Environmental Humanities, Ukrainian Studies: It’s time to talk 

Scroll this

On February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation escalated its 8-year war on Ukraine by launching a full-scale invasion. The war’s devastating environmental impacts encompass not only extreme pollution from toxins released by missile and artillery strikes on civilian, industrial, and military infrastructure, and the direct destruction of forest, grassland, riparian, and marine ecologies. They are also found in risks of nuclear disaster posed by the Russian military’s occupation of and combat near the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plants, in the global food crisis Russia has created through blocking ports and destroying grain, and in Russia’s ability to continue the war because of its entanglement with global fossil fuel capitalism.

The war raises questions about how the world is being informed about its environmental consequences and by whom. Ukrainian biologists’, lawyers’, policy makers’, and activists’ efforts to document and publicize the impact of Russia’s war on Ukrainian environments have been effective in attracting high profile allies and news articles in publications such as the New York Times and The Guardian.[1] Ukrainian environmental humanities scholars and practitioners have also played a crucial role in situating the invasion in relation to longer histories of imperial violence in Ukraine and exposing the anthropocentric environmental and resource imaginaries that have underpinned them.[2] Yet it is still a struggle to make these analyses audible to wider environmental humanities audiences. A review of 14 environmental humanities centres’ Twitter feeds since February 24 revealed that only three featured or shared a post about a topic related to the Russian invasion and only two featured presentations by Ukrainian scholars. While a few events about the war have included environmental humanities scholars with expertise about Ukraine, they were mainly hosted by centres and associations focused on the study of Ukraine and eastern Europe.

Being an environmental humanities scholar of Ukraine therefore means grappling simultaneously with different forms of coloniality in the production of knowledge. The mainstream environmental humanities canon is anglophone, and when the disciplinary traditions that it draws on (history, anthropology, geography, literature) address colonial legacies, they focus on the experiences of western European overseas empires. The omission of Russian and Soviet imperial projects obscures their legacies in Ukraine. Moreover, the articles found in most syllabi and handbooks are mainly written by scholars trained in the US, UK, and other metropolitan centres. As a result, anglophone environmental humanities theory and lexicon is often treated as universally applicable to other contexts. When anglophone environmental humanities has paid attention to Ukraine, it has usually focused on the Chornobyl disaster because of its global impacts and its status as both a watershed in the emergence of a global environmental consciousness and a case study of Anthropocene apocalypse. This means that Chornobyl often serves as a metonym of Ukraine which locks the country into the frame of a “(post)Soviet ruin.”

While on the one hand scholars of Ukraine grapple with the global hegemony of anglophone scholarship in the environmental humanities, on the other hand they deal with the imperial knowledge politics that arise from the fact that Ukrainian lands have been part of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Soviet empires. This creates challenges in accessing archival materials assembled (or destroyed) in the service of imperial policies, some of which were aimed at the repression of Ukrainian cultural, economic, and political autonomy. In the field of environmental history, which often relies on field notes and publications of scientists who worked in the service of empire, this can perpetuate practices of epistemic erasure. For example, the environmental history of southern Ukrainian steppes is mainly available in the form of broader histories framed as studies of the Russian Empire.[3] Indeed, it was in the 18th century in the context of the Russian Empire’s expansion that naturalists began developing a conception of the steppes as a “natural region” with a distinct climate, vegetation, and soil.[4] While accounts by David Moon and Willard Sunderland detail the entanglement of scientists’, estate owners’, and literate foreign settlers’ environmental and agricultural knowledge with imperial rule, it is difficult for a reader to see outside of, or alternatives to, imperial visions of these lands. 

Meanwhile the field of Ukrainian studies focuses on national identity, state building, civil society, and social movements. This is not surprising for a postcolonial country that is now under attack by one of its former imperial rulers. One consequence, however, is that environments are often sidelined, apart from when they are important as symbols of national identity or settings for nationally significant historical events.

The words of feminist intersectional scholar of Central Asia Aizada Arystanbek capture some aspects of the experiences of environmental humanities scholars of Ukraine: “I have to stitch together my identity in academia by myself.”[5] After meeting at the IARCEES annual conference in June 2022, we felt it was time to discuss these issues together with other colleagues instead of working alone. We invited three other Ukrainian environmental humanities researchers – Asia Bazdyrieva, an environmental humanities researcher, Anna Olenenko, an environmental historian at Zaporizhzhia’s Khortytsia National Academy, and Iryna Zamuruieva an artist and cultural geographer – to begin a conversation about what an inclusive Ukrainian environmental humanities could be. Our first step was organizing a panel called “Beyond Anthropocentrism in Ukrainian Studies: Proposals from the Environmental Humanities” which we presented at the Canadian Association of Slavists in early May 2022. While the war had ruptured our families’, friends’, and our own lives and more-than-human relations, and forced us to reflect on imperial power and politics, our presentations also provided portraits of an array of practices of stewardship, love, commitment, and vulnerability with plants, animals, rocks, fossils and people (See a summary by Lisa Semchuk here). 

Inspired by our shared search for Ukrainian environmental humanities and motivated by the ongoing threat of imperial erasure (see Darya’s piece in note 2), the two of us started writing an article in which we begin to draw together a constellation of Ukrainian thinkers and practitioners who were doing transdisciplinary work well before the emergence of such a field. Volodymyr (Vladimir) Vernadsky and Mykola Sharleman (Charlemagne) are two examples. Vernadsky is known to most environmental humanities scholars as a “Russian” or “Soviet” scientist who established the field of biogeochemistry, conceptualized the role of “living matter” in the earth’s geological processes, and further developed the notion of the biosphere. However, Vernadsky had multi-faceted connections with Ukraine. It was in Ukraine that he came up with his ground-breaking theories, and he was a founder and first president of Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences where he facilitated the growth of Ukrainian studies. Vernadsky also established the first Ukrainian research library, an institution that now bears his name. He took an active part in acquiring important collections for humanities research such as volumes in philosophy, rhetoric, and psychology that belonged to Kyiv Mohyla Academy in the XVII-XVIII centuries.[6]

Sharleman, a zoologist and colleague of Vernadsky, was involved in setting up Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences, zoology collections, and nature reserves before WWII. After the war, he could not get work in his field because he had remained in Nazi-occupied Kyiv and had been deported to Germany. While working in poorly paid jobs he published original interpretations of animals, plants, and geographical features in the 12th century epic poem “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” and on the walls of Kyiv’s Saint Sophia Cathedral. In doing so, he combined his zoological and geographical expertise with skills in historical and philological interpretation that he acquired in part through his friendship with preeminent Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky and ethnologist Kateryna Hrushevska in the 1920s.[7] While Vernadsky and Sharleman were implicated in imperial projects in different ways, we think that their works and intellectual trajectories can nevertheless help in forming an environmental humanities specific to Ukraine. Our efforts to locate such thinkers parallel those of our colleagues Iryna Zamuruieva, who has been re-reading the legacy of Kateryna Hrushevska in relation to ecofeminism in Ukraine, and Anastassiya Andrianova, who has been examining Lesia Ukrainka’s literary legacy through the prism of ecofeminist thought.[8] 

We are humbled by what we have missed in part because of our training in fields and institutions that reproduce colonial practices of epistemic erasure and marginalization. We have been inspired by others who also question structures of exclusion in environmental humanities, environmental science, and the study of eastern Europe. These include Chelsea Mikael Frazier’s manifesto for Black Feminist Ecological Thought, Axelle Karera’s critique of Anthropocene discourse, Max Liboiron’s analysis of the coloniality of “firsting” in research, and Andriy Zayarnyuk’s call for the deimperialization of “area studies.”[9] We hope that this work of assembling artists, writers, thinkers, and researchers contributes to the project of dismantling the extractivist structures that destroy environments and their people everywhere.

We thank NiCHE for the invitation to write about this work.


[1] See for example the work of the organizations Environment People Law, the Ukraine Nature Conservation Group, and the climate action group Ecodiya.

[2] See Andrianova, A. (2022). Russia’s War on the Nonhuman. NYU Jordan Center. April 21 https://jordanrussiacenter.org/news/russias-war-on-the-nonhuman/; Bazdryieva, A. (2022). No Milk, No Love. E-Flux Journal, 127 (May). https://www.eflux.com/journal/127/465214/no-milk-no-love/; ​​Iakovlenko, K. (2022). Landscape, Decolonial and Ukrainian Resistance. BLOK Magazine, March 28. http://blokmagazine.com/landscape-decolonial-and-ukrainian-resistance/; Matviyenko, S. (2022). Nuclear Cyberwar: From Energy Colonialism to Energy Terrorism. E-Flux Journal, 126 (April). https://www.e-flux.com/journal/126/460842/nuclear-cyberwar-from-energy-colonialism-to-energy-terrorism/; Perga, T. (2022). Ecocide in Ukraine: How Russia’s War Will Poison the Country (and Europe) For Decades to Comes. De Gruyter Conversations, June 30. https://blog.degruyter.com/ecocide-in-ukraine-how-russias-war-will-poison-the-country-and-europe-for-decades-to-come/; Tsymbalyuk, D. (2022). Erasure: Russian imperialism, my research on Donbas, and I. Kajet, May https://kajetjournal.com/2022/06/15/darya-tsymbalyuk-erasure-russian-imperialism-my-research-on-donbas/; Tsymbalyuk, D. (2022). What does mean to study environments in Ukraine now? Environment & Society Portal, August 2022. https://www.environmentandsociety.org/arcadia/what-does-it-mean-study-environments-ukraine-now; Richardson, T. and L. Adamchuk (2022). World Bee Day in Ukraine during the Russian invasion. Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping, September 6. https://www.beeculture.com/world-bee-day-in-ukraine-during-the-russian-invasion/

[3] Moon, D. (2013). The Plough that Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Willard Sunderland. (2006). Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[4] Moon. pp. 6-7.

[5] Arystanbek, A. (2019). Central Asian Feminists Are Carving out Their Space in Gender Studies. Open Democracy, December 20 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/central-asian-feminists-are-carving-out-their-space-gender-studies/

[6] Sytnyk, K.M, Apanovych, E.M, and Stoiko, S.M. (1988). V.I. Vernadskii: Zhizn i deiatel’nost’ na Ukraini. 2-e izdanie, ispravelennoie i dopolnennoie. [V.I. Vernadskii: Life and Activity in Ukraine] Kiev. Naukova Dumka. [in Russian]

[7] Sharleman, N. V. 2014. Pryroda i liudi Kievskoi Rusi. Vospominaniia. Avtobiografii. Perepiska. Sostavlienie, predislovie, kommentarii, Ulianovskogo, V.I. [Nature and People of Kievan Rus’. Recollections, Autobiography, Correspondence. Collected, introduction, and commentary by V. I. Ulianovskii] Kyiv: Vydavnychii Dim “Prostir.” [in Russian]

[8] Zamuruieva, І. (2021). “Feminism abo smert.” Shcho take ekofeminizm i iak vin mozhe zminyty nashe maibutnie. Commons/Spilne.  [“Feminism or Death.” What is Ecofeminism and How Can it Change our Future] July 9  https://commons.com.ua/uk/sho-take-ekofeminizm/; Andrianova, A. (2021). Mavka as Willow. An Ecofeminist Analysis of Lesja Ukrajinka’s Forest Song. Studi Slavistici 18(2): 225-40. Andrianova, A. (2021). Ecofeminism in Film Adaptations of Lesia Ukrainka’s Forest Song. Kyiv Mohyla Humanities Journal (8): 46-67. https://philpapers.org/rec/ANDEIF-2\

[9] Frazier, C. M. (2020). Black Feminist Ecological Thought: A Manifesto. Atmos, October 1. https://atmos.earth/black-feminist-ecological-thought-essay/; Karera, A. (2019). Blackness and the Pitfalls of Anthropocene Ethics. Critical Philosophy of Race (7:1): 32–56; Liboiron, M. (2021). Firsting in Research. Discard Studies. January 18. https://discardstudies.com/2021/01/18/firsting-in-research/; Zayarnyuk, A. (2022). Historians as Enablers? Historiography, Imperialism, and the Legitimization of Russian Aggression.  East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies 9(2): 191-212. https://ewjus.com/index.php/ewjus/article/view/754/378

The following two tabs change content below.

Tanya Richardson and Darya Tsymbalyuk

TANYA RICHARDSON is a Canadian and UK-trained social anthropologist at Wilfrid Laurier University. She has published about nature conservation and landscape change around Ukraine’s Danube Delta. Her current research is about the trade, breeding, and conservation of Ukraine’s honeybees. DARYA TSYMBALYUK researchers, writes, and draws. Her work lies between intersectional environmental and decolonial approaches, and in her projects, she engages stories and cultures from Ukraine. She received her PhD from the University of St Andrews, Scotland in 2021, and she is currently a Max Hayward Visiting Fellow (2022-2023) at St Antony's College, University of Oxford.

Latest posts by Tanya Richardson and Darya Tsymbalyuk (see all)

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.