This forum emerged during the first week of war in Ukraine when those of us living and working in/on Ukraine, Russia and the neighbouring states were speechless, overwhelmed first by the shock of violence that most of us did not think would actually 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 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. Ever since the Cold war, a variety of scholarly and lay publics 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 are seeing focus on US imperialism and on 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 knew 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 is one attempt 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, for their livelihoods and futures, for their practices of social navigation when homes and/or hopes have been upturned.
What the forum offers is a snapshot of our thinking at a particular moment in time 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, all of us are also involved in extending various forms of assistance to those affected by the war. Some of the original roundtable contributors are unable to find a moment to write down their thoughts (see poster for the Roundtable on the War in Ukraine). It is difficult to remain an 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 also therefore invite reflections on knowledge and action in a time of war.
If you interested in contributing to potential future editions of the forum, please contact us at Dace.Dzenovska@compas.ox.ac.uk and Madeleine.Reeves@compas.ox.ac.uk. Please note that publication will be subject to an editorial selection process.
Through the fog of war: the first month of the Russian invasion
Blog | Volodymyr Artiukh | 25/03/2022
What forms of displacement can be observed in Ukraine?
Blog | Emma Rimpiläinen | 25/03/2022
Political kinship: Receiving Ukrainian refugees while bordering Europe
Blog | Dace Dzenovska | 25/03/2022
*Header image: Kiev, Friday March 4, 2022 by Sergi Mykhalchuk. Click on the link to see more works by the Ukrainian filmmaker and photographer. Sergi has given permission for these photos to be used, please distribute and share as widely as possible.