The Voices of War

91. Dr. Greta Uehling - Understanding The Donbas: Identity, People, And Its Role In The Russia-Ukraine War

VOW 91 | Donbas

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Today, I spoke with Dr. Greta Uehling, who is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and whose scholarship is concerned with international migration and forced displacement. Her most recent project explored the subjective experience of the military conflict and forced displacement in Ukraine. Based on years of research living in Ukraine, she documented how the military conflict that started in 2014 reconfigured social worlds and how these social worlds became the site of a different, everyday kind of war. She recently published a book stemming from this research titled ‘Everyday War: The Conflict over Donbas, Ukraine’.

Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Greta’s background, entry into anthropology, and her fieldwork in Ukraine
  • The birth of her book ‘Everyday War: The Conflict over Donbas, Ukraine’
  • Meaning and manifestations of ‘Everyday War
  • Unique identity of the Donbas in Ukraine and its role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict
  • Importance of cultural and social immersion for understanding context
  • Perception differences of the war in different parts of Ukraine (2014-2022)
  • Impact of war on interpersonal relationships and fallout management strategies
  • Defining and contextualising ‘Everyday Peace’
  • The story of the ‘Black Tulips’
  • Influence of war on risk perception and redefinition of ‘normal’
  • Prospects of peace in Ukraine

During this episode, I referred to a discussion with a previous guest, Tomislav Cvitanusic. You can listen to that episode here.

Listen to the podcast here

Dr. Greta Uehling – Understanding The Donbas: Identity, People, And Its Role In The Russia-Ukraine War

In this episode, my guest is Dr. Greta Uehling, who’s a lecturer at the University of Michigan and whose scholarship is broadly concerned with international migration and forced displacement. Her major projects have examined the experiences of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced. Her project explored the subjective experience of the military conflict and forced displacement in Ukraine. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, she documented how the military conflict that started in 2014 reconfigured social worlds and how these social worlds became the site of a different everyday kind of war.

She published a book stemming from this research titled Everyday War: The Conflict Over Donbas, Ukraine. I finished this book and found an exceptionally human portrayal of war, as seen through the eyes of ordinary people living in a conflict zone. It describes the everyday struggles, reconfigured relationships, and adjustment to a new normal but it also talks about the survival of friendships, hope, and humanity. Greta joins me in this episode to discuss her work and explore what it can teach us about the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Greta, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

As I alluded to, I loved this book because it spoke a lot to my experience as firstly a refugee from Sarajevo and Bosnia, and secondly, as somebody who was separated from his father who couldn’t leave. There were a lot of aspects of this book and adjustments to relationships, interpersonal relationships, and inter-ethnic relationships. There are a number of dimensions that spoke to me about this book. Firstly, I want to say thank you for writing it. I found it very insightful, deeply moving, and very representative of the, in my view, experience of those who’ve gone through conflict. Thanks a lot.

It’s great to hear that because I believe that everyday war isn’t isolated to Ukraine. It has broader applicability. I wrote it hoping that it would also have broader appeal. I’m happy to hear that.

VOW 91 | Donbas
Donbas: Everyday war isn’t isolated to you. It has broader capability and appeal.

It certainly does and I have no doubt that it would very much appeal to any former Yugoslavs, Bosnians, Croats, or Serbs. Regardless of whatever ethnic persuasion they’re from, it would certainly speak to them because it showed the nuance of these types of conflicts where ethnicity is deeply intertwined with nationality, identity, language, and so on.

Those are a bunch of things that I want to get to. Before we dive into the book proper, I’m keen to hear about your background and how you got into academia, what motivated that move, and why you dedicated so much of your professional career to understanding a place like Ukraine and the Donbas in particular.

Part of what got me into anthropology was growing up in a very ethnically and linguistically diverse community in Madison, Wisconsin. You might not think of that as a particularly diverse place but my family’s house was near the graduate student housing so there were people from all over the world. Some of them became my close friends.

That experience paved the way for a career in anthropology because I began to feel at home when I was away from home. I developed a deep curiosity for people who might be a little bit different from me or perhaps very different from me. That became a comfort zone for me. That served me very well once I was in the situation of doing fieldwork in a different country than my own.

I should back up and say that my first job after I completed my undergraduate studies was helping refugees find jobs in the United States. It was so wonderful. I came to learn from their stories what it was like to be a refugee in the United States. That experience helped me realise that learning from people’s stories is something that I truly value.

I figured out I could translate that into a career as an anthropologist. I’ve never looked back. The beauty of anthropology is that it gives you the tools and resources to step into another world, however briefly and to the best of your ability, to try to understand it from within. It’s a wonderful way to elevate the kinds of stories that otherwise might not be told.

Anthropology gives you the tools and resources to step into another world even for a brief time and try to understand it from within to the best of your abilities. Share on X

I’m guessing your first experience of trying to find refugee jobs would’ve set you up well for that kind of work.

The book Everyday War contains a lot of people’s stories because I wanted to provide an accessible lens for understanding the civilian experience of a country at war. That makes the book accessible to a broad spectrum of people because, at one level, you learn about people, their stories, and what they went through. There’s another academic layer that we can get into. It can be read at both of those levels so that it’s available to a lot of different audiences.

The economic layer that’s in there is accessible as well. I found it easy to read. If you want to follow up on certain aspects, theories, and thinking, there’s room to do that. Maybe let’s get to the book Everyday War. What is the main thesis of the book? You’ve alluded to it already but I want to zero in on it. Who did you write it for? Who did you have in mind when you were writing the book? Who did you want mainly to pick up the book and read it?

The book explores the subjective experience that civilians have in a country at war. I was motivated to write the book when I realised that conventional stories of war are incomplete. In a place where I thought I would be finding victims and recipients of humanitarian aid, I found people mobilizing very creative ways to respond to their situations.

What the title refers to Everyday War is the conscious and very creative ways that civilians, non-combatants, responded to the military conflict. I’m referring to a very pragmatic, self-defensive stance that’s intended to maintain a liveable world. That meant it happened at the level of action, whether that was driving to the front to deliver groceries to soldiers you believed probably didn’t have enough but there were also the relational elements that you spoke about at the beginning, which is that many people had to terminate personal relationships when they found themselves on opposite political sides.

The main thing about Everyday War is that it’s different than war itself because of the objective. People who engaged in everyday war were motivated to preserve their caring connections. Alexandra is probably the perfect example. She dropped out of her university studies when she realised that her father didn’t have the equipment that he needed for his position as a sniper.

You may recall from those early chapters that her daily life was organised around drumming up donations so that she could purchase him things like tactical gloves and night vision goggles. The reason that that’s everyday war is that she was fully conscious that the people that he would be in a position to kill as a sniper were her former neighbours and friends. She placed this very high value on his survival. In a way, kinship had become tactical. She needed to ensure that he survived so that he could be there for her in the future. The primary motivation is preserving this liveable world, a lived world.

The way I also took everyday war is that, as the title suggests, it’s part of your every day and all-encompassing. Everything about your life is deeply tied to that war. Whether it’s finding a means of survival to survive, finding equipment to help somebody like your father on the front lines to sustain the fight, or reaching out to foreigners overseas to get aid.

In this conflict, the current war or the invasion, it’s whether getting onto Twitter to get support or get marketing messages out there. I can reflect on our experiences as refugees in Germany trying to send care packages to dad in Sarajevo who was a fighting-age male and couldn’t leave, would’ve been killed at the first checkpoint, who was trying to send care packages through Red Cross, Red Crescent, or UN. Some of these would get through and others wouldn’t.

Even things like coffee were currency in besieged Sarajevo. You weren’t allowed to send coffee into care packages. Small ways that we would contribute to that war would be we’d get cans of Nesquik, a chocolate drink, and slowly peel back the metal bottom of it or cut it out, fill the bottom up with coffee in vacuum bags, reseal it, and put it back in. These were these small little victories. For me, as an eleven-year-old child, this was a huge victory. I was part of the war effort.

When I was reading about the everyday war, these were the things that I was connecting with. As a child of 11 or 12, this was my way of contributing and reading your book of all the different characters. They were finding different ways and means to find meaning in this absolute senselessness that is the brutality of war.

I have to jump in there about the Nesquik because that is such a perfect example. It speaks to the creativity, resourcefulness, and resilience that people bring to bear on these terrible situations that they shouldn’t have to be in but they are. I love that example.

The celebration when it gets through is indescribable. Dad gets a bag of coffee that was stashed inside a Nesquik by his two sons and his wife. Ultimately, it was a lifeline because not only could they have coffee but they could trade meat for coffee, which is incredible. You open the book with an interesting discussion about the unique nature of the identity of the Donbas.

Given what’s going on and the fact that the Donbas remains contested as we speak, what is unique about it? Why is this important for us to understand? It doesn’t matter which way you lean, pro-Russia or pro-Ukraine. It becomes almost irrelevant when we start to unpack the identity of the Donbas. Maybe we can start with that.

That’s an important question. The Donbas has a unique regional identity, which means that it perceives itself as different from the rest of Ukraine. That’s important because the stories you tell about your region shape who you vote for, the choices you make, how you go about your daily life, and how you perceive people in other parts of the country.

The stories you tell about your region shape who you vote for, the choices that you make, how you go about your daily life, and how you perceive people in other parts of the country. Share on X

In the case of Donbas, it was a hub for mining and metallurgy in the core. There were these agricultural regions farming that surrounded it. Mining and metallurgy meant livelihoods in Donbas. They were much more connected to the economy of Russia than they were to the economy of Ukraine. When we could go back to the 2013 or 2014 revolutions, people hit the streets protesting the much-awaited association agreement with the European Union. When it didn’t go through, a lot of people protested because they were in favour of that European direction for the country.

As you can imagine, that all appeared very different from Donbas. That sounded like an existential threat to them because if they went for the European Union, that would mean everything from rebuilding the railroads to European specification to revising their mining and metallurgy standards to different systems of measurement. It was comprehensive. Many of them saw their lives and livelihood more with Russia than Ukraine. That was part of it.

As you allude to in the beginning, it’s always more complex than that. We can’t boil it down to a single cause. There were other factors. Within Donbas, people were divided. Some people were in favour of that European direction. Other people were in favour of the Russian direction. What tipped the scales was external facilitation from the side of Russia for the people who had a separatist mentality. That meant infiltrating local structures of governance with cadres loyal to Russia, information war, and sending mercenaries to fight. All of those factors meant that the people in Donbas who favoured the Russian direction prevailed.

It was easy enough for Russia to increase the existing fault lines. It was a rather easy victory to achieve in the sense of undermining any bend towards the European Union. One thing that I forgot to ask and is important for context is to tell us a little bit about your fieldwork and how long you’ve spent in Ukraine, not just in this project but even before that. You’ve spent some time in the region. It escaped me but I wanted to let our audience know how deeply embedded you were in Ukrainian society.

I first went to Ukraine in 1995 for my first fieldwork when I was a graduate student in Anthropology. At that time, I lived uninterruptedly in Ukraine for about a year and a half. I was so immersed in the culture that I started dreaming in the language and writing my grocery list in the language. I was living in Crimea at that time. That was before they had cell phone towers or cell phones. To call my family, I would have to go to the central post office, sign up for a telephone connection, and hope to catch somebody at home. I was very immersed in my situation.

The field of anthropology has changed quite a bit and people are more interconnected around the globe. People do their work in a lot of different methodological ways. At that particular time, it was very helpful to be so immersed that I rented an apartment. That was my home. For this particular book, I had a Fulbright research grant that enabled me to do research over a three-year period. I made three trips to Ukraine and interviewed about 150 people over that time span, which contributed to the writing and publication of Everyday War: The Conflict Over Donbas, Ukraine.

The reason that the book has that word conflict in it was because, at the time, I was doing my research that was the official international designation. It’s only been since the February 2022 full-scale invasion that it was officially deemed a war. It’s helpful to think of it in two phases. There’s this first phase that starts with the 2014 occupation of Crimea, which emboldens Putin to see if they can also pull the Eastern region in addition to the Southern region of Crimea. The so-called conflict phase lasts up until February 2022 when we have this full-scale invasion that involves all parts of the country of Ukraine.

That’s an interesting switch as well. You highlight that towards the end of the book as you relate your research from 2014 to 2022. I found it particularly interesting how you talk about how the undeclared war or the conflict that started in 2014 was perceived in unaffected parts of the country vastly differently than in the Donbas or the affected parts. What was different? What did you learn? What differed in those perceptions of the conflict at the time?

For context, part of my research focused on the people who had been internally displaced throughout the country. I travelled throughout the country by train every year so that I could visit different regions within Ukraine and try to get as broad a spectrum of perspectives as possible. That’s how I discovered that views did vary quite a bit from one region to the next.

When I first began my research, I found that people in the Western part of the country did not want their region to be drawn into the fighting that they knew was going on in the East. Many of them failed to see the utility of why their sons and daughters should fight to regain territory that, as far as they were told by Russian state media at least, had voted to become more aligned with Russia.

VOW 91 | Donbas
Donbas: People in the western part of Ukraine did not want to be drawn into the fighting going on in the eastern side of the country.

They felt that the Eastern parts of the country apparently voted for greater unification with Russia. Why should we sacrifice our sons and daughters? There’s also the element of time. With each passing year, Ukrainians became more anxious to simply return to life as normal. There’s something that’s so exhausting and depleting about living in a country at war.

One of the coping mechanisms was to focus on their daily life and proceed as if it wasn’t going on. Those sentiments have changed dramatically since the Russian invasion in 2022, which posed an existential threat to the whole country of Ukraine. Ironically, the Russian aggression against Ukraine that was intended to split the country apart, fragment, and decimate it unified it. Once Ukrainians perceived the real nature of the threat and the scope of it, they became much more unified politically.

We spoke about the regional identity of the Donbas. Over time, Ukrainians have become more aligned with the idea of a civic identity that transcends ethnicity. It’s this idea that what unites us as Ukrainians is the values that we place on freedom and democracy. Irregardless of whether your ethnic heritage is Russian, Ukrainian, Crimean, Tata, or something else, you’re Ukrainian if you identify as Ukrainian and you embrace these values that we as a nation are embracing and trying to realise in the Ukrainian government-controlled parts of the country.

We see that also extended to foreigners who’ve taken up arms on behalf of Ukraine. There’s this embracing in line with certain values as opposed to nationality, ethnicity, or language. You also see Slava Ukraini everywhere of people from all walks of life across the world who are, in some way, extending and sharing their support for what Ukraine stands for.

That is another way of turning this into an everyday war. It’s through social media and the likes of Twitter that people are participating, maybe not directly in hostilities but in sharing their opinions, views, or prominent thought leaders on the war in Ukraine. One example that falls into my mind is when I interviewed John Spencer, who’s an urban warfare specialist from the US. He came up with a pamphlet effectively.

It started with 21 tweets that were then collated as an urban warfighters manual that then became the go-to manual across Ukraine. He actively joined the war in many ways, although he did it from the US, via Twitter. I find it interesting how it becomes everyday war for not just the people who are in the conflict area but those who perceive themselves as part of the conflict. That is an interesting dynamic that we’re seeing unfold with Ukraine.

I’m familiar with his work. I’m glad that you brought it up because one of the things that’s interesting about it is how specific he is. That manual on urban warfare is very street-level.

For the uninitiated, street level is a non-military background. A layperson contributes to that everyday war.

My book is also at that everyday subjective, what do you need to do next level. It focuses so much more on relationships and emotions. What I found was that in the literature on war and conflict, relationships tend to be treated as a tangent or a backdrop to real action. I was telling you the story of Alexandra. If we think about that, we realise that her activities were crucial to her father’s survival. There are so many other examples of when kinship becomes tactical like that, it does have an outcome for the people concerned.

That’s the part I loved. I’ve highlighted a quote, even if it’s a small one. It’s the opening of chapter three where you’ve written that the war in Ukraine has reconfigured relationships among people who knew or at least thought they knew one another. What did you mean by these reconfigured relationships amongst people who knew or at least thought they knew one another?

Sixty-seven percent of the people I spoke with told me that they were mourning the loss of relationships. It was one of those topics that came up time and again. As an anthropologist, I like to work very inductively, which is to say, starting with the concerns of the people that you’re talking with, instead of coming in with some hypothesis that you want to test.

As a qualitative researcher, I was very concerned to start where people were at that time. They told me unequivocally that the then-dubbed conflict was profoundly affecting their relationships. Larissa’s story encapsulates these dynamics very well because she lost her only son to the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. He enlisted at the age of seventeen to defend Ukraine. That would’ve been painful enough, except it was made more painful by the fact that her sister worked for the Russian-installed administration and her mother had contributed funds that helped enable that Russian-backed administration to come to power.

She blamed them in part for his death. That’s a good example because she realised that although she still loved her mother and her sister, she could not speak to them or associate with them. It was too painful. She came to increasingly identify with Ukraine as her nationality and Ukrainian as her language. She began to find that there were certain things that she couldn’t even express in Russian. She was so moved to align herself fully with Ukraine as a result of that experience.

I found two strategies. There was one strategy in which people ended relationships in which they found themselves to be on opposite political sides. That was Larissa’s strategy. Another strategy was simply to not speak about the topics that were contentious or difficult as a conflict-calming mechanism. That enables you to keep the relationship viable but it’s also a loss because it comes at the expense of having the freedom to speak of some of the things that are most meaningful to you.

Especially with your mother and your sister about the loss of your son, you cannot speak about that. It’s almost the second death of the son. Not only has he been killed but I can’t even mourn him and therefore, cherish his memory with my closest. Not that he ever would but you can’t put any band on that wound through those who you most want to share those emotions with.

There’s this cliché that war is hell. I feel like the book adds a layer of meaning. It’s the kind of hell in which you can’t call your parents because they’re on the opposite political side. It’s a relational hell. That’s why it’s important to realise that there are two intertwined crises in Ukraine. One of them is the military war that’s being carried out. There’s the military crisis with the loss of life, the loss of infrastructure, and everything that entails. There’s another crisis that we don’t hear as much about, which is a relational crisis. People who were formerly close can no longer speak to each other or associate with each other.

There is another crisis happening in a military conflict, and it is called a relational crisis. This happens when people who were formerly close can no longer speak or associate to each other. Share on X

This is important to think about the conflict as a whole. It’s much more straightforward to rebuild the physical infrastructure, whether that’s a power plant or an apartment building, than the interpersonal infrastructure, which is so much more difficult to rebuild and will take so much longer than the physical parts of it. I don’t say that to minimise the utter destruction, which has been unprecedented since World War II in Europe. I’m trying to say that there’s another layer we must also keep in mind as we think about Ukraine.

That layer is unseen but structural in the sense that it’s self-reinforcing that’s passed on to your neighbourhood or children. It’s passed on to the generation. It’s something we saw in Bosnia. I’m going to digress to give you a small example of what I’m talking about. Some time ago, my partner and I went to Bosnia. This was in 2013. We opened the country’s first CrossFit gym. Don’t hold that against me, the audience, or you, Greta. We left the cult but we opened it as a not-for-profit to try and bridge the divide between the different ethnic groups in Bosnia and Sarajevo that existed between the local ethnic groups but also with foreigners.

CrossFit had become something rather big globally. It has the incredible potential to build a community. We used that to bring something different and new to Sarajevo. We opened in the old Olympic Stadium. It was powerful in that symbolic sense but perhaps the most powerful symbol of our two and a half years while establishing, opening, and running it was we did a whole bunch of different charity work for kids with cancer and autism. We also did a blood drive for the local blood bank.

By that stage, we had coaches who identified as Bosniak Muslim, a Serb Orthodox, Croatian, myself as another non-religious, and my partner who’s of Turkish background. We’re rather mixed but perhaps the most powerful symbol was having coaches of different ethnicities sit next to each other, giving blood and the visual effect of all bleeding red.

This speaks to that point of everyday peace. Where I want to pivot is how people will, in a way, try to resist or reject the dominant narratives that try to divide them by trying to find ever so slightly glimmers of hope in reconnection. The human connection is pivotal, critical, and key to one’s own, firstly, mental well-being but also in instilling some sense of hope that maybe tomorrow or the next day we might be together again. It is four nations that are divided internally. They share the same border. These are the same people in many ways. All of a sudden, they’ve been forced apart in many ways.

This trauma is the other war we don’t talk about. This is not the tanks, mortars, artillery, or the mechanical, technical, and tactical war but it’s deeply interpersonal and soul-destroying. I wanted to use that as an example because that was where I witnessed the power of symbols and symbology and how it went viral as viral could have gone in Bosnia in 2014, this one particular image. It said so much. You had coaches of different ethnicities bleeding red. I wanted to share that example with you.

Perhaps this is a good time to pivot to this idea of everyday peace, which I love. I get the sense it’s coming across how deeply engrossed I was in this book. I want to touch on some of these aspects of everyday peace. Firstly, maybe I’ll let you define what you mean by everyday peace, despite how much we’ve already talked about it. I want to give you the space to explain it through your words. I would like to touch on some of the examples of interpersonal peace that you have encountered that you mentioned in the book because they’re powerful in the everyday aspect of war.

VOW 91 | Donbas
Donbas: Everyday peace is a concept that arose within peace and conflict studies to carefully consider the significance of non-elite individuals, going away from the perspectives of heads of state or diplomats.

Everyday peace is a concept that arose within peace and conflict studies to carefully consider the significance of non-elite types of actors, not heads of state, diplomats, or the military but so-called ordinary people. In the field of peace and conflict studies, they’re interested in considering how peace is enacted on multiple levels simultaneously. At the same time, leaders might be sitting down at the table to carry out diplomatic negotiations. It’s very important what’s going on at a local ground level. According to some ways of thinking, it’s crucial to the sustainability of the peace agreements that do get signed, whether or not people in general are behind them and can sustain them.

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