Think Out Loud

Reed College professor and Ukraine expert reflects on humanitarian crisis caused by Russian invasion

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
March 5, 2022 2:35 a.m. Updated: March 14, 2022 10:02 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, March 7

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, more than a million people have fled their homes, seeking safety in Poland and other neighboring countries. The United Nations refugee agency has issued an emergency appeal for more than a billion dollars to provide humanitarian aid for displaced people, many of whom are women and children. The conflict has also sharpened concerns about gender-based violence against women. According to a U.N. survey, 75 percent of women have reported experiencing some form of violence since the age of 15. Alexandra Hrycak, a professor of sociology at Reed College, joins us to talk about the impact of the current crisis on women and children and other vulnerable populations in Ukraine.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Since Russia invaded Ukraine 11 days ago, 1.5 million people have fled their homes. Many are seeking safety in Poland or other neighboring countries. The UN refugee agency has issued an emergency appeal for more than a billion dollars to provide humanitarian aid for displaced people, many of whom are women and children. The war has also sharpened concerns about gender based violence against women. Alexandra Hrycak is a professor of sociology at Reed College. She joins us to talk about how the current crisis is impacting vulnerable people in Ukraine. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Alexandra Hrycak: Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to devote to this important issue.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. I want to read a part of a statement that you put out after the invasion so people can hear it: “I’ve been terrified by what the invasion of Ukraine means for the country’s vibrant civil society, where academics and activists have been working hard to process Ukraine’s totalitarian past and wrestle with the ghosts of the Soviet past.” How has, as you call it the “ghost of Soviet domination”, affected Ukraine’s ability to build a new civil society?

Hrycak: This is a really important and big aspect of what Ukraine has been trying to take on in the last 30 years since it became independent. During the Soviet era, Ukraine was cut off from the rest of the world. It basically, to Ukrainians, felt like they missed out on the 20th century in some kind of very profound way. For instance, with respect to women’s rights, women in Ukraine were constantly told that they had been liberated by the Soviet state and that their rights were perfectly defended by the Soviet state itself. But it was sort of a mirage, and there were no efforts made to really monitor what was going on on the ground, or even really allow women to have real debates or discussions about what they really wanted, or what they thought was going on.

And it was only after Ukraine became independent in 1991, and declared intentions to become a part of the European Union, that Ukrainians developed the capacity to start to look at what the different models were that people had been contemplating over the 20th century. And a lot of Ukrainians increasingly began to experiment with individual rights, and with notions of liberalism for the first time. And also, a lot of activists started to realize that they had to fundamentally rethink the Ukrainian past, and rethink the kinds of stories they had been expected to repeat in school about how the Soviet state had been benevolent to the Ukrainians, and had provided a lot of different kinds of special things that they had never been given before. This kind of paternalism was a part of school curricula, and people started to look at different ways of understanding the rights of gender minorities, the rights of women. What did women’s rights even mean? People told me that when they first heard about this concept of women’s rights, they were shocked. They said to me “We didn’t know women had rights”, even though the Soviet state had for decades claimed that it had liberated women.

Miller: In that statement that I just read to folks, you talked about Ukraine’s totalitarian past, and the ghosts of the Soviet past. But I’m curious what role Russia has been playing in recent years within Ukraine as some people fight for women’s rights or LGBTQ rights. What are they currently doing?


Hrycak: So you’re asking kind of two different questions there, I think, and one of them is what role has Russia attempted to play within Ukraine as people start to develop the capacity to define their own destiny, and develop conversations about what kinds of citizenship different groups should be aiming for, what they should be fighting for. Within Ukraine, for especially the last almost 20 years, on the ground people have been trying to fight against autocracy. And although people are really interested in experimenting with the kinds of ideas that are at the heart of feminism and LGBTQ rights advocacy, in the end, the thing that has turned out to be the real foundation for a lot of this on the ground grassroots activism is the actual march of people as they seek to develop more rights against oppression, against police violence, against people confiscating their property. All of these things that had for a long time been a part of totalitarianism continued to be a part of how the Soviet state interacted with its citizens in real life, in places like Ukraine and Belarus and Russia.

And today, what we see are a new generation of people who spent the last good 20 years trying to prevent elections from being stolen from them. Often elections that were being stolen on behalf of Kremlin approved candidates that were attempting to prevent Ukraine’s integration into the world order.

Miller: What threat in particular does the advancement of women’s rights or other civil liberties in Ukraine pose to Russia?

Hrycak: You know, this is a very interesting question. And in many regards these days, we might think, well, why would Vladimir Putin care about something like feminism? Or why would he care about LGBTQ rights? A very small percentage of the population has actually taken an interest in these issues, and an even smaller percentage of the population in Russia, or Ukraine has tried to push the state to recognize the rights of minorities defined by their sexuality or by their gender.

Nevertheless, because Russia has developed a kind of state capitalism based around a very tightly controlled state based economy, not a market economy, but an economy dominated by oligarchs who are in Putin’s inner circle, Russia really does not want to have to integrate with the rest of the world. It really fears the rule of law. It does not want to have to submit to the kinds of treaties that it’s signed with other countries like Ukraine, to respect their autonomy and their sovereignty. Why? Because Ukraine and Ukrainians have been fighting really hard to prevent autocrats from retaining their hold over the state, and have tried to create new avenues for basic things like the right for someone to start a business, or establish a newspaper, or even own property of some kind. All of these things that are so simple in other countries in the west are just new things that people are starting to fight for. And it’s my sense that Putin is going after things like feminism, and especially LGBTQ rights, to distract the population from what their real concerns are in both Ukraine and Russia, which is terrible corruption and terrible ongoing state repression against even very basic efforts to challenge autocratic actions and practices that affect a lot of a lot of ordinary citizens.

But Putin, even this weekend, Ukraine is being bombed by Russian armed forces, we know this, it is well documented. But if you went on Russian news sites or watched Russian television, you would be surprised to see very little of that. And instead, what was he talking about? He was talking about a new law against pedophilia. And this has been an ongoing kind of scapegoat and a sort of obsession of Putin’s, that Russia is being terrorized by pedophiles, that the West has been sending all of these human rights organizations to Russia to try to destroy the Russian way and the Russian family.

And of course, there’s nothing at all true about this. But it’s very convenient for an autocrat like Putin to turn the West into a boogeyman, and then claim that Russia is being victimized by that boogeyman.

Miller: What have you heard in the last week and a half from academics or the leaders of various groups that have been trying to build a more just and civil society?

Hrycak: You know, I have been in touch with my friends for the last two weeks, and we were shocked, but we weren’t actually surprised that Russia invaded Ukraine. It has been going in this direction for a long time. And I’d like to just remind everyone, in 2014 is when Russia first invaded Ukraine. Russia has had an ongoing invasion of Ukraine ever since then. And people in Ukraine have been struggling against that. It has been a devastating experience, and it has also dramatically changed the shape of Ukraine’s civil society because people, when they are threatened by military violence, they rally together, and they feel that external threat, and then they start to work together.

My friends in Ukrainian cities who are associated with various kinds of civic activism, who are volunteers in initiatives to try to help vulnerable women and children, they have been spending all of their time getting bombed. And a lot of them have been forced into fleeing from their homes, because missiles have been falling outside, and they are terrified because the outskirts of Kiev and even downtown Kharkiv, which is Ukraine’s second largest city, have been attacked repeatedly by Russian troops, and by tanks, and by groups sent into bomb civilian buildings, and schools, and hospitals. And it just has been too terrifying. Food is running out in Kharkiv, which has been really relentlessly pounded by Russian airstrikes. My friends, some of them have stayed behind even though they are really vulnerable. If Russia imposes the kind of rule that it has imposed in Russia on Ukrainians, my friends are gonna be in trouble.

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