Making sense of the war in Ukraine

March 2022
Kyiv in darkness, a broken sign in front of a darkened road
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Dace Dzenovska and Madeleine Reeves facilitate this forum.

This forum emerged during the first week of the war in Ukraine when those of us living and working in/Ukraine, Russia, and the neighbouring states were speechless, overwhelmed first by the shock of violence that most of us did not think would happen, and then by the gradual realization of the gravity of the unfolding events for life—and the world—as we knew it. Despite the difficulty of orienting amidst war, we have seen a proliferation of explanations and speculations; many are stuck in explanatory frames of the past. Volodymyr Artiukh made the point in a recent article about the Western left failing to see that the region – Russia, in particular in this case – has a degree of autonomy. Russia is often thought of as trying to overcome a past of socialism or backwardness and achieve a predetermined future. Since the Cold War, various scholars and the lay public have not seen it as a place that shapes the world order or the future. That’s why quite a few Western explanations of what we see focus on US imperialism and NATO. Now, Russia is reshaping the world order by both war and the Western response to it. This is not to be celebrated as a long-awaited recognition of agency, but it does require our full attention. The world we have known since the 1990s is no more. The 1990s were a dizzying time of freedom and danger. Now, it seems, there is just danger.

This forum attempts to make sense of the war and related events in a constantly shifting landscape. Most of us contributing to this forum are anthropologists. Some of us work explicitly on questions of migration, mobility and displacement. Others have been trying to make sense of how, in shifting political contexts, our informants seek to navigate competing epistemic claims about freedom and truth. Each of us finds ourselves trying to track an avalanche in motion, figuring out what the war means for our interlocutors and their families, their livelihoods and futures, and their practices of social navigation when homes and hopes have been upturned.

The forum offers a snapshot of our thinking at a particular moment rather than a definitive statement. Our motivation for this collection is that the theoretical and methodological tools of anthropology can nuance some of the claims that dominate in top-down accounts of the war, its causes and its impacts. The contributions to this forum illuminate, among other themes, the limitation of viewing Russian audiences as passively ‘brainwashed’ by state propaganda, the changing salience of language as a register of identification in eastern Ukraine, the affective force of Putin’s ‘strong state’ to Central Asian migrant workers, and the ideologies of kinship that animate Latvians’ conditional welcome for Ukrainian refugees.

In addition to reflecting and writing about the war, we are also involved in extending various forms of assistance to those affected. Some original roundtable contributors cannot find a moment to write down their thoughts (see poster for the Roundtable on the War in Ukraine). It is difficult to remain academic and to participate in the routine circuits of knowledge production when the ground is shifting beneath one’s feet. In addition to reflections about the war, we invite reflections on knowledge and action during a war.

If you are interested in contributing to potential future editions of the forum, please get in touch with us at and Please note that publication will be subject to an editorial selection process.

*Header image: Kyiv, Friday, March 4, 2022, by Sergi Mykhalchuk. Click on the link to see more works by the Ukrainian filmmaker and photographer. Sergi has permitted these photos to be used. Please distribute and share them as widely as possible.