“We have to make Ukrainian studies more visible”

For Ukrainian sociologist Tamara Martsenyuk, the war in Donbas has formed a part of her studies for the last eight years. This March she was forced to leave Kyiv due to the Russian invasion. She is now working as a guest researcher at the Institute for East European Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. WZB research fellow Sophie Hofmeister met Tamara at the WZB. They spoke about her research on women in the armed forces, what the outbreak of the war means for her work and why remote scholarships would help Ukrainian researchers.

You call yourself a public sociologist. What do you mean by that?

While doing research I communicate actively with NGOs, journalists, and public authorities. I want to create some social changes, so I agreed to coordinate a sociological study on women's participation in the Ukrainian military.

How did you come to this topic?

It happened that I was quite an active participant and volunteer during the Euromaidan protests in 2013 and 2014. After this, I decided to put my research interest more on women's participation in protest activities, also due to the war that started at this time in Donbas. It so happened that I was approached by Maria Berlinska who is a military volunteer and she asked for help to do a sociological study to demonstrate gender discrimination in the Ukrainian military.

The whole project, called Invisible Battalion, intends to make women visible in the military and in the armed forces, especially in combatant positions. And actually, we succeeded. A 2015 sociological study, 'Invisible Battalion': Women's Participation in ATO Military Operations in Ukraine', found that the Armed Forces of Ukraine - similar to the job market in general - exhibit vertical and horizontal gender segregation. We showed other problems but also positive aspects: The Armed Forces of Ukraine have developed a gender policy, which is harmonized with the national gender policy.

Our respondents were ready to fight for their rights. They became the heroines of the documentary film “Invisible Battalion” (2017). The armed forces of Ukraine managed to actually recognize a number of combatant positions for women. When these military women became veterans, we made a study on the needs of female veterans because as a result of the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region there are half a million veterans, and women as a group are quite visible. Our third study was on the problem of sexual harassment in the armed forces. It's quite a difficult topic, but very important, as  attention for topics such as suicide, bullying, or sexual harassment in the armed forces changes the military by itself.

My very recent study was on women's access to military education. Russia's war against Ukraine interrupted this project. Now in Berlin, I try to continue my research on gender and war.

What does the outbreak of this war mean for you personally and professionally?

The war in Donbas was present in my studies already for eight years, but I was absolutely sure that there wouldn’t be a huge attack of Putin on the whole of Ukraine. I believed that it will be near Donbas as it was before. But on February 24 when I woke up from the explosions I was really very shocked. On this day I was supposed to teach my course “Introduction to Gender Studies” online the whole day. My students were supposed to take a test because the next week was the so-called spring break and I had some presents and planned to celebrate my friend’s birthday in the evening.

I absolutely couldn't imagine that it would be a huge war and bombing of civilians and bombing of Kyiv. And actually, during the first week somehow, I couldn't talk about our experience of hiding from bombs. Colleagues from abroad were writing and asking how I was and were inviting me to come abroad. But in the first days it was not so easy to evacuate and I was not a priority for evacuation because I'm without kids and usually women with kids, the elderly and people with disabilities are prioritized. My university wrote an email at six o’clock in the morning that we should stop our studies. Our university administration, they always keep us in touch about the current situation and they send pictures from the university building, because our university is in the historic part of the city and as you could see, Russians even bombed  cultural heritage sites. Nevertheless, my colleagues invited me to join academic events about the war in Ukraine. Actually, I couldn't reflect and talk. For the first time in my life I experienced problems with my heart and panic attacks and it was really unbearable almost half of the time, hiding in the shelter to stay in Kyiv. So, I decided with my colleague who is also a sociologist to evacuate from Kyiv, first to western Ukraine and Poland, and then we came to Berlin.

Why Berlin?

Berlin was quite a conscious choice. An old friend invited me and my colleague to come to his house and he picked us up by car near the border. We wanted to continue our fight in academia and temporarily join some universities we already knew. I was at the Free University of Berlin some years ago for a conference. I know the Institute for East European Studies which now offered me a temporary position. I also received propositions to teach in the US and to also move to Canada. But still, I don't want and don't plan to go for a long time and when it will be safe I will return to Kyiv.

Are you still in contact with your colleagues, your department head?

Yes, and we plan to continue teaching in the second week of April because there is still an academic year. But some of our students are in territorial defense and front lines, so they can’t do this. Others may be in shelters without any connections. So, it's not easy to restart teaching.

Over the last few weeks emergency funds and programs were set up by German universities and research institutes to support researchers at risk from Ukraine. How helpful are these programs?

For the international academic community what happens in Ukraine is also a big shock. What is good about the programs I know is that you don't have to go through a huge application process. The very big challenge is, of course, accommodation because a number of programs suppose that people will come to the country, but it's not so easy to come. The second thing I would stress is to provide scholarships remotely. A number of scholars are in Ukraine, especially men, because middle aged young men are not allowed to migrate. And of course, they may not be helpful in territorial defense, but they should continue their work and feed their families. It would be really helpful to provide scholarships remotely. There was one petition organized by some scholars who stayed in Ukraine. I also signed it. And there are some institutions that already provide such help, like the Institute of Society Research in Vienna together with the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. And third: We have to make Ukrainian studies more visible within Eastern European studies because still a lot of people believe that Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian societies are very similar, so-called Post-Soviet societies. The large stress is on Russia and very often research results are shared on Ukraine and Belarus. But I think there should be more attention and more financing for Ukrainian studies.

So you think the West knows too little about your country?

A lot of people are surprised that Ukrainians resist. But we've been resisting constantly, whether we were fighting for our independence 30 years ago, during the Orange Revolution, and EuroMaidan protests. During the war in Donbas our armed forces became quite strong, well prepared and people learned how to volunteer. Civil society became very visible. With my colleague with whom I evacuated, I plan to publish a book about the war in Ukraine and we already gathered scholars. It’s a personal experience and personal stories of researchers who reflect on their academic and analytical backgrounds. It's like an interdisciplinary collection of sociological, political science, international relations and literary studies. And we now seek funding. It would be really nice to have special funding for academic works like books, articles, papers, and maybe some art projects to make Ukraine more visible and for German people and other people in other countries to understand Ukraine better. This project would definitely help members of EU countries to understand Ukraine better and to understand that Ukraine is not Russia.