Over the past year Americans have been hearing about the escalating conflict in Ukraine as a story of separatist movement stoked by Russian expansionism under Putin.
The human cost of the partisan war as of February 2015 is sobering. According to the UN, 5,700 people have been killed; 14,000 wounded. Meanwhile, 5.2 million Ukrainian people are living in conflict areas; and over 950,000 people have been displaced within Ukraine, while 600,000 have fled to neighboring countries, of whom 400,000 have gone to Russia.
All this is taking place in a country already suffering from a crisis in health and demographics. Between 1990 and 2013, Ukraine’s population declined by over 12 percent. The fertility rate is well below replacement rates, and the mortality rate among working-age and younger men is said to be at crisis levels. Income inequality is among the worst in the world and there is widespread environmental depredation, and a deteriorating infrastructure.
While the suffering in Ukraine is clear, a clear divide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forces there may not be. Most of us struggle to understand the ongoing conflict because our knowledge of Ukraine during the post-Soviet era is very incomplete. We are told by our leaders and by the mainstream press that the fight reflects a clear conflict between pro-Russian and pro-Western ideologies. We have very little idea of what it has been like to live in Ukraine during the past 25 years.
Sarah Drue Phillips, IU Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Russian and East European Institute. She has been conducting anthropological research in Ukraine since 1995. Her broad research interests have concerned the variable effects of socialist collapse on people’s lives, especially in terms of gender formations, health, social inequalities and social justice, and changing citizen-state relations. She has studied the role of women in Ukraine’s civil society, the Ukrainian disability rights movement and, most recently, HIV prevention strategies.
Padraic Kenney, IU Professor of History and International Studies at Indiana University. He is the author or editor of seven books on Polish, Eastern European, and global history including most recently, 1989: Democratic Revolutions at the Cold War’s End (Boston, 2010).
Polina Vlasenko, a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at IU who is a native of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. She was an active volunteer in bringing medical aid to participants in the 2014 EuroMaidan protests, and has seen family members forced to flee from the eastern region of Ludansk.
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