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Centre for Education and International Development (CEID), IOE


A forum for staff, students, alumni and guests to write about and around CEID's five thematic areas of engagement.


A Call for Peace with Justice in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel – recognising the pivotal role of education

By CEID Blogger, on 6 November 2023

By Elaine Unterhalter, Tejendra Pherali, Laila Kadiwal and Colleen Howell

NOTE: This opinion piece presents the personal views of the authors and is not a statement by CEID (Centre for Education and International Development)

For comments or further information, please get in touch with Professor Tejendra Pherali (T.Pherali@ucl.ac.uk)

The people living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel are facing a cataclysm,  with horrific murders, hostage taking, devastating bombing over several weeks, mass displacements, and significant shortages of food, water and medical supplies. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that Saturday, 21 October, marked the fifteenth day in Gaza of no access to education and safe places for more than 625 000 students and 22 564 teachers, with significant destruction of education infrastructure that has taken years to put in place and will take years to rebuild. Fear of a destructive regional war with devastating consequences is widespread. Meanwhile, there has been a sharp rise in Antisemitic and Islamophobic assaults around the world, including in the UK. This blog aims to bring some insights from our work in the Centre for Education and International Development (CEID), where we are linked to many individuals and networks engulfed by these events, to reflect on the implications for education of this appalling tragedy and to think about how educational processes could have potential to help formulate a different response that does not add more violence and terrible loss.

CEID is a research and teaching centre with a long history of involvement with education in low- and middle-income countries, and it has developed a body of scholarship in the field of education conflict and peace-building. From our experience with this work, we set out three themes relevant to building peace with justice. These are firstly, acknowledging the history that has created the conditions for the tragedy to unfold; secondly, taking seriously the role of education linked with structured forms of redress.  Thirdly, we reflect on how scholarship in a field like education and international development can support building connections across many divisions and differently located communities.

Our analysis stems from  our research on conflicts and education in Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Tajikistan and Thailand. These studies highlight how, in these very different contexts, peace-making is a process that requires in-depth reflection, sustained examination of the processes that generate anger between groups, and particular kinds of actions – sometimes symbolic and sometimes material – that can look forward to moments of forgiveness. The absence of direct violence is  not sufficient in itself to sustain peace because it does not address the root causes of conflict. To lessen conflict, and move towards a just peace, long-term policies are needed to address structural violence, which may be institutionalised through land seizures or extraction of natural resources, leading to dispossession and deepening inequalities, especially for indigenous communities. Divisive employment policies or education practices can reproduce intersecting inequalities. Achieving sustainable peace requires structural measures such as addressing the grievances of the marginalised and oppressed, redressing inequalities and building fairness in policy and practice in areas such as schooling, health or housing. This rests on supporting rights to self-determination, democratic participation and decision-making.

These processes require leadership that acknowledges historical injustices and is committed to social, economic and political transformation. Acknowledging painful histories and the different ways the anguish is borne by different communities has to form part of this process. In turn, while education can be part of the process of seeking to repair conflicts, it can also be deployed to exacerbate tension and hatred. A particular form of educative process is needed to animate contributions to thinking about memory, justice, peacebuilding and forgiveness. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel, and throughout the whole region, the scars of terrible wars and dispossessions have persisted over generations. The horrific events of the last three weeks have been hugely shaped by this history. But history is not destiny. Looking at all its pain, mistakes, and failures is a way to learn and attempt to build something new.

Education, which virtually everywhere is unequally distributed and of uneven quality, can be used to repress cultures, manipulate histories, glorify violence, portray diversity negatively, justify land grabs, and impose dominance. But education can also be a vehicle for fostering creative social and political innovations that can rescue societies from the trap of retributive violence. It can help develop a more critical understanding of complex histories and enable people to exercise their agency against the influence of manipulative ideologies and propaganda. A critically reflective education can support  the valuing of diversity and the need to think about sustainability. It provides opportunities for redress and affirmative action to counter discrimination and injustices and contribute to combatting prejudices and stereotypes. Forms of education can heal and contribute towards forgiveness and reconciliation. Our course on Education, Conflict and Peace, gets students to engage with research which shows that a key part of peace-making entails processes that enable an examination of the root causes of violent conflict, which may be shaped by contrasting discourses, for differently located participants. Participatory approaches can help think about repair or reparations and the educational processes to support this.

Our third theme in this post relates to our field of enquiry. Education and International Development is a very malleable area in which some of the pressures of contemporary processes very quickly form areas of investigation, challenges to orthodoxies, and translations into practice. But for many of us over these last weeks, these scholarly pathways have been marked by shock, grief, silence and fear, as our concerns with education constantly raise the issue of children whose lives are being devastated by this conflict. Our hope is that we can draw on some of our store of knowledge with a sense of the responsibility our experience brings, and we do not turn away from the anguish of what is being suffered. We need to be attentive in all our teaching, research, collegial and community engagements to try to bridge the misunderstandings and address wilfully curated hatred, deepen understandings and think about how to offer support and solidarity for processes that lead to a just peace.

Any just peace for Palestine and Israel needs to start not with weapons of war but needs to entail educational processes of listening, reaching to understand, seeking not to do more harm or validate violence, but instead cultivate sensibilities for global justice, to affirm our moral bonds as fellow vulnerable humans on this fragile earth.

London Review of Education Article: Libyan teachers as transitionalist pragmatists

By CEID Blogger, on 29 June 2023

Conceptualising a path out of the peacebuilding narrative in conflict-affected contexts

By Reem Ben Giaber

I often question whether my research fits in with the work of other colleagues at the Centre for Education and International Development (CEID). I am from Libya and Germany – the former is often defined as a ‘conflict-affected’ country, and I am trying to explore teachers’ perceptions there of the roles that schools play in turbulent societies like Libya. Yet the questions I ask could be asked of any teachers in any country so, epistemically, I sometimes think that my research is more in the philosophy of education camp than in the education and international development camp. Or can it be both? Mindful of Gur-Ze’ev’s (2001) critique that much of peace education is driven by ‘good will’ more than ‘theoretical coherence or philosophical elaboration’ (p. 315), which leads to mainly unchallenged and unevolving practices, I propose a pragmatist philosophical approach (familiar in political science and political philosophy disciplines) as worth looking into, to see if the two camps can benefit each other. My first published article in the London Review of Education is a cautious conceptual re-examination of pragmatist philosophy in the fields of Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) and peacebuilding education. It is available [here].

The dominant analytical and programmatic frameworks used when writing about conflict-affected contexts such as Libya in Global Northern academia belong to the interdisciplinary field of PACS – an umbrella term that includes peace education (PE), critical peace education (CPE), peacebuilding education (PbE) and education and conflict  to name a few. Within PACS, education is increasingly gaining attention as a tool for building peace and developing social justice and democracy. Yet, caught in the epistemological and methodological nets their work entails (neo-colonialism, blind universalism, organisational impact metrics, white saviourism, structural violence etc), many scholars in these fields are themselves calling for a more context-specific and ground-up approach to education for peace or social justice (Bajaj, 2019; Davies, 2017; Kester & Cremin, 2017; Zembylas & Bekerman, 2013). As such, this trajectory to involve local stakeholders in thinking about the links between school and their society, brings the project back to the philosophy of education discipline, drawing upon centuries of thought and scholarship.  This is the integration, or even shift, I am proposing in my doctoral research because what is needed here is cultural criticism and transformation – a sensitive topic where one’s own positionality is significant.

My article takes a deeper look at the American philosopher John Dewey’s pragmatist approach to politics and education, and his conceptualisation of a ‘public,’ his understanding of enquiry and his views on teaching for peaceful and democratic living. When Dewey (1916) famously described democracy as not a political system, not a form of government, but as a way of living and communicating with others in our community that best allows for individual and social flourishing, he made it a cultural and pedagogical phenomenon.  This is meaningful to the field of PACS because it situates the design, inquiry and action that can be taken at the local level. For PACS projects to be effective, PACS scholars and practitioners would share their expertise as facilitators and capacity builders – not deliverers, consultants or implementers.

Throughout my paper, I argue that a pragmatist philosophy is a worthwhile pedagogical project in a challenging and unsettled context such as Libya, as it is an internal and ground-up discourse, compared to the often externally-initiated and top-down discourses of peacebuilding. I speak as an ‘adjacent and connected critic’ (Koopman, 2009), because I am both a Libyan and a German researching a problem in Libya to which I hope to find potential proposals by engaging with discourses and practices in an academic institution in the Global North. As such, to describe Libya’s socio-political situation, I prefer to use words such as ‘unsettled,’ ‘changing,’ ‘turbulent’ or ‘evolving’ rather than ‘conflict-affected.’ One reason for this is to ensure a disentanglement from PACS education frameworks that activate organisational mechanisms from fundraising to pre-packaged programmes to metrics to impact evaluation reports.  Another reason is for socio-linguistic considerations.

Speaking to Libyans, it is clear that ‘conflict-affected’ is too definitive, confining and suggestive of a state where common everyday occurrences like meeting friends in a café or taking your children to play in the park are excluded.  Libyans would not describe their society as ‘in conflict’ or ‘conflict-affected’ because that would suggest to them that there is what Galtung would call direct violence (i.e. war) all the time. What Libyans might recognise is Galtung’s structural and cultural violence and that, again, takes us to culture critical projects which can, understandably, only be initiated by Libyans. Finally, from a pragmatist perspective, ‘conflict’ and ‘peace’ are locked into a dualistic tango of end-states. We either have one or the other and this denies that both are possible at the same time and that the only way to ensure any transitional amelioration in the situation is to keep working democratically (beyond programme end dates). There is no ideal (capital P Peace or capital D democracy) or destination to be reached; there is just continuous inquiry and work to be done with an ‘end-in-view’ (Dewey, 1916) that drives action.

How do we count the education impacts of the war in Ukraine?

By CEID Blogger, on 27 April 2022

By Rodie Garland

When a country is invaded, what are the effects on education – and how can we know? Given the scale of the assault on Ukraine, there is a sense in which it is impossible to assess these effects in their entirety – nationally, socially, and individually. If you’ve fled your home, leaving behind your family’s livelihood and, perhaps, family members; if you’ve been without shelter or water or food; if you’ve suffered trauma – then of course your education will suffer. But this impact is difficult to measure and may not be your foremost concern. The reliance on measurable data to support policy in education and international development is indeed recognised as controversial (see, for example, the work of Sotiria Grek). At the same time, missing elements in the existing data present obstacles to ensuring inclusive and equitable education: something the NORRAG Missing Data project aims to address. We also need to bear in mind that data, and how we use them, is not neutral. When we work with education data, we need to be asking what it is that we are and are not measuring, in what contexts, and with what purposes and consequences.

With all this in mind, there is much data currently being collected that is useful in giving us at least a partial picture of the education impacts of the war in Ukraine. A daily tally is kept of the numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and those leaving the country (respectively 7.7 million and 5.2 million as of 25 April), presenting a top-line indication of the level to which everyday life is disrupted. It is worth pointing out that for many Ukrainians, this did not begin on 24 February: conflict has been ongoing in the east since 2014, with an estimated 1.5 million people internally displaced before the recent invasion. Though none of these figures are perfect, as individuals slip through the cracks in war, they do disproportionately represent women and children: it was estimated, as of 1 April, that 999,500 school-aged children were internally displaced. By 18 April, Save the Children warned that two-thirds of all children in the country had been uprooted from their homes: clearly, an upheaval with enormous consequences, including for schooling.

Along with displacement come the concerns of basic survival that make any kind of learning difficult. Depending on what data are collected, when and by whom, education may or may not feature among these concerns. A survey of IDPs asks adults to report their current needs, selecting from a list of options; the needs reported as most pressing are financial and health-related, with others including clothes and shoes, transportation, information or means of communication (e.g., internet connectivity), food, accommodation and hygiene. Since much education is currently taking place online (see below), and since over half of displaced households contain children, we can speculate that the issues reported here indicate educational impacts.

Other data do seem to place more of an emphasis on children and their schooling, although reliable systems for monitoring and tracking children have also been severely disrupted. Throughout the country, children are experiencing separation from parents, the destruction of family units and the breakup of their communities. The Global Protection Cluster reports that the main issues faced by those living in shelters are a lack of rooms for family units and lack of gender separation, as well as overcrowding, lack of water and lack of electricity. It also identifies the main risks for this population which, alongside exposure to violence, shelling and mines, and family separation, include lack of access to education. Overall, 3.3 million children are estimated to need ‘education in emergency’ assistance.

This level of disruption is caused not only by displacement, but by the destruction of educational institutions themselves. Evidence from eye witnesses, key informants and satellite imagery allows for frequent updates on the total number of educational facilities damaged – 1,237 as of 21 April, with over 9% of educational institutions destroyed completely. There are also reports of at least three instances of schools being used for military purposes, and 14 where they have been used as shelters or for other humanitarian purposes. Using schools for military purposes turns them into military targets, endangering children’s lives, not to mention the damage to educational infrastructure.

While little of the data currently being collected mention gender differences, undoubtedly there are specific risks to girls, as illustrated by the awful news reports of the rape and murder of women and girls in Bucha. While women and girls will not be the only victims, the Global Protection Cluster reports that gender based violence (GBV) is a reality for those who are internally displaced. This comes amidst increased military presence, lack of access to safe shelter and basic goods, and a high risk of trafficking at borders, in a country where even before the war 67% of women reported experiencing some form of GBV after the age of 15. At the same time, there is a warning that the widespread proliferation of light weapons is likely to increase the risk of school-aged youngsters being drawn into armed groups, something that is perhaps most likely to affect boys.

And yet, while the war rages, schools open wherever they can, for face-to-face or online learning. One of the many ‘unprecedenteds’ of the COVID pandemic is a situation where a country like Ukraine now has a developed infrastructure for remote learning, while its children have experience of turning to technology for their education. The Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science (MON) reports that as of 21 April, nearly 90% of schools are operating in some form. Over 12,000 secondary schools have introduced remote learning, with over 3.7 million students taking part in some kind of schooling (out of a total of 14,000 schools with 4.2 million students, excluding Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk). In 14 of 25 regions, all educational institutions are operating, via remote learning; three regions are running remote, blended or face-to-face learning; and at least some schools are running remotely in remaining regions. Kindergartens operate in 15 regions, while most vocational, professional and higher education institutions are running where the local situation permits.

Many children who have left their homes are either taking part in remote learning, or accessing schools in the places where they now live. The MON puts the figure for the latter group at nearly 87,000 (21 April), a growing number. Levels of online learning will vary between regions, but to give some perspective (albeit anecdotally), a teacher contact in Kyiv reports that around 70-80% of students at her school are attending remote lessons. Schools were asked to report data on online attendance up to 14 April, which suggests that more concrete information on participation might soon become available. She also tells me that of those learning remotely, around 85% are in Ukraine, with 15% elsewhere. Indeed, Education Minister Serhiy Shkarlet claims that Ukrainian pupils abroad are prioritising online learning in their home schools, and want to complete the school year with their own teachers. Most Ukrainian students in the Netherlands, he says, are choosing remote learning, with special classes and even schools being set up for them. Ukraine has also asked members of the Standing International Conference of Inspectorates to disseminate information about Ukraine’s online platforms to enable children to access Ukrainian education wherever they are. At an event held recently by NORRAG’s partners the International Parliamentary Network for Education, Serhiy Shkarlet underlined the MON’s work to ensure that learning continues. Such education offers a pathway of resistance: a subject for a future blog post.

One unknown is what becomes of those children who have crossed into Russia. Russia claims that over 863,600 people, including more than 158,170 children, have crossed into its territory since 24 February. While the UN cannot verify these figures, it estimates that as of 17 April, over 522,000 people have travelled to the Russian Federation. There are reports that in some cases people have been subject to forcible deportation, and concerns that Russia is intending to implement the enforced adoption of some Ukrainian children. In any case, those crossing into Russia will include students at all levels of education, and as yet it is hard to guess at the consequences for their educational futures.

Even while schooling continues for the majority of children, we currently know little of how children and adults are experiencing this. International evidence from the pandemic points to inequalities, including gender inequalities, in who accesses online learning. And for children living through war, there are issues that technology alone cannot solve. The very nature of education will need to change: one teacher reports taking her students through breathing exercises to manage their anxiety, while mine risk education is now critical, according to the Education Cluster. Alongside this, it states, must come training for teachers on life skills education, and emotional and psychosocial support – and help for them in their role as care-givers as well as educators. Children attending their usual school between air raids, or adjusting to life in another country, whether in a new school or connecting with familiar faces online, will have vastly different experiences. Understanding all of these, with the help of monitoring and evaluation techniques like  AGEE framework, associated with CEID, will help address some of the issues of missing data, and is part of understanding the costs of war.


Rodie Garland is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Education, Practice & Society (EPS) at  UCL IOE, where her research focuses on home-school relations. She holds a BA in Russian. The research for this blog was funded by EPS and linked to the work of the AGEE project.



Gde sobaka zaryta: A problem of translation

By CEID Blogger, on 7 February 2022

By Alexandra Lewis

When I was a child, growing up in France in a Russian-English family, I had to attend Russian language and music classes on Sundays. Every week, my homework included memorising a poem, usually one in some way evoking the natural beauty of the homeland and linking this implicitly to the indomitable Russian spirit. Every class would then start with me writing out this poem, and I would be graded on the accuracy of my memory, spelling and penmanship. Each time I effectively spilled a poem out onto a blank sheet of paper (usually having memorised it fifteen minutes before class), it would promptly be erased from my brain forever.

One day, when reading over a new poem that I would have to take home with me at the end of a lesson, I came across a word I did not know – ‘mosh’’. I furrowed my brow in confusion.

“What is it?” my teacher asked. She was in many ways a stereotype of the Russian education system – strict, serious, proud – but also, as is far rarer, very kind and quick to laughter when her students behaved themselves. She had a deep and sonorous voice, which she used to great effect as a folk singer, entertaining wealthy expats in Russian restaurants on Friday nights when she would wear bejewelled traditional clothing and extravagant headpieces that brought out her pale complexion, oval cheeks and bright crystal eyes. She could fill any room with her presence.

“What does ‘mosh’ ’ mean?” I asked her.

She looked around for a moment, considering.

Suddenly, she slammed the palms of her strong hands flat on the desk before her, threw her shoulders back, and with absolute certainty proclaimed in a powerful tenor:

“‘Mosh’ ’ – eto ya!” – “‘Mosh’ ’ – is me!”

Afterwards, she began searching for synonyms and further definitions. I laughed and said it was unnecessary. I had understood perfectly once and forever what the word meant.

A quick search in the dictionary today tells me that ‘mosh’ ’ is translated into English to mean ‘power’. Yet, to me, ‘mosh’ ’ will forever be associated with something grand, something dignified, and something distinctively untranslatable. It is, for instance, totally different in meaning to ‘vlast’ ’ – also meaning ‘power’, but referring rather to the power of authority, or ‘sila’ – meaning ‘strength’. ‘Mosh’ ’ is mighty.

Academic texts on Russian politics and society (including those I am currently working on myself) are full of references to such allegedly distinctive Russian concepts. The most frequently cited example is ‘toska’ (meaning sadness), which Nabokov famously described as an untranslatable word. “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska”, Nabokov believed: “At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. … At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom” (1990). Yet there is something inherently elitist and exclusionary about this assessment. The English concept of ‘sadness’, for instance, can easily incorporate the full spectrum of meanings embodied by Nabokov’s ‘toska’, for these meanings can be inferred from its context: “I feel as though I have for months been drowning in an all encompassing sea of sadness”, versus “I feel a bit sad when I’m on my own and don’t know how to entertain myself”, or simply “a sadness comes over me whenever it rains”. We can nitpick the subtle nuances that are lost in translation, but by referring to ‘toska’ as ‘sadness’, it is certainly possible to be understood in English. (Incidentally, ‘toska’ without context would likewise lose all of its complexity.)

Russian studies based in English are riddled with Russian words. The propensity to include them stems in the first instance from Russian scholars themselves, who imply that no other words can fully capture the nuances needed to explain the Russian condition. The practice is further entrenched and reproduced by foreign researchers, not to be outdone or left out, who use Russian words in order to justify the legitimacy of their writing by demonstrating their assimilation of the culture. Until recently, I never questioned this approach. On the contrary, I played along to demonstrate my own ‘insidedness’. Then, something forced me to pause and reconsider.

On the morning of January 30th, I logged onto Twitter and was offered a totally random post “based on my interests” from an account I did not yet follow. In it, Michael Idov wrote sarcastically:

“My favorite type of Russia essay is when they take a regular-ass word like ‘boredom’ (skuka) and go ‘To truly understand the Russian mind, you must familiarize yourself with the concept of skuka. To stave off skuka, a Russian might take a walk, or play a game on a ‘smartfon’” (2022).

This made me laugh perhaps more than it should have, because it so aptly called out the book I am currently working on. Deferring to the Russian language has become a habit for many analysts, supporting the notion that to understand Russian culture, society and politics, one must operate within a totally different frame of reference than that generally used within English language social sciences. Obviously, the ability to speak and read Russian is a massive advantage in understanding Russia, for this gives a researcher access to policy, laws, official statements, critical commentary, and homegrown debate in their original form. However, is such an understanding translatable through academic writing into English? What interests me most in this question is whether there is any harm caused by an over-reliance on Russian words in Western academic discourse, and what such harm may be.

I am at heart a Foucauldean scholar, because I believe in his notion that human beings internalise the ways of thinking that we are routinely forced into through repetition and discipline (1975). I believe therefore that there is an implicit assumption, which Russia scholars internalise whenever they are forced to import Russian words into English to debate Russian society, and it is this: that Russian politics, culture and thought are inherently alien, other and untranslatable, that the “Russian mind” differs from the (often implicitly more civilised or more logical) Western one. On the Western side, this leads to the Barbarisation of Russian culture, and on the Russian side it amounts to what we frequently call at home “good old russkii chauvinism“. Foucault’s book, Discipline and Punish, would lead us to conclude that this assumption of difference provides a conceptual stranglehold, forcing analysts to keep returning to a fundamental partitioning of Russia from the Western world, which determines in many ways the political chasm growing between the two.

Few would dispute that there is a state-led war of ideas and ideals building between Russia and the Western World. In January 2022, as I was scrolling through Twitter, I was mainly looking for indications as to whether this war was about to turn violent, looking for signs that would indicate whether Russia was about to (re)invade Ukraine. Analysts and Twitter folk were divided: there were the obvious ideological splits between those in favour of war and those against, those buying into Putin’s narrative of the conflict and those rejecting it, those critiquing Biden and Europe, those wanting peace at any cost and those wishing to protect Ukrainian sovereignty. However, a more fundamental split across these camps could be seen between those who claimed Russia would invade because Putin did not want to appear weak by backing down from confrontation, and those who claimed that Russia would not invade because Putin was too risk-averse a President to initiate a war with an uncertain outcome. I am, of course, oversimplifying these positions. Most analysts highlighted the extreme unpredictability of the moment. Yet many argued that those in the opposite camp to themselves did not fully understand Russian domestic affairs: that those disagreeing with them were doing so simply because they did not understand Russia.

The Russian Federation is currently embroiled in what has been deemed by multiple observers to be a game of ‘History Wars’ (see, for example, Kolesnikov, 2021; Edele, 2017; Emmerson, 2014). Through these History Wars, the Russian state is competing with other nations and, in some cases, with its own historians to establish the preeminence of its authorised discourse of the Second World War in particular, as well as of other adjacent events. Most of this discourse is in line with the teaching of World War history elsewhere in Europe, though placing a stronger emphasis of course on the role of the USSR in the conflict; just as British schools would emphasise the leadership of Winston Churchill and the movements of British soldiers; American schools of the American involvement; and so on. However, aspects of Russia’s discourse are proactively argumentative, going against dominant academic thinking.

The Russian elite are divided “between those who see the past as something to be liberated from, and those who deeply regret the loss of a golden past” (Gjerde, 2015, p. 157). The state for its part is striving to reform this relationship by promoting a discourse of history that builds national pride in the present, which is a distinct trajectory emerging from between these two positions. It is doing so in the face of more internationally recognised narratives emerging from the West and former Soviet bloc that are highly critical of the USSR, and this has led to Putin’s aggressive rejection of much mainstream academic historic consensus.

Russian history reform under Putin has coincided with a similar yet discordant wave of reforms in the post-Soviet bloc, one that emphasises how Russia’s neighbours suffered under Soviet repression. “Tendencies in these countries to equate Nazi and Soviet occupation,”  summarise Bækken & Enstad, have helped to justify Russia’s securitisation of history to protect its internal social cohesion by preventing the spread of these discordant narratives into Russia, where comparing the USSR to Nazi Germany is now outlawed (2020). Bearing this wider context in mind, Putin’s positive history provides an insulating cocoon to protect against foreign criticism while incubating national unity and pride.

An essay on ‘The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ written by Putin in 2021 is a perfect illustration of this rebellion against mainstream history. Here, Putin writes that:

“the wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy. These are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes made at different periods of time. But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity. … Hence the attempts to play on the ‘national question’ and sow discord among people, the overarching goal being to divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another.” (12/07/2021)

On the surface, this part of the address calls for unity and understanding, but its message of friendship has been severely undermined by Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border.  Underneath what is written, there are therefore other interesting things happening in the essay:

  1. We must note the term “historical and spiritual space”, which, in the Russian version of the essay appears directly as “odno istroricheskoye i duhovnoye prostranstvo“, or a “single” space. This extends the Russian spatial terrain to its past Soviet historical reaches, disregarding any present day confinement by territorial borders. In a departure from common state political discourse, the essay then frames this space as comprising “russkiye zemli” – ethnic “Russian lands”, rather than “rossiiskiye” lands (or lands pertaining to all peoples of the Russian Federation). The word choice is targeted towards the conflation of “Ukrainianness” with “russkii-ness”, negating the former by subsuming it into a singular ethnic Russian grouping;
  2. Ukrainian independence from Russia is depicted as unnatural and its more recent estrangement as the goal of Russia’s enemies. The present renewed Ukrainian political turn away from Russia is, according to Putin, the product of “a forced change of identity” on the Ukrainian side: “Russians in Ukraine are being forced … to deny their roots” in favour of a “path of forced assimilation”, and “the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us [Russians]” (ibid). It is essential to note that what Putin conceives as an artificial segregation is also to him an ideational construct that speaks to the need to tightly control heritage and history discourse in the region in order to protect Russian (“russkii”) people from both overt ethnic cleansing and subtler erasure by their enemies;
  3. Conversely, Ukrainian independence is explained to be the product of a Russian mistake: “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era”, writes Putin later on (ibid). Russia, as the “legal successor of the Soviet Union” (Malinova, 2017, p. 44), bares ultimate responsibility for allowing Ukraine to exit from its administration, and Ukrainian independence is not seen as reflecting any Ukrainian agency or legitimate political will;
  4. Further, though this may seem to be a contradiction to point 1, the essay notes that Russia must not simply be thought of as a territory for ethnic Russians and must not be divided by “the national question”. Instead, it stretches to include all territories with which it shares a “spiritual unity”; and,
  5. The people of the Russian and former Soviet territories (especially ethnic Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians) are, Putin believes, “one people” with a common Russian core, and all other divisions that have followed are arbitrary products of historical accidents.

With his emphasis on the strength of the Russian state and pride in Russian history, it is clear that Putin is writing more to an internal audience than to his Ukrainian neighbours. Putin’s dismissal of Ukrainian sovereignty is totally at odds with European history discourse and NATO understandings of contemporary geopolitics.

Putin’s essay is evidence that the Russian state is in the process of fully delinking its teaching of history and support to the study of geopolitics from Western academic discourse. Increasingly, voices that stand in opposition to the state view of history as prescribed by President-historian Putin are silenced, labelled to be foreign agents, pressured into leaving the country, or imprisoned and in some cases poisoned (or poisoned and then imprisoned, as was the case with public enemy #1). Underneath the authorised cannon is an insidious assertion: we are in conflict with the Western world and they are in conflict with us because they do not understand our history or our identity. This is a classic “clash of civilizations” dichotomy underpinned by an inherent assumption of Russian exceptionalism.

Sen writes that the notion of a “civilizational clash is conceptually parasitic on the commanding power of a unique categorisation along so-called civilizational lines”, a categorization based on the “imagined singularity” of the identities of those on both sides of the divide that is designed to obscure their shared humanity (2006, p. 9). Accordingly, Russian exceptionalism is both artificial and largely imagined. I believe this is chiefly a political divide, one that is carefully maintained through education, academic discourse, media, history, aesthetics and heritage. As academics, we sometimes contribute to the problem. It begins with the very tools that we use to engage with Russian politics: it begins with language and the idea that any analysis of Russia, written in any language, requires its own terminology, rooted in Russian itself, to highlight Russia’s otherness and division from the world. Vot gde sobaka zarytathat’s where the dog is buried.

Constructing a Decolonial Space #002- Kadiwal, et al.

By utnvmab, on 12 November 2020

Constructing a Decolonial Space

by Laila Kadiwal, Mai Abu Moghli, Colleen Howell, Charlotte Nussey and Lynsey Robinson

In this post, we lay out our emerging thoughts on how a decolonial space looks, sounds or feels to us. The aim of the initiative, ‘Alternative Histories of Education and International Development’, is, as our co-directors explain, ‘to support thinking better about education and a future which overturns colonial relationships of hierarchy, dispossession, exclusion and subordination’ (Unterhalter & Oketch). Doing so requires asking ourselves challenging questions about our work and position within the academy, as well as about how to ensure this initiative contributes to deepening decolonial thinking and practices that reflect it. (more…)