Is civilizational primordialism any better than nationalist primordialism?

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Denys Gorbach Lecturer, University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France denys.gorbach@sciencespo.fr

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https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3071-5480

The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war seems to have prompted a return to anthropology's origins: the armchair. Claiming authority based on status and knowledge accumulated elsewhere and extrapolated to Ukraine, public scholars have proffered takes, op-eds, and geopolitical phantasies. Slow research in the full ethnographic mode, studying actors and subjectivities in fast shifting contexts, would have been preferable. In a context of war, complex and dynamic political phenomena easily become tokens in political debates that do not go much beyond statements of political identity.

The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war seems to have prompted a return to anthropology's origins: the armchair. Claiming authority based on status and knowledge accumulated elsewhere and extrapolated to Ukraine, public scholars have proffered takes, op-eds, and geopolitical phantasies. Slow research in the full ethnographic mode, studying actors and subjectivities in fast shifting contexts, would have been preferable. In a context of war, complex and dynamic political phenomena easily become tokens in political debates that do not go much beyond statements of political identity.

Chris Hann's article claims to analyze the war in Ukraine and its repercussions for social anthropology, but we find no original research in or on Ukraine, nor many references to such research (or Russia, for that matter). Hann opens with a prudent reminder that violence in Ukraine began years before 2022—but stops short of analyzing the complex dynamics of this violence and Russia's role in it (e.g., Arel and Driscoll 2022). He presents Russia's 2021 war ultimatum as Putin's “peaceful proposals” rejected by political elites in Washington and Kyiv who somehow wanted Russia to attack (see Artiukh and Fedirko 2022). Volodymyr Zelensky, chosen as a peace president and the author of the unprecedented yearlong ceasefire of 2020–2021, is depicted as a warmonger.

The article makes a welcome claim against primordialist understandings of nations and nationalism. It is remarkable therefore that Hann at the same time seems keen to maintain quasi-primordialist “civilizational” assumptions about “Eastern Slavonic neighbors” between whom one cannot easily drive a wedge. A similar surprise comes with the image of transhistorical Russians jointly sharing “values that differ from those of the United States.” Likewise, his statement that one's “knowledge of the history of Ukrainian nationalism” should suffice to estimate the (supposedly high) number of war crimes on the Ukrainian side in the current war. Ukrainian nationalism should apparently be assumed to have a durable and essentially violent core.

For an anti-primordialist statement, it is surprising to see that both Russia and Ukraine get their portion of essentializing treatment in this text. In the Ukrainian case, we see an essentially corrupt, oligarchic, and bellicose actor. Russia's portrait is remarkably more flattering, but also more static. While both thus have cultural tendencies, neither has much agency of its own in Hann's account: it is only the West that starts and ends wars.

Against accounts that treat national sovereignty and nationalism as the default starting point, Hann recommends a Boasian take on cultures as distinct units of analysis. Hann explains that some peoples and their cultures are “historical,” and others are “nonhistorical.” This old concept of Friedrich Engels has long ago been discarded by Marxists (Rosdolsky [1948] 1986). It brings us back to the logic of nineteenth-century great power thinking, where the empires claimed zones of influence over younger, smaller, and weaker satellites. Endorsing primordialist arguments about Russian language, religion, and history employed by the Russian president, Hann argues against Ukraine fighting for territory that was not “occupied historically” by Slavs—which brings him uncomfortably close to the concept of Volksgeist and blood-and-soil mythologies. Civilizations preoccupy him more than class or global capitalism.

Can we do better than taking recourse to either national or civilizational primordialisms? Actual overviews of research in and around Ukraine that is relevant for understanding the logics and actions of war can be found in recent publications (Artiukh et al. 2023; Drążkiewicz 2023). Anthropologists research housing issues (Liasheva 2022), urban legacies and infrastructures (Balazs 2023; Ryabchuk 2023), oligarchy (Fomitchova 2022), working-class politics (Gorbach 2024; Saburova 2024), volunteer military formations (Maestracci 2022), internally displaced people (Bulakh 2023; Kuzemska 2022), and many other topics in war-torn Ukraine. Reflexive, empirically rooted scholarship is doing its job, even under difficult circumstances.

References

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  • Artiukh, Volodymyr, and Taras Fedirko. 2022. “No, the West didn't halt Ukraine's peace talks with Russia.Novara Media, 17 October. https://novaramedia.com/2022/10/17/no-the-west-didnt-halt-ukraines-peace-talks-with-russia.

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  • Artiukh, Volodymyr, Taras Fedirko, Maryna Hrymych, Tina Polek, and Ana Ivasiuc. 2023. “Ukraine, one year on: Listening to Ukrainian anthropologists.Conflict and Society: Advances in Research 9 (1): 173185. https://doi.org/10.3167/arcs.2023.090112

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  • Balazs, Anna. 2023. “The war on indeterminacy: Rethinking Soviet urban legacy in Mariupol, 2014–2022.Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 96: 3245. https://doi.org/10.3167/fcl.2023.960103.

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  • Drążkiewicz, Elżbieta. 2023. “Forum: Russia's invasion of Ukraine.Social Anthropology / Anthropologie Sociale 31 (2): 119156. https://doi.org/10.3167/saas.2023.310209

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  • Fomitchova, Anastasia. 2022. “Les oligarques de l'Ukraine post-maïdan: Une imbrication des sphères politique et économique” [Oligarchs of the post-Maidan Ukraine: An imbrication of the political and economic spheres]. Critique Internationale 96 (3): 127149. https://doi.org/10.3917/crii.096.0127.

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  • Liasheva, Alona. 2022. “Wohnraum und Krieg in der Ukraine” [Housing and war in Ukraine]. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 22 July. https://www.bpb.de/themen/europa/ukraine-analysen/nr-271/510661/analyse-wohnraum-und-krieg-in-der-ukraine.

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  • Maestracci, Coline. 2022. “De l'activisme citoyen à l'engagement armé: Le cas des combattants volontaires ukrainiens de la guerre du Donbass[From civic activism to armed engagement: The case of Ukrainian voluntary combatants of the Donbas war]. Socio 16: 159176. https://doi.org/10.4000/socio.12249

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  • Rosdolsky, Roman. (1948) 1986. Engels and the “Nonhistoric” Peoples: The national question in the Revolution of 1848. Glasgow: Critique Books.

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    • Export Citation
  • Ryabchuk, Anastasiya. 2023. “War on the horizon: Infrastructural vulnerability in frontline communities of the Donbass.Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 96: 4656. https://doi.org/10.3167/fcl.2023.960104.

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  • Saburova, Daria. 2024. Travailleuses de la résistance: Les classes populaires Ukrainiennes face à la guerre [Workers of resistance: Ukrainian working classes in the face of the war]. Vulaines-sur-Seine: Editions du Croquant.

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Contributor Notes

Denys Gorbach is an ATER (temporary adjunct lecturer) in the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. He received his PhD at Sciences Po Paris in 2022. His doctoral thesis is an ethnographic study of the moral economy and the everyday politics of the Ukrainian working class. His current research is about survival strategies of Ukrainian refugees in France. Among his research interests are post-Soviet moral economies, patron-client relations, populism, politicization and depoliticization, political economy of post-socialism, labor process, informality, and uneven and combined development. He is a former Ukrainian economic journalist and left-wing activist. Email: denys.gorbach@sciencespo.fr | ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3071-5480

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Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Arel, Dominique, and Jesse Driscoll. 2022. Ukraine's unnamed war: Civil war and Russian intervention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Artiukh, Volodymyr, and Taras Fedirko. 2022. “No, the West didn't halt Ukraine's peace talks with Russia.Novara Media, 17 October. https://novaramedia.com/2022/10/17/no-the-west-didnt-halt-ukraines-peace-talks-with-russia.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Artiukh, Volodymyr, Taras Fedirko, Maryna Hrymych, Tina Polek, and Ana Ivasiuc. 2023. “Ukraine, one year on: Listening to Ukrainian anthropologists.Conflict and Society: Advances in Research 9 (1): 173185. https://doi.org/10.3167/arcs.2023.090112

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Balazs, Anna. 2023. “The war on indeterminacy: Rethinking Soviet urban legacy in Mariupol, 2014–2022.Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 96: 3245. https://doi.org/10.3167/fcl.2023.960103.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bulakh, Tetiana. 2023. “Things that matter: Humanitarian aid and citizenship among Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Ukraine (2014–2022).” PhD diss., Indiana University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Drążkiewicz, Elżbieta. 2023. “Forum: Russia's invasion of Ukraine.Social Anthropology / Anthropologie Sociale 31 (2): 119156. https://doi.org/10.3167/saas.2023.310209

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fomitchova, Anastasia. 2022. “Les oligarques de l'Ukraine post-maïdan: Une imbrication des sphères politique et économique” [Oligarchs of the post-Maidan Ukraine: An imbrication of the political and economic spheres]. Critique Internationale 96 (3): 127149. https://doi.org/10.3917/crii.096.0127.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gorbach, Denys. 2024. The making and unmaking of the Ukrainian working class: Everyday politics and moral economy in a post-soviet city. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kuzemska, Lidia. 2022. “‘Don't be afraid of our citizens’: Internally displaced people encounter bordering and othering in Ukraine.” PhD diss., Lancaster University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Liasheva, Alona. 2022. “Wohnraum und Krieg in der Ukraine” [Housing and war in Ukraine]. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 22 July. https://www.bpb.de/themen/europa/ukraine-analysen/nr-271/510661/analyse-wohnraum-und-krieg-in-der-ukraine.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Maestracci, Coline. 2022. “De l'activisme citoyen à l'engagement armé: Le cas des combattants volontaires ukrainiens de la guerre du Donbass[From civic activism to armed engagement: The case of Ukrainian voluntary combatants of the Donbas war]. Socio 16: 159176. https://doi.org/10.4000/socio.12249

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosdolsky, Roman. (1948) 1986. Engels and the “Nonhistoric” Peoples: The national question in the Revolution of 1848. Glasgow: Critique Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ryabchuk, Anastasiya. 2023. “War on the horizon: Infrastructural vulnerability in frontline communities of the Donbass.Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 96: 4656. https://doi.org/10.3167/fcl.2023.960104.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Saburova, Daria. 2024. Travailleuses de la résistance: Les classes populaires Ukrainiennes face à la guerre [Workers of resistance: Ukrainian working classes in the face of the war]. Vulaines-sur-Seine: Editions du Croquant.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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