People protesting in street with Ukraine flags

Ukraine: the country that surprised the world 

Hear from acclaimed writer and historian Dr Olesya Khromeychuk, a leading voice on Russia's war against Ukraine.

International observers estimated that Ukraine would fall within days following Russia’s full-scale invasion. A year on, Ukrainian society continues to demonstrate extraordinary defiance and the Ukrainian Armed Forces show unprecedented resistance to the occupying troops.

In this Sydney Ideas talk, Dr Olesya Khromeychuk will discuss the reasons why we might have underestimated Ukrainian resilience and overestimated Russia's might following the events of February 2022. She will then propose the lessons that the democratic world has learned over the past twelve months.

Dr Olga Boichak, prominent sociologist and frequent commentator on the Russian-Ukrainian war in the media, hosts this event.

This event was held on Thursday 2 February 2023 at the University of Sydney. Dr Olesya Khromeychuk’s visit to the University of Sydney is supported by Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), Ukrainian Studies Foundation in AustraliaUkrainian Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand, and Embassy of Ukraine in Australia.

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Audio transcript

Hello and welcome to Sydney ideas the University of Sydney's public flagship talks program. I'm Olga Boichak, I'm a sociologist and a lecturer in digital cultures here at the University of Sydney. And I'm going to be your host for tonight for the event Ukraine: the country that surprised the world. Tonight is about standing in solidarity with those who have fought and continue to fight for their right to exist on their land. In many places around the world. I acknowledge the owners of the land that we're meeting on tonight, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respect to their elders past, present and emerging. Extend this respect to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person present with us tonight or joining us remotely. Again, welcome and thank you for those in the room and those of you who you watching us on the live stream, wherever you are in the world. I'd also like to acknowledge the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre, the Ukrainian Studies Association in Australia, Ukrainian Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand, the Ukrainian Studies Foundation, and the Embassy of Ukraine in Australia for their support in making Dr Khromeychuk's visit here possible. A few housekeeping things and the rundown of the event. So you're going to hear from Dr Olesya Khromeychuk, our guest speaker tonight. After her talk, Olesya and I will have a short conversation. And then we'll open the floor to your questions. So at any time during this event, you can submit, view and upvote questions by going to That's s.l.i.d.o and entering the code Sydney ideas. Now we're coming up to a year since Russia's full scale invasion, and international observers have estimated that Ukraine would fall within days as you all probably remember, and yet Ukrainian society continues to demonstrate extraordinary defiance. And the Ukrainian Armed Forces show unprecedented resistance to the occupying troops. How did Ukraine against all odds surprise the world? What does this tell us about how we've come to make sense of the war and the lessons for the democratic world? Dr Olesya Khromeychuk is an acclaimed writer, a historian and the director of the Ukrainian Institute, London. Her most recent book, The Death of a Soldier told by his sister has sold out in Australia and many countries around the world. If you can get your hands on it, I highly recommend it. Her publisher has promised to print more copies. So it's coming to Australia very soon. And there was also flyers at the entrance. Olesya is one of the most insightful and prominent voices on Ukrainian history in the world. And we're so extremely fortunate to have this opportunity to have her with us tonight and to hear her insights. So please give a very warm welcome to Dr Olesya Khromeychuk.


- Olga, thank you so much for that extremely generous introduction. I am very grateful to the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre at the University of Sydney, to Olga Boichak, to the Ukrainian studies Foundation in Australia, and the Ukrainian Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand and the Embassy of Ukraine in Australia for making this very exciting trip for me to Australia possible. And it's an absolute honour for me to address all of you tonight. And I'm really looking forward to our discussion after my talk. And thank you also for keeping Ukraine at the centre of attention. Just as Russia is getting ready to escalate this war even further. It's absolutely vital for us not to forget about Russia's war in Ukraine. "Ukraine has reclaimed 54% of the territory Russia has captured since the beginning of the war. I read this in the paper recently," says a woman who invited me to brief a group of journalists, businessmen and women and people involved in politics on the state of affairs in Ukraine. "Since the beginning of the full scale invasion, you mean," I correct her as I often do when people refer to the 24th of February 2022 as the start of the war. She doesn't seem to like being corrected. "Only 54% Nine months into the war." The conversation took place in December "and only 54%. Why is the progress so slow, Olesya?" She asked me in front of her esteemed guests. Since the start of the war in 2014. I have shared my knowledge of Ukraine and Russia's war from every platform that was available to me, from a theatre stage to a university classroom, but more often than not, it was received reluctantly. However, the full scale war made my expertise as well as those of other Ukraine specialists actively sought after. Since February 2022, I have become a full time Ukrainian. Being Ukrainian and a scholar of Ukraine meant that I was expected to be well versed in all things Ukrainian from history and culture, avenues that I felt comfortable in to military strategies, things about which I had limited knowledge and didn't wish to pretend otherwise. Being expected to explain the Ukrainian army's performance at this gathering back in December was part of being a full time Ukrainian, and I was prepared for it. Thus, the question itself didn't take me aback. What I found unsettling was the implication that the Army's performance was poor. "We can ask ourselves why only 54% of the occupied territories have been liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Or we can ask us ourselves why Ukraine did not fall 72 hours into the full scale invasion, as was widely predicted by reputable international intelligence agencies back in February," was my response. The uncomfortable silence that followed my remark implied that the answer I gave was surprising. I was expected to explain why in spite of receiving help from the allies, the army was not advancing more rapidly. Instead, I asked how it was the Ukrainians managed to stand their ground and protect their statehood with little more than defiance before the rest of the democratic world found the will to support them militarily, or why, in spite of numerous victories on the battlefield, after all, over half of the occupied territories were liberated by that point. And in spite of a huge resistance effort from civilians, nine months into the full scale war, Ukrainians were still being killed in aerial bombardments of their cities, and were still being forced to ask for air defense from their allies. Why, while Ukrainians have repeatedly shown the determination to protect their democratic order against the totalitarian aggressor, the rest of the world found it so hard to find the same determination to help them bring the 54% to 100%? 12 months into the war, Ukraine continues to give unexpected answers and ask uncomfortable questions. In the stock I'd like to offer my observations of the past year and look at the roots of the underestimation of Ukraine and the overestimation of Russia. Towards the end of the talk, I'd like to consider what lessons the democratic world might draw from Russia's war in Ukraine. Ukraine has been fighting the war against Russia for 12 months and eight years. During this time, it has democratically elected one president voted him out and elected another. It introduced a series of significant reforms, some of which have had more success than others. Its civil society, historically strong and reignited by the Maidan protests, put in place grassroots movements that brought about much social change and kept the pressure on the political elites to continue reforms. The armed forces were transformed, largely with the help of a vast volunteer movement, from a barely functioning army, eroded by corruption and the Soviet legacy to a motivated, well trained and much better equipped fighting force, whose astonishing performance we have witnessed over the past year. All these changes came into existence in times of war, that before 2022 saw 7% of Ukraine's territory occupied by Russia, nearly 2 million of its citizens displaced, mostly internally, and 14,000 civilian and military lives lost in the hostilities. The first eight years of the war have, however, went largely unnoticed outside of Ukraine. Much of the rest of the world took the decision to perceive that stage of the war as an internal conflict in a country that was conveniently accepted to be in Russia's sphere of influence. Russia presented itself and was accepted by the international community as a neutral party, a broker of peace, and not as an aggressor, who violated international law by invading and occupying parts of a sovereign state. Russia was therefore left largely unpunished for its criminal behavior. Business as usual, continued with the Kremlin normalizing the violence it perpetrated in Ukraine and funding further escalation. It is only when this escalation materialised in the shape of bombs raining on cave and other large Ukrainian cities, killing even more citizens of Ukraine that the aggressor started to be recognised for what it was. And even then, the world continued to look for the Russia it imagined with anti-war and anti-imperialist opposition, rather than accept the country that actually existed, complete with its colonial attitude towards his neighbors and face in the righteousness of his leadership. Following the full scale invasion, Ukrainian surprised the world with their defiance, from an elderly man who faced the Russian tank with nothing but a Ukrainian flag, to a woman who downed the Russian drone with a jar of pickles to a group of sailors who told the Russian warship where to go in the Imperial lingua franca, realising that those were likely to be their last words. Ukrainians, however, did not wake up on the 24th of February suddenly feeling defiant. Their resistance was built up over centuries of repression, of either the Russian Imperial or Soviet type, and decades of shaping their regained statehood and the vision of the future of the country that they wanted to live in. They put much effort into project Ukraine on institutional, societal and individual levels. This work was done inside the country and in the vast global Ukrainian community. They were not prepared to see their efforts destroyed by an occupying force. One of the major miscalculations the Kremlin made, as is often the case with someone who mistakes their sense of entitlement for knowledge, was dismissing Ukrainian history. Putin and his cronies penned various pseudo historical texts in which they denied Ukraine's existence, but they were little more than declarations of a genocidal war. What they hadn't done, and neither had much of the democratic world, is study Ukraine's actual history. In order to understand the roots of Ukraine's defiance, there is no need to go back as as far in history as Putin likes to do when he treats the medieval prince Volodymyr, who baptised the inhabitants of Rus as Christians, as if he were one of the present day politicians sitting across the infamous long table in the Kremlin. If you know the history of Rus, you will know that it was inhabited by Slavs and ruled by a group of Vikings with a capital in Kyiv long before Moscow existed. And you will also know just how absurd it is to use the historical narratives about the ninth century in order to justify Russia's contemporary warmongering. Let's instead focus on the 20th century, the century the saw the birth and death of the USSR, so dear to Putin's heart that he continues to think that the collapse of this repressive union was the largest tragedy of that era.

Following the disintegration of the empires in the wake of the First World War, the territory of contemporary Ukraine witnessed the Ukrainian revolution and several attempts at state building at Ukrainian state establishing Ukrainian statehood. This experience of independence between 1918 and 1920 was brief, but it became formative for Ukrainian subjectivity. It proved that Ukrainians were keen to share not only a national identity cultivated in opposition to Imperial oppression, but also a common polity, something that they have continued to strive towards ever since. The Bolsheviks defeated the young state, but the resistance they encountered on the Ukrainian lands made them realise that while shaping the Union of Soviet Republics, they had to recognise Ukraine's desire for autonomy. Unlike the Tsars before them, and Putin now, the Bolsheviks knew Ukrainians had a clear sense of self and would not accept being treated as a variant of the Russian nation. In the 1920s they looked for ways to control the Ukrainian manifestations of nationhood through policies such as indigenisation, allowing cultural expression that was Ukrainian in form, but Soviet in content. This approach backfired. The flourishing of Ukrainian culture led to the thriving of national consciousness and further mobilization against the centre that tried to oppress it. The answer from the centre was more oppression. Stalin halted the indigenisation experiment, and opted for the methods that gained him his notoriety, destroying all who stood in his way. For Ukraine, it meant the destruction of the political and cultural elites in purges, as well as millions of peasants in the Holodomor, the artificial famine of the 1930s. One of the writers of this period was Mykola Khvylovyi, who was of Ukrainian Russian background and had fought in the Red Army in the Civil War. A convinced communist, he opposed the cultural dogmas imposed by the Kremlin, and worked with his fellow writers to shape a fresh Ukrainian literature that looked towards Europe, and away from Moscow. In 1926, commenting on Khvylovyi's position in a letter to Lazar Kaganovich, who was the first Secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR. At the time, Stalin wrote the following, "what is to be said of other Ukrainian intellectuals, those of the non-communist camp if even communists begin to talk, and not only talk but even write in our Soviet press in the language of Khvylovyi," end of quote. Witnessing Ukrainian cultural activists repressed one by one Khvylovyi shot himself in 1933. The destruction inflicted on Ukrainians in the 1930s did not result in the destruction of the nation's striving for sovereignty. Each subsequent generation found its route to anti-imperialist struggle. The 1940s saw a fierce anti-Soviet fight especially in the newly annexed Western Ukrainian lands. The 1960s witnessed that booming dissident movement that positioned the protection of human rights at its centre. It continued to resist the Russification of Ukraine and fought for national self expression. When it came to dealing with dissent, the post-Stalinist leaders of the Kremlin might not have shot as many people as their predecessor did, but they were happy to lock up the unruly writers and poets in psychiatric asylums and prison camps. When in the 1980s, the world was cheering Soviet reforms such as Perestroika and Glasnost, Ukrainian dissidents continued to be persecuted. Vasyl Stus, one of the finest Ukrainian poets, who was raised in Donetsk, perished in a Russian prison camp in 1985, where he was sent for his dissent against the oppression of the Ukrainian language and culture. While imprisoned he wrote more than 300 poems in Ukrainian, his life is the ultimate story of defiance. In January 2023, Stus would have turned 85, if he hadn't been killed by the Soviet machine four decades earlier. One of the willing cogs in that machine was someone called Viktor Medvedchuk. Known for being one of Putin's closest allies in Ukraine. so close that you chose the President of Russia as the godfather to his daughter. Back in 1980, Medvedchuk was appointed a defence lawyer to Vasyl Stus. In spite of Stus' objections to this choice. His 'defence' consisted of confirming to the court that Stus' crimes deserved punishment. Street art with Stus' face, and the hashtag #MedvedchukWe’veNotForgotten periodically appeared on the streets of Kyiv to remind the former Soviet lawyer that Ukrainians and like his friend on the Kremlin, knew and remembered their history. In April 2022, Medvedchuk went into hiding after the full scale invasion was discovered and arrested. In September 2022, he was exchanged for defenders of Mariupol in a prisoner swap. In January 2023, just four days after Stus' birthday, he was stripped of Ukrainian citizenship. Putin might choose to continue dismissing Ukrainian history, but his friend's fate should serve as a good reminder the Ukrainians will never forget their past, neither distant nor recent. As Lesia Ukrainka, one of the best known Ukrainian authors wrote in 1903. "To suffer in chains is a great humiliation. But to forget those chains without having broken them is the worst kind of shame." So, Ukraine's defiance did not suddenly appear, along with the Russian bombs on the 24th of February 2022. The 20th century alone shows how it has been tempered by every generation's desire to break away from the restrictions imposed by the Kremlin. You might wonder why, given the plentiful evidence of insubordination and rebelliousness, the Russians continue to think the Ukrainians are somehow their younger siblings who might be somewhat willful, but really want to be part of the Slavic family that exists in mythology. The answer is relatively simple when it comes to the leadership in Moscow. Without Ukraine, Russia is no longer an empire. without at least the pretense of imperialism. There is no claim to greatness, the greatness that the corrupt Kremlin elites have been feeding its citizens as they steal from their people, leaving them utterly impoverished, but with a sense of some illusionary importance. Denial of Ukraine's existence as a sovereign state, and the attempts to destabilise it at all costs, is a pragmatic decision for the leaders of the Russian Federation to keep themselves in power. But what about the rest of the Russian society? After all, they haven't all and always been passive. They too had a dissident movement. And the old slogan "for your freedom and ours," was displayed by the few protesters who demonstrated against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union in 1968, in the Red Square. However, being anti Soviet and pro Ukrainian are different things. As the case of Joseph Brodsky, demonstrates a Russian poet, a dissident who was forced out of the USSR in the 1970s and settled in the US he taught at major American universities, and in 1987 was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature "for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity." In 1991 he was appointed United States Poet Laureate. In the same year he wrote a poem entitled on Ukrainian independence. I will recite two verses from that poem in my rough translation, that no doubt likes Brodsky’s poetic intensity, but should transmit his clarity of thought. "Let's tell them fiercely, marking our speech with curses: Adieu, khokhly, good riddance, farewell. In your overcoats, and more importantly in uniforms, Out of sight, off you go, you know where… Godspeed, Cossack eagles, hetmans and gulag servants! But when your time will come to die, you animals, you’ll be croaking while grabbing onto your deathbed lines from Alexander and not the lies of Taras."

The Alexander whom Brodsky summons in these hate filled verses is of course, Alexander Pushkin, another great Russian poet who didn't like Ukrainians rebelling against Russia. In the first edition of his Poltava poem, written in 1828-29, Pushkin explicitly sets out to counter the romantic representation of Ukrainian hetman, Ivan Mazepa, produced by writers such as Lord Byron, and aims to set the record straight by presenting the Cossack leader who rebelled against Peter the First as a traitor. The perception of Mazepa's treachery was felt widely in Russian society. The Russian Orthodox Church laid an anathema on Mazepa in 1708, and has never revoked the excommunication. For decades, Ukrainians were referred to as mazepists, implying that this loyal nature until other historical figures lent their names for a derogatory nickname to be applied to the whole nation. In his poem Brodsky sticks to the good old khokhly, a slur for Ukrainians tried and tested by time and widely used by the Russians today. He lumps all Ukrainians together from the Cossacks to his contemporaries, who in 1991 upset the great Russian poet by taking the nation out of the crumbling Soviet empire and into shaky but much desired sovereignty. The indignation expressed by Brodsky in his poem is directed at over 90% of Ukrainians who voted in the referendum on the first of December 1991. In support of the Declaration of Ukrainian independence. The root of his indignation lies in venerating Alexander over Taras and while valuing one's own freedom, refusing to grant it to others. The Taras in the poem is of course, the Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's best known 19th century romantic poet, the founder of the nation. When in September 2022, the city of Balakliia in the Kharkiv region was liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, a group of soldiers tore down a billboard poster depicting the Russian flag and the slogan "we are one nation with Russia". Underneath that poster was another, predating the occupation. It depicted the portrait of Taras Shevchenko and the famous lines from his poem, The Caucasus: Борітеся — поборете! Вам Бог помагає! За вас правда, за вас слава І воля святая! Keep fighting, and you will prevail. God Himself will aid you, truth and glory stand beside you, and the Holy freedom. Incidentally, billboards depicting Pushkin have been spreading around Ukrainian cities together with the occupation thus becoming a symbol of aggression, destruction, and death. But no matter how hard the Russians tried to get Ukrainians to read, Alexander, it's always Taras who peeks through the cracks of the dilapidated empire. From Pushkin to Brodsky, Russian culture was used as an instrument of imperialist oppression. The authors who produced it might have been critical of the system they lived in, but they were still the products of it. It has been possible to be simultaneously anti Soviet and anti Ukrainian in the past, just as it is possible to be anti Putin, but not pro Ukrainian today. This culture which dismissed its imperial peripheries is unworthy of sovereignty, and stifle their voices is the culture through which much of the democratic world has perceived not only Russia itself, but also the region it relegated to Russia's sphere of influence. When the Orange Revolution or the Maidan protests took place many outside reporters didn't even bother to go to Kyiv. They thought there was enough to report on these events from Moscow. By denying credibility to the voice of those with experiential knowledge of oppression, the world misjudged the oppressor, normalised him, and gave him validity on the international scene, while depriving the same validity to the oppressed. Ukraine, a nation of 40 million was perceived as 'small'. And why explore the culture of a 'small' nation, when you can learn about it from the cultural of its 'great' neighbour. Ukraine, a country that has seen regular popular anti authoritarian movements and held several free elections during just three decades of independence, was perceived as corrupt, while Russia, the state that has had the same ruler in power for over 20 years was engaged with in business and politics. If that was the view of the region we held a year ago, on the eve of Russia's full scale invasion, it is little wonder why Ukraine was predicted to fall within days. So what are the lessons that we can draw from the last 12 months then? First, there must be an acknowledgement of the consequences of inaction, and continued appeasement of Russia that followed 2014. What happened and didn't happen in those eight years, led us to the escalation in 2022. Second, we must ask ourselves, whose story we trust, those with authority that is rooted in aggression, or those with experience of being on the receiving end of that aggression. Third, as we assess the cost of this war, let's remember the Ukrainians are paying it in the lives of their citizens. Every day the Ukrainian victory is delayed, this cost goes up. "But what do you mean when you say Ukrainian victory?" asks one of the guests at the gathering to which I was invited to explain why only 54% of the occupied territories have been liberated. "I mean, restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity and ensuring justice," I answer, "including the Crimea?" He follows up. "Yes, Crimea is Ukraine." I answer realising where this is going, as I have held the version of this conversation many times over the past nine years. "I know it's Ukraine in theory, but in practice, no one is going to risk escalation over Crimea." I hear the familiar condescending tone, you adopt to speak to a child that has said something silly. He continues offering advice I have not sought, "you have to make peace with losing Crimea, and perhaps with losing parts of your territory in the east ands south?"

"And will you make peace with the fate of the people who will live in occupation, with new mass graves with torture chambers? With more and more violations of human rights?" I ask in response.

 "I understand that this is an emotional subject for you. However, you must understand that the protection of human rights is an ideal which of course is very good. But out there among the politicians and diplomats. It's realpolitik that matters. Pragmatism, not emotions," concludes my interlocutor. Nine months into the full scale invasion, I left that briefing meeting with a heavy heart. The aerial bombardments were destroying the lives of my country women and men who refused to give in because they would never make peace with living in occupation. Only a few days after that meeting, I listened to a speech by Oleksandra Matviychuk, the head of an organisation that has been collecting evidence of Russia's war crimes in Ukraine since the war began in 2014. As she accepted the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, she said, "You don't have to be Ukrainians to support Ukraine. It's just enough to be humans." Unless this war becomes an emotional subject to the rest of us, and unless we become fully invested in Ukraine's victory, our pragmatism will lead to a world in which democratic order and with it, our values, including the protection of human rights, will be threatened not just in a poorly understood part of Europe, but on our doorsteps in London, in Berlin, in Washington, or in Sydney. Thank you very much.

- Thank you so much for your insights tonight, Olesya. Really spectacular. As a fellow full time Ukrainian. I will start by asking all I said a few questions and then just a reminder to the audience that we'll take your questions in shortly, head to and enter the code Sydney ideas and the the details are on the screen, whether you're here in the room or watching us on the live stream. So Olesya, in your talk, you have invoked a very powerful image of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, peeking through the cracks of a dilapidated empire. And one of the reasons for his genius was that the things that he wrote about in the 19th century feel eerily contemporary now, I wonder if you could speak a little more on Russia's erasure of the Ukrainian culture. For example, the way Russia systematically collects and destroys old books written in Ukrainian language in the occupied territories or removes any references to Ukraine in their textbooks. This is surely something that Taras would have been intimately familiar with.

- Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much for that question. By the way, if you've not read that Taras Shevchenko before, please do there are lots of very good new translations of his work. And I think if you read people like that Taras Shevchenko, Lesia Ukrainka, the two that I cited earlier today, so these are, you know, sort of founders of the nation, you will understand a lot about Ukrainians, or perhaps understand a lot of what's going on a little bit better. So I often get asked to debunk the Kremlin's myth about Ukraine's divisions, because for so long, and you will have seen this in the in the media, I'm sure. Ukraine in Western media as well as being portrayed sort of colour coded, split into pro Russian east and pro Western West and so on, and portrayed as divided rather than diverse as all countries, or many countries are. And the question that I wanted people to ask instead, was, how come after centuries of repression after living in different empires, some of which were extremely repressive, Russian Empire being the case was the Austro-Hungarian empire less so and tried to assimilate the people that lived in that empire, Ukrainians maintained a shared national identity, the sort of identity that brings them together that is formed in opposition to the Imperial centre. And that is profoundly based in the sort of protection of one's right to self determination. And one of the answers to that question is Ukrainian culture. It's we don't have kings and queens to venerate. No, I mean, I'm glad we don't, to be honest. We don't have sort of, you know, fancy statesmen and women to celebrate because our tradition of statehood is much shorter than in some other states. And often that lack of statehood or the brevity of that statehood is perceived as weakness. But what we do have is our culture, people like Taras Shevchenko, Lesia Ukrainka and others, artists and writers who have profoundly shaped Ukrainian identity. And that is why the Russians are attacking the culture so much. That is why they're trying to erase it. And that is why this war is a genocidal war.

- Thank you. One of the things that Shevchenko particularly cared about was that diversity and was the rights of people who were oppressed, slaves. He often wrote about women and the women's fate in in those times. So Ukraine has indeed surprised the world with its determination with its resilience, facing impossible odds. Where are the women in the story?

- They're everywhere, as you'd expect them to me. Before I answer your question is one of my favourite questions because this is something that I've studied, participation of women in this war in the Ukrainian armed forces. And also historically in in wars. I want to also highlight, come back to, you know, the other founder of the nation, Lesia Ukrainka, who was a feminist who wrote a very much about women's experiences and way before, lots of these themes were raised in European literature more widely, and I would really encourage again to read her work and plug a new version of her Cassandra play that's just been published by Harvard University. It's a story of Troy, told from the point of view of Cassandra who knows what's going to happened but nobody believes her. It's terribly topical I think now and and painful to read, to be honest, but a wonderful play. So please do look it up. Where are the women? Women are everywhere, but we don't see them because when we talk about was, we tend to focus our attention on the trenches. And that's a highly male dominated world. But women run and participate in huge numbers of the enormous civilian volunteer movement and have done traditionally, but also suspect, especially since 2014. Since the Maidan, and then the years, the early years of the war, they do everything from knitting masking nets, after they've done their full time job, to procuring provisions for the army, to raising funds for the armed forces. They participate in advocacy campaigns, especially internationally, partly because the vast majority of men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country, whereas women are. So it makes it easier for for them to travel the world and to talk about, to raise awareness about Russia's war in Ukraine. They also look after civilians in displacement, whether there's internal displacement or external and after dependents, they often the ones who have to take care of their dependents, children, the elderly, cousins, siblings, and so on. But of course, they also take part in the armed forces too, in very large numbers. And the recent numbers are that 60,000 women are in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 40,000 of those are service women and about 5000 are participating in direct combat. So these are very high numbers. And just one last remark on that question. This large participation of women in the armed forces is indicative of what I was saying earlier in the talk of the reforms, not just of the armed forces themselves, but reforms more widely in society in the last nine years or so. Before 2016 women joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces went to the front. So when Russia's war started in Ukraine, but they were there, often semi legally, because so many positions were completely restricted for these women, so they would be in combat, they would be, you know, snipers, or whoever, but registered as administrators, for instance, because the law restricted their presence on the front. And sociologists, a number of academics, as well as very powerful women's veteran movements started to lobby for these restrictions to be lifted, and they achieved the first lifting of the restrictions in 2016. And then gradually, most of the restrictions were gone. So you can see how some pressure from below has made really profound changes to law in Ukraine, but also to the state of the armed forces. And now women can join the armed forces in any occupation that's available of them and that they are qualified for.

- Thank you. I'm going to just use the liberty to ask one last question before we turn it over to the audience. So from the beginning of the full scale aggression, Ukrainians have witnessed and been part of incredibly traumatic events happening on a daily basis. And if we look online, if we look at what Ukrainians are writing about online, we see people channel these experiences in multiple ways. So this also comes through in your book, there's so many ways to process what is happening. Is there a place for, for joy, in processing wartime events, for joy for humour? How do Ukrainians use these things?

- This is such an excellent question because it allows us to talk a little bit about the sort of perception of Ukrainians. That I often find outside of Ukraine, as you know, as perfect victims, and then the realisation that they're not, because they don't necessarily act like perfect victims, they display for instance, anger, or indeed, resort to humour. And that's not what's expected. I have a my friend worked as a fixer for Western journalists in Ukraine for quite a long time. And she said that, especially in the early days of the full scale invasion, the journalists kept asking her "find me a crying woman with children." And she'd find plenty of women with children being displaced, trying to get from A to B. But none of them were crying. They were really determined to get somewhere, you know, to to be efficient, to do what's needed. So joy, joy is is a is a really great one. The the expression of joy that I will always remember was when the Mariupol defenders were released, the first group of over 200 people of Mariupol defenders were released. And the national jubilation was just unbelievable, people were crying with joy. And that happens every time part of the territory is liberated. Kherson is another really memorable moment, liberation of Kherson. I was in Ukraine at the time when the Kharkiv region was being liberated so I could see it around me as well, which was absolutely fascinating. And that really shows you the value of human life that Ukrainians have,  they rejoice at the sight of restoration of life or saving life. But humour is another interesting one. And I'm sure if you're not on Ukrainian, Twitter, but you can read Ukrainian or you can translate, you know, do the automatic translation not sure how that translates jokes, but you know, go and give it a try the memes that the Ukrainians are producing at the moment, absolutely mind blowing, they're so witty, and for me, they're also record of war, and the record of how people are coping with this war, and war can be more effective than laughing at the enemy?

- So future historians will definitely study memes.

- They already are I think, people are writing papers on this already. Fantastic work has been done.

- Wonderful. Thank you so much. Okay, we have a few pre submitted questions from the audience. I was wondering if whoever submitted them are here with us. So we have Elizabeth Connor, Jinx McCray, and Sam Cats, if any of you are in the audience, and would like to ask you a question yourself. We can. Okay, so I'll ask the questions. And you prefer to have a few questions, like blocks, clusters of questions. All right, so we have a few questions. First of them is the Ukrainian Armed Forces. And this is from Elizabeth Connor, who is a school manager with us at the University of Sydney. "The Ukrainian armed forces seem to mobilise all around the country work very quickly. Was this in part due to the military being stationed around the country or the governance or some other organisational issue?" That's one question. The other question by Jinx McRae, student at UTS. Jinx is asking "biggest misconception of the Russia-Ukraine conflict". And then we have a question submitted online from Sam Cats. "If Russia contained or withdraws from Ukraine, what is the best strategy to prevent future military conflict with Russia?" So these questions, and then maybe we have Kate and Tom who have mics. And so please let Kate and Tom know if you have a question. We will let Olesya answer this round. And then we'll take the questions from the audience.

- These are wonderful questions. Thank you so much for asking them. Mobilisation of Ukrainian armed forces was, first of all, let's not forget that Ukrainian armed forces have been mobilising in different waves of mobilising recruits, in different ways of mobilisation for eight years before the full scale invasion. So they had this process in place already. So you know, the kind of centralised process that reaches out to future recruits. But also, we should remember about the sort of self mobilisation of Ukrainian citizens. There were queues to military commissariats, in the early days of the invasion, of men and women, waiting to sign up, to join up. Either to be part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces as such, or the territorial defence, which is also a wing of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. So this realisation that in Ukraine that we have to prevent occupation, we have to prevent, you know, the destruction that Putin was aiming for in every possible way. And large chunks of the Ukrainian population felt that the best way that they could do it is by joining up by, you know, becoming part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Some already had experience of warfare of this war of frontline fighting, others didn't, but might have felt, you know, trained enough, prepared enough to join up. And that is a very important thing to understand that the army that we see today, Ukrainian society has a sudden sense of ownership of that army, because it's been supporting it financially and through provisions for the first eight years of the war. Huge volunteer movement inside the country, the diaspora support outside of the country, you know, ensured that the country that the army became the fighting force that we see today, but also because so many civilians have joined the armed forces. And, you know, a lot of my friends, colleagues, academics, writers, actors, you name it, they're in the army they're serving already. So this, this, this really clear connection between civilians and the armed forces, there's trust for that reason, and there's the sense of ownership of the armed forces. And I also feel that, I've studied memory politics a little bit, as well. And I feel like this is going to have a profound impact on how the war and the battlefields and you know, the the act of warfare will be remembered in the future as well, I think we'll see a lot of human stories being told. And they are already being told, I mean, there are writers who are soldiers now who say, I can't write, because, because I can't anymore. And there are those who are keeping diaries and publishing these diaries, and we get access to this immediate experience of what it's like being a soldier. So that's the answer, very long. And so I'll try and give you shorter answers from now on to the question. The second question was about misconceptions. So where do I begin? Lots of misconceptions. I'll give you one, the misconception that exists to this day, because a lot of them have been dispelled, I think, one way or another. But the one that continues to exist is that somehow we have to offer something to Russia, for it to withdraw. And in my view, and I think that view is shared by the entire Ukrainian population, that the only thing that we should offer is decisive defeat. But that is not necessarily the view that's shared outside of Ukraine. And wherever I go, people tend to say to me, "but you know, we need to appease Putin. So he doesn't escalate. Why don't we let him keep Crimea?" for instance, right. And I've already talked about Crimea a little bit in my talk. But but something else I want to, to add here is that, if we let him keep anything, it means that this war for him was a success. It means that might is right. It means that he benefits from waging this genocidal war. And specifically on the question of Crimea, I've been accused of being emotional and not pragmatic, many times. But it's actually not pragmatic to perceive, you know, the prolonged occupation of Crimea as somehow a way out of this war. If Crimea continues to be occupied, it will continue to be the platform for the launching of missiles into Ukraine, into the rest of Ukraine, as it has been, it's highly militarized. It has been highly militarized for eight years of the occupation before the start of the full scale invasion. And also, it's dependent on southern Ukraine for freshwater supply, and for other resources. So it's not an option to, to not de-occupy and liberate Crimea, it's actually really important to make sure that we do. So yeah, misconception. One thing that I'd like people to understand is, appeasement does not lead to peace, it leads to escalation. And we should finally learn that lesson now. And the third question was, aha, so yeah, kind of leads on from that. What happens if Russia does withdraw? And how to make sure that it doesn't wage another war? A very good question. Indeed. I think two things need to happen. Well, yeah. Three things, main things first, the de-militarisation of Russia, to the point that it's incapable of waging another war. Second, ensuring that Russia no longer has nuclear weapons, because if it still is in possession of nuclear weapons, then, at some point down the line, another leader of the Russian Federation, may well decide to blackmail the rest of the world with nuclear warfare again. And the last thing that I think needs to happen, and I'm least hopeful of that is for the Russian society to realise that the imperialist project in which its leadership engaged in doesn't work for them, for them, for Russian society, it's not beneficial to them. I don't see that happening now. And because there's no appetite of that kind of leadership, of that kind of attitude in Russian society, there is no, there are no leaders in Russian society that offer that that option to the population.

- Thank you. Thank you for these now it's your turn to ask questions. So Kate and Tom will be there with the mics. And yes, just please aim your question to make your questions succint so we can get through as many as we can, please.

- Sure. Thank you. I just want to say thank you, Dr Khromeychuk. It's lovely to hear from you. And it's a double barrelled question. I'm sorry, I'm not trying to sneak in two but it is kind of double barrelled. You said that Russia's obsession with Ukraine had to do with it needing to reaffirm its imperial. I, I'm kind of curious about that, because it seems an obsession that is really acute. And I just I don't know that I, I don't know that I buy that the answer. And I'm just wondering if I can push that a little bit further. Is there any other historical reason that you think Russia is so obsessed with Ukraine and the other aspect of that is obviously it's invaded Georgia and Chechnya, it's invaded Moldova. Do you think that what Ukrainians resistance will actually spur, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, other indigenous nations and peoples in Russia to you know, to, to resist and perhaps from within take down that imperialism?

- Thank you. Let's take another question. Just so Olesya can answer both of them.

- Thank you very much, I don't think it is enough time to, I would like to help greatly. I come from Yugoslavia, I still consider myself even destroyed and destroyed because of nationalism. So that's a very bad thing. And also, just to give you a bit quick background, other than information science, as a profession, I become philosopher observing human bias. So the problem here is that we have to look at the consequences of our actions, we live sorry, like a bit of framework, otherwise, we are going in the wrong direction. So we live in an age of Western propaganda. And in what I call myself becoming philosopher, is the Dark Age of philosophy, there is no logic that can confirm like what we are doing. So I just want to see the consequences. At the moment, it's been estimated by the best open sources that 157,000 Ukrainian soldiers has been killed or been missing, which means can be assumed killed. That's a huge number, and usually is three times the wounded. That's 600,000 Is the whole army missing. So now the moment Polish, Romanian, and the whole thing is actually US fighting against not just Russia, but non-West. Alright. So and non-western is 85%, there's no chance they'll win because the world is. So how they consider ending this problem, because people are dying, and one year ago could have been tried to solve this problem. But because America doesn't want, they want to fight, US till the last Ukrainian. How do you think that you can solve this problem? Not with talk, somebody needs to talk with, with those big powers? So far, unfortunately, the big powers, and we have to talk, there's no other way.

- Thank you. And would you like to address the two questions?

- Absolutely. Thank you for both of those. Obsession with Ukraine, we we can have another talk on this and we should work with other speakers. Definitely. Imperialism is one of the questions one of the answers to that obsession. I'm not saying it's the only one. And it's not just imperialism as such, it's the creation of this illusion that Russia is a great country that is based not on the fact that, you know, it's a great country, because the people has such high quality of life, and they are having such wonderful life, it's the opposite, it's to actually keep people as docile as possible, given that the conditions that they're living absolutely dire. And the reason why those conditions are dire is because their state has been stealing from them for so long. They led them into those conditions, there is no reason why Russia should be in the state that it's in, or the Russian society should be in the state that it's in. So it's this referencing of Russia as a great power and therefore an empire that I think is being used in rhetoric a lot, or that it's fighting against fascists or Nazis or whoever invented, or America, you know, there's no fight in Ukraine, so I'll come back to that. But it's fighting another great power. That's why they kind of they've been losing in Ukraine for 12 months miserably. They need to invent another story. And the story is, well, we're not really fighting the Ukrainians. We're fighting the Americans, therefore, it's okay. If we don't win. It's okay if we perform so poorly. But what I mean, historically, there's plenty of proof of that as well. I mean, Lenin thought that there will be no Soviet Union without Ukraine too, because it's an extremely wealthy agriculturally and economically, space, and, you know, it's a, it's a large country, it's a lot of people to lose. It's a country that has access to Europe, it has access to the Black Sea. It's extremely important to control it. And you answered with your second question the second half of your question, you kind of answered your first question. One of the main reasons for the Kremlin to keep Ukraine within its imperial idea, is precisely because the resistance that you're going to keep, you know, to try and fight against Ukrainian resistance is precisely because that resistance can spur movements inside Russia, among all sorts of displaced populations, and that is why the Maidan protests seem so scary to Putin. And that's why he answered with the occupation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine, because he could see that Ukrainians were showing to his citizens that is possible to oust the corrupt authoritarian leader to make the voices heard to change the government to resist authoritarianism, precisely the sort of political system that he was so successfully building in, in Russia, and that threatened his position, and he threatened his wealth and it threatened his power. So again, the you know, sort of what I apply implied earlier, is the plenty of pragmatic reasons for them to keep this myth and feed it to its population, but also to keep Ukraine as destabilised as possible. First of all, nationalism has had very bad press in the 20th century for very good reasons. But I would encourage you to read Ukrainian scholars and scholars of Ukraine who write about nationalism and use examples of Ukrainian nationalism, both historically. So from the 19th century up until the present day, and especially look at what is happening today. Because what we see today is we see a political nation, civic nationalism, where at the centre of the values of that type of nationalism is human rights, protection of human rights. We see with, you ask the question I'm answering, we see Crimean Tatas, Jewish Ukrainians, Roma Ukrainians, Ukrainian Ukrainians, Russophone Ukrainians, Russian ethnic Ukrainians fighting all for sovereignty and the rule of law. And if Russia destabilises or threatens Ukrainian statehood, it threatens the rule of law, and therefore, protection of human rights. And we've seen violation of human rights in the occupied territories. We've seen the mass graves that the Russian troops leave behind. We've seen torture chambers, where children are tortured, not to mention wider civilian population, we've seen the consequences of the collapse of the rule of law that comes with Russian occupation. I appreciated that you care about the losses, the Ukrainian Armed Forces suffer, I share that yeah, deeply. My brother was killed at the frontline in 2017, fighting in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It was his choice to join the Ukrainian Armed Forces. And it's up to us how long we allow this war to continue before Ukraine's victory, and how many more soldiers and civilians will die. Ukraine has no choice but to win. Because the only other choice is occupation. And I just described what occupation looks like to citizens. We have a choice to speed up that victory, or to delay it. And we need to remember the consequences. The consequences are measured in people's lives. Thank you.

- Thank you. Last question. And I think it's a really nice to wrap up. So it comes from online from Joe. Those of us with Ukrainian descent are not surprised in the slightest at the fight back. What will be required to rebuild Ukraine and how can we help?

- Great question. It's very difficult to think about rebuilding Ukraine before, you know before this victory, right, but we need to begin to think about it now. We need to begin to think about ensuring justice and it's only justice that's going to ensure lasting peace. That's also about rebuilding because Ukrainian society will not be able to begin healing unless there's justice, visible justice, the war criminals have been punished for their crimes. Unless there's some form of reparations coming from Russia that is destroying Ukrainian critical infrastructure. Daily at the moment Ukrainian economy has suffered massively. So it's really important that the resources have been put into place. And the decisions are being taken now on all levels, from state levels to company levels to university levels to think how we can establish connections with our counterparts in Ukraine, to make sure that we help them rebuild as soon as it is possible. And in some cases, it's already possible. And it's already happening now. So we're in the, we're in the university here. And I would like to encourage all universities, all scholars to look for ways of working with Ukrainian scholars in a meaningful, lasting way, creating the kind of relationships that will go beyond the various scholars at risk, temporary fellowships that we've seen all over the world, which have been very gratefully received. But what we need is rebuilding academia inside Ukraine, universities have been ruined. Academics have lost their livelihoods. But also, many have lost their lives, the students have either been drafted, join the armed forces or threatened in some other ways, and their lives destabilised by this war. So it's really important for us to look for ways of creating these kind of relationships that will enable. So in this example that I'm giving the university, enable restoration of the academia in Ukraine. And the same is applied when it comes to rebuilding the actual cities, the infrastructure, working with people who have suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, there are a lot of NGOs on the ground already, very good Ukrainian NGOs, and international NGOs doing fantastic work, and they need to be supported now, and they will need to be supported for a long time in the future. So there's plenty of things for us to do now from you know, donating if you're able to do so, to keeping yourselves informed, reading reliable sources, avoiding the Russian propaganda and spreading the word and not succumbing to Ukraine fatigue, because let's remember, that's another weapon of war directed at us.

- On this note, I would like to thank you Olesya. I would like to thank everyone in the audience and people joining us online. So just a reminder that Olesya's visit to the University of Sydney has been supported by the Sydney Centre of Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre, also known as SSSHARC, the Ukrainian Studies Foundation in Australia, Ukrainian Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand and the Embassy of Ukraine in Australia. So thank you again. And thanks also to the team, Sydney ideas, the AV crew, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and also to Kate and Tom for the mics. This event was recorded so if there's anything you missed and want to revisit, it will be available on video and podcast on demand. And for more information and future events head to Sydney Ideas website. We hope to see you again at the next Sydney Ideas event. If you would like to stay behind Olesya is happy to chat informally, maybe answer some of your questions that we didn't have time to go through. And I am just a reminder, I'm Olga Boichak, and I've been your host for tonight. And so thank you so much and have a good night. Thank you.

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About the speakers

Dr Olesya Khromeychuk

Dr Olesya Khromeychuk, Ukrainian Institute London

Olesya is a historian and writer. She has taught the history of East-Central Europe at the University of Cambridge, University College London, the University of East Anglia and King’s College London, and written for the New York Review of Books, Der Spiegel, the Los Angeles Review of Books, openDemocracy and Prospect. Khromeychuk is the author of A Loss: The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister (2022) and “Undetermined" Ukrainians. Post-War Narratives of the Waffen SS "Galicia" Division (2013).

She is currently the Director of the Ukrainian Institute London.

Dr Olga Boichak

Dr Olga Boichak (Host), University of Sydney

Olga is a Lecturer in Digital Cultures in the Discipline of Media and Communications, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She is a sociologist with expertise in computational social science, and her research interests span networks, narratives, and cultures of activism in the digital age. 

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Header image: Photo by Markus Spiske [source]