Sofiya Voytiv. Photo: Leila Zoubir/Stockholm University
Sofiya Voytiv. Photo: Leila Zoubir/Stockholm University

– The diaspora has a lot of thoughts about who they are and how they are connected to their home through ethnicity. In my thesis I can see that the ideas surrounding the conflict can be embedded in and affect the way they think about ethnicity, themselves and others, says Sofiya Voytiv, a newly appointed PhD in Sociology at the Department of Sociology. 

The Ukrainian-Russian conflict raises issues surrounding ethnicity, like for example belonging of certain Ukrainian regions, she explains. It raises questions like; is eastern Ukraine Russian? Is Crimea Russian or Ukrainian? But also what it means to be Ukrainian or Russian in general.

Besides ethnicity, this conflict is also about geo-politics, identity and other ideas. These ideas can then become de-territorialized, an academic term that can be explained as follows: 

– First, all these ideas related to the conflict become detached from the geographical area where it takes place – ideas, symbols, attitudes. The next step is that certain groups can take these ideas and symbols and use them in different ways, Sofiya 
Voytiv says. 

Through a series of social network studies and interviews, Sofiya Voytiv has studied this process and how the conflict affects diasporic people. She emphasizes that you cannot generalize her findings to all Ukrainians and Russians in Sweden, since the people that she studied were chosen based upon the fact that they have a stronger connection to their “home-countries” – something that not everyone with a similar background has.  

The conflict can affect the relationships of the diaspora

– There is this connection between how the conflict is discussed in the media and how you then build your relationships. In one of my studies I find that a lot of my interviewees experienced different kinds of problems with their friends. Suddenly this was a topic that you couldn’t escape, she says. 

This made them develop different strategies of dealing with both Russians and Ukrainians in Sweden even before they meet them, especially when the conflict was more violent.

– Several participants experienced discomfort talking about the conflict in eastern Ukraine with persons that might have different views than themselves. In those cases, both parties decided to avoid the topic altogether because it made them uncomfortable.

She also found that many people in her study started thinking about the attitude towards the conflict as an additional layer of defining if someone is a Ukrainian or Russian, or Russian-Ukrainian person. Based on your attitudes towards the topic, people could be defined as belonging to an ethnic group or another.

– Some interviewees did not feel particularly Ukrainian or Russian before the conflict, but started feeling so after the strong coverage by the Swedish media. They were also frequently asked questions about the conflict by their Swedish co-workers following this media coverage, Sofiya Voytiv says. 

Re-identification process of diasporic organizations 

The conflict also affected how Russian and Ukrainian organizations related to each other. Usually these diasporic organizations organize events based on traditional dances, cooking or Orthodox-Christian events such as Christmas or Easter. 

– A lot of Ukrainian organizations had to take a stand in the conflict, they couldn’t just remain neutral. There were also a lot of new, conflict-related organizations that started. During 2014-2015 which is one of the most violent periods in the conflict, attitude towards the conflict seemed to affect collaborations between organizations, Sofiya Voytiv explains. 

This suggests that a re-identification process of the organizations took place during the period that she studied, from only based on a certain ethnicity to primarily conflict-oriented. 

Insider or outsider perspective?

Conducting these studies, Sofiya Voytiv describes how she as a Ukrainian woman living in Sweden herself sometimes had to struggle with the insider versus outsider perspective. 

– On one hand I am doing this for scientific purposes, I am a researcher. On the other hand, when I am doing interviews, some things are just painful to hear about, like people from your home being killed, she says. 

This puts her somewhere in between an insider and an outsider, on some sort of scale, she argues.

– I am still primarily guided by my research interests. I have never been a member of the organizations that I study. So I consider myself somewhere in between, a partial insider that share some experiences or attitudes on certain issues with the people that I interviewed. But personally, it was difficult, Sofiya Voytiv says. 

Facts: the Ukrainian–Russian conflict 

In her thesis, Sofiya Voytiv summarizes the conflict as follows: 

“The conflict in eastern Ukraine, which began in May–June 2014, can be traced to the Maidan Revolution of the late 2013 that ended in February 2014. The Revolution resulted in 78 peaceful protesters and more than 13 police officers being shot to death (Prosecutor General of Ukraine, 2019). The then-President Yanukovych fled the country by the end of February 2014. Soon thereafter, in March 2014, the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which is an autonomous region within Ukraine. 

By June 2014, Russian-backed separatists started an insurgency in two eastern counties of Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, also known as the Donbas region. In July 2014, the insurgents shot down flight MH17 flying over the area. In total, 10,000 casualties (by 2017) and about 3,344 civilians killed by the end of 2019 (OHCHR, 2019). According to different estimates, around 4 million people have been directly affected by the crisis (World Bank, 2017)”.

More about the research 

Voytiv, Sofia (2020). “Deterritorializing Conflict, Reterritorializing Boundaries: Diaspora and Conflict in the ‘Homeland’” (PhD dissertation). Department of Sociology, Stockholm University, Stockholm.