May Blog: East Europe and “Borderland”

Friends,

I hope this message finds you well and ready for summer to arrive in earnest. The weather has been beautiful lately, which is exciting!

For this month’s blog post, I wanted to blend the themes of ‘books I’ve ready recently’ and ‘curricular development of the East Europe college course’ that I’ve been elaborating on over the past few months. Some of you have told me that you’re enjoying seeing into this side of my academic life; on the same token, I’m happy to share. So let’s dive on in…

Borderland by Anna Reid

I first saw this Ukrainian history book pop up on Amazon sometime in early 2020. After having added it to a wish list and finally purchasing it just after Christmas 2020, I came to find myself thrown into the evolving history of Ukraine as told by correspondent-author Anne Reid. In this updated version, she juxtaposes her contemporary travels to different cities and towns in Ukraine back in the 1990s, where she gained invaluable firsthand information from Ukrainians themselves (and others), against historical accounts years and sometimes centuries before her interviewing and writing. For me, this style of writing – journalism with history – is engaging and enlightening. Anyone interested in Ukrainian history in general and even more recent events (such as the Crimean crisis of 2014 that is still ongoing) in particular should check out this book.

As I read and highlighted passages of text, I was concurrently working on developing the East Europe course to which I’ve alluded here and there since January 2021. Specifically, I worked on a lecture that addressed the Crimean crisis directly as a more recent/current event; the main goal in doing this was to show that, as the title of Reid’s book implies, Ukraine is still something of a borderland between the Western-European sphere of influence and that of the Russian-Eastern world. Certainly, Ukraine has strived to mold itself in its own right and shape its own destiny, but as history shows us there are still external factors that play into the equation – Russian influence under Putin being one of them.

Borderland by Anna Reid | Basic Books
Borderland (Amazon)

The basic gist, for anyone who doesn’t know or isn’t aware, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich did an about-face on orienting Ukraine toward Europe (namely the EU and NATO) in 2014, and when popular protests erupted in Kiev and other cities, Yanukovich felt his power was slipping and he fled to Russia. A provisional government then formed, upon which Vladimir Putin declared it illegitimate and ordered an invasion of the Crimea ‘to protect ethnic Russians living there,’ after which he had it declared independent and then annexed to Russia. This was a clearly illegal move, which explicitly broke a 1994 agreement that Russia would respect Ukraine’s national boundaries. Soon after the invasion, which the Ukrainian army or new government in Kiev could do little about, another crisis broke out in the Donbas – the easternmost region of the country with more or less Russian-leaning separatists (though there are also those there who wish to separate from Ukraine but also not fall into the Russian sphere). Since then, the conflict has produced a stalemate that has not seen the Ukrainian or Russian governments give way to major changes or resolutions. This article details what has gone on in the past six years since the invasion and annexation.

This string of events, which actually have many of their roots in the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, acts as an important and salient lesson in modern European history in general, and in Eastern European diplomacy and history in particular. That is why I chose to focus half of a lecture on the topic; and hopefully being a current event, students will more likely connect and engage with it. Furthermore, it illustrates older historical trends and norms, especially in that region of the world, by illuminating them in a new light – making the study of history more relevant to the students. That’s the theory and hope, anyway.

Currently, the course sits close to 80% finished. I have two full lectures to write still, along with two half-lectures. Each week of the course, I include supplemental resources (articles, videos, etc.) to help round out the information the students receive, so it’s not all coming from me. The vast majority of that is done, as is the writing assignment prompt and most of the discussion forum prompts for each week. It certainly is a process that takes time and dedication, but in the end is totally worth it. I don’t yet know when I’ll offer this course again after Fall 2021 – perhaps by 2023 – but I’ll have a good deal less work to do that time around by developing the course now. My goal now is to complete this course in its entirety by July 4, then taking a month or so to read through some books in preparation for the new academic year.

That is all for now, so I wish you all a happy rest of May until we meet again in the June blog post!

Mike/”Eli”

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