“Russians and Ukrainians actually understand each other well. That is perhaps the . . . saddest irony of this perverse, unnecessary war,” writes Ukrainian journalist Natalyia Gumenyuk. “We know each other’s mentalities. We understand each other’s languages. We share a Soviet past.” Gumenyuk’s comparison underscores how different two such seemingly similar countries can be.
The two countries’ commonalities have perplexed and misled many foreign commentators. J. D. Vance, of Hillbilly Elegy (2016) fame, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez share little in the way of politics, but they initially agreed that the war in Ukraine does not warrant U.S. military intervention. It’s nothing more than Eastern Europeans fighting other Eastern Europeans—a localized conflict—they seemed to think. Though they’ve both subsequently changed their opinions, their brief accord highlights how Western misunderstanding of Ukraine have at times created strange bedfellows.
It certainly has not helped that reporting on the war is dominated by white, mostly male faces from the West. There are very few foreign names, even fewer accents. If Ukrainians are interviewed, they are usually cast in the roles of tearful, frightened witnesses. They are rarely shown as experts in their own history. Among those rendered invisible by this are the millions of Eastern Europeans who arrived in the West during postsocialist waves of migration, which have far exceeded the small number who arrived as refugees in the 1980s. These earlier groups were celebrated because their narratives about the traumas of socialism ticked certain boxes in the context of the Cold War. Yet newer migrants, brought to the West by the tremendous shocks suffered by Eastern European societies once opened to neoliberal capitalism, have been largely ignored.
Thanks in no small part to these silences, a great misunderstanding about the war has gone largely unchecked, namely that it is simply internecine, a sequel to the Cold War that plays out simmering resentments dating from the time of the USSR. In reality, Eastern Europe has been shaped by global forces as much as any region around the world: neoliberal capitalism, patriarchal authoritarianism and other forms of sexism, racism, and global migration (contoured by all the preceding) are deeply entangled in the roots of this war. And only by understanding Eastern Europe beyond the old dichotomies of the free West versus the authoritarian East can we begin to grasp the war’s significance and imagine new solidarities.
And while the conflict is playing out in national terms—while transnational entities such as the EU and NATO hover in the background—it is critical to think of this war in the context of Eastern Europe as a region. In what follows, I revisit a time when I experienced Eastern Europe as a world of its own, with its own rules and themes and limitations. In 2000, approximately a decade after the end of socialism, I attended the Foros Summer Institute in Kharhiv, Ukraine, at a time when both Russia and Ukraine were still open to new things from the West, and intellectuals, after years of censorship, were trying to enter a dialogue with their Western colleagues. Twenty years later, in spite of economic and military alliances, Eastern Europe is still not the West and not the Third World either, and it experiences the problems of the global world in its own way.