Imagining Otherwise with Institutions: An Interview with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn on Ukrainian Sovereignty and the New Face of Humanitarian Aid

by Natalie Wood

Jun 06, 2022

AES is pleased to share this interview by Natalie Wood, Editorial Assistant for American Ethnologist and graduate student at the University of Auckland, with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, Professor in the Department of Geography (cross-appointed in Anthropology) at Indiana University.

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed anthropologists to consider the roots of the conflict and the shape of everyday life in this time of war. Dunn, who was working at the Polish/Ukrainian border just prior to this interview, discusses her previous work on the Russian invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) and reflects upon what new forms of aid might mean for Ukraine today.

Natalie Wood (left) and Elizabeth Cullen Dunn (right)

Natalie Wood: If it is okay with you, I would like to start with your 2014 article, “The Empire Strikes Back: War Without War and Occupation Without Occupation in the Russian Sphere of Influence.” It feels as though it could have been written just a few months ago, which I suppose is a testament to both your ethnographic insight and the consistency of Putin’s brand of warfare. You have characterized this warfare as a “cultural construction of fear,” a satiric appropriation of US humanitarian interventionist language, and a demonstration of post-Soviet liminality that challenges international law. Obviously, we have now seen war break out in a very corporeal way. Could you speak to how this liminality and fear is being experienced in a quotidian sense?

Elizabeth Cullen Dunn: Yes, “The Empire Strikes Back”… the paper which was both totally wrong and surprisingly right about what would happen in Ukraine.

In my experience, war causes a massive suspension of the rules of everyday life and affects the way people experience time. It is extremely unpredictable; you do not know which rules are being enforced at a given moment and which are not. There is a hypervigilant waiting, yet you are racing around to get things moving as quickly as possible. For example, you might have medical supplies that need to be delivered right away, or you might suddenly be able to acquire bulletproof vests. You have to move quickly because the lives of people engaged in territorial defense are at risk. At the same moment, though, it can feel like you are caught in an eternal present.

To illustrate, a colleague and I took a car full of medicine across the Polish-Ukrainian border. It would ordinarily be very difficult to move these medicines internationally. When the border guards were about to inspect the car, we found ourselves in a moment where time seemed to move both very quickly and very slowly. The car was full of potential contraband, but the guards did not look in the trunk or in the storage container on top of the car. Instead, they asked us to open the hood. “Looks good!” they said, and waved us through. I realized, of course, that this was theatre; they knew exactly what we were doing and they did not care. Still, the theatre had to be done. The action, along with the knowing inaction, made for a strange moment in which the ordinary regulations, laws, and even unspoken rules of everyday life were not absent, but in a state of suspension.

N: You wrote very compellingly about the political theatre of Putin in “The Empire Strikes Back,” so it is interesting to hear that you are seeing this now in a quotidian sense. Would you say that behind this political theatre, the necessities of the moment are changing what is possible? Can we think about the transformation of AirBnB as an example of this?

E: First of all, there is a longstanding cultural tradition of taking pleasure in rule-breaking in Poland. During both the Communist and post-Communist eras, dodging rules to get things done gave a person license to brag. The cleverer it was, the more joy a person would take in breaking the rules. It had to be crafty, not just brute resistance. It had to be the application of intelligence to circumvent the stupid rules.

AirBnB has played an interesting role in Ukraine because it has been a way for people to both observe and circumvent rules. First, there was an AirBnB campaign that made rooms, apartments, and houses available to Ukrainian refugees at no cost. Soon after that, though, there was a second, independent, unauthorized transformation of AirBnB into a money laundering machine, which was great. People outside Ukraine were booking rooms that they had no intention of occupying, just as a way to send money to Ukrainians. So AirBnB was repurposed as a bank-to-bank transfer mechanism.

This did not just allow people to move money, it also prompted donors to imagine themselves living through a war. What was it like for the people who normally lived in this apartment? What has is happening to that apartment right now? You can see pictures of the apartment online, and last week you could have stayed there. If you had gone and stayed in this apartment, you would be in the war now. By localizing it, by dropping the scale of the war in donors' minds from the geopolitical to the personal, and by creating a direct link between the renter and the host, it allowed them to imagine themselves in the war. And that imaginative projection into someone else's life generated enormous empathy.

 (Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, with permission from the two people pictured in the photo.)
A woman who has just evacuated from Ukraine is served a hot meal by an international volunteer at the Polish border. (Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, with permission from the two people pictured in the photo.)

N: What else does the situation in Ukraine teach us about how the Internet is changing the nature of both warfare and aid?

E: Well, firstly, you have a big chunk of the war that was being crowdsourced. I do not think we have ever seen a crowdsourced war like this. The territorial defense, for example, is made up of people who have no prior military experience. Some of them were given AK-47s, some were not. Some of them got bulletproof vests; many of them did not. Some of them got night vision goggles, but mostly they got nothing. So the Kyiv School of Economics had a fundraising campaign to get vests, helmets, and medical kits for the territorial defense. And they received $25,000,000 in donations!

In terms of humanitarian aid, Iwona Kaliszewska from the University of Warsaw and I are writing about what we call distributive humanitarianism. By this we are referring to self-organized volunteers who are matching up with people on the ground to help. They are organizing a whole relief process mostly via Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram. It is very efficient in that the aid stations are getting exactly what they need when they need it, rather than having donors guess or imagine what refugees might need. This is really great because what people actually need changes all the time.

This power of collective action has produced so much social solidarity and euphoria. I did not know anybody in Poland who was not housing a Ukrainian in their home. So, I think there is also something to say about the ways that social movements and institutions are changing. I think for a long time we have focused, as anthropologists, on NGOs as social institutions, and it has been very hard for us to see social movements happening outside of these institutional frameworks. The Internet, and its ability to act as a cultural mediator, has in many ways replaced the institutions that used to fulfil this mediating role. And so, we are also going to have to find new ways to think about collectivities.

N: This sounds very different from the active production of “nothingness” you wrote about in regards to humanitarian aid in the wake of the 2008 Georgia invasion. In “Humanitarianism, Displacement, and the Politics of Nothing in Postwar Georgia” (2014), you describe this as a temporality of absence—an absence not just of having or doing but also of being that is produced by the temporary and unpredictable nature of humanitarian aid. Do these emergent forms of “distributive humanitarianism” you described a second ago make you think differently about all of this?

E: I think that most Ukrainians do not yet feel that displacement is permanent. More than 850,000 Ukrainians have already gone back to Ukraine (that is the latest number I have heard from UNHCR) because they believe wherever they are going to be safe. Many of them believe displacement is temporary, and many of them are not yet reconciled to loss. They do not yet experience the same sense of nothingness as the Georgian IDPs [internally displaced persons] did. Maybe this will come later, if people are displaced longer.

The other reason displaced Ukrainians may not be experiencing “nothingness” is that they are not being left to confront the humanitarian aid system alone. They are immediately being welcomed into large social networks. This, to me, signals an end point of neoliberalism in humanitarian aid. Neoliberalism has two key tenets for the way people experience it: the first is that the state has abandoned them, and the second is that they are on their own. Neoliberalism is intensely atomizing. A Ukrainian scholar wrote the following on Twitter: “I realize in this moment that it is not just that the state has abandoned us. It's that we have had to become the state.” They do not accept this atomization in a country like Poland, where a word like solidarity still has tremendous resonance. Poles refuse to accept that Ukrainians should be left on their own in the absence of the state or state-funded INGOs. As a result, Ukrainian refugees have been taken up by huge chains of helping people in Poland. If a volunteer cannot help with a specific need, they connect that person to somebody who can.

N: What does this mean for sovereignty? You wrote “The Empire Strikes Back” in the wake of the invasion of Crimea, and you noted that it was too soon to say what the invasion meant for the anthropology of the state and sovereignty. What do you say about this now?

E: On the one hand, the idea of the nation-state is often in competition with ideas of empire and colonialism. The idea of the nation-state can be extremely oppressive, but it can also be liberatory. I think we focus so much on how the nation-state excludes people that we forget the nation-state can be a powerfully inclusive mechanism. It sweeps lots and lots of people into it. We have certainly seen this in Ukraine, where national identity was always somewhat shaky. I mean, Ukraine is a borderland; the word actually means “borderland.” It has always been an ecotone of ethnicity in which people claim multiple and competing ethnic and linguistic identities. But nothing has made people feel more Ukrainian than this war. If the attempt was to dismantle the idea of Ukraine as a nation, it has instead solidified it enormously.

N: Your reading of this moment as an end point of neoliberal humanitarian aid and a solidification of Ukraine’s identity as a nation feels like an important anthropological contribution. It also feels hopeful. What are your thoughts on anthropology’s role in regards to hope and agency?

E: We often see anthropology as cultural critique. But this can compromise our ability to identify things we believe in, find hope in, and want to replicate and spread as modes of social praxis. We as anthropologists do not have all that many conceptual tools for documenting, praising, replicating and elaborating things we approve of, because most of our tools are aimed at criticism. So how do you write a book about something you think is working? How do you document something that you think is succeeding and not failing? And how do you come to make sense of it without romanticizing it? These are actually harder intellectual tasks than I originally thought they would be.

We talk a lot about a disciplinary focus on suffering and exclusion and we forget that we also have the power to document and theorize these moments where people get together to push back against the dark. We forget that we can document and theorize people's capacity to create alternative worlds where good is possible. In Poland, in a moment of such profound darkness and horror in Ukraine, there were millions of people wanting to push back against it by doing good. I do not want to be naive about this war and pretend it is a wonderful, happy thing. Of course it is not. But the thing about being an anthropologist in Poland, at least for me, is that Poland has always demonstrated the propensity to think otherwise. In the face of something terrible, Poland offers a way to envision something else, something better.

N: I often think about the extent to which neoliberalism curtails our ability to “think otherwise” by normalizing crisis and making the possible seem impossible. Perhaps these examples of emergent aid you have just described are signaling a new era for institutions and beyond?

E: The very fact that activist scholars could turn the Kyiv School of Economics into a military supplier and humanitarian aid provider in order to fight for a principle they believe in shows that institutions can be transformed in startlingly innovative ways. Distributive humanitarianism has transformed many institutions into tools for imagining otherwise.

References cited

Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen and Michael S. Bobick. 2014. “The Empire Strikes Back: War without war and occupation without occupation in the Russian sphere of influence.” American Ethnologist 41(3): 405–413.

Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen. 2014. “Humanitarianism, Displacement, and the Politics of Nothing in Postwar Georgia.” Slavic Review 73(2): 287–306.

Cite As: Wood, Natalie and Elizabeth Cullen Dunn. 2022. "Imagining Otherwise with Institutions: An Interview with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn on Ukrainian Sovereignty and the New Face of Humanitarian Aid” American Ethnologist website, 6 June 2022 []