Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute's

Latest News
Postdoc Spotlight: Emma Mateo
April 22, 2024

Emma Mateo is Petro Jacyk Postdoctoral Research Scholar in Ukrainian Studies and a lecturer in sociology.

How did you become interested in grassroots community responses to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine?

When Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, I was in the final year of my Ph.D. at the University of Oxford, researching mass protests in Ukraine and Belarus. I channeled the shock and fear I felt on February 24th into action, and quickly started organizing protests with the Ukrainian student community in Oxford. Alongside my friends and fellow students, I ended up fundraising, handling and shipping donations, and organizing various events. For a few weeks, I didn’t have much time to think about my research. But as I connected to people in Ukraine and also gained firsthand experience into how grassroots networks functioned by organizing in the UK, I came to understand the incredible work Ukrainian communities were doing on the ground to resist the invasion and help suffering compatriots. I already knew a lot about Ukrainian society and activism through my research, but the scale of Ukrainian civilian contributions to the war effort was beyond anything we had seen before, and it was being overlooked by the media and analysts at that time. I decided to focus my research on this when I started my Petro Jacyk Fellowship.

How did your research evolve while at the Harriman Institute?

When I first joined, I knew that I wanted to research civilian engagement in the war effort, but I knew I would have to narrow down this broad and complex topic. Also, on a practical level, I wasn’t sure what kind of research would be possible—would I be able to go to Ukraine? How would I study the more informal, grassroots forms of organizing if I couldn’t be in the country? Over the course of the year, through a lot of reading, reflection and discussion with colleagues, I decided to focus on the actions and motivations of those who stayed in high-risk areas and engaged in the war effort as civilians. I was fortunate that the university supported my request to undertake fieldwork, and I received funding from the Harriman Institute. I spent August interviewing people who had engaged in the war effort in Bakhmut, Chernihiv, and Dnipro. These three Ukrainian cities all experienced high levels of threat from the war, but ultimately endured different experiences: Bakhmut was heavily shelled and almost completely destroyed, Chernihiv was surrounded and blockaded by Russian forces, and Dnipro is frequently shelled but remains an important logistical and humanitarian hub.

What are some of the biggest lessons you learned from your field research in Ukraine last summer, which you wrote about for the Winter 2024 issue of Harriman Magazine?

We tend to think of civilians impacted by war as victims, maybe even powerless. But in Ukraine I saw how ordinary people found ways to take action and assert agency, seeking to make their own contribution towards Ukraine’s victory.

I was also really struck by the contrasts of life during wartime. Every day you witness violence and destruction, but also courage and hope. People experience trauma and loss but also find comfort and purpose in community organizing and volunteering. And life can feel very normal one moment, only to be turned on its head the next—a sunny Saturday stroll around town can turn tragic when a missile hits. I never truly understood this duality until I experienced a few weeks of wartime life myself.

You recently participated in a Director’s Seminar about your research. What are the biggest takeaways our community should know about?

Many Ukrainians are finding their own way to contribute to the war effort, using the skills and resources available to them. It’s hard to quantify the impact this is making, but it is certainly contributing to Ukraine’s ongoing resistance to Russian aggression. At the same time, this remarkable Ukrainian resilience should not be taken for granted. Ukraine faces a powerful and much larger aggressor, and whilst it has the will to succeed, it lacks the resources. It is crucial that Ukraine’s allies provide the country with the weapons, air defense, and other support it needs, to protect its civilians and bring an end to the war.

Read “Bakhmut’s Continuing Resistance,” Emma’s essay about her summer field research in Ukraine in the Winter 2024 issue of Harriman Magazine.

Pictured: Emma learning how to sew camouflage netting from a volunteer in Dnipro.