In July, Dr. Jeffrey Stepnisky, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, began his three-year appointment as the Kule Chair of Ukrainian Community and International Development Research.

During his time in this role, Dr. Stepnisky plans to continue his work on collective memory and the commemoration of the Maidan revolution.

Here, he shares a bit about his projects, upcoming challenges and how he hopes to make connections.

When did your interest in Ukraine begin and how did it become part of your body of research?

I suppose it started with my great-grandparents who were part of the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants who came to Canada and settled in Alberta (on my mother’s side) and Manitoba (on my father’s side) at the end of the 19th century. On both sides, my grandparents were business owners and leaders in their church communities. My grandfather in Manitoba was a barber and store owner in the town of Rossburn and was very proud of his Ukrainian identity. When I was a kid, he used to take me (and my brothers and sisters) on a drive to a small settlement just outside of Rossburn called Seech. I didn’t realize it then, but the name given to the Cossack settlements and fortifications in Ukraine was Sich. Part of my personal interest in collective memory is to find out whether the Rossburn Seech was a reference to the Cossack Sich.

I went to a bilingual Ukrainian program during elementary school, but my scholarly interest in Ukraine started after I finished my master's degree. I had the opportunity to travel to and live in the Ukrainian city of Odesa. Through the Canadian Bureau of International Education, I was among a number of master's graduates from across Canada placed at Ukrainian institutions. I worked at the Ukrainian Academy for Public Administration for about five months, and that was a very exciting time for me.

After I finished a PhD in the United States, I came back to Canada and was hired at MacEwan, which has the Ukrainian Resource and Development Centre. In 2013, I connected with the centre during the Maidan revolution (oftentimes referred to as the Revolution of Dignity). I became part of a group of researchers connected through the URDC to faculty members at the University of Alberta and universities in Ukraine.

When the revolutionaries of Maidan occupied central Kyiv, some of them called their occupation Sich. I think, but I’m not sure, that the Seech of Rossburn where my grandfather lived must also have been a way that settlers tried to remember their Ukrainian past in Canada.

What are you hoping to accomplish during your time as Kule Chair?

Something that this position gives me is an opportunity to focus on my studies.

My research on collective memory will be the centrepiece of the next couple of years. This includes research on the Maidan revolution but also something on the collective memory of the Ukrainian community in Edmonton. I can't expect to learn this whole field and become an expert in that time, but the Kule Chair position provides me an opportunity to develop a really strong foundation.

I also want to bring the things I'm learning and studying about Ukrainian history to the classroom, particularly in a 400-level seminar I teach that is focused on the topic of collective memory.

What do you foresee to be the biggest challenges to this work?

The topic of memory is an extremely complex field of study, and there are a lot of delicate political and emotional issues. Memory is not something that just happens, it's not a snapshot of the past. If you study the sociology of collective memory, a big part of that is controversies over how a community is going to remember its past, and that can become quite contentious especially in Ukraine where I'm also an outsider. That's a challenge I anticipate, but I'm also doing my best to mitigate that.

I'm approaching this as not an expert but as somebody who wants to learn, and so far, I've been having some success. I went to a memory studies conference out of Warsaw, Poland. Through this online conference that was attended by a number of scholars out of Ukraine and Eastern Europe, I managed to make a number of connections by taking this path of being somebody who wants to learn rather than somebody who already knows.

I think you do the best scholarship when you're asking questions. When you know that you don't know, your questions come from a place of real curiosity.

How might your research work involve students and faculty members?

I've already hired a MacEwan sociology/political science student, Assia Rami, as a research assistant for the Edmonton project, and Assia will be able to gain a bit of additional knowledge about sociology and community that can roll into the rest of her studies.

I would also like to help build a network of students and faculty members who are working on common research. MacEwan has a number of staff and faculty — including Larisa Hayduk, director of the URDC, and Dr. Elizabeth Burgess-Pinto who is the Chair of International Health Research — who have already been building a research community around Ukrainian issues. I hope to contribute to that.

One of the reasons I've chosen to focus on collective memory is because there is a lot of interest around that topic, so it might be possible to use this Kule Chair position in its Ukrainian focus to build connections with people who have research interests also in areas of collective memory and identity but may not be exclusively working in the area of Ukraine. We could have a dialogue between different approaches to subject matter like that.

The Kule Chair position isn't exclusively devoted to research. I'm hoping to get out there and meet people, to create connections and build something that will sustain itself after I leave.

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