Volodymyr Ishchenko on the West’s Ukrainian Tokenism

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., December 21, 2022. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin)

The November/December 2022 issue of the New Left Review includes a piece by sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko, criticizing the instrumentalization of Ukraine by Western elites amidst the current conflict. Ishchenko argues that discourse on the “decolonization” of Ukraine and its portrayal as a valiant champion of liberal democracy in the face of Russian authoritarianism does little to help the country or its people. Instead, it largely serves as fodder for pro-Western and anti-Russian propaganda. An excerpt:

The question for Ukrainians is whether being a part of this self-defeating escalation of identity politics is really what we need. This year, there has been a huge surge of events, panels and sessions related to Ukraine, Russia and the war, and a high demand for ‘Ukrainian voices’ in these discussions. Certainly, Ukrainian scholars, artists and intellectuals should be included in international discussions—and not just about Ukraine. The problem, however, is not the quantity but the quality of such inclusion. We have seen how outdated arguments—not least those of primordial nationalism, weirdly combined with teleological claims for the superiority of liberal democracy—are legitimated. We can already see the tokenism phenomenon, typical of contemporary identity politics, when a symbolic inclusion of ‘Ukrainian voices’ does not mean revising the structures of knowledge aligned with Western elite interests, beyond sharpening their guilt for appeasing Russia. Furthermore, the formalistic representation of tokenized ‘Ukrainian voices’ helps silence other ‘voices’ from Ukraine that are not so easy to instrumentalize. Are we really to believe that the English-speaking, West-connected intellectuals, typically working in Kiev or Lviv, and who often even personally know each other, represent the diversity of the 40-million-strong nation?