The Russia-Ukraine Crisis: 5 Questions with Nadieszda Kizenko

Protesters hold Ukrainian flags and carry Stop Putin signs
(Photo by Victoria Pickering, courtesy of Creative Commons)

ALBANY, N.Y. (March 8, 2022) — As an expert in Russian and Ukrainian history and culture, Nadieszda “Nadia” Kizenko has been called on to speak about the buildup the current war in Ukraine, talking at Rockefeller College, at the Feb. 23 University Libraries’ Campus Conversations in Standish, and in the press.

A professor and former chair of History and current director of the Religious Studies Program, Kizenko teaches Russian and East European history with a focus on religious and cultural history. Her second book, Good for the Souls: A History of Confession in the Russian Empire, was published by Oxford University Press in 2021.

Nadieszda “Nadia” Kizenko
Nadieszda Kizenko

Kizenko’s father was born and grew up in Eastern Ukraine, his mother speaking Russian, his father Ukrainian. Her mother’s parents were from Belarus. (Russia, Ukraine and Belarus began as a 9th century federation, named Rus.)

Both of her parents’ families suffered mightily under the Soviet Union. Kizenko’s mother was born while her parents were doing forced labor in the GULag mines of Yakutia, “part of Stalin’s all-out assault on the peasantry,” she said. Her father’s family went through the 1932-33 Holodomor, a Stalin-induced terror-famine that killed millions of Ukrainians and others in the USSR’s grain-producing areas.

Both sets of grandparents fled the Soviet Union during World War II and eventually came to America. Nadieszda grew up in the Northeast. The dominant culture in her home was Orthodox Christian (her father was a priest), not Ukrainian, Russian or Belarusian. Both parents spoke only Russian to her and she started kindergarten not knowing a “single word” of English.

Q. On the 23rd, you said, “What I find incredibly interesting is that what Russia has done is make Ukraine much more united.” Would Ukrainian resistance have been so fierce if Russia had only seized the eastern Ukraine oblasts bordering Donetsk and Luhansk, as originally seemed likely?

Putin’s formally recognizing control on the 21st may not have been that significant in itself, but it was significant as a red flag, and people were correct to see it as such. But people — both in Ukraine and outside of it — had kind of tacitly written off the separatist regions (regardless of what they said publicly), and might even (less likely, but possibly) have written off the rest of the oblasts. The reaction, however, was completely different when Russian troops went outside those аreas and went into Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts. Those had never been part of the conversation, so to the people who lived there (where my dad’s family is from and where I have several good friends) and to people in the rest of Ukraine, it was a shock.

Q. How much of Ukrainians’ animus to Russia goes back to its seizure of the Crimea in 2014?

Not so much the Crimea annexation specifically as the general post-Orange Revolution [2004-05, in which Ukrainians protested what many believed was a fixed presidential run-off election] and post-Maidan revolution [2014, in which Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from office, resulting in Russian military intervention]. But, really, it’s because Russia has now invaded peaceful cities who had never shown any desire to be anything other than Ukrainian.

Q. How much did Putin misjudge Ukrainians’ desire to be separate from and independent of Russia? What might that say about his mental state?

He 100% misjudged. There is a big difference between general, amorphous cultural affinity and a desire to actually be under the same political umbrella. Yes, there were many people in Ukraine who before Feb. 21 were fed up with their country’s leadership, corruption, etc. But once the attack/invasion began, that was it. Now they have become total patriots.

I do not think Putin is entirely rational. The real problem is that he does not seem the sort of person who backs down even when it’s clear that he has blundered, but who doubles down. Unfortunately. Tragically.

Q. You said on Feb. 23 that “Putin frittered away any sense of the two countries working together.” Would Ukrainians still embrace peaceful co-existence and trade with a post-Putin Russia?

Like any normal people, Ukrainians (and most Russians) wanted peaceful coexistence. However, after the Russian invasion, it is hard to imagine that Ukrainians would think this fully possible without a full Russian disavowal and reparation. It is also hard to imagine that Ukrainians would not be gun-shy for years to come. 

Q. Have you ever held out hopes of one day visiting a united Rus — Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with open borders and shared cultures?

You know, I first visited those countries when I was a child and when they were one umbrella—that of the USSR. Since then, to someone who was for most of her life a fan of all three countries, and who has taught the histories of all three countries, it has been very instructive to see the different directions all three have gone since 1991. The distinct identities they had before have grown even stronger. Of the three, Ukraine has the strongest democratic traditions, and has shown itself most likely to fight for democracy. You can only genuinely want something in a relationship of free equals.