Five Questions With … Emily Channell-Justice

Note: 2020-21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Havighurst Center.  One of the ways we will mark this occasion is through a regular “Five Questions With …” series, where we will check in with former colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, and students.  In this latest installment, Hannah Chapman, Karen and Adeed Dawisha Assistant Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate of the Center, asked Emily Channell-Justice questions. Dr. Channell-Justice was a teaching fellow at the Center from 2016-19 before becoming the Director of the new Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

  1. You recently edited a volume entitled “Decolonizing Queer Experience: LGBT+ Narratives from Eastern Europe and Eurasia.” This book “moves beyond discourses of oppression and repression to explore the resistance and resilience of LGBT+ communities who are remaking the post-socialist world.” What inspired you to put together a collection on this topic and what did you learn in the process of editing this book?

This book came about because of a panel I organized for the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in 2018. I have been working with leftist activists in Ukraine since 2012, and in that time, several of them had come out as part of the LGBT+ community. Ukraine rightly has a reputation for not being friendly for the LGBT+ community, but the activists I worked with were welcoming and supported their friends who had come out. I wondered what the connection was between leftists and support for LGBT+ issues, especially considering that leftist politics are marginalized in Ukraine. I organized that panel so I could start to explore the connections between the left and LGBT+ communities in Ukraine, and the other participants in the panel directed my own research in very important ways. An editor from Lexington Books contacted me about the panel, and with her, I developed it into a book project. It went through several iterations but the end result includes a real depth and breadth of knowledge; the chapters represent not just Ukraine and Russia, but also the Baltics, Caucasus, and Central Asia. The authors were committed to showing that the story of being LGBT+ in the post-socialist world is much more than just homophobic and transphobic attitudes, although these shape the context in significant ways. The volume also helps establish the post-socialist world as an important site for the development of new ideas in queer theory, which will hopefully open up a space for new, diverse kinds of research. I am planning on continuing to develop my own research with LGBT+ communities in Ukraine, but I hope this becomes a robust field and that this book is one of the first of many on this theme in the coming years. [P.S. we’ll be having an event with some of the contributors at HURI on March 3—details coming soon!]

2. Could you tell us about what other projects you are working on?

I have a few projects going on at the moment, some of which are more active than others because of COVID-19 related restrictions on traveling for research. First, I’m finishing my monograph about my research with leftist activists, which focuses largely on the time period of the Euromaidan protests. That book, tentatively titled Without the State: Self-Organization and Political Activism in Ukraine, is under contract with University of Toronto Press. Right now, I’m finalizing certain parts of the manuscript with the input of activists I wrote about, and it has been a very fruitful process to hear their response to my analysis.

In addition to this project, I’ve been doing preliminary work on a long-term research project about internally displaced populations in Ukraine, which will be the main element of the TCUP research agenda. Following both the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas started in 2014, large numbers of people were displaced into the mainland of Ukraine. While there has been some excellent research already among displaced populations, the integration of these large numbers of people with various kinds of needs will be a huge issue for Ukraine in the coming years, in addition to the geopolitical problems of ending the war, returning Crimea to Ukraine, and reintegrating the currently occupied territories of the Donbas. My project will look at how these major geopolitical crises intersect with people’s daily experiences of displacement. While I can’t pursue any research with people in Ukraine at the moment, I’m focused on the background of the conflicts in both of these territories as well as collaborating with colleagues who have been researching displacement to learn as much as possible for when I can return to the field.

Finally, I’ve become intensely interested in judicial reform in Ukraine—there have been a number of court crises of late. It’s a relatively new area of study because reforms were really attempted only after the Euromaidan protests ended and installed a supposedly reformist administration, but they have been absolutely impossible to put in place because of the way the court system is structured. People are now realizing that without judicial reform, no other reforms will be sustainable, so I want to understand more about why it’s so difficult to reform the judiciary and what reform advocates are attempting to implement. This falls into the realm of “anthropology of policy,” which is a new area for me but which has been accessible without traveling to Ukraine because so many official documents and statements are available to the public. 

3. You are director of the Director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. The goal of this program is designed to be “a bridge between the scholarly and policy communities with the goal of promoting a deeper understanding of Ukraine in the world.” Could you tell us more about the program’s goals and why you think the study of contemporary Ukraine is important? 

As an anthropologist, I’ve always felt like my field’s analysis was ignored by policy makers because we shy away from simplifying our conclusions. At the same time, anthropologists are often hesitant to make strong policy recommendations, so we just end up talking amongst ourselves. I’m convinced that there’s a way to find a middle ground here, where scholars who don’t want to simplify their research can still help policy makers better understand the situation on the ground, and where policy makers can use academic work to see a different angle they may have missed before. My two current research projects on displacement and judicial reforms are themselves trying to bring together the scholarly and policy perspectives. Our first annual TCUP Conference (Feb. 1-5, 2021; register here!) focuses on creating the space for discussions between people who represent both of these areas. The conference is organized around the question “Why is Ukraine a Democracy?” and each panel is structured around a set of questions developed by the moderator of the panel. Each panelist will respond to the questions (rather than a typical academic conference presentation), and all the panels include people who are scholars, policy writers, or both. In this way, I hope to encourage these groups to talk amongst one another, because we all want the same thing, which is a free, independent, democratic Ukraine. Of course, there’s nothing simple about how to get there, so I hope this is the first of many such discussions.

I am so excited and honored to develop a program that puts contemporary Ukraine front and center. I hope the program will make people see how important Ukraine is in the world, but also that it is an interesting place with so much to uncover. Ukrainian studies has long been dominated by people from the Ukrainian diaspora; this isn’t by any means a bad thing, but as someone with no roots in Ukraine who loves doing research there, I hope TCUP can help others see the potential for future engagement.

4. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Havighurst Center and the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Looking back at your time in the field of Eurasian studies, what are some of the most exciting developments you have seen? How do you hope the field will develop in the coming years?

One of the major goals of my work has been to encourage scholars to treat Ukraine on its own terms, and not just as a comparative example for Russia. When I started my PhD research, there were very few scholars who were committed to this perspective, but the field has shifted in the past few years—likely in response to Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the occupation of the Donbas. Sovereignty is a key question in Ukraine, but it isn’t just about independence from Russia—it’s about Ukraine determining its own future. We can only understand that if we explore its complex past and significant role in the Soviet Union as well as its ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity, and if we consider it an important player in contemporary geopolitics. There is no one way to think about Ukraine, and I hope that people will become more interested in Ukraine because of this.

5. You were a Havighurst Fellow from 2016-2019. How did your experience as a Havighurst Fellow shape your career and understanding of the region?

My experience at Havighurst was a formative one. It was my first job after my PhD, and I was lucky that I got to work with such a supportive faculty group. They set an incredible example as professors and as colleagues, especially as I navigated a challenging job market. Plus, interacting with scholars from different fields was a valuable exercise in thinking about what an interdisciplinary perspective brings. While many such centers purport to be interdisciplinary, the Havighurst Center really values those different disciplinary perspectives in a way that is unique in my experience. And, while I clearly advocate for thinking about Ukraine on its own terms, working with so many wonderful scholars who focus on Russia also helped me better understand why Russia has dominated the field for so long and the aspects of Russian studies I had not really considered important before. For instance, I always knew that I should read War and Peace, but Steve Norris made me want to read it. And I enjoyed it! I’m very thankful for the strong network that Havighurst develops and the supportive, collaborative culture there.

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