What don't we understand about the war in Ukraine?

December 14, 2022

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When Vladimir Putin launched a new military offensive last February, Canada condemned Russia’s actions and support Ukraine. As the war spills into 2023, what should we know about this conflict? What are we to make of the competing narratives about the war’s political, cultural, and historical context? How is our understanding affected by mythology and misinformation?  

Today, Miller is joined by Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, Professor in the Modern Language and Cultural Studies Department and Director of the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.

Her research areas are diaspora studies and migrant communities, oral history, folklore and Ukrainian studies, and she will use her expertise to help us answer the question "What don't we understand about the war in Ukraine?"

About the guest

Headshot of Natalia Khanenko-Friesen

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen is a Professor at the Faculty of Arts in the Modern Languages and Cultural Studies Department and the Director of the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies (CIUS).

Her research areas are diaspora studies and migrant communities, oral history, life story narrative, folklore, Ukrainian studies, post-socialist transition and Canadian studies. In 2001, she obtained her PhD in Anthropology, modern languages and cultural studies from the University of Alberta.

In 2015, she published her latest book Ukrainian Otherlands: Diaspora, Homeland and Folk Imagination in the Twentieth Century. Among her current projects, Natalia Khanenko-Friesen is conducting an assessment study on Post-1991 Ukrainian Immigration to Canada. 



Natalia Khanenko-Friesen in the news 

  • Countering online misinformation through the Ukraine war – Global News 
  • Natalia spoke at the University of Alberta about Ukranian studies in Canada - watch the intervention
  • University of Alberta initiative aims to protect Ukrainian archives, research – CBC News 

[00:00:00] Gabriel Miller: Welcome to the Big Thinking Podcast, where we talk to leading researchers about their work on some of the most important and interesting questions of our time. I'm Gabriel Miller, and I'm the President and CEO of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. When Vladimir Putin launched a new military offensive last February, Canada condemned Russia's actions and expressed strong support for Ukraine. 

[00:00:30] Ten months later, as Ukrainians continue to bravely defend their country, there is no clear end to the war in sight. Meanwhile, the stakes could not be higher for the people of Ukraine, for Europe's future and for global peace and security. As the war spills into 2023, what should we know about this conflict? 

[00:00:52] What are we to make of the competing narratives about the war's political, cultural, and historical context? How is our understanding affected by mythology and misinformation? Our guest today is uniquely qualified to help us explore these questions. Professor Natalia Khenenko-Friesen was born in Ukraine and studied in Kyiv during the dying days of the Soviet Empire. 

[00:01:16] Today she is a Professor in the modern Languages and Cultural Studies department at the University of Alberta, where since 2020, she has served as Director of the Institute for Ukrainian Studies. You came to Canada and built a career here starting about 30 years ago. But before that, you were born and raised in Ukraine and you were studying as an undergrad in Ukraine in the dying days of the cold war. 

[00:01:51] What do you remember about what your life was like in those years?  

[00:01:56] Natalia Khanenko-Friesen: Thank you for starting with this background question. I have come to Canada. I came to Canada in 1992, and indeed that was my time to [...], to just really cross over the Atlantic and experience North America and specifically Canada was somewhat fresh eyes of the young former Soviet kid from Kiev, Ukraine. 

[00:02:19] My year of coming to Canada was the year of early Ukraine's independence. The Soviet Union has collapsed in 1991 as a human being, of course, I was shaped by all these experiences of late eighties or the late eighties and early nineties, and as a young kid or young youth, I remember very vividly these changes which were taking place 

[00:02:44] in Ukraine and then in former Soviet Union with the arrival of perestroïka [reconstruction] in the early eighties or mid eighties, and what had eventually become out of it and how the independence movement has been shaping up and gaining momentum in the late eighties and in and how the Soviet Union had disintegrated. So for me, for example, being a kid while living in the Russian speaking, predominantly Russian speaking city at a time, and being the Ukrainian speaking youth, there were many, many interesting 

[00:03:17] experiences/also challenges, which I had to go through as that, um, determined kid, if you wish, who wanted really to pursue the study of Ukrainian culture, despite, not despite, but in light of all the possibilities which existed for me in Ukraine. I chose the, the route to go abroad to do so. I felt that it was a bit strange to go to Canada to study the Ukrainian culture, but I did that. 

[00:03:38] Gabriel Miller: You obviously were at a point in your life where you wanted to continue your studies. What was it that led you to to end up coming to Canada and studying at the University of Alberta?  

[00:03:48] Natalia Khanenko-Friesen: University of Alberta is an interesting and quite fascinating place for someone who would be interested in Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian history, study of literature, and so on and so forth. 

[00:03:59] To me personally, back in the early nineties when I was applying for a graduate school, an opportunity presented itself to study folklore. So Ukrainian folklore program in the University of Alberta has been known as a meeting centre of that, um, direction in the world. There was a cool folklore center eventually, which shaped up on the basis of the existing programs. 

[00:04:22] And nowadays we, at the University of Alberta, [...] or rather, where I've come back to after having my career in a pursuit elsewhere, I am still a part of that very vibrant intellectual community. In addition to the study of Ukrainian folklore, we all know of the long-term presence of Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, which was set up in 1976, and of course affected the way humanities and social sciences evolved with the focus on Ukraine, Ukrainian studies in Canada. 

[00:04:50] So to me, there was a major draw. And also, of course, this also an opportunity. For a young kid in early nineties living in this, in these times when we really had almost nothing to eat and the economic collapse was so profound back in those times, the salaries were so low and food was so expensive an opportunity to study abroad,  

[00:05:15] it was absolutely unachievable for a kid like, like me because of financial limitations. So having a scholarship, which I was lucky to receive, predetermined my pass towards Canada, but also intellectually. I was, as I had mentioned before, I was quite interested in the, uh, Ukrainian settlements on the prairies. 

[00:05:35] They, the Ukrainian Canadians have come to Canada as early as 1891 - 92, and in these timeframes, and they've created a very powerful culture for themselves here in the prairies. So I was quite fascinated by that, to be honest, and that that translated into a thesis of mine, which I wrote for my doctoral studies. 

[00:05:57] So that ultimately led me further to that. 

[00:06:01] Gabriel Miller: Let’s jump up to the present for a few minutes and let's talk about Ukraine today. It's hard to believe, but we're closing in on a year since Russia invaded Ukraine. And enormous amount of dialogue and concern around that invasion, especially in the early months. But I expect a lot of people like me haven't got as clear an idea in the last few months about what's happening and the state of things in Ukraine. 

[00:06:37] So I just wanna ask you to help us, how would you assess where things stand today?  

[00:06:43] Natalia Khanenko-Friesen: As we have been referring to this ongoing war, knowing it to be a global crisis of at most unbelievable proportions, which we haven't seen for a while. It is exactly what it feels like to be on at the early days of the [...] invasion of the Russians Federation on the territory of Ukraine. 

[00:07:03] I remember frantically trying to connect with whoever I knew in Ukraine and trying to help that. And there was an understanding amongst many people back then. It's a short one. We will, we will persevere. This attack will not last beyond maybe April. And then later maybe they were saying not beyond May, but frankly being in the outside and being placed in the, you know, which this discursive domain, intellectual domain, and the media domain of 

[00:07:30] the West and the world made me think that this is probably not going to be as short of a conflict as it proved to be. We are facing absolutely a life-changing experience, not just for the Ukrainians, but I think for the rest of the global community as well on numerous counts. It's the conflict of a global scale. 

[00:07:53] As I said, it's the war and aggressive near imperialistic war, which Russian Federation had relaunched on the next door, sovereign country of Ukraine. It's the war which is affecting the world on so many levels. We are facing global food crisis. We hardly could come out of pandemics. We've not been given a chance, and by we I mean the western world or the global together to 

[00:08:21] recuperate, to restore the normalcy of our lives, the economic stability, the, the food stability, the price are not normalized rather, we face inflation, not just in Canada, but elsewhere. It's unprecedented what we're facing I think, Gabriel, this is certainly to be studied and reflected on these years to come. 

[00:08:43] But let us first end this war before we could study it.  

[00:08:48] Gabriel Miller: With any international event with the kind of complexity of forces at play as what we're seeing in Ukraine, obviously there's no easy way to explain it and certainly to cover it on a day-to-day basis that doesn't have gaps. With that said, we're obviously in a, a media environment with just unprecedented levels of dialogue about whatever the subject of the moment is. 

[00:09:21] Some of that through established media outlets and institutions, a lot of it now flowing without gatekeepers through social media and the internet. What are your feelings about the stories, the narratives being told about what's unfolded in Ukraine in the past year? And the quality of the information, the quality of the information that we're getting about the conflict. 

[00:09:49] Natalia Khanenko-Friesen: This is a very big and important question, Gabriel. Stories is what makes our realities real to us. We experienced the world through stories and artists, which explain to us what's going on, and this is the only way we really process and digest what's going on around us. First by listening to someone else's stories, but then by verbalizing and explaining them what we see and know to our own audiences. 

[00:10:20] Be it small child or a group of students or folks somewhere in a bar where you sit down and unravel all that said conflict in the war, which we're now facing. So this is absolutely fundamental for us to understand how the war is unfolding, how it's being fought. And of course, we know very well that the, uh, other front where the war is fought is exactly the informational front, the media front, the stories which have been shared in social media, webpages and magazines and journals, but also in the kitchens and bus stops in Ukraine or elsewhere. 

[00:10:58] But it's also reminded me of a maybe of a bigger conversation and it brings me back to the West let's say. And I think, and what the West has expected to happen, what maybe not it was not expecting to happen. If we are to understand this conflict, we need to understand ourselves and by ourselves I refer to 

[00:11:20] us folks in western world, in western discursive spaces, communities, wherever they are. We were very much defined by our own imagination and by our own understandings of what this region is all about. Why? Why things have evolved as they did most recently is also an outcome of our own misunderstanding of what was going on. 

[00:11:45] I am reminded of so many encounters with Canadians and Americans early on in my times as a graduate student who have not understood that Ukraine was an some, an independent country, which emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and often times I'd be referred to as a Russian person because an understanding was that I was from former USSR. 

[00:12:09] Therefore, the extension might be, or oftentimes could be just “Oh, you are from Russia.” So sort of a lapsing into that line of thinking that USSR was equated to Russia, uh, had sort of a spill over into the years of Ukraine's independence into the years after the Soviet Union collapsed. And I think this, um, leagues, if you wish, shall that thinking led us to think that Soviet Union was more or less a unified space, 

[00:12:36] it was definitely, you know, Russian speaking and when of course it collapsed the Russian State had consistently, actually had legally claimed that it would be inherit of Soviet State and took it upon itself as the continuum of the USSR. The Russian Federation is imagining itself as fully rooted in this period of time, and because we were raised in these storylines, in this language, this rhetorics, we were unprepared to, I think the West was really unprepared to see 

[00:13:08] first of all, the reaction of Ukrainians to the Euromaïdan events in 2014, and Euromaïdan, of course, stands out in our memories as the particular time in Ukraine when the protests in the Capitol led eventually to the collapse of very corrupt Russian regime of again [...] and eventually new government have come to be. 

[00:13:31] And that soon been followed by the invasion of Russia of Eastern Ukraine, but also an illegal annexation of Crimea and so on and so forth. So this war had started, of course, in 2014 rather than on February 21st, 2022, and we have not seen it in the West as the war. It was seen and continued to be seen as a word called conflict. 

[00:13:57] There's a civil war, and there were reasons why it was perceived this way, and ultimately fast forward to 2022, February 24th, when that had happened. When invasion has taken place, a newly renewed invasion, many have been in a certain state of business disbelief how it would be possible that the attacks will come onto  

[00:14:19] all kinds of cities all at the same time when, when the Russian troops will be so close to Kiev as they as it was simply unimaginable. So my take on this is that the stories of course, which are being told today have something to do with these stories in with which we were brought up in the West. And the other part to this conversation is to remember that our misunderstanding or our, yeah, I guess our misunderstanding of that post socialist space 

[00:14:50] collapsed or rather collided with very dynamic work of memory. We have seen since post 1991, we have seen major bifurcation of collective memory as it has been unfolding both in Ukraine and in the Russian Federation. So on one end we have seen the state, Ukrainian state evolving and as a pro-European state over the period of time with all kinds of, of course, different moments in history, 30 years is a long history. 

[00:15:24] But if we are to look at that period in some broad terms, that's what ultimately we see, we see Ukraine gravitating towards Europe, with each a new president and each and every revolutions, which we have seen in Ukraine becoming more pro-democracy, embracing step by step, furthermore democratic institutions and elements of self-governance. 

[00:15:49] While meanwhile, we have seen the Russian state retreating back into a very different ideological camp where we have seen the restoration of much Soviet rhetorics, where we're seeing the sustained memory of the Soviet legacies of Stalinism of, of, um, repressions and overall Soviet state as very important in legacy on which the Russian identity was supposed to be built in the future as well. 

[00:16:18] And on top of what the narratives, therefore, which would be coming from the say Russian Federation side, have been of course informed by this new ideology, sustained and maintained and introduced and supported by many, but by the President Putin himself, who insisted on and, and now of course, through the means of war, actively pursuing the restoration of the glorious Russia, of the great Russia, which dreaming of, and to him, of course, it means the geographic expansion, the territorial reintegration of one's Soviet land under the umbrella of the new Great Russia, and so on and so forth. 

[00:17:04] When we see narratives and we speak of these different stories which come and reflect on the ongoing war, I always would like to remember and remind my students and others that there's this big context which informs them. So obviously, a conversation on misinformation or disinformation is the next important piece here, and I think that's ultimately something we also should be extremely careful about and pay attention to. 

[00:17:36] Gabriel Miller: You mentioned this concept of the bifurcation of historical memory and I'm wondering if you could just elaborate a little bit more on, on what you mean by that and why you feel it's important for understanding what's happening in the Ukraine right now.  

[00:17:53] Natalia Khanenko-Friesen: For the last 30 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both countries, Russia and Ukraine have

[00:18:02] undertaken upon themselves to pursue their history in very different terms in the way we can say there are two absolutely diametrically opposed, opposing journeys in Ukraine, for example, and in Russia. Let me maybe go through a few examples here. We both countries have lived through the World War II 

[00:18:27] and both countries have participated in the World War II events, uh, in some, some unique and also very dramatic ways. Many have died in both hands. Russian and Ukrainians at the time were member, still members of the Soviet Union, one country, which of course ended up on the winning side. Currently, for example, in Russia, as has been under the presidency of Vladimir Putin has continually 

[00:18:54] discussing it and imagining in this war, and still in terms of the great patriotic war, which is a very Soviet phrasing, very Soviet construct in very Soviet lenses to understand that war. The, uh, Soviet great patriotic war had promoted the role of then Soviet Union in the, in the winning in the war, and fighting the war because losses were tremendous and, and, um, therefore, and victory was certainly on the side of the Soviet Union, was with the, with its winning. 

[00:19:29] March through Europe at the end of the war, right? And putting the flag on the Berlin's right [...] eventually as well. And it's happened also that the Soviets had remembered the victory day to be May 9th, while of course in Europe we recognized the end of the war taking place in May 8th. So there's this difference. 

[00:19:52] And Ukrainians at the same time, for example, when it came to re remembering and, and commemorating the events of the World War II, in fact, had began referring to it some sometime in two thousands to the time Putin had come to power roughly at the same time, Ukrainians had been referring to this war as exactly in those terms, World War II, the Second World War. 

[00:20:17] This is already very important distinction because it does promote different versions of history in both countries, and we know perfectly well that Ukrainians have had a very complex history when it comes down to participating in, in these battles of the World War II. The other example would be the 

[00:20:39] claims of perceptions of the role of this one medieval state of [...] rules, which was seen now or is continually seen in, in Russian Federation as the important predecessor indeed, direct predecessor, and indeed the direct, um, well, the Russian Federation [...] the direct link to the entity polity political stage of the Kievan Rus’ and which existed 

[00:21:05] at the end of the eight hundreds, throughout the 12 hundreds, that's roughly that period of time. So it's been seen as the founding state of the Russian cultural identity. It's a complex story and there are different perspectives and visions in that, then Ukrainians on the other side also understand that to be the roots of their own identity, of their own culture, and I interestingly enough, the capital of Ukraine is still Kiev, 

[00:21:33] the capital of Russia is Moscow. Historically, it's been a complex story, as I said, because it existed for about what, 400 or so, roughly 400 years as a political entity, and as it comes to any states, the times of rise in the terms of decline and the Kievan was eventually declined, and got conquered by the Mongol Invaders in 1240 Kiev fell and got burned down by the Batu Khan of the Mongolia Tars. 

[00:22:06] And then what happened historically that the legacy, the politics, and the historical member of Kievan Rus’ had moved to think Southwest and Western, uh, poverties and principalities at the same time, some of that had moved up to the North and historians had been claiming that both of course, cultures eventually again, bifurcated roughly around the same time. So Russians have become who they've become later on the basis of [...] principalities 

[00:22:42] while Ukrainians continue to claim Ukraine [...] as the source of their historical legacy in historical presence on the continent. This is a, basically is a conflict there as well, because of the Russian Federation claims came to themselves as well as Russian, Russians ideology currently claims Ukrainians have been part of the Russia, greater Russia, right? 

[00:23:04] So this, there's this conflict of origin story and you think about, for example, the wars in the nineties. And it's very conflict between the Kosovo and Serbia. It had some elements of the same conflict as well, because some of the founding Serbian of some of the monasteries of some of the founding Orthodox culture in of the Serbs, in fact linked to the territory of Kosovo and Kosovo, of course, is the predominantly 

[00:23:34] Muslim country and certainly the war which we've seen in, in the nineties had had that conflict of origin stories coming and being played out in the conflict between these two countries. So of course it's a very different situation in Ukraine versus Russia. But number was there some interesting power, which I thought I'll mention, and there were many others that would be, for example, they're historical, 

[00:24:01] the members of how history world have been so different and they've been maintained throughout the last 30 years. Very different in both countries. And of course that has been feeding into the, in fact, that's been informing and driving this very war just because of the near imperialistic ambitions of Putin, of trying to rebuild Russian empire in a new context. 

[00:24:26] Gabriel Miller: Let's talk about misinformation and disinformation, and I'm anxious to connect that conversation to your comments about the, you know, the conversations we're having today, this knowledge foundation below, or lack of knowledge in terms of these, these larger narratives and the, historical, our understanding of the historical and cultural context in which these things happen on the, the specific question of misinformation and disinformation, 

[00:24:53] are you seeing our understanding and our ability to act effectively or morally as Canadians in this context being affected by misinformation and disinformation? Are there examples that stand out to you where you see just what is clearly not accurate or complete information that is affecting our understanding of the situation? 

[00:25:21] Natalia Khanenko-Friesen: I’d like to think that this is very challenging for us to perceive the camps as defined by territories, right? We are in this absolutely complex world of informational flows, are obviously informed, not necessarily by those who are saying allocated in in the Russian Federation proper versus maybe somewhere in the West. 

[00:25:42] We live in a world where we have so many diasporic spaces, we have so many Russian expat compatriots or expats who living elsewhere, same as we seen in say, Ukrainians living elsewhere. And of course Canadians also live and work in Ukrainians, so on and so forth. I just wanted to remind us this is a situation is far more complex and simply seen to camps being geographically separated. 

[00:26:05] But I'd like maybe to reflect a little bit more on what narratives are currently being generated in Russia per se, so to speak. So if we are to look back at the last year, uh, and that maybe a year and a half when maybe going back to July, 2021 to that infamous speech by President Putin were he went and basically justify the upcoming invasion in Ukraine. 

[00:26:31] We could reflect on what's been said, you know, that Ukrainians are definitely not an independent nation, had never been such a nation, they've been simply a historical misunderstanding and they are very much part of the Russian nation as such. A lot of emphasis, as I've mentioned, was put on the greatness of Russia and then there's, it's actually, Gabriel very interesting 

[00:26:56] conversation of itself why is it Russia has self references itself as a great Russia, right? Because of course there's, historically speaking, there's this geographic component of this conversation, the greater Russia has emerged on the basis of that imperialistic expansion of Russian peoples being housed more or less in European core of the Russian Federation. 

[00:27:22] Further to say further, further east, further north and so on and so forth, and eventually that can become great Russia encompassing large territories and not necessarily meaning something original but politically this is an important powerful trope which can be used so profoundly effectively if you are an ideologue.  

[00:27:42] So of course the great Russia translates very potently into something else in political terms as well. [...] So we have this strong narrative coming from the Russian Federation and the need to restore Russian great Russia's greatness as such. The other narrative which accompany that is the was so many of them, right? 

[00:28:04] The West is simply indicating civilization. It is on a verge of a collapse in itself, and rationale is tasked to restore some sort of a global balance where simply it needs to come and rescue peoples nations and so on and so forth from that decadent and degrading influencing impact, and of course we know the roots well, we know the roots, but there are so many other different places where this has been translated to, and Ukraine has become a focus of the war, not out of blue. 

[00:28:38] There's so much more goes on and went on prior to that particular political step on behalf of the Russian Federation, you know, we, for example, could simply look back at human rights violations and what Russian State had been perpetuating in terms of, for example, the freedom of sexual expression, freedom of sexual orientation. 

[00:28:56] It would be just another example to illustrate the complexities of human rights, um, situation in Russia. But coming back to the Ukrainian situation, to the situation with Ukraine and the war, Russia has launched in Ukraine. Ukrainian government therefore has fallen victim to this Western influence to this decadent influence. 

[00:29:19] For example, it's been a very common message in the Russian media, which has reached out the West as well, that Ukrainian government since 2014, in fact, it is the puppet of the West is more specifically it's the U.S. installed government, and therefore it's a regime rather than, um, democratically elected, uh, government. 

[00:29:44] So that was another very powerful tool. Euromaïdan of 2014 would lead to the collapse of the [...] government, and that was a Western plot that was not a will over the revolution of the people, so to speak. And as the war began coming to today's days, there were so many, uh, the very dramatic claims made with respect to how war is fought by Ukrainians, Ukrainian government, for example, according to the Russian media propaganda machine, torches its own people 

[00:30:18] it bombards, sends rockets and destroys its own energy infrastructure. Everything which we've seen on TV screens recently when it comes down to the suffering of civilians, according to the Russian media sources, is the outcome and result of Ukrainian military actions rather than Russian invasion. So we understand that internally Russia tries to control this narrative very effectively. 

[00:30:44] But of course, externally there, there are also armies of propaganda machine, individuals who participate in the circulation of these stories beyond and above, and not necessarily only consciously, but there might be also individuals who are doing it out of ignorance as well.  

[00:31:07] Gabriel Miller: Thank you for listening to The Big Thinking podcast and to our guest, Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, director of the University of Alberta's Institute for Ukrainian Studies. I also want to thank our friends at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council whose support helps make this podcast possible. Finally, thank you to CitedMedia for their support in producing the Big Thinking podcast. 

[00:31:31] Follow us for more episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcast and Google Podcast, a la prochaine. 



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