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“We want a free and independent country”

Interview on Ukraine

For several years now, Oksana Dovgopolova, historian and professor of philosophy in Odesa, has been working on dealing with the past and building a collective memory in Ukraine. However, since the 24th February 2022, dealing with the present has become much more pressing. In the interview with forumZFD, she explains why history is a powerful weapon and how peacebuilding in Ukraine can continue in times of war.

Professor Dovgopolova, you are currently in Odesa. Just this morning there were new reports that the city has been under attack during the night by Russian missiles. So of course our first question is: How are you and are you safe?

Here in Ukraine, no place is absolutely safe at the moment, but Odesa is comparably calm. Our army has stopped the Russian troops in the neighboring city Mykolaiv. However, we have a threat from the sea and every day there are rockets. Some are destroyed by our air defense, some find their aim. But for the moment we are happy to have no human victims in our city.

What was your first reaction when the invasion began on 24th of February?

It was a shock. We woke up at five o'clock in the morning from the blows. It really seemed impossible! Of course, we all knew about the preparations and the Russian troops at the border. But it was impossible to believe, even though we have been living in a situation of war since 2014. In our minds, we knew about this possibility, but our souls could not believe it. However, after a couple of days, maybe two weeks, the situation changed. We understood how powerful our defense is and that we ought to get ready for a long struggle. Crowds of people joined the volunteering activities. We have a wonderful tradition of volunteering in Odesa. Those who could opened their businesses, the trams are running, cafés are open and people go to work. They try to live normal lives and to support our economy. You can even buy flowers in the streets! Many people were very surprised when I posted a picture of flowers on my window sill on Facebook. They asked: How is this possible? But this is part of our answer to the war, because we cannot all become mad. We ought to have a healthy mind, because in this situation the greatest threat is our panic. The Russian warships, which we can see from the shore, do not need to come so close – their rockets could reach us from Crimea –, so they come to push us to panic. Of course it is frightening when you see seven warships on the horizon, directed at the city. But we understand that we ought to stay strong and not fall into panic.

How do the citizens of Odesa support one another?

There is a great feeling of unity and solidarity. We can see it everywhere: For example, our local restaurants cook meals for the territorial defense, the actors of our theatres prepare new performances on the topic of war, and musicians give improvised concerts from balconies and in the streets. That is really great, because of course we know about all the dreadful things which happened in Mariupol, Bucha, and other cities of Ukraine, and we are in constant tension. So it is very important to support one another.

Oksana Dovgopolova (left in the picture) and Svitlana Prishchenko (forumZFD Ukraine) in front of the Trade Unions Building in Odesa, where 42 people lost their lives in a fire on 2nd May 2014.

In the past, there have been tensions in Odesa among different groups of society, especially since the beginning of the war in 2014. With the project “Past / Future / Art” you and your team, supported by forumZFD, have worked on bridging these divisions and opening spaces for dialogue on traumatic events such as the violent clashes between protesters in 2014. How united are the people in Odesa today?

The situation has changed dramatically. Our project had addressed the problems which we saw in Ukraine, trying to find a collective memory, which contains the memories and identities of different regions, and to show them as a resource. Now, all these problems are on the margins, and the Ukrainian society is very united in the opposition to the aggression. People from different regions meet one another, as millions had to flee from their homes. So the questions of the past are not present now. But we meet the new challenges: The name of our project is “Past / Future / Art”. Now, the aspect of “future” is very important for us. It can be an instrument of resilience and give us power to oppose this attack. To have power means to have some image of the future. Ukraine not only needs military and humanitarian support, but we also need to work inside our society to find these instruments of resilience.

And are you worried that the conflicts within the Ukrainian society will break out again after the war?

For sure this level of solidarity is possible because of the situation of war. Afterwards, some problems will return. But with these new experiences, we have additional arguments for the public discussions. Some people in Ukraine had fears with regard to the Russian speaking cities, because they were sure that these cities would be ‘waiting for Putin’. These arguments were used by political leaders, who worked with the metaphor of “two Ukraines”: East and West. In their point of view, Eastern Ukraine was “pro-Russian”, and Western Ukraine was “Ukrainian”. Now we can show that this argument was wrong. Look at Charkiv, look at Cherson, look at these Russian speaking cities, and you will see that this is Ukraine. Even in cities that are now occupied, people are protesting with Ukrainian flags, in front of Russian soldiers. This experience is so powerful that there is no possibility that it could somehow just dissolve in a couple of weeks after the war. I hope that we will see the end of this war, and then we will work with civil society to create a new level of solidarity. In opposition to the authoritarian regime in Russia, it is now easy to see the real perspective of Ukraine: A perspective built on human rights, human dignity, and on our European choice. For me these are the main notions which we can see now and which we will use after the war to build our collective memory.

The war is not only fought with of weapons, but also with words. There is a lot of false information on historical facts that is being distributed. What is your response as a historian?

For a very long time, such rhetoric was considered the talk of foolish people. As a professional historian, you do not even have a way to respond to such absurd claims. When Putin says that Ukraine is a false state which was invented by Lenin, I do not know what to answer because my first reaction is: He is crazy. There is no connection with reality. We cannot have a discussion about historical arguments, when there are no arguments at all. So that is why for a very long time, historians did not discuss these theories. We considered our task to be in our academic space. For me personally, this was my problem. When I saw in 2014 how these false arguments were working to recruit people, to make them take up weapons and to kill one another, I was so ashamed that I left the academic field and started to launch public projects to inform people and to create spaces for dialogue. Because if a person without historical education listens to something on the television, he or she might think: “Maybe it is right”. I understood that all these problems which I had considered to be academic problems were actually not academic. History is a powerful weapon for manipulation, and from year to year the level of manipulation by Russia increased.

One aim of the project “Past / Future / Art” was to develop a common understanding of history. Why is that important?

Our collective memory is at the roots of our social identity. It mirrors our values, for example when we try to explain why this or that historic figure is important to us. The past is not the present, all these events are long gone. But it is important to discuss them. Our future depends on these evaluations: What do we want to protect in our society and what do we want to reject? Our past forms the basis on which we work on our future.

Oksana Dovgopolova (left in the picture) during a panel discussion. The event was part of the project „Past / Future / Art“ and took place in June 2021 in the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv.

How can peacebuilding continue in these times of war?

I think that sharing the different experiences that people are making right now will create the basis for understanding. At the moment, each of us is in a certain point or place, and we have no opportunity to share our experiences, apart from the personal level. After the war, we need to create practices and instruments to learn about other people’s experiences – for example of people who lived in occupied territories, who lived in Mariupol during the siege, who fought in the defense of Kyiv, who fled to Western Ukraine or other countries. All these experiences are important and need to be presented after the war. We will collect them and we will show how we stayed strong in this situation. I am sure that this can be an instrument for reconciliation. There could be different activities: It could be publications, oral history projects, spaces for dialogue, theater performances… All these practices could be employed.

So there is a lot of work ahead of you.

Yes, certainly. We have already started: For example, with the team of our project “Past / Future / Art” and together with experts, we publish information on topics such as the protection of cultural heritage or on the Criminal Court in The Hague. This is important, because when we understand that these crimes could be punished, this can help to overcome the pain. International law is a very complicated field, so we see the need to ‘translate’ some messages into a language which people can actually understand. We explain for example about international courts on genocide and war crimes, and we started to publish materials on the criminal prosecution of propagandists. When Putin spoke about the “final decision of the Ukrainian question”, we explained the meaning of this rhetoric and pointed out the historical parallels. We also prepared materials on historic cases such as the Nuremberg processes or the genocide in Rwanda. It is important for people to see the ways through which justice can be achieved. We decided to publish short materials, but on a constant basis. And the reactions have shown that the people really need this kind of information – something that keeps their mind busy every day.

Is there anything you would like to tell our readers around the world?

For us in Ukraine it is very important to show to other countries that we are people who want to create a free and independent country. And we want to be visible. To give just one example: Academic centers in Europe have long ignored the field of Ukrainian studies. Often, they offer Russian Studies, and then something abstract on Eastern Europe, something dissolved in the Russian sphere of influence. It is important to renew this picture, because Ukraine is very different from Russia – and this has been the case for many centuries, not only since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We have our own wonderful culture. I hope that after the war Ukraine will find its place on the map of European culture and politics.

Oksana Dovgopolova spoke with Hannah Sanders (forumZFD) on 8th April 2022.


Oksana Dovgopolova is a historian and professor of philosophy at the Odesa National University. The fields of her scientific interests are the Philosophy of History and Memory Studies. From 2014 onwards, she took part in dialogic activities in Odesa and later initiated activities in the public space with projects on informal education and reconciliation of society in context of collective memory in Ukraine. She has worked with museums and cultural institutions in Odesa, Kyiv, Gdansk and Melitopol. With the support of forumZFD, Oksana Dovgopolova and her colleague Kateryna Semenyuk have developed „Past / Future / Art“, a cultural memory platform which implements educational and research projects, as well as a public program to involve the general public into working through the past.

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