Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) conceived of a new collaborative fellowship program pairing New School doctoral students and candidates with Ukrainian graduate students and independent scholars. Entitled “Transregional Dialogues: Rethinking the Past – Re-imagining the Future”, the program took place throughout the Fall 2022 semester.
In February 2022, TCDS was completing preparations for its 30th annual Democracy & Diversity Summer Graduate Summer Institute in Wroclaw, Poland, which has hosted many students from Ukraine. The war and the massive wave of refugees into Poland presented TCDS with a number of ethical questions: Should they follow through as planned with their 30th year of bringing together New School graduate students and their peers from East and Central Europe? Should the housing for TCDS participants and faculty be used for refugees instead? What are the obligations of TCDS and NSSR, built by refugee scholars from Hitler’s Europe? Perhaps TCDS could best perform its mission by supporting isolated young scholars in Ukraine.
Their self-examination led to a new idea for a TCDS program that could be sustained during the war: a virtual site for a fellowship of minds, a space in which discussion and sharing of ideas could take place between doctoral students in Ukraine and their counterparts at NSSR. Given that many Ukrainians were either unwilling or unable to leave the country, the virtual Transregional Dialogues fellowship made sense.
TCDS worked with the NSSR student-led organization Hromada to identify Ukrainian junior scholars who could benefit from the fellowship. Together, they reached out to their connections in Ukraine to solicit nominations. Since many research and educational institutions were destroyed or inoperative due to the military conscription of faculty members, fellows were selected on the basis of their research commitments and academic contributions. As a result, the Ukrainian Transregional Dialogue fellows were a mix of MA, PhD, and independent scholars, all of whom experienced interruption or delay in their academic lives.
The fellows were led by Elzbieta Matynia, Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies, and founding director of TCDS; Elisabeta (Lala) Pop, Politics PhD student and TCDS Program Manager; and a robust group of faculty advisors. Fellows were organized into informal teams made of one Ukrainian and one NSSR scholar, each under the umbrella of a larger group working on one of four themes: The Condition of Postcoloniality; The Politics of Belonging; Democracy and its Variants; and Citizenship: The Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion.
Over the course of the semester, fellows engaged in online working group meetings, work-in-progress seminars, guest lectures, faculty advising, and conversations with other New School organizations like the Memory Studies Group and the Democracy Seminar. Matynia explained that while the work of many fellows focused on Ukraine, the fellowship supported research more broadly concerned with “how to get out of the paradigm of colonial thinking, behavior, and regimes.”
The fellowship provided a unique opportunity to work not only across national borders, but across social science and humanities disciplines. As a result, the collaboration produced some of the timeliest research in academia. The real-time information from scholars with a deep understanding of Ukrainian culture and history is invaluable to the fellows, who are all working to articulate the mechanisms and effects of coloniality in different contexts. “This is the best initiative we’ve ever designed and launched. We were able to do something so out of the box because it came directly from the needs of scholars,” said Matynia.
While the Ukrainian fellows were beset with the realities of war, their research did not cease over the semester. “November  present[ed] us with new challenges, as the electrical grid in Ukraine was massively damaged by the Russian air strikes. At one seminar, we missed one of the presenters from Kyiv, Kateryna Pesotska, who was unable to connect with us. Sadly, our efforts to pretend that things are normal — even if only for two hours at a time — became more and more difficult,” said Matynia.
Pop, who both facilitated the fellowship and took part in the Citizenship working group, explained that the fellows supported each other academically, psychologically, and socially. Because teaching is not possible in Ukraine, and many are unable to work with professors who have left the country or are part of the war effort, the Transregional Dialogues fellowship and other initiatives like it are essential for the survival of intellectuals in Ukraine.
Roksolana Makar, an independent scholar based in Ukraine whose work analyzes the global construct of Russian ballet and its status as a colonial export, spoke to Research Matters from the city of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, where she was taking part in an expedition to assess the damage done to Ukrainian cultural heritage by the Russian Army. She described her participation in the fellowship as one aspect of a multifold resistance. “I am trying not to engage myself in any activities that are not making me stronger in dealing with this situation in Ukraine. Developing my research and participating in working groups helps me to understand the war a bit more, and it helps Ukraine because we are talking to lots of international fellows and faculty abroad. This gives Ukraine a voice,” said Makar.
Mariia (Masha) Shynkarenko, a NSSR Politics PhD student, is Makar’s partner within the fellowship. Her work focuses on how Crimean Tartars have instrumentalized collective identities in their struggle for self-determination. While she is from Ukraine, she has spent recent years abroad pursuing her doctorate. She explained what she described as a big accomplishment of this fellowship: “We [had] 10 Ukrainian scholars that provide[d] us with such a different lens of what those in the West are used to.” Shynkarenko continued, “For a long time, The New School was a champion of subaltern voices but, when it comes to Eastern Europe, it has never been a part of these discussions. The lack of inclusion of Eastern Europe in post-colonial studies has led to a dismissal and misunderstanding of the war, which is in fact anti-colonial. I have felt for a long time that my voice wasn’t heard at all. Through the work being produced from this fellowship, we want to communicate that Eastern European societies are going through an anti-colonial struggle, not just some conflict.”
Alongside the work of the fellows, Transregional Dialogues facilitated a series of guest lectures that correspond to the four working group themes, with speakers Arjun Appadurai, Krzysztof Czyżewski, and Nadia Urbinati. Watch the lectures on the NSSR YouTube channel.
Transregional Dialogues will conclude with a conference March 31-April 1 featuring work advanced by the fellows, and open to NSSR faculty and scholars in related fields. “Of course, we want to present our fellows and to highlight their work, but we also want to inquire into ‘how the academy works in the time of war,’ said Matynia.
Additionally, join the TCDS’s Open House on February 16 to learn more about the rescheduled 30th Democracy & Diversity Institute this July in Wroclaw, Poland. Entitled “After Violence,” the Institute will feature the following classes and faculty members: Alice Crary and Alex Aleinikoff, “Climate Violence/Climate Justice;” Shireen Hassim, “Racecraft: Debates from Africa;” Jeffrey C. Isaac, “American Democracy on Knife’s Edge?”; and Elzbieta Matynia, “Romancing Violence.”