Q&A: Volha Isakava speaks on the Russia/Ukraine war


Addie Adkins, Assistant Copy Editor

Meet Volha Isakava, an associate professor of Russian and coordinator of the Russian Studies program. She teaches courses on Russian language and culture as well as courses on popular culture and globalization, centering her research on cinema, culture and globalization in post-Soviet East Slavic countries such as Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. You may have seen and/or heard from her in recent events and talks regarding the Russian/Ukraine war. Here are some of her thoughts and questions regarding the war. 

Q: What have been your thoughts surrounding the rising conflict in Russia/Ukraine?

A: This is an unprecedented, unprovoked military aggression by the Russian Federation. This war has created a humanitarian catastrophe for Ukraine and Ukrainian people on the scale that has not happened in Europe since 1945: cities are being bombed and razed to the ground; refugee crisis is mounting (currently over 4.2 million Ukrainians have been displaced); we are looking at medication, food and water crises and massive civilian casualties. Ukrainian people need our support. This war has major implications for the post-WWII world order, security in Europe, negotiations around non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the relationship between Russia and the United States. We now find ourselves in a renewed Cold War confrontation.

Q: What should students be aware of in light of the war?

A: This might sound like the war is in a far away place, but it will have major consequences for the U.S., their European allies and the world, well into the future. The outcomes of the war will determine many things going forward that our students should know about. Here are some questions that we should all be concerned about and to which there are no definitive answers, since history is unfolding right now before our eyes:

  • How will the new Cold War play out?
  • If Ukrainian sovereignty can be so brazenly violated, if Ukrainian cities can be bombed and civilians targeted, what message does it send to other authoritarian regimes?
  • Will there be more re-drawings of borders based on military power and self-interest, regardless of international law or the U.N?
  • What does this war portend for nuclear armament?
  • What will happen to Ukrainian people if Ukraine is occupied by Russia?
  • If there is a new Iron Curtain, what does it mean for security in Europe, what does it mean for dissidents inside Russia and Belarus?

Q: What are some general resources and good sources of information if some would like to research further on the history of the Russian/Ukraine relationship?

A: Take a class with the Department of World Languages and Cultures or History on the subject! 

World Languages and Cultures will offer WLC 184 on Post-Soviet Conflicts and Russia’s Neo-Imperialism in Fall 2022. In Winter 2023 we have a General Education course RUSS 200: Censorship and Resistance – the course will address not just Russia but post-Soviet space. History department is offering a course HIS 475 Stalin and Stalinism this Spring 2022, and will offer more Russian history courses that will be pertinent to the events unfolding today next year. Students should contact Roxanne Easley for more specific information.

Students should also look at reputable information sources, specifically European ones as they usually have more nuanced and detailed information. 

Subscribe to Ukrainian media, such as Radio Liberty Ukraine: https://www.rferl.org/Ukraine or Kyiv Independent: https://kyivindependent.com/

Q:  How do you think this conflict will affect Russian and Ukrainian culture?

A: Ukrainian and Russian people have a lot of shared cultural heritage, and very much like Canadians and Americans, shared family histories on both sides of the border. This war is catastrophic to those ties; families are being torn apart and any kind of semblance of neighborly relations will not be possible, perhaps, ever, or at least while Putin is in power. The two countries severed diplomatic relations. It will take generations to get over this senseless bloodshed unleashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Q: If you could speak to Russian and Ukrainian leaders, what would you say?

A: I would not. These leaders are not in equivalent positions. President Putin is an autocrat and an aggressor, who is almost entirely single-handedly responsible for unleashing the war on Ukrainian people. President Zelensky is defending Ukraine from an unprovoked military invasion that aims to erase the very existence of the nation of Ukraine, and Ukrainians as sovereign people. Ukrainian army, territory, GDP, you name it, dwarves in comparison to Russia’s military juggernaut. And yet Ukrainians have showcased unbelievable acts of courage, resilience and determination to stop this invasion that is costing women, children and men of Ukraine their lives. We should support Ukrainian people and demand that Russia stops the war.

Q: Is there any advice you have to students who are affected by or concerned about this war?

A: It is hard to watch the war unfold from afar, especially if you have loved ones or your heritage connects you to Ukraine. Traumatic intergenerational war memory is a fact of life and very much a lived experience for most people who have ties to the region – it has been only two generations since the devastation of WWII. To our students affected by the war – please be kind to yourself, remember we are not helpless in this struggle! We can tangibly help Ukrainian people right now, including on CWU campus.

Q: Having grown up in Belarus during the collapse of the Soviet Union, do you find any parallels between the collapse and the current conflict?

A: These are not comparable histories. However, the effect of the international sanctions on Russia could produce an economic catastrophe similar to the one that unfolded after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s: the extreme devaluation of the ruble, the impoverishment of the ordinary Russians and consequently rampant crime and corruption. The vulnerable people – disabled individuals, people in need of imported medications or medical devices, the elderly, the poor, the orphans – will be hit the hardest. In addition we can expect the new Iron Curtain – isolation from the rest of the world and brutal repression of freedom of speech unheard of since Stalinist repressions of the 1930s. To give you just a recent example: calling the invasion “war” is prohibited in Russia; there is now a potential 15 year prison sentence for “criticizing Russian military” and social media like Facebook or Instagram have been canceled. This is expected to befall the Russian people, who despite all that still come out in protest against the war – last time I checked there were over 6000 Russians arrested. But all of this pales in comparison to what would happen to Ukrainian people, if Russia occupies Ukraine. Ukrainian people will face unimaginable consequences in terms of economic devastation of their country, isolated along with Russia, and likely systematic extermination of those who oppose Russian occupation.