Meet the Three REECA Grads Who Researched in Ukraine

June 16, 2016
Christine Jacobson

Congratulations to all of this year’s graduates! In particular, HURI would like to recognize three 2016 Master’s degree graduates who carried out research in Ukraine during the summer of 2015.

Christine Jacobson, Matthew Kupfer, and Cressida Arkwright - all students in the Russian, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia (REECA) Master’s program - traveled to Ukraine last summer to complete research for their theses. They each received financial support from the HURI and the Davis Center to pursue their projects. The research they conducted provided valuable data for their Master’s theses, the culmination of their studies at Harvard.

Christine Jacobson: Assessing elections in civil strife

Christine JacobsonChristine Jacobson’s thesis examined the role of elections in post-conflict states, with a close analysis of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. To supplement her demographic and electoral data, Jacobson traveled to Kyiv for three weeks to interview people close to the election process. Her project questioned the standard Western approach to conflict mitigation.

“Western NGOs and governments have formed the consensus that elections are part of the peace and reconciliation process for states that have experienced or continue to experience civil strife,” Jacobson explained. “My project challenged this consensus by looking at the 2010 parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan and the 2014 parliamentary elections in Ukraine. Each country had been racked by political violence and widespread violence in other parts of the country prior to heading into elections.”

By asking whether these elections assisted or stalled the peace and reconciliation process in these countries, Jacobson tested the efficacy of the billions of dollars Western organizations spend annually to support elections in these situations.

To gather data, Jacobson conducted interviews about the long-term political consequences of those elections. In Kyiv, she spoke with Electoral Commission officials, consultants for political parties, civil society watchdog groups, journalists, and local scholars. She repeated this exercise in Bishkek.

Drawing together the evidence she gathered, Jacobson found that the elections had suffered from widespread disenfranchisement of voters. Her thesis further explored the consequences of holding elections in contexts of civil strife.

Next, Jacobson plans to enroll in an archival management program at Simmons College and go on to do archival or curatorial work in an academic library.

Matthew Kupfer: Formation of Ukrainian identity in Kharkiv and Odessa

matt kupfer donetsk lvivMatthew Kupfer spent June and July in Ukraine to work on his Master’s thesis. His project examined the formation of Ukrainian national identity in two southeastern cities, Kharkiv and Odessa, after the events of 2014-15. These cities are largely Russian-speaking, and the changing understandings of Ukrainian national identity are particularly complex.

To unpack this process, Kupfer used the lens of volunteerism to examine the way national identity is developing in these areas. Using volunteerism as a proxy for the more politically active segment of the population, he carried out individual interviews with civilian volunteers supporting the Ukrainian armed forces and the internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Donbas. He also held group interviews with non-activist locals.

“The interviews gave me fascinating insights into how these two groups of individuals understand what it means to be Ukrainian after Euromaidan, the Crimean annexation, and the eruption of war in the Donbas, as well as how they see national identity developing in the future,” Kupfer said.

After completing his research, Kupfer came to a number of conclusions, identifying the nuances in how Ukrainian national identity is developing diversely in different segments of society. For instance, while he found that nearly all residents in Kharkiv and Odessa espouse a national identity based on civic, rather than ethnic, principals, activists and non-activists place a different emphasis on ethnocultural principals.

“Activist volunteers support a civic national identity in which Ukrainian language and culture play a greater role. They view Ukrainianization as a means for unifying the country,” he argued. “In contrast, non-activist residents of Kharkiv and Odessa view these ideas with skepticism, emphasizing a civic understanding of Ukrainian national identity, but with a smaller role for Ukrainian language and culture.”

By way of a broad conclusion, Kupfer suggested that asking whether Ukraine is divided is too simplistic. Despite the presence of divisions, the population’s general focus on civic national identity presents opportunities to overcome obstacles of unity.

In the coming year, Kupfer will work as a journalist at a Western, English-language news organization in Moscow on an Alfa Fellowship.

Cressida Arkwright: Adapting to conflict and displacement from Eastern Ukraine

Cressida Arkwright helping an English class in KharkivCressida Arkwright traveled through Kharkiv and Donetsk from June through mid-August to carry out research for her thesis, which used Ukraine as a case study on displacement. Her research suggested a more complete way to investigate displacement, moving beyond the traditional migration and forced migration paradigms. Instead, she focused on how people respond to conflict and what factors influence which survival strategy they choose.

To collect the necessary data, Arkwright interviewed 203 internally displaced persons, non-displaced persons, host populations, humanitarian experts, and officials in Kharkiv Oblast, Donetsk Oblast, and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

“The research process was absolutely fascinating,” Arkwright said. “Through interaction with diverse stakeholders, I came to understand the crisis from myriad personal and organizational perspectives, and appreciate the divergent interests, beliefs, goals, and strategies at play.”

Arkwright was especially appreciative of the support she experienced. “I was overwhelmed by the openness and sincerity of participants, and the generosity of those who became committed to the success of my project,” she explained.

In assessing the data, Arkwright found Hirschmann’s exit, voice, loyalty framework particularly relevant. Translating this to displacement, voice, and normalization, she found an effective means to communicate how individuals in conflict understand and evaluate their situation, as well as their patterns and possibilities for survival.

Now, Arkwright plans to turn her research into two long essays and a book. While hoping to travel back to Ukraine over the summer, she intends to return to Harvard in the fall and complete the book by early 2017.

HURI’s Summer Research Travel Grants

HURI’s Summer Research Travel Grant program is designed to empower Harvard undergraduate and graduate students to conduct original research in Ukraine. The funds can be used to cover travel and research expenses.

In 2015, in addition to the three Master’s students, PhD candidates Megan Duncan Smith and Iaroslava Strikha received grants to carry out archival research in Ukraine. Duncan Smith is researching the history of the Dnipro River, and Strikha is examining formal discontinuities in Ukrainian autobiographies. Duncan Smith is also HURI’s current Graduate Research Fellow.

For additional information about this funding, visit our Summer Research Travel Grants page.