College hosts panel on Russian invasion of Ukraine

Lena Kerest

The College’s panel on the war in Ukraine was held in Griffin 3. (Lena Kerest/The Williams Record)

The College’s department of anthropology and sociology, the global studies program, and the Russian program hosted a panel discussion on Feb. 27, reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The event — titled “A Year of Asymmetric War on Ukraine: What Have We Learned?” — featured Professor of Russian Julie Cassiday; Assistant Director of the Center for Development Economics Lisa Koryushkina; Professor of Economics Steven Nafziger; Visiting Professor at Bennington College Alexandar Mihailovic; and Professor of Sociology Olga Shevchenko.

The discussion began with Nafziger providing an overview of the economic situations in both Russia and Ukraine. “The main takeaway is that the Russian economy hasn’t actually plummeted to the same degree or near the degree that people thought even a year ago, despite the imposed sanctions,” he said. According to Nafziger, one major reason that the Russian economy has not shrunk as expected is because Russia’s exports continue to be bought on the global market.

In contrast, the state of the Ukrainian economy is far more dire, Nafziger said. Due to the Russian invasion, businesses in Ukraine were unable to operate for a prolonged period of time. Although some businesses have rebounded, they have not returned to pre-invasion levels due to significant complications with infrastructure such as widespread electricity blackouts as well as displacement for up to 40 percent of the country’s population.

Mihailovic then commented on shifts in culture in Ukraine since the start of the war, which he identified as 2014, when Russian troops invaded Crimea. “Until the annexation of Crimea, 40 percent of the Ukrainian population acknowledged Russian as their primary language,” he said. “Now, the most recent statistic from a couple of months ago says 14 percent of the population of Ukraine recognizes Russian as their primary language.” Mihailovic described the changes in language use as an act of protest. Similarly, religious orientations have also shifted away from the Russian Orthodox Church, he added.

Afterward, Koryushkina spoke about birth and death rates in both countries. “Russia and Ukraine have been dealing with low fertility rates and high mortality rates,” she said. “Several programs have been introduced in order to increase fertility, but all of them have had only a limited or minor effect.” Though Ukraine was already facing population decline before the war, the nation still maintains one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe and the world.

“Since the start of the war, the losses in Ukraine are significant, with a conservative estimate of 20,000 to 25,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries from military action, and over 35,000 civilian deaths,” Koryushkina said. “In a country of 43 million, the population has shrunk to 35 million in the course of one year.”

Cassiday reflected on her experience visiting Georgia as part of the College’s Winter Study trip this January. She noticed that her knowledge of Russian was not as helpful when she ran the program 10 years ago but that it proved useful this year. “Nothing could have been more different due to the influx of people from Russia and Ukraine who have been affected by the war,” she said.

Cassiday also noted the importance of scholars who are now acknowledging the impact of imperialism in their studies of countries like Ukraine and Georgia. “The legacy of colonialism that colors all of the knowledge that we produce on Russia and Eastern European and Eurasian Studies is a product of imperialism,” she said.

Finally, Shevchenko ended on a note of human resilience. “By far the most uplifting and important [part] is just the stunning courage of Ukrainian people,” she said. Examples of such resilience, Shevchenko said, include underground activism as well as informal schools set up for refugee children.

At the College, Ukrainian students have been raising funds in conjunction with students at other universities to support those facing the war in Ukraine. “They asked me to forward their call to keep your eyes on Ukraine,” Shevchenko said.