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Two Years of War in Ukraine: Two Russianists Reflect

By Ailis Halligan and Oliver Fisk


Two photos taken in Georgia reflective of prevailing sentiments towards the War

On 24 February 2022, when Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the two of us were studying at Moscow State University on exchange from Trinity College Dublin. We chose to leave immediately, and have since spent significant time studying, living, and travelling in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. 


Through these experiences, we have “lived” the real-time shifts within East-West relations of the past two years: from the political isolation of Russia to the binding together of Europe and Ukraine; the exodus of anti-Putin Russians to the reshaping of Baltic and East European identity in reaction to the conflict. Whilst, of course, neither of us has been directly affected by the fighting in Ukraine, we have felt the ground shifting beneath us, as we attempt to navigate our personal and academic relationship to a country at war with Europe, and arguably the entire Western world. 


As the fighting in Ukraine approaches its two-year milestone, the two of us wish to reflect back on everything that has happened since the invasion and meditate on what a post-War Europe could mean for our future lives, studies, and careers.


 

Ailis Halligan:


My connection to this war is via Russia and the emotional attachment I have to its culture and people. Living in Moscow as a child and again on a university exchange, romantic relationships and friendships with Russians and over a decade of academic study of the country and language has granted me intimate insight into a place and people so often misunderstood.

 

The brutal invasion of Ukraine two years ago, shocking even by the Kremlin’s standards, complicated my relationship with Russia. I waved the blue and yellow flag, screamed anti-Putin slogans, yet retained a deep love for the country which had enriched and guided my life so far, despite feeling simultaneously betrayed by it.

 

Since the invasion I have felt driven to reinforce my belief in a free and open Russia, one which I would someday be able to return to. For me, it is the Russian people that embody this future country – both anti-regime activists like Aleksei Navalny, recently murdered in a Siberian prison for his beliefs, but also those who care so much for their homeland, they could not bear to remain there, and left after Putin declared war.

 

Over the last two years I have sought validation for my love for Russia among these emigres, citizens of a “floating Russia”, navigating the meaning of their nationality on Russia’s peripheries and further afield. Boiling eggs in a hostel in Yerevan, sweating in a sauna in Almaty, hiking to a monastery in Kutaisi, drinking on the streets in Istanbul, protesting in Berlin, eating kebabs in Paris, raving in a warehouse in Tbilisi and playing cards in Atrium 2 in Trinity College Dublin; these colourful moments of existence I have shared with Russian people give me hope that, as one identity fragments, a new one emerges, and while evil prevails in Putin’s theatre of war, the best parts of Russia multiply backstage.


The majority of my generation of Russianists began their studies in a post-Crimean-annexation, pre-full-scale-invasion world. Europe is now experiencing its worst war since WWII; unthinkable casualties on both sides, millions displaced, Ukrainian cities razed to the ground, Russia shut off from the world, and a huge question mark over how this all ends.

 

For students of Russian, it is not only the future of our careers that is shrouded in uncertainty, but the future of Russia and our place in it. As I prepare to leave university and go out into the world, I fear Russia will continue to deteriorate beyond recognition, and may eventually reject me and my commitment to understanding its complexity. 


This instability of Russian studies as a discipline reflects a country where reality is in constant flux, crescendoing into moments of monumental shift, the fallout of which then determines the conditions of the period that follows. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused global upheaval that echoes still; the invasion of Ukraine has turned the world upside down again. No university syllabus can hope to keep up with such seismic shocks.

 

When we talk about Russia, its future, and our future in and around it, we can no longer rely on a robust set of realities, or at the very least, presumptions. Vladimir Putin has stolen our ability to predict what may come tomorrow, to put our faith in a stable future, to plan, to have expectations and see them fulfilled.

 

Disruptions and doubts notwithstanding, academia, alongside people, is another place where I place my faith, particularly amid post-invasion questions as to whether teaching and promoting Russian language, history and culture is still worth it.

 

I would answer that this is more vital now than ever before. Whilst Putin tries to slam the door closed on the West, it must be Russianists who stick out their foot, force it back open, and hold it there, lest Russia be shut off from the world forever, to its own and our detriment, in equal measure.


 

Oliver Fisk:


Later in 2024, a fairly unique film called The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks will turn 100. Mr. West is a Soviet silent comedy that tells the story of an American who travels to the USSR, expecting to encounter a violent and backwards country. Though he initially runs into some unsavoury types (the state secret police save the day), the traveller is bedazzled by Moscow’s magnificence and his prejudices gradually subside. Mr. West ultimately writes back to his wife: “Burn all the New York magazines and hang a portrait of Lenin in my office. Long live the Bolsheviks!”


While the film successfully deploys the image of “a clueless American abroad” to comedic effect, a closer viewing reveals a genuine interest in (or preoccupation with) a Western visitor’s perceptions of Russia. And that curiosity still exists today — or at least it did when I studied in Moscow prior to the war. 


Perhaps due to my Mr. West-esque background (Irish mother, English father, Virginia childhood), Russians were fascinated by my impressions of their country. And I was struck by its vastness and variety, from Moscow’s modernity to a hinterland very much rooted in another, apparently Soviet time. 


The differences were stark, but similarities abounded, too. One day I was playing on Moscow State University’s baseball or rugby teams, the next, blinking my way through a blizzard, I came across a blues club where Muscovites played music of the American South. 


Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Russia is a country that has spent centuries trying to situate its identity between West and East, and Moscow is a city big enough to cater to all kinds of tastes. Still, though, it seemed symbolically important whenever I came across elements of European or American culture. These were the byproducts of globalisation and social exchange, of business connections or academic partnerships, the offshoots of a late-Soviet stroke pre-Putin period, when Russians imagined the West in a positive light and enthusiastically accepted what it had to offer. A market economy, modern appliances, McDonald’s — you name it. 


And if these symbols of the West in Russia felt noteworthy prior to the war, they appear now more darkly significant. Amidst the Putin regime’s full-scale war in Ukraine, any previously existing windows to the West have been slammed shut — blinds yanked down, curtain cast back into place. Now that a line of division has returned to the European continent, I think of those things in Russia that reminded me of home as landmarks to a road not taken, reminders of formerly-existing East-West connections, which will go unrenewed for the foreseeable future.


If there is a consolation it is that, while clenching its fists towards Moscow, Europe has opened its arms to a growing number of countries. Ukrainians who were driven from their homes by the Kremlin’s brutal invasion have found new communities abroad. Citizens of Moldova and Georgia, can now hope for deeper integration with the West, albeit in view of a Russian threat. New academic partnerships, volunteer opportunities, and business connections have flourished, giving space for a new generation of Europeans to form personal bonds that stretch across the entire continent. And this is something that should, without a doubt, be celebrated. 


The larger question is what happens next: on what terms the war ends; whether the spectre of another conflict will keep haunting Europe; when the Russian state will cease to be Putin’s personalist autocratic fiefdom.


These uncertainties underlie the decisions that await me after graduation. I will have to determine how to deploy my language skills and regional knowledge for good — and, to be sure, from organising continued humanitarian support to Ukraine to deepening economic ties between the E.U. and its eastern neighbours, there will be much to do. 


Of course, the ultimate uncertainty concerns the future of Russian-Western relations. But if we look to the past, perhaps Mr. West is again instructive. Perhaps it teaches, 100 years on from its release, that beyond the walls of the Kremlin lie Russians who are curious about, and wish to connect constructively with the West.


Such engagement is near impossible while the conflict in Ukraine rages on. But when the war is won, by connecting with these people, perhaps it will be possible to win a more lasting peace as well. 

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