As the Russian invasion of Ukraine approached the one-month mark, professors at Brooklyn College came together Monday for a panel discussion on the historical and political context of the war, which has now resulted in thousands of deaths.
The professors, all with expertise on international issues — including some with personal connections to Ukraine and Russia — shared their expertise on the conflict, which the school said had affected many “students, staff, and faculty members connected to Ukraine, Russia, and the broader region.”
The war began on Feb. 24, when Russian forces invaded Ukrainian territory. In the month since, official sources report nearly 1,000 civilians in Ukraine have been killed — though the true number is likely much higher, NPR reported. It’s not totally clear how many troops on either side have been killed, but American intelligence sources have conservatively estimated that Russia has seen at least 7,000 deaths among its forces, while Ukrainian forces announced at least 1,300 casualties as of March 13.
Putin, and many Russians, want to restore Soviet Union
Janet Elise Johnson, an author and professor of political science, attributed the invasion to four factors: Putin’s own personality, internal regime dynamics, performance anxiety over declining economic improvement and Putin’s neo-colonial desire to remake Russia’s former empire.
“Putin was a boring KGB officer who was transformed into a macho man by image makers but who was always open to mass violence,” Johnson said, pointing to the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings she blamed on the FSB, the Russian successor to the KGB.
“Russia’s invasion is driven by Vladimir Putin’s goal to rebuild Russia into his version of greatness,” Johnson said. “Some argue that he is trying to rebuild the Soviet Union. That is not true in terms of an ideological project; but it is true in that Soviet modernity was an imperial formation.”
Overall, about two-thirds of Russians say they regret the breakup of the Soviet Union, noted Professor Anna Gotlib, an associate professor of philosophy.
“The older generations are nostalgic for the USSR itself,” Gotlib said. “Many of the younger ones have an image of the Soviet Union as something like a fairytale country, a kind of retro-utopia, without the modern social and economic problems that Russia is facing.”
Putin, Gotlib said, was both taking advantage of, and pushing, that narrative. In addition to falsely claiming Ukraine has never been an independent country, she said, he had also called the breakup of the Soviet Union the “greatest political catastrophe” of the twentieth century.
“He is actively encouraging some of the darker sides of this nostalgia, including a growing public yearning for Stalin.”
Gotlib said this was all very close to home for her as well… she was born in Russia.
An unjustifiable war
Brigid O’Keeffe, a history professor and specialist in the history of late imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, said Putin’s “imperialist vision” was rooted in grievances that the leader “has been brooding over for decades.”
“When Putin invokes history to justify his unjustifiable war, he lies. When Putin invokes history to justify his war crimes, he falsifies and distorts the past.”
Putin, O’Keeffe said, believed the war was justified because he thought he was righting “a series of historical wrongs” perpetrated against Russia, especially by the West.
“No state in human history has existed since time immemorial. Neither Lenin, nor Stalin, nor Putin has invented Ukraine. Ukrainian people created Ukraine. This is precisely what is so disturbing to an aggrieved imperialist like Putin.”
Professor Mojúbàolú Olufúnké Okome, an international political economist and professor of political science, drew attention to the victims of the war that she said were not getting enough attention.
“There’s a small population of Afro Ukrainians, but you’d never know it from hearing the news reports, because the assumption is that these are blond, blue eyed people,” Okome said.
“When people go to borders, as refugees, research shows that they are going to go through a lot of trauma. And this trauma is intersectional. You know, so your race, your class, your gender, your sexuality, your national origin, your religion might make a difference in an intersectional way to the way you are treated.”
Okome also said that as terribly destructive as the war in Ukraine was — with at least five million refugees fleeing Ukraine — the international community was not set up to stop Russia, nor was it incentivized to do much more than it has.
“We’ve seen sanctions imposed by NATO and the EU countries, but they are dependent on oil and gas from Russia,” Okome said, adding “So they’re not going to push Russia as hard as they should.”
Supporting Ukraine from Brooklyn
Experts in the U.S. and beyond are predicting because of this, and Putin’s reluctance to back down, the conflict could drag on, of which Johnson said “the cost to all of us is high, and catastrophic to those in Ukraine.”
Aid agencies have been collecting millions in donations to help those in and escaping Ukraine, and in Brooklyn, a number of efforts are taking place to support family members, friends and strangers from afar.
This is especially the case in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, where there is a sizable Ukrainian population. Inga Sokolnikova filled two rooms in her beauty salon with donated diapers, clothes and medical supplies for her native country of Ukraine, Reuters reports.
Meanwhile, the Guardian Angel Roman Catholic Church has been flooded with donations to send to Ukraine and volunteers to help organize them.