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Root Objects: Everyday Geopolitics from the Bottom Up in Kharkiv, Ukraine

Authors: James Baker*, University Of Nebraska - Lincoln
Topics: Cultural Geography, Political Geography, Qualitative Methods
Keywords: Ukraine, geopolitics, materiality, discourse, visuality, interface objects, urban landscape, territoriality, borderlands, Kharkiv, post-socialist anthropology
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper considers everyday geopolitical assemblages in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, as illustrative of a geopolitical contact zone within an historical, transnational borderland: Slobids’ka Ukraina. While much of Kharkiv’s history and self-image vaunts narratives of “dissidents and deserters” evading liquidation by Khmelnitskiy’s Cossacks – and, more recently, oligarchs from Dnipro and Donetsk – since the “Kharkov People’s Republic” was thwarted by ordinary citizens and state security forces in Spring, 2014, some Kharkivites have found reason to become active agents in their own national history.

Looking at Kharkiv’s cityscape through a visual ethnographic lens, I consider the role of socio-spatial pedagogies of патріотичного виховання – patriotic education – in the material-discursive potential of geopolitical assemblages. As the Soviet experience recedes into postmemory and conflict and corruption continue to baffle change in Ukraine after the groundswell of Maidan (2013-2014), new content structures for Ukrainian identity in the borderlands seek out old forms, such as museums, natural landscapes, and decorative handicrafts. However, these interface objects territorialize an everyday geopolitics sharpening Kharkiv’s “polyphonic dichotomy,” reframing Ukraine’s borderlands as an “imagined monochromicity” of Two Ukraines: west versus east, and “European” versus “Russian.”

Using critical geopolitics and assemblage theory to contextualize the interfaces and issues which manifest in the more-than-human bodies, poems, military hardware, political cartoons, and public spaces encountered during fieldwork in Kharkiv, I present arguments for accelerating the cultural-material turn in geopolitics towards an everyday, improvisatory sense of civic nationalism and place meaningful to the “actors themselves” and the pedagogical discourses they engender.

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