refugees at bay.

As soon as the war started, hundreds of people from Latvia – and many more from Poland, Romania, Hungary, Germany and other neighbouring countries – began driving to the nearest border with Ukraine to pick up those who made it across (it is important to note that such civic acts of solidarity were criminalized in the context of Mediterranean migrations). I have been volunteering on a hotline for refugees from Ukraine and for Latvia’s citizens who want to help, and it is striking how many people not only welcome Ukrainian refugees to the country but open their homes to them. One single father from a rural area, whose daughter lives in her school’s dormitory during the week, called to say that he can give his daughter’s room over to someone and that he and his daughter can live in one room when his daughter comes back for the weekend. Many people are driven to help – moved viscerally, rather than rationally – because of a deeply felt historical identification with a nation endangered by Russia. The feeling is that the children and women coming into Latvia via Poland could be their own. In addition to looking similar and speaking a language that many Latvians understand, namely Russian, they share the same historical enemy.

There are three registers of kinship that are mobilized in relation to Ukrainian refugees: familial (actual friends and family), racial and cultural (Ukrainians are culturally close, they look like us, we understand them), and political (Ukrainians are fighting not only for themselves, but also for us). However, kin-based solidarity is not unconditional; it is based on reciprocity. The initial moment of collective effervescence seemed unconditional and was truly impressive. There were many people who seemed to be motivated by pure empathy, but expectations—and thus conditions—were present from the start. One volunteer told me that she felt resentment towards refugees who seek advice about which country will provide more support before deciding where to go. “I would probably do the same,” she said, “but I still feel internal resistance towards such people. It feels as if they should be grateful for any help, but they want to choose.” Families with men seeking help in online forums for refugees are not received well. While women and children are welcomed, men in the age group of 18 to 60 are suspect because by being in Latvia they are not behaving like the idealized Ukrainian fighters. This suggests that the positive reception of Ukrainian women and children is partly conditional on their men fighting the war for Ukraine, but also for Latvia, Europe, and the Western civilization.[1] Alvis Hermanis, a Latvian theatre director, made a statement at the outset of the war urging Latvians not to forget that the Ukrainian men, including Russian-speakers, are giving their lives not only for Ukraine, but also for the freedom of Latvia. Aivars Pastalnieks, the editor of the Latvian men’s magazine Klubs equates Vladimir Putin with pure evil: “Events in Ukraine illuminate this evil in its entirety. This is not a war between two states; this is a war between the past and the future, dictatorship and freedom, barbarism and civilization.” “We protect their women and children, so that they can fight and protect us all,” wrote one volunteer in an online forum, urging people to drive to the Polish border and pick up Ukrainian refugees. Can such forms of gendered reciprocity be sustained? What will happen if and when the women and the children are joined by men, injured and exhausted by the war or unable to return to their homes because they no longer exist? Will they be welcomed, or will they be expected to remain in Ukraine, rebuild the country, and continue to patrol the civilizational border?

Attitudes towards refugees among Latvia’s citizens are also becoming a test of national loyalty and civilizational orientation. A bus driver in eastern Latvia, himself an Old Believer who had served in the Soviet army, told me that it is Ukrainians who are fascists and that “where they go, nothing remains.” From the perspective of the Latvian state and nation, that bus driver is not a proper national subject who extends solidarity to Ukrainians as political kin but a disloyal subject, perhaps even Putin’s Fifth column, who endangers the Latvian polity—and Western civilization—from within. 

Ultimately, the willingness to welcome Ukrainian refugees stems from the same source as the policy of pushing back Iraqis trying to cross into Latvia, Lithuania, or Poland from Belarus. While the big wave has subsided, there continue to be pushbacks, which Latvian authorities justify by saying that Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, is engaged in hybrid warfare. Belarus issued tourist visas to Iraqis who came to Belarus and then took them to the border and pointed them in the direction of Europe. Lukashenko claimed thus to be exposing Europe’s hypocrisy. I prefer to think of it as the constitutive contradiction of Europe: on the one hand, the ethical imperative to be open and, on the other hand, the political need to secure borders in the name of the nation, Europe, Western civilization, or the international liberal order. Sometimes the ethical imperative to be open is wielded against too much nationalism, especially in Eastern Europe (Dzenovska 2018), but in the context of the war in Ukraine the political need to secure borders around nations overlaps with the need to secure the civilizational border between Russia and the West. Nationalism is an ally rather than an enemy.

Those being shuffled back and forth between Belarus and Latvia embody this constitutive contradiction of Europe. The Asian and African students, as well as Roma, who were mistreated on Polish, Hungarian and Romanian borders with Ukraine, also reveal this contradiction. Most importantly, the fact that Ukrainian women and children are received with open arms while their men are fighting “our war” confirms, rather than counters, the logic of European bordering practices. However, explaining this by invoking racial discrimination is too simplistic. Such explanations overlook the complexities of political kinship, whereby instead of abandoning kinship, as liberal politics would have it, Latvians and Eastern Europeans are transposing kinship into the political sphere. This results in a much deeper and broader outpouring of support, but it can also result in great resentment when expectations on both sides break down.


This blog is part of the forum: Making sense of the war in Ukraine



[1] Some parts of this argument were developed in conversation with Chris Hann and Volodymyr Artiukh.