Tetyana Shlikhar

Assistant Teaching Professor & Director of Undergraduate Russian Studies, University of Pittsburgh

I grew up during the difficult transition for Ukraine after it acquired its independence and have witnessed many transformations that my country and its people underwent over the last thirty years. This eventually led to my current research interests. I defended my first Ph.D. dissertation in Translation Studies at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv (2010). My research was on drama translation as I explored why translation for the theater is so different from other types of literary translation. My genuine interest in drama and theater came from my work experience at the National Ivan Franko Drama Theater (Kyiv, 2005-2011). Still a student, I worked as Assistant to its then Artistic Director, Bohdan Stupka, and later was promoted to Assistant Head of the Literature Department. After completing my Ph.D. in translation studies, I applied for the Fulbright Faculty Development Program, which seemed like a great opportunity to continue my research in the United States. I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 2011. While at Binghamton University, SUNY, I had the opportunity to work closely with prominent American translation and theater scholars. The Fulbright program became a life-changing event in my life. I discovered ample opportunities for research in U.S. academia and decided to continue my studies. I returned to the United States to do my second Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. It was 2014, a year of tumultuous events in Ukraine and the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine. I did not plan it then, but the war and contestation between Russia and Ukraine eventually influenced my research interests and the choice of the topic for my dissertation. I defended my dissertation, Between Histories and Memories: Memory Wars in Contemporary Russian and Ukrainian Cinema, in 2020 (University of Pittsburgh). One of my main arguments was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine began to view their shared past in completely different and often opposite ways. While Russia, as the successor of the Soviet Union, continued to perpetuate certain Soviet narratives, latching on to the best achievements of the Soviet Union, Ukraine began to uncover Soviet crimes against the Ukrainian people, fill in blank pages of its history and lean towards the European worldview. The different cultural memory of the past leads to a different perception of the present and different objectives for the future. As we can see today, it can lead to devastating consequences.

I am now working on my book, Parallel Realities in Russian and Ukrainian Historical Film, which continues the research initiated in my dissertation. Yet after February 24, 2022, the argument has become even more determined and well-defined. I am looking at recent Russian and Ukrainian films and continue to be amazed by how drastically different cultural memories and mentalities have developed over the last few decades in the two countries. My book aims to analyze the tensions between Russia and Ukraine on the cultural level, with regard to the ideological discourse set by Ukrainian and Russian filmmakers. It often seems as if the same historical period, event, or historical figure tends to exist in parallel realities in Russian and Ukrainian historical cinema, with completely different ideologies, emphasis, and selection of facts. The presentation of Kievan Rus, World War Two, or the Soviet period, for instance,–the past that Russia and Ukraine share–is often placed in completely different contexts. These discrepancies, the difference in viewing a common historical past, and memories created in the present about the past have contributed a lot to the cultural war between the two countries and eventually the Russian invasion of Ukraine. My project is a timely exploration of the ideological contestation between the two countries. The research provides an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the cultural and ideological roots of the current war and its consequences for the cultural identities constructed by the two states; it also explores and lends insight into key memory wars in contemporary Russian and Ukrainian cinema.

I think that the biggest challenge for Ukrainian scholars, whether in Ukraine or abroad, is the fact that they are being displaced, distracted from their research, dislocated from their institutions, and unable to do research in these new circumstances. I also hear from many of my colleagues that the language barrier is often a big problem for scholars who had to seek safety abroad but have never had much exposure to foreign languages.

I think I am in a better position than many of my colleagues who were forced out of their homes or are still in Ukraine. However, my biggest challenge during the war is to stay focused on my research. I have never spent so much time reading news, talking about politics, volunteering, and participating in different events in support of Ukraine. It has become part of my life now. I begin my day by checking on my family in Ukraine. I can be creative only when my mind is at peace so that I can focus on my project. With the horrible news coming in every day about Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, and other cities, peace of mind is a real challenge. I was paralyzed mentally at the beginning of the war, but then after the initial shock was gone, I realized that my research is as timely as ever. So the war also became an impetus for me to keep working on my book.

I know that ASEEES and many academic institutions worldwide have already been helping Ukrainian scholars in many ways. However, this help may not be accessible to all scholars at risk, especially those who cannot come to the United States due to bureaucratic or immigration issues, who do not qualify to work at a U.S. academic institution according to U.S. standards, or who need additional training. I think that only a handful of Ukrainian scholars have access to the resources offered to them by academic institutions in the U.S. Scholars at an early stage in their career, as well as those who do not know English, may not be able to receive the support.

Decolonization of East-European studies would probably be the most obvious outcome of the war. Russian studies have always been central in the region, but now the emphasis will shift. The smaller post-Soviet countries like Ukraine never had much attention; they have always been at the periphery. In fact, Ukraine has always been viewed as part of Russia—an imperial narrative that Russia has promoted since the times of the Russian Empire. This very narrative justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine with the claim that there is no such thing as Ukrainian language, culture, or nation. Yet, the resistance of the Ukrainian people has shown that Ukrainians are a distinct people and that Ukrainian culture, literature, and language are unique and no less worthy than Russian. I believe that the study of smaller, lesser-known post-Soviet countries and their cultures will come into focus now. Russia will continue to be important in academic research but now from the perspective of tyranny, terrorism, and criminal power.