International Debate

A Most Unnatural Experiment: What The War Has Taught a Ukrainian-American Political Scientist

February 23, 2023 1115

Over 8 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland during this past year of war since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To me, these are not just numbers. My family and friends are among them.

I am a Ukrainian American political scientist. As a specialist in Eastern Europe, I have evaluated this war over the past year from my professional perspective. Yet this war is also deeply personal.

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This article by Lena Surzhko Harned originally appeared on The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “I am a Ukrainian American political scientist, and this is what the past year of war has taught me about Ukraine, Russia and defiance.”

It is certain that Ukraine and Ukrainians will be affected by this war for generations. Not a single Ukrainian, in Ukraine or abroad, has been left unscathed by this war.

But one assured outcome to the war’s devastation is strengthened national unity and pride. I know, because I research this topic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had expected that Ukrainian leadership would run away, intimidated, when the invasion began.

When Ukraine’s leaders stood their ground, Putin addressed Ukraine’s soldiers, urging them not to obey Ukraine’s government and instead “come to an agreement” with him.

Ukrainians had other ideas.

Ukrainians overwhelmed military recruitment centers, organized territorial defense units and prepared to defend their country and neighborhoods with Molotov cocktails and jars of pickles. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, when asked by the U.S. if he wanted to evacuate from the capital city, Kyiv, to a more secure location, famously declared, “I want ammunition, not a ride.”

Putin had miscalculated. He thought he confronted a corrupt regime, like his own. Instead, he faced a nation.

A younger and an older woman, standing in front of a fountain and stately building on a sunny day.
The author, Lena Surzhko Harned, and her mother in front of the Lviv National Opera, Lviv, Ukraine, May 2017. (Photo: Author provided/ CC BY-SA)

Refugees inside and outside

On the night of Feb. 23, 2022 – which was already Feb. 24 in Ukraine – I checked Twitter before going to bed and found a message that Putin was speaking. I ran to the living room to find my mom, who had arrived from Kyiv in December of 2021 to help me with my infant son.

We watched Putin’s speech in horror. The war had started. Russian artillery opened fire on several Ukrainian cities. We messaged my sister and aunt in Kyiv. In reality, the war had started eight years earlier, when Putin annexed Crimea and invaded parts of Eastern Ukraine, but now Russia had moved to a full invasion.

During the first days of the invasion, we did not sleep. It was largely expected that what Putin called a “special military operation” would last a few days. Some experts believed that Kyiv would fall in 72 hours.

While my mom was with us in the U.S., the rest of my family was living in Ukraine, in Kyiv and in the Poltava and Chernihiv regions. During the siege of Kyiv in February and early March, my sister, my aunt and younger cousins remained in the city. Kyiv’s metro stations became bomb shelters.

We begged all of them to get out of the city. “We are staying home,” they said. I heard this reply for several months, despite my pleading.

Millions, mostly women and children, did flee, packed tight into crammed train cars. A childhood friend headed to the Polish border with her 3-year-old. “Sardines in a can have more space to stretch out,” she told me with characteristic humor, “but compared to people in the east, we are on vacation.”

Kharkiv was being leveled to the ground. Poltava and the cities in the region were overwhelmed by an influx of internally displaced people.

One friend and colleague, a professor of history in Poltava, headed the territorial defense unit of the city. It helped the internally displaced to find accommodations, supplied the refugees with food, water and other necessities and organized patrols of the neighborhoods.

In the following weeks and months, the news of the atrocities committed in occupied Bucha, Irpin, Izium and Mariupol shook me to the core.

Authoritarian past vs. democratic future

In my research I’ve analyzed the legacy of the Soviet Union, a communist totalitarian state that included Russia and Ukraine, which existed from 1922 to 1991. I have studied the political views and attitudes of different generations of people in Ukraine and Russia. I cannot help but reflect on this war from that perspective.

I see a war between the very different world views: one stuck in the authoritarian past, one belonging to the future and democracy.

During his almost 20 years of ruling over Russia, Putin has attempted to create a new ideology that glorified the autocratic Soviet past – including the genocidal rule of dictator Josef Stalin and the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Those daring to oppose Putin’s official history – and who shed light on the USSR’s atrocities, like human rights advocates known as “Memorial” and the Helsinki Group – find themselves persecuted and prosecuted.

The new generations in Putin’s Russia are indoctrinated into that backward-looking ideology from an early age. Moreover, Putin’s ideology denies Ukrainian sovereignty.

Unemcumbered by Soviet worldview

In Ukraine, the story is different. Over the past 30 years, Ukraine has embraced democracy. The war only strengthened this commitment.

The people of Ukraine, since regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, have had a chance to reevaluate and in some cases rediscover their history. Thus, the Soviet worldview forced on Ukrainians, which included reverence of the USSR as part of the country’s history, is fading.

Ukraine’s new generations have a distinct Ukrainian identity, forged by years of independence and the revolutions of 2004 and 2014.

In 2004’s Orange Revolution, Ukrainians refused to accept the results of a rigged election that would have delivered a pro-Kremlin candidate. In 2013-14, the Revolution of Dignity ousted the corrupt pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.

The Revolution of Dignity was a fight against internal corruption and Russian meddling in Ukrainian internal affairs. I see this drive for democracy and sovereignty reflected in my sister and her generation. Born after Ukraine regained its independence from the Soviet Union, she is unencumbered by the Soviet worldview of Ukraine as a Russian colony. She is a free Ukrainian.

After much begging from me, my sister and her two cats finally arrived in the U.S. in the summer of 2022. With her came our 13-year-old cousin. His mom and older siblings, one of them disabled, stayed in Ukraine with our grandmother.

Other relatives in Ukraine stayed behind. They are working, volunteering, and some are involved in territorial defense. All support the armed forces of Ukraine.

This trend is evident in the public opinion that points to Ukrainians’ overwhelming support for their armed forces and President Zelenskyy, as well as their faith in victory.

Bracing for the future

On New Year’s Eve, the seven of us sat around my small kitchen table. We watched President Zelenskyy on YouTube, summarizing the year, which for all of us started in February.

We hid tears from each other. In three days, my aunt, who came from Ukraine for the holidays, would be traveling back to Warsaw by air and from there to Kyiv by train.

Every time I think of her going back, my heart skips a beat. Russians have deliberately and systematically attacked civilian infrastructure, leaving cities without electricity, heat and water. My aunt will return, carrying a collection of solar-powered lights.

I often hear people ask why Ukrainians stay, why do they not get out. There are several reasons for this. Some simply cannot. Others, like many of my family, colleagues and friends, are determined and defiant.

“Ukraine is home,” my sister told me. “We have to rebuild it. I want to be part of that effort.” For now, in the U.S., she’s taking English classes and works part time. She has met other Ukrainian refugees. Some have lost their loved ones, and some have no homes to go back to.

I think back to the conversation I had in March with an acquaintance, herself a refugee from Bosnia. “We all wanted to return,” she said. “Few did.”

As a political scientist, I harbor no illusions that this war will end soon. There are expectations of a new Russian offensive.

Like so many Ukrainians, we brace for the future – and trust in victory.

Lena Surzhko Harned is an associate teaching professor of political science and associate director of the Public Policy Fund at Penn State University, Behrend College. Her primary research interests are comparative politics, political behavior, European politics, and politics of the post-Soviet space. Her co-authored book Post-Soviet Legacies and Conflicting Values in Europe: Generation Why? was published by Lexington Books Russian, Eurasian, and European Politics Series in December 2017.

View all posts by Lena Surzhko Harned

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