Sex, Nationalism, and Academic Freedom: The Controversy at Kyiv-Mohyla


By John-Paul Himka

Controversy has erupted at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) over the recent closure of the art exhibition “The Ukrainian Body” at the university’s Visual Cultural Research Center VCRC) and by the closure of the Center itself a few days later.

One can get a good sense of what was being shown at the exhibition from the review on the internet journal Art Ukraine (http://www.artukraine.com.ua/articles/812.html). It is clearly not pornography, as NaUKMA rector Serhiy Kvit disingenuously told the media when he closed the exhibition down (http://ua.euronews.net/2012/02/14/ukraine-modern-art-controversy/). Clearly Dr. Kvit has not gone on the internet to find out what real pornography looks like. Instead of functioning as pornography, “The Ukrainian Body” challenges the conventional sexual and aesthetic norms in Ukrainian society, and exhibitions like this have naturally caused controversy all over the world but also stimulated important debate about gender, sexual, and cultural issues. One would hope that Ukraine belongs to the set of countries where such a show can exist, rather than to the international pariahs that abort such exhibitions before they can even appear. It is more reasonable to interpret “The Ukrainian Body” not as pornography but as a contribution to the critical discussion about conservative morality that has emerged in Ukraine in conjunction with the proposed law on morality and also as a response to the activism of the innovative “Femen” movement.

The closure of the exhibition has raised questions about the extent to which the higher administration of NaUKMA respects the principle of academic freedom. It is generally accepted in the global academy that the university should be a place where all manner of opinions can be aired.

But the situation soon took a turn for the worse. Following hard on the heels of the closing of “The Ukrainian Body” came the closing of the VCRC itself. This was motivated by the VCRC’s willingness to host a lecture on the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera by the German scholar Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe. The talk was sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, well known for its promotion of democracy and human rights. In his announcement on 24 February abolishing the VCRC, Dr. Kvit referred to the proposed talk by Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe as having a “scandal-propagandistic, and not scholarly, character.” Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe is highly critical of Bandera and the radical right nationalist movement he founded, as am I. The rector, however, is a declared admirer of the nationalist theoretician Dmytro Dontsov and is himself active in radical right political initiatives.

Rector Kvit’s ideological disagreement with Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe, however, do not justify preventing him the latter from speaking; even less can it justify completely shutting down the institution that was to host the lecture. Thorough discussion of alternative perspectives is an integral and normal component of scholarly discourse. Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe has published in serious scholarly venues, such as Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, and will soon be defending his doctoral dissertation on Bandera at the University of Hamburg.

The VCRC has in the past hosted challenging talks on a variety of themes. It is one of the few forums for thinking outside the box in contemporary Ukraine. Far from being perceived as a nuisance at NaUKMA, it should be valued for its intellectual courage in difficult discursive circumstances.

The situation at Kyiv-Mohyla is complicated by a number of factors. The critical and activist VCRC has had a tense relationship with the conservative administration at NaUKMA. Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe not only takes an unpopular position vis-à-vis the heritage of the radical nationalists, but he has a confrontational and accusatory style that has alienated a number of scholars who otherwise agree with the thrust of his research. The ultranationalists in Ukraine, particularly young adherents of the Svoboda (Freedom) party, are aggressive, and there are fears at NaUKMA that a lecture by Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe could result in an unpleasant incident. NaUKMA is also at loggerheads with the Ukrainian minister of higher education, Dmytro Tabachnyk, who, it is feared, might take advantage of controversy and unrest to intefere in the governance of the university. On 27 February unknown persons telephoned Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe at the apartment he has been staying at in Kyiv; the callers claimed to be the police looking for him. Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe went for protection to the German embassy and will be evacuated to Berlin. An informant in Kyiv has reported to me that there have been intimidating calls and messages also to persons associated with the VCRC.

In spite of these complications, it should be clear that in the interest of academic freedom, the exhibition “The Ukrainian Body” and the Visual Culture Research Center need to be restored. Free speech does not require protection when it is easy to protect it; it precisely needs protection when it is difficult to do so.

(Author’s note: Since this commentary was written, the VCRC has been reinstated.)

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About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

6 comments

  1. Bohdan Klid

    I am writing in response to John-Paul Himka’s defense of Grzegorz-Rossolinski-Liebe (https://ukraineanalysis.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/sex-nationalism-and-academic-freedom-the-controversy-at-kyiv-mohyla/), specifically where he writes that Rossolinski-Liebe “has a confrontational and accusatory style that has alienated a number of scholars who otherwise agree with the thrust of his research.” I do not wish to comment on Rossolinski-Liebe’s style. Rather, I would like to focus on the latter part of Professor Himka’s statement where he implies agreement with “the thrust of his research.” Here, I would argue that his being in agreement—perhaps even enthralled— with “the thrust” of Rossolinski-Liebe’s research has led him to ignore or gloss over some of the content of his writings, especially the veracity of some of Rossolinski-Liebe’s assertions.
    I think we can agree that scholars should not tolerate exaggerations or inaccuracies in their own writings, and criticize and condemn if necessary those of others. Or, at the very least, point them out. This latter duty, I think, befalls those who would be mentors or advisors to students.
    I’d like to now turn to an exaggeration and inaccuracy that appears in Rossolinski-Liebe’s, “Celebrating Fascism and War Criminality in Edmonton” (http://www.kakanien.ac.at/beitr/fallstudie/GRossolinski-Liebe2.pdf) that refers to me, personally. In note 98, on p. 15, he writes: “Shortly prior to my presentation of this article at the Holocaust Workshop, Bohdan Klid, the assistant director of the CIUS and a well-known activist of Ukrainian nationalism, came up to me and demanded to speak to me about my article.” I do not regard myself nor am I regarded as “a well-known activist of Ukrainian nationalism,” nor did I demand to speak to Rossolinski-Liebe about his article. I did ask to meet with him to discuss it.
    At the beginning of his article, Rossolinski-Liebe thanks Per Anders Rudling “for his critical and constructive comments.” We can, therefore, assume that Rudling read his manuscript carefully.
    I do not wish to comment here on Dr. Rudling’s attention to accuracy. Rather, since this comment is in response to Professor Himka’s posting, I would like to point out that he was also quite familiar with the contents of this paper, which was presented at the workshop referred to by Rossolinski-Liebe at the University of Alberta. I do not know for certain whether he is familiar with the contents of this online version. I assume that he is, as it has been posted online for over a year. Moreover, Dr. Himka has continued to maintain a working relationship with Rossolinski-Liebe after the latter left the University of Alberta, given that Rossolinski-Liebe is described as working under the direction of Frank Golczewski and John-Paul Himka on his dissertation on Bandera. (See: http://www.boell.org.ua/web/index-470.html) Finally, except for his comments on Rossolinki-Liebe’s style, Dr. Himka defends him in his commentary as a reputable scholar.
    As John-Paul Himka knows me reasonably well, would he agree with Rossolinski-Liebe’s assertion that I am “a well-known activist of Ukrainian nationalism?” Furthermore, would he care to comment on whether I would be likely, or not likely, to have “demanded” to speak to Rossolinski-Liebe about his article? Or, is it more likely that I asked to meet with him in order to discuss his article?
    I end by suggesting that Rossolinski-Liebe deliberately exaggerated when he wrote that I “demanded” to speak with him in order to create the image that I acted aggressively towards him. After all, in presenting me as “a well-known activist of Ukrainian nationalism” it stands to follow that I probably would have “demanded” to speak to him. This fits the stereotype of a nationalist well.

    Bohdan Klid

  2. JOHN-PAUL HIMKA REPLIES

    This is a rather amazing response by Bohdan. Nowhere in my text did I say or imply that I am “enthralled” by GRL’s research. Bohdan is ascribing to me things that come from his own projection rather than from anything I wrote, just as when, a few years ago, he accused me of reducing the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 to a natural disaster on the order of the Haitian earthquake. I thought I was signalling in the text Bohdan cites that some scholars, and Bohdan is right here to think me among them, disagree with how GRL raises issues, but agree with the critique of Bandera and his movement, exposing their close links with European fascism and national socialism, their responsibility for the mass murder of civilians, and their deep involvement in the Holocaust. GRL’s article in Kritika, which is the only GRL publication I refer to, is, as far as I can see, well researched and unexceptionable.

    Bohdan performs what I can only describe as a bait and switch trick when he moves from GRL’s work on the wartime nationalists and focuses instead on GRL’s critique of multiculturalism. My letter did not concern that. Bohdan imputes that Per Anders Rudling is somehow also responsible for GRL’s text in kakanien, because GRL thanks him for reading and commenting on it. Normally it is understood that the author bears responsibility for the points of view expressed in signed texts, not those who have read it and commented on it. GRL has also thanked me for reading things, but this does not mean I did not offer substantive criticism or approved of the published text.

    I also read GRL’s piece for kakanien carefully and its first draft. I urged him not to publish it because it has so many inaccuracies and unfounded assertions, especially in regard to individuals associated with CIUS. I have offered similar critical comments to Per. I cannot determine what they write. They are both grown ups and have to bear responsibility for what they affix their names to. And I also have to bear responsibility for what I affix my name to, but not for what someone else publishes. This is pure guilt by association.

    On the other hand, I myself have critiqued the nationalist hold on the Ukrainian diaspora in my own earlier publications, which are readily available on my site at academia.edu. So here too, I think the questions GRL raises have to be raised. But I remember the wisdom of the late Ivan L. Rudnytsky, who said it’s not just a matter of shcho but also iak.

    I have continued to maintain a relationship with GRL because we work on closely related topics and share texts and news about publications, sources, commentary, etc. GRL was my doctoral student at the University of Alberta for one year, but decided to return to Germany. Although it seemed I would be involved with his doctoral work at the University of Hamburg, that did not happen, and I have not had access to the thesis he is defending.

    Bohdan asks would I agree with GRL’s assertion that he is “a well-known activist of Ukrainian nationalism.” No, I wouldn’t. But again, this is not something I said or wrote, so I do not see why I am being held to account for it. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever written anything characterizing Bohdan Klid, but he has certainly written things about me. Does he expect me to publicly defend him against the writings of GRL? I’m mystified.

    I’m not Professor Moriariy, you know.

    John-Paul

  3. Bohdan Klid

    In John-Paul’s rejoinder, he notes that he did not write or imply that he was “enthralled” by Rossolinski-Liebe’s research. He is correct. I did, prefaced with the qualifier “perhaps”. My purpose in doing so was to point to the possibility of allowing oneself to be carried away or captivated (enthralled) by the “thrust” of the research to the extent of justifying or overlooking exaggerations by and serious problems with the writings of GRL. Admittedly, the topic of his research—Bandera and radical Ukrainian nationalism of the 1930s-40s, as well as the memory of Bandera and the movement associated with his name—is bound to stir emotions. It is hard to read about the killings—in some cases of mass killings—of innocents without being affected.

    However, as historians we have to try to set aside emotions, be true to the facts, and weigh the evidence and sources in a judicious and sound way in arriving at our conclusions. Otherwise, there is a danger that emotions and feelings, the conviction of being right and even feelings of righteousness (of “proving” Bandera’s fascism and of the participation in and organization of mass killings by members of the movement) can lead to the transformation of what should be a subject of study into something akin to a cause, or crusade. For those involved in such research, scholarship can turn into the means towards achieving an end, and degenerate into propaganda. We have seen that the means used by movements declaring seemingly lofty goals can degenerate into something flawed, faulty, and even criminal. In scholarship we have to avoid falling into a similar trap—of glossing over dubious and defective scholarship because one is in agreement with the “thrust” of the research.

    I disagree strongly with John-Paul when he writes that I pulled “a bait and switch trick” when I made reference to GRL’s “Celebrating Fascism” article. First of all, in defending GRL’s scholarship, I don’t think one can point to one good article, knowing there are serious problems elsewhere (which show questionable judgement, poor research and distortion of facts). Also, John-Paul did after all write in his initial commentary that “Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe has published in serious scholarly venues, such as Kritika…” so his defense that “’Kritika’ is the only GRL publication I refer to” in his rejoinder is a bit disingenuous. The article “Celebrating Fascism” is riddled with problems, beginning with its sensationalist and provocative title. It is likewise not only about multiculturalism, as John-Paul notes in his rejoinder, but on the memory of Bandera, which he doesn’t acknowledge—and this is an integral part of the research in question. (The title of GRL’s dissertation in Ukrainian given by the H. Boll Foundation is «Степан Бандера: Життя українського фашиста та пам’ять про нього, 1909-2009 рр.» The lecture’s title, as announced on the Foundation’s website is «Степан Бандера: життя українського революційного ультранаціоналіста та пам’ять про нього, 1909-2009 рр.» Incidentally, the website announcement does give John-Paul Himka and Frank Golczewski as his thesis advisors. See http://www.boell.org.ua/web/index-470.html) Perhaps, most importantly, when assessing someone’s scholarship, it seems one should look at that person’s overall body of writings, and their intellectual judgement: are they dispassionate and mature, or is their thinking clouded by a personal or political agenda? We all have to take responsibility, as you noted, for what we write, even that which doesn’t find its way into print but enters the public domain by other means, sooner or later.

    John-Paul recognizes that GLR’s piece “Celebrating Fascism” had many problems, and he made his concerns known to the author. Yet, GLR went ahead and published it online any way. Doesn’t this show, at the very least, extremely poor judgement? After all, wouldn’t it be logical that someone writing about a segment of the Edmonton Ukrainian community—without any real first-hand experience with that community, and following just a short stay in the city—would have deferred to his advisor, an established scholar who has lived in the city for more than 30 years, who has a much broader understanding of that community than he does? What is even more amazing is that he writes about CIUS and its associates without, apparently, taking into account his advisor’s views on that institution and its associates, with which and with whom he has had a long relationship.

    My criticism of John-Paul on the Holodomor, if I recall correctly, centred on his arguments in support of Wheatcroft-Davies’s interpretation of the famine, who did not treat the national question in their analysis, and who, in my view, were indulgent in their interpretations of the Soviet leadership’s decisions and actions during the famine. I indicated in my argument that John-Paul did state that his interpretation was close to that of Terry Martin’s, but, curiously, his line of reasoning basically followed that of Wheatcroft-Davies. I was also criticizing Myrna Kostash’s interpretation in her article based on the course on the famine she took, which was taught by John-Paul. I think John-Paul confused my criticism of her conclusion that the Ukrainian famine was akin to a great disaster, which elicited my reference to the Haitian earthquake. This remark was in response to her assertion, not anything written by John-Paul.

    I end with an observation about John-Paul’s reference to the late Ivan L. Rudnytsky’s comment that “it’s not just a matter of shcho but also iak.” I agree. After reading GRL’s piece referred to above, I felt like “the other”—under attack, and smeared. It is written in the spirit of “кто-кого,” exhibiting serious problems with both “shcho” and “iak.” I do not know and do not believe at this point that GLR can live up to ILR’s dictum. I hope that we can.

    Bohdan Klid

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