UW News

March 4, 2022

Ukrainian American professor shares insights on ‘gut-wrenching’ events in Ukraine

Ukrainian flag waves in front of Suzzallo library

Supporter of Ukraine waves the Ukrainian flag on Red Square, as part of a rally on Feb. 24. The rally was organized by visiting scholars Sofiia Fedzhora and Olena Bidovanets, with the help of Laada Bilaniuk, a professor of anthropology at the UW. Misty Shock Rule

Laada Bilaniuk is a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington whose expertise is Ukrainian culture and society. The daughter of Ukrainian Americans, she’s been wanting to return to Ukraine to finish research on her next book. Now, she can’t wait to go back, and she might not be going back alone.

“My daughter is 17, and she was like, ‘Mom, you know I’ve been talking about that gap year in Ukraine. Maybe I can help rebuild,’” Bilaniuk said.

While her family fled the country during World War II, Bilaniuk has colleagues and close friends in Ukraine. Watching the events there has been “gut-wrenching,” she said, but it’s motivated her to take action.

Bilaniuk helped two visiting scholars from Ukraine — Sofiia Fedzhora, a Fulbright Foreign Language teaching assistant, and Olena Bidovanets, a graduate student in global health — organize a rally supporting the country on the UW campus last week. She’s also attended other rallies and been part of other organizing efforts.

Laada BilaniukUniversity of Washington

“I’m torn between feeling completely disempowered and afraid of what can happen — in terms of the massive killing and loss of life,” she said. “And I am inspired by what these people are doing and their strength of spirit and readiness to lay down their lives.”

Everyday Ukrainians are joining the Territorial Defense Forces, a volunteer branch of civilian reservists led by professional soldiers, and fighting back in the midst of Russian tanks and bombings. And if they aren’t joining the resistance through combat, they are finding other ways to contribute, whether it’s by distributing food, giving blood or more.

These are the signs of a “new kind of nation” that Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t expect to encounter, Bilaniuk says.

When Putin first came to power, the Ukrainian people were emerging from the Soviet era, and they were used to the state taking care of them, she adds. That changed over time, reaching a turning point with 2014’s Revolution of Dignity. Government forces killed protesters, and then-President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power, which also led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention to establish the separatist regions in Donbas. The Ukrainian people’s mistrust of government that followed led to an increase in volunteerism and grassroots organizing.

“People realized that it’s their country, and they need to forge it into what they want it to be,” Bilaniuk said.

Ukrainians are now fighting for their lives and the vision they have for their country: “Those outside of Ukraine say, ‘We don’t want World War III.’ For Ukraine, this is already World War III.”

Bilaniuk is a linguistic anthropologist who has written on how language in Ukraine is related to social divisions deeply rooted in history and ideology. Both Russian and Ukrainian are spoken — bilingualism that’s reflected, for example, in the two versions of the name for the nation’s capital: Kyiv (pronounced KAY-YEEV), which is the Ukrainian pronunciation of the name, and Kiev (pronounced KEE-YEV), the Russian counterpart.

Learn more

Event: “In Focus: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” 4 p.m., March 7

Event: “Songs and Sovereignty in Ukraine: A Lecture by Maria Sonevytsky,” 5:30 p.m., March 8

UW President Ana Mari Cauce: “We stand with the people of Ukraine in the face of this heartbreaking attack

UW Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures: “Statement of Solidarity with the People of Ukraine

UW Combined Fund Drive: “Ukraine Invasion: How to Help

During the Soviet era, the Russian language was encouraged, and Ukrainian was suppressed. Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, though, speaking Russian or Ukrainian was more a sign of your profession or whether you lived in urban or rural environments — where, respectively, Russian and Ukrainian are more common — rather than a sign of nationalism.

But that changed, Bilaniuk says, when Putin politicized language in 2014. He said Russian-language speakers were being oppressed by the requirement to learn Ukrainian as the language of state, using that as an excuse to intervene in Donbas. Since then, speaking Ukrainian has become “potently symbolic,” and motivated more people to learn the language.

Now many leaders of activist groups fighting the Russian invasion use Ukrainian, even if they are ethnically Russian or grew up speaking Russian.

Bilaniuk is leveraging her expertise on Ukrainian culture and has spoken to news media about the perspectives of local Ukrainians.

She says local Ukrainian community groups are focusing on several priorities: Fighting misinformation spread by the Russian government that Ukraine is a fascist puppet of the United States; and countering messages within the United States that intervention in Ukraine is an extension of imperialism.

Community groups are coordinating aid and have already chartered a jet to take supplies, including diapers, food and bulletproof vests, to Poland for distribution in Ukraine. There is also a lobbying effort to encourage the state government to break off ties to Russian businesses.

For those in the U.S. who feel helpless watching what’s going on in Ukraine, Bilaniuk has a simple message: Look to the Ukrainian people.

“In Ukraine they’ve tasted freedom, and they do not think that a life without that is worth it. So they’re willing to lay it all on the line,” she said. “They are rejecting the pathos. They’d say, ‘Don’t cry to me. Don’t tell us how afraid you are. Worry, yes, but do something.’”

Bilaniuk is a panelist for the event “In Focus: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” taking place on Zoom at 4 p.m. on Monday, March 7. The event is sponsored by the UW’s Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies; Jackson School of International Studies; Center for West European Studies; and the European, Russian, and Central Asian Initiative.