The New School for Social Research is excited to welcome Oksana Kis as Visiting Professor in the Anthropology Department for the 2022-23 academic year.
Professor Kis is a feminist historian and anthropologist from Ukraine, head of the Department of Social Anthropology at the Institute of Ethnology, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Lviv. She is also a President of the Ukrainian Association for Research in Women’s History, and a Co-founder and Vice President of the Ukrainian Oral History Association.
Kis sat down with Research Matters to discuss her long-standing connection to NSSR, her perspective on Gulag studies, new meta-narratives emerging from the war in Ukraine, and much more.
What was your path to becoming a Visiting Professor here at NSSR?
When Professor Jessica Pisano first contacted me and asked if I would be interested to come for a temporary possession of Visiting Professor of Anthropology, I didn’t know anybody from The New School in a professional context.
On the other hand, it was very symbolic. I knew Professor Ann Snitow, Emeritus Professor and founder of the university’s Gender Studies program, long ago before she passed away in 2019. I really admired her not only as a scholar and professor, but as a role model in terms of feminist activism.
Snitow was a famous activist beginning the late 70s, and she was among the few who actually tried to establish a dialogue between the American feminists and the East European post-socialist feminists who were trying to rediscover feminism for themselves. She was the leader of Network of East-West Women, a transnational organization that advocated for women’s rights and promoted women’s studies in the region. In that role, she supported a publication of a book that was the first-ever reader in feminist and gender studies in Ukraine, a translation of the classic works. Later, she worked to give us a small grant for a library. From this, we were able to purchase about 40 books at a time when internet access was not that widespread and there was a serious shortage of knowledge in gender studies. We had to somehow to catch up the Western academia. When I came back with a full suitcase of 60 pounds of books, <laughs>, everybody was so happy. So now, when I teach the course Women & Post-Socialist Transformation in this same university, I consider it a tribute to her memory.
Your work focus on the human element within political paradigms, which is often neglected in favor of the study of political infrastructure and systems. This is especially clear in your recent book, Survival as Victory: Ukrainian Women in the Gulag (2021). Could you comment on your position within the field of Gulag studies?
When I first approached the topic of women’s experience, I expected that somebody would have already written something at least about the Ukrainian experiences in the Gulag because it is such a painful sore in the history of the 20th century. It turned out that despite there being a number of memoirs published and several oral historical projects, nobody actually had summarized that experience of Ukrainians in general.
There are a couple different reasons why I focused mainly on human, and particularly women’s, experience. On the one hand, there is a huge body of works written about the repressive institution of the Gulag. It emphasizes over and over again how important it was, overshadowing the lives of people who are the prisoners. The Gulag aimed to erase them, and the historiographies erase them over again. It’s absolutely unfair. To counterbalance that, it was important to look not only at the suffering of those people, but particularly their survival strategies.
The history of Gulag studies tends to analyze mainly the experiences of Russian-speaking prisoners, because those stories are readily available . Historians of Stalinism and the USSR usually learn the Russian language and that leaves testimonies in any other languages outside their inquiry. Moreover, major memoirs by Russian survivors of the Gulag are translated into English. For me, it was important to show what is special about Ukrainians and about women in terms of making the history of political imprisonment in the Gulag more comprehensive and accurate. It was also important to remember the impact this period had on society because those people who manage to survive brought these experiences back, including their ideas, habits, and attitudes, which had long-term effects over the generations of their descendants.
Your research practice engages with texts of memoirs and personal interviews of Ukrainians. Do you have a sense of the meta-narratives that are emerging from the war in Ukraine today? Perhaps particularly for women in Ukraine, which is your focus?
I believe that there are core ideas already forming in the midst of this total mess and distress. What is important is that there will be many narratives of this war. Nowadays, we are aware that the experiences of the war are so different for different parts of the population. We have to appreciate and admit all the stories, the stories of pain and suffering, and the stories of glory and survival, and the stories of military valor. Yet, if you try to understand what is the universal among all those stories, I would say that they all contain the sentiment, “We are the people.”
Many diverse groups came to an awareness that despite all the differences among Ukrainians, Russian-speaking, and Ukrainian-speaking, people of different ethnic origin, people affiliated with different church branches like Orthodox or Catholic, they are united with the same set of values for which we are going to fight, to defend to the very end. This togetherness, this feeling of belonging to one nation based on the same set of values, this is important thing to remember. I would call this solidarity. Among the shared values are, importantly, the right to human dignity, democracy in terms of universal equality, and appreciation and tolerance to all the citizens. Also, obviously the freedom to define our future.
In terms of women’s experiences, it is absolutely amazing how women who previously had no experience of public activism…now feel a personal responsibility for their country. There is also a real sense that citizens are doing the same job in different ways, and every contribution is appreciated.
Could you speak about your work with the Ukrainian Association of Oral History which you co-founded? And the Ukrainian Association for Research in Women’s History where you serve as President? What is the current focus of these institutions today?
That’s a very important part of my life. I committed to development of both associations because after 30 years of independence, there is still no Women’s History, no Oral History, no Gender Studies, no Anthropology for that matter, in the official roster of academic subjects in Ukraine. These subjects officially don’t exist. It doesn’t mean that there are no scholars or no scholarship. There is tremendous research in those areas, but they are not properly institutionalized.
Both of these associations serve to promote institutionalization and to create a community for scholars who are working in those areas and who feel lonely and isolated within their universities and receive no support. We also try to establish some basics to create a framework for those areas and reintroduce the discipline into the Ukrainian academy, lest it become falsified.
More specifically, the Association of Oral History was formed to draw attention to the human experiences of the history of Ukraine. And to some extent, question the official memory politics in Ukraine, offering counter narratives of the history of the 20th century.
With Ukrainian Association for Research in Women’s History, it’s a more complicated story because for quite a long time and still today, it’s not taken seriously within academia. It became part of our mission to speak about women’s past outside of the pattern of being as a victim, which is very typical for the Ukrainian historical representation of women’s experience. Women are always portrayed as the biggest losers of all the historical tragedies, even when they are valorized as martyrs who sacrifice it themselves for the Ukrainian cause. Our association is trying to show the variety of women’s experiences and to emphasize specifically women’s agency in different developments. This is helpful and not only for the society at large, but specifically for women themselves to feel entitled to voice their demands and claims and consider themselves equal.
I’d love to discuss your Women & Post-Socialist Transformation undergraduate course at Lang. What was the trajectory of the course? How did you find the NSSR student body received this material?
In the past, I’ve taught the course at the graduate level for students specializing in this region. It was quite a challenge this time around because at least half of my students were freshmen. We first had to establish what is the Soviet Union, what is the Bolshevik emancipation project for women and how it evolved over the course of 70 years, and how the gender policies have changed, how women responded, and how women contributed to the development of the Soviet Union and to its disintegration after all.
For these students, it’s a discovery of a different reality. But on the other hand, since we take three countries, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, as case studies, we are not only dealing with the specific empirical material, but with broader theories and basic concepts that are relevant to their own lives, like gender segregation in the labor market.
I can see that students begin to reevaluate their own experience with their family, education, their gender-based socialization. We not only discuss scholarly texts but explore various materials, including feature movies, advertising, school textbooks, music videos, all of which tell the story of a people. Later in the semester, we focus on trafficking, prostitution, on drug abuse and alcohol abuse. Those are very difficult topics to deal with. But they are not only post-Soviet phenomena.
What can you tell us about the undergraduate Oral History course you are teaching in Spring 2023?
It will be a practice-oriented course for those who in their professional or scholarly career would be interested in using interview as a research method. This course will offer a view of best practices and necessary skills and tools. We will learn how to do an oral history project, how to properly design the project, how to conduct the interviews using different techniques dependent on the purpose, how to process the materials and make best use of those materials depending on the goal. Part of the course will be dedicated to theoretical debates in oral history, to issues related to the ethical and legal dimension of practicing oral history. We’ll speak about all kinds of challenges and shortcomings, but also the advantages of doing oral history to achieve different goals.