By Damali Ramirez
On March 7, a little more than two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, members of the Hofstra University community packed the Guthart Cultural Center Theater to learn more about the attack from university experts on Eastern Europe.
The event, hosted by the Center for Civic Engagement and the cultural center,featured History Professor Carolyn Eisenberg, Political Science Professor Paul Fritz, and Comparative Languages Professors Igor Pustovoit and Benjamin Rifkin. History Professor Simon Doubleday organized the event to inform the community and start conservations about the ongoing war.
Pustovoit, who is Ukrainian, shared his experiences with the cultural and identity challenges that he faced while living in the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991 under the weight of peaceful democratic revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early ’90s. During his time in college, Pustovoit was treated differently because he identified himself as Ukrainian but spoke Russian, he said.
Pustovoit shared photos of himself in a Russian school in 1982 wearing a vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt. Many of his peers thought he was making a statement and aligning himself as a Ukrainian nationalist, but that was not the case, he said.
At the time, Russian language studies were mandated in schools across Eastern Europe in an attempt to unify disparate peoples across the region behind a single language — that of the Soviet Union. Many Soviet officials considered cultural expressions suspect, fearing they were nationalistic.
“I felt that it’s a part of my identity,” Pustovoit said of his traditional garb. “I didn’t try to make it any statement. I didn’t try to position myself as a nationalist or anything. I felt like it was a part of who I am.”
Pustovoit also gave context to the complicated Russia-Ukraine relationship that he experienced during his time in college, noting that at the time, Russians supported South African nationalists but frowned upon Ukrainian nationalists.
“If it’s any other country, you’re a freedom fighter, but here among the Soviet people, you’re a traitor,” he said.
Rifkin gave more insight into the misinformation and disinformation that Russian President Vladimir Putin has disseminated to members of the Russian public to justify the invasion of Ukraine to them.
“Yesterday, he said that the reason that Russians have special military operations in Ukraine is to protect the Ukrainian people from gay parades,” Rifkin said.
The professor debunked arguments such as Putin claiming Ukraine does not exist as a nation and that it is part of Russia because, the Russian president argues, his nation began in Kyiv, which is now the Ukrainian capital. He also debunked the argument that Russia is fighting a fascist regime in Ukraine, noting that it is, in fact, a democratically elected government.
Rifkin explained, however, that it’s difficult for the Russian public to understand what is happening in Ukraine because the Russian state controls the media and is pushing out propaganda intended to confuse and deceive the public. For instance, he said Russian social media was spreading doctored images of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, wearing a Nazi sign. Zelensky is, in reality, Jewish, and has relatives who were killed in the Holocaust during World War II.
Eisenberg and Fritz discussed the roles that the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization played ahead of the invasion. Eisenberg argued that expansion of NATO has faced fierce opposition from Russia and is a primary factor in what caused today’s conflict. Fritz, however, said various factors led to today’s conflict and expansion of NATO was not the sole reason. The two agreed, though, that NATO’s actions must be examined to help explain Russia’s actions.
Toward the end of the event, the panelists reminded the audience about the importance of learning more about the complex issues surrounding the invasion and other countries that are under Russian control.
Hofstra President Susan Poser “put out a message to the entire community about the importance of this, about the importance for dialogue, to understand what’s happening in Ukraine, putting out essentially a call for people to talk about it,” Fritz said.