Students Report on Summer Research in Ukraine

Each summer, HURI helps eligible Harvard students conduct projects in Ukraine by providing funds to use toward their trips. HURI's Summer Research Travel Grants assist students with travel and research expenses. Many students also receive grants from the Davis Center to further cover their costs.

This past summer, seven students received grants from HURI to carry out research in Ukraine: 

  • Juliette Cremel, an undergraduate in Social Studies researching Ukrainian ethnic and national identity
  • Lara Townzen, a Harvard Law School student, who worked at an organization in Ukraine
  • Megan Duncan Smith, a graduate student in History researching the Dnipro hydroelectric station
  • Emma Claire Foley, a REECA student researching Ukrainian environmental movements of the past 30 years
  • Anna Ivanova, a graduate student in History researching underground entrepreneurs during the late-Soviet period
  • Matthew Luxmoore, a REECA student researching the politicization of memory of WWII during the Ukraine crisis
  • Sarah VanSickle, a REECA student researching the image of the female in Euromaidan protest art 

Upon their return, several students provided a few words on their projects and experiences researching in Ukraine. 

Sarah VanSickle

VanSickle5In an attempt to secure their safety, in January 2014, women were banned from the protest space of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution. Women remained present among the barricades, however, but predominately in the form of art. Feminine faces and bodies covered all forms of art from posters to icons, giving many protesters a feeling of security in an otherwise dangerous situation.

During the summer, I interviewed priests, artists, and protesters to better understand why women were allowed to stand as protectresses on the canvas, but not in real life. I decided to spend the majority of my time with the different East Christian religious communities of Ukraine since so many icons of Mary, Mother of God were found on the Maidan. I thought if I could understand the relationship between icons of Mary and the viewer, then maybe I could understand and explain the overwhelming presence of women in protest art as well.

VanSickle3One of my favorite experiences this summer was with Sviatoslav Vladika, an iconographer from Lviv who created the widely recognized Red Christ on the church tent of the Euromaidan. Two weeks after our interview, Sviatoslav invited me to come back to his studio in Lviv so that he could teach me how to paint an icon. Located in a rundown building not far from the new Ukrainian Catholic University campus, he and I sat down and worked on a wooden canvas that could not have been more than 6x6 inches. We followed the traditional medieval method and started by tracing the icon from an image we already had onto stencil paper, then using that copy to trace the image again onto the wooden canvas. We then used a sharp tool to create small divets in the wood, so that when the first layer of paint was applied, the outline of the image would still show through. Finally, we began to paint. We started in the center of the icon, and then worked our way out to the edges, doing four layers of paint for every section. After that, we completed the details of the face and hair before finally highlighting the cheeks and forehead.

After about four hours, our tiny icon was complete! The process proved to be more strenuous and creatively demanding than I initially imagined. I will always be thankful to Sviatoslav for the opportunity because I feel as though his teaching gave me an insight into iconography and helped me better understand the relationship between the icons and the viewer than I ever could have had without this experience!


Juliette Cremel

Juliette Cremel B KyivI went to Ukraine for a total of 10 weeks in order to research Ukrainian identity, particularly in relation to language use and in the context of the recent events - namely, Maidan and the war. I was interested to learn whether or not language was in fact a divisive factor in Ukraine, and whether using Russian versus Ukrainian language meant anything at all in terms of political alignment. In order to find an answer to these various questions, I interviewed in depth a total of 39 Ukrainian citizens and held a couple of group sessions in the cities of Kyiv, Lviv and Kharkiv. The choice of these specific cities stemmed from their geographical locations; I also wanted to learn more about the East-West disparities often mentioned in the media.

Juliette Cremel A Glory of Ukraine statueThe interviews I conducted gave me an answer to all these questions and more; I learned a tremendous amount about a country that I was visiting for the first time, but I also discovered a lot about myself and my own opinion on a lot of political topics. Indeed, my encounters with many Ukrainians often led to discussing the situation in France, my home country, especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the month of July, or the situation in the US and the presidential race.

But, of course, I learned most about Ukrainian identity, and my interviews revealed even more complexity than I had anticipated. Of course, I realize that since I conducted qualitative research my limited sample of the Ukrainian population cannot claim to be representative; but I was fascinated to discover the width of opinions on the meaning and significance of language use, or on the meaning of Ukrainian identity itself. Even more surprising to me was the diversity of beliefs regarding who was responsible for today's situation in Donbas—I had assumed that most pro-Ukrainians would blame the Russians, or at least the Russian government; but in fact many of the people I interviewed had no hostility towards the Russian people, and considered that the Ukrainian government or higher-ups in the army were at least equally responsible for the currently frozen state of affairs. Overall, it was a fascinating trip and I am looking forward to putting the results of my research down on paper.


Anna Ivanova

The topic of my research is the role of money and the meaning of wealth in the late Soviet Union. I’m interested to know how money works in the cultural and social sense in the state socialist context. This summer I carried out my preliminary research in Russian and Ukrainian archives. Actually, I worked more in Kyiv than in Moscow since the archives are more open in Ukraine and fewer documents are classified.

In Kyiv I worked in three different archives: State, Party, and KGB. I read a wide range of documents concerning economic crimes, price formation and the household income in the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most impressing documents were those of the Prosecutor’s Office of Soviet Ukraine. Interested to find the reasoning behind criminal prosecution of such crimes as “profiteering” or “illegal enrichment,” I came across different appeals and complaints written by defendants and their relatives. In these documents they described all their lives and all the injustice they faced. And that’s a great thing about being a historian: to be able to find those striking personal documents and to feel the experiences and emotions of the past.

Anna Ivanova 1

As far as an interesting experience is concerned, the most exciting thing for me was the crossing of the Russian-Ukrainian border. I was in Moscow doing research and wanted to go then to Ukraine. My husband and I decided to go by car. We are both Russian citizens so we were thinking that crossing the border by car could be a hard task considering hostile relations between the two countries, but at the same time car travel is a nice thing so it was worth trying. The thing is that Russian citizens do not need a visa to enter Ukraine, so the border guard should decide on-site whether to let a Russian citizen go or not.

We went through Belarus’ and were entering Ukraine in a tiny village of Dol’sk in the Volyn’ region. The border guards were indeed very worried and bewildered to see two Russians coming from Moscow through Belarus’ and allegedly heading to the Kyiv archives. They interrogated us for about an hour trying to figure out our true intentions and even videotaped us and sent the video to their superiors for advice. They also read very carefully a letter from the Harvard Davis Center, which I had on me, that explained in Ukrainian the reason why I was going to Ukraine. When they learned from the paper that I was going to study “Економічні злочини в СРСР” (Economic crimes in the USSR) we seemed to earn more trust from them: “If you want to reveal Soviet crimes, your president Vladimir Putin should not be very happy with it,” they noted with satisfaction. Finally they decided to let us go, adding, “Have fun in Ukraine and since you’re from Harvard, do us a favor: Ask the American government to send us money for air-conditioning. We don’t have any and it’s too hot in our office these days.” We promised to try and joyfully entered Ukraine.

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