On Pluralism, Free Expression, and Intellectual Honesty

Johan Dietsch

In his review of the workshop “Russian and Ukrainian Nationalism: Entangled Histories,” Taras Kuzio concludes that “the workshop failed in its objective of becoming a scholarly discussion of Ukrainian and Russian nationalisms” and that ”some of the workshop organizers and participants…support restrictions on freedom of speech.” Although I’m not among those named in Kuzio’s article, remaining among the anonymous discussants who ”were not specialists and their remarks were often weak and insufficiently analytical,” I feel an obligation to respond.

In his allegations concerning freedom of speech and academic freedom, Kuzio echoes similar accusations leveled against the workshop by Volodymyr Viatrovych, former director of the Ukrainian Security Service archives and currently head of the Center on Ukraine’s Nation Building at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and director of the OUN(b)-sponsored Center for the Study of the Liberation Movement. Viatrovych was in attendance during the afternoon panel on the first day. Following the panel, Viatrovych approached one of the organizers and accused him of practicing “Soviet methods”— whatever that means. I find the very issue of academic freedom and freedom of speech fundamental and in need of address.

Before attending the workshop, Viatrovych announced his intentions on his Facebook page (22 April 2013), questioning the “scholarly standards” of the workshop and subsequently he used the same media to portray himself as a victim. He believed his academic right to freedom of speech had been “repressed” by the conference organizers in general and the chair of the session in particular as he had not been given permission to recite a lengthy statement. As already noted here by others on the Stasiuk blog, this is untrue and a consequence of Viatrovych’s choice to disregard the organization and structure of the workshop.

Most proponents of academic freedom believe the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members to be essential to the underlying rationale of the academy. That freedom may be questioned, restricted or outright denied when scholars attempt to communicate ideas or facts that are inconvenient to external political groups, other academics etc. They may find themselves targeted for public vilification or other types of repression.

At the First Global Colloquium of University Presidents, held in January 2005 at Columbia University, forty university leaders and professors agreed on the following definition of what academic freedom should mean: ”Academic freedom may be defined as the freedom to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish, subject to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry…. ” Quoting the statement at the International Conference convened by UNESCO in 1950, the colloquium reiterated the principles for which every university should stand:  The right to pursue knowledge for its own sake and to follow wherever the search for truth may lead; tolerance of divergent opinion and freedom from political interference; the obligation as social institutions to promote, through teaching and research, the principles of freedom and justice, of human dignity and solidarity, and to develop mutually material and moral aid on an international level.

Without speculating on Kuzio’s or Viatrovych’s motives in criticizing the workshop’s organizers for “unacceptable intolerance,” one should note that Viatrovych arrived together with Borys Potapenko, President and Executive Director of the League of Ukrainian Canadians.

In New York they both displayed a lack of interest in the workshop as an academic event and when Viatrovych’s turn came to pose a question for the panel, he simply disregarded the basic academic ways of conduct and proceeded to read out a statement of several pages in Ukrainian, with translation provided by Potapenko. Viatrovych later announced, on the Internet forum Historians.in.ua (23 April, 2013, 5.16 pm), that he had made a surreptitious recording of the whole event. Although such a thing is not necessarily illegal in the strict sense of New York state law, it hardly conforms to good academic conduct.

It is difficult to see how the reading of verbose statements from the floor and writing mendacious op-eds constitutes a constructive addition to Ukrainian studies. Rather, such an approach risks promoting dogmatism instead of pluralism. At least I believe that a pluralism of historical perspectives does not exclude the possibility of intellectual honesty. Different interpretations often complement rather than contradict each other. A week prior to the workshop, as part of his LUC-sponsored lecture tour, Viatrovych declared that: “Restoring the nation’s historical memory is a critically important precondition to overcome Ukraine’s Soviet past” at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Worth noting is the use of a single perspective, as if ”the nation” had a single historical memory.”

It is well known that democratic societies harbor the possibilities for pluralism, free expression and intellectual honesty to a much greater extent than dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. Viatrovych himself spoke of this a few days after the Columbia workshop (25 April). At the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute he lamented the ”attempts to implement Soviet practices” in modern day Ukraine. I very much doubt he could sense the irony of the situation. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Everyone is not obliged to hold the same opinion.

The Columbia workshop did not fail to produce a scholarly discussion. Academic freedom was upheld. There was pluralism of interpretations and explanations. Personally, I would agree with Karl Popper that it is seldom possible to establish what is true, but sometimes possible to show what is false.

Johan Dietsch, is a Post-doctoral Fellow, of East and Central European Studies at Lund University, Sweden. This is the sixth article in the Open Forum series.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

One comment

  1. Steve Komarnyckyj

    Dear Johan Dietsch
    Please could you paste the link to the comment on Vyatovych’s facebook page that you refer to? I have scrolled down what I believe is his facebook page


    but I cannot see any entry for the 22nd April

    Thank you

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