Postdoc Spotlight: Markian Dobczansky

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Markian Dobczansky is a postdoctoral research scholar specializing in Soviet urban history, the politics of culture, and Russian-Ukrainian relations. His book manuscript "Between Moscow and Kyiv: The Politics of Culture in 20th-Century Kharkiv" examines local identity in the largest metropolis of the Ukrainian-Russian cultural borderland, from 1917 to the 1990s.

I met with Markian at the Harriman Institute on March 14, 2019. What follows is an edited and condensed transrcipt of our interview.

Masha Udensiva-Brenner

Tell me about your background.

I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a tightknit Ukrainian-American family and community. My parents, Ukrainian-Americans born in the U.S., spoke to me in Ukrainian when I was little. We were part of a whole network of Ukrainian institutions, and I grew up immersed in the language and culture.

I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, where I did not plan to study history, instead enrolling in the business school. But then, the summer after my sophomore year, I attended the Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute. It was something many people in the community had done, and something I had always wanted to do—a way to learn about my heritage. The experience turned out to be formative for me professionally, because it made me understand that Ukraine and Eastern Europe could be studied on a very high intellectual level and I could pursue this as a career.

After college I worked for two years at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute as an editor. That was a very important step in my professional development and education; it exposed me to multiple disciplines and was my intro to Russian studies as an institution in the United States. In 2008, I enrolled in Stanford’s Ph.D. program to study Soviet history.

What drew you to Soviet urban history?

I was interested in the Russian-Ukrainian relationship within the Soviet context. My advisor had written a book looking at the Soviet experience of WWII through the lens of Vinnytsia and he got me really interested about how Ukraine fits into the Soviet Union; what the Soviet Ukrainian experience looked like.

The question of Russian-Ukrainian relations and the cultural context, of course, is really broad. There’s essentially no end to how you can study the problem. I needed a way to concretize it, and the idea of studying a single city made sense, because I could get my head around it as a topic.

I settled on looking at it through the prism of Kharkiv, the capital of the Ukrainian SSR between 1917 and 1934. Ukrainization was essentially run from there in the 1920s and the city saw a renaissance and cultural revival under Soviet auspices. After it lost its status as a capital city, the city remained a political, economic, and cultural center and was a place where the Russian-Ukrainian relationship was played out on the ground.

I’ve also travelled extensively throughout the former Soviet Union and saw for myself the numerous commonalities shared by many large cities throughout Eurasia as well as the things that make them different. Each city, it seems to me, can be read through its urban landscape. The course I teach at Columbia, “Eurasian Urbanisms,” examines the history of urbanization in the imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras by looking at a range of cities from Tashkent to Berlin.

What did Kharkiv teach you about the broader Soviet Ukrainian experience?

Most importantly, what I learned was that this idea that Ukrainian national identity is always in opposition to Soviet identity is an oversimplification. Even in conditions of massive repression, Soviet rule generated a specific mode of being Ukrainian. It provided ways in which Ukrainian people could integrate themselves into the Soviet Union through their Ukrainian identity, albeit in a strictly controlled form. It also introduced all kinds of inequalities and hierarchies. Nonetheless, the Soviet Union embraced Ukrainian identity as being separate from Russia in a way that the Russian Empire never did. Because of its revolutionary history and critical importance to the propagandistic story the Soviet regime was telling about Ukraine, Kharkiv was a crucial place where this identity was elaborated.

What did you do after graduating from Stanford?

After Stanford, I received a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto, where I started turning my dissertation into a book. I’ve added a lot of material about the 1920s and 30s, a formative time for Kharkiv.

What are you working on at the Harriman Institute? 

I’m finishing my book on Kharkiv and Soviet urban history. I’ve also developed an interest in the Cold War and the Ukrainian “theater” of the Cold War confrontation. Currently, I’m working on an academic article about the transnational argument over the legacy of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko, which basically functioned as a stand-in for the broader fate of Ukrainian culture within the Soviet Union. [Editor’s note: Dobczansky wrote an article about this for the Spring 2019 issue of Harriman Magazine, forthcoming in May]

What’s most rewarding about your work?

The study of history is a study of the different understandings of what it means to be human. The issues I’m studying can reveal a lot about how the present came to be and how different the past is from the contemporary world. The past can be very surprising. Studying it can upend understandings that we take for granted.

What, in your view, is the biggest misconception about the post-Soviet region?

There are a lot of stereotypes. For instance, there’s a very strong view that all the countries are unchangeable. We tend to essentialize them in terms of how we understand the history of these places in popular terms.

Another big misconception exists in understandings about Ukraine—that it’s provincial; that it didn’t matter in Soviet times and doesn’t matter today. We still don’t fully realize that the Soviet Union was never synonymous with Russia, that it was a multinational state, formally and federally, but also culturally and as a historical formation. 

What’s your favorite aspect of being at the Harriman Institute?

It’s a great community of people who try to understand this region from different disciplinary perspectives. I love the exchange of ideas between the community of postdocs, students, and faculty members. There’s a real sense of being engaged in a shared enterprise and dealing with similar issues.


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