Portrait

A child of the Cold War

The work of historian Kerstin S. Jobst is directly affected by the consequences of the war in Ukraine. One of Jobst’s colleagues at the University of Vienna’s Department for Eastern European History is Ukrainian, and another is of Russian descent. Source: Luiza Puiu/FWF

The war in Ukraine dominates media reporting. An issue that gets hardly any attention in this context concerns the consequences of the conflict on international research cooperation. “Even the majority of us, the community that has been dealing with Ukraine and Russia for decades, would not have thought it possible,” says Kerstin S. Jobst about her reaction to 24 February 2022, when the Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Working against obstructions

Together with contemporary historian Kerstin von Lingen, Jobst is working on an ongoing international project that is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR) since March 2021. Together with her Russian colleagues, she wants to investigate the consequences of the First World War on the environment and the lives of the population in what was then Habsburg Galicia – today’s southern Poland and western Ukraine. The first major meeting of the researchers, which was supposed to take place in Vienna, was at least made possible by Zoom.

Although the project is not jeopardised, the research activities have been directly affected by the consequences of the war. One of Jobst’s colleagues at the University of Vienna’s Department of East European History is Ukrainian, and another is of Russian descent. They fear for their families and are shocked by the suspension of academic contacts. “We had already laid out a precise schedule for our joint work for the next three years. Conferences and meetings here in Vienna as well as in Russia were already planned. Now we have to be flexible,” says Jobst. Especially since the pandemic had already given rise to problems: “Trips could not take place, for example, because Austria and Russia did not recognise each other’s vaccinations,” she notes.

Annexation of Crimea military test case

The expert cites several circumstances to explain why Vladimir Putin has chosen this very moment to start the war. In her opinion, in the last 15 years Russia has succeeded in making up for lost ground in some areas about which they had long ago lost hope. Among other things, this relates to the status of its armed forces. “After the war in Georgia in 2008, Russia identified the deficits in the Russian army in terms of equipment, training, but also soft skills, and was successful in making improvements” says Jobst, who assesses the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as a military test case.

In recent years, Putin felt at the apogee of power.

Kerstin Jobst

At the time, Russia paid particular attention to the West’s reaction, and there were no noticeable consequences. “In recent years, Putin has felt at the apogee of power,” Jobst notes. There were “successful” campaigns in Syria, the new US president Joe Biden was considered to present little danger, and the world has been preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic for two years. Jobst considers that all of these factors have played a role: “Putin took advantage of this window of opportunity.”

Where Ukraine’s fighting spirit comes from

The historian is convinced, however, that the Russian head of state misjudged a number of factors. For one thing, Putin underestimated the resistance put up by Ukraine. But where does their fighting spirit come from? It’s all in the name. Ukraina means, inter alia, “borderland”. In geographical and topographical terms, Ukraine is an area that is easy to traverse, where people have always met, done trade with each other, fought battles and then moved on again. Another factor is protonationalism, a factor that has been developing in Ukraine since the early modern age. This development is universal. “A nation does not simply spring into being, nor does it last forever,” says Jobst. The Roman emperors, for example, had a different idea of what Germany was than we have today. The term “Austria” has also undergone a major change of meaning in the course of history. Our way of relating to such national constructs has changed over time. The collective construction of affiliation with a major group is a complex process, and it is sometimes accelerated by disastrous events such as enemy invasion. This is what is happening in Ukraine right now, and Jobst feels certain that “nothing else would have given a greater boost to Ukrainian national consciousness than this unjust war waged by Putin.”

Nothing else would have given a greater boost to Ukrainian national consciousness than this unjust war.

Kerstin Jobst

Autocracy without corrective

On the other hand, Putin has underestimated the strength of the international coalition forged against him and the impact of the economic sanctions, and he overestimated the capability of his own military. “Right now, Putin only hears what he wants to hear,” says Jobst. She recalls images of him “scolding his advisers, his courtiers, like schoolboys.” The autocrat has thus probably fallen prey to his own claim to power. The US historian Stephen Kotkin, one of the most profound experts on Russia, confirms Jobst’s views. In a widely respected analytical interview with the New Yorker, Kotkin argues that Russia’s approach throughout history has always been based on a claim to great power. With few exceptions, however, its capabilities did not match its aspirations. Kotkin sees one of the biggest problems in having a state with a single figure of power. He feels that it is increasingly difficult to maintain an autocracy in a world of permanent modernisation, urbanisation and educational momentum without losing out on the modernisation front. Unlike in a democracy, Kotkin says, the corrective is missing here. “Putin has the problem that every authoritarian regime has: you feel smarter and superior, but you only listen to the people who tell you what you want to hear.“

Experts agree that Vladimir Putin has underestimated the resistance in Ukraine. “Nothing else would have given a greater boost to Ukrainian national consciousness than this unjust war,” says Kerstin S. Jobst. The picture shows tank barriers in the streets of Odessa.  Source: Sipa Press/Action PressSipa/picturedesk.com

Advisers scared of telling the truth

This observation was confirmed by the director of the British intelligence service GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, at a lecture given at a university in Canberra, Australia, at the end of March. Fleming feels that Putin is being misinformed by his advisors about how badly the Russian armed forces are doing and how strongly the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions because his senior advisors are too scared to tell him the truth. “We have seen Russian soldiers – who lack arms and morale – refuse to carry out orders, sabotage their own equipment and even inadvertently shoot down their own planes,” Fleming notes.

Propaganda and conformism

According to a poll by the renowned, independent Russian polling institute Levada, two thirds of Russians support Vladimir Putin’s current policy and the “special military operation” in Ukraine. This is the only designation that people are allowed to give in Russia to what the rest of the world calls a “war”. But how significant are these figures? In an interview with ORF, the author of the study, Lev Gudkov, puts into perspective the significance of this supposedly unambiguous approval on the part of the Russian population. One factor impacting the respondents’ attitude is the sources of information they use. The two-thirds who support the “military operation” consist mainly of those sections of the population who get their information from the state-controlled television channels. These are mainly older people, professional groups who depend on the state, and the population of small towns and villages in the Russian provinces. One should not forget that propaganda and censorship laws have been manipulating public opinion in Russia for more than ten years.

Many Russians have the feeling that they are not really taken seriously by the West.

Kerstin Jobst

Trauma and collective inferiority complex

The Russian sociologist Gudkov finds the reason for why the anti-Western propaganda falls on such fertile ground in a sore spot: “The population is still suffering from the trauma of the collapse of the Soviet Union and from a collective inferiority complex of having failed to implement democratic reforms.” The Russians are painfully aware that their dream of a country with democratic rules, social security and economic prosperity has not become reality. Jobst agrees: “Many Russians – even if they are not fans of Putin – have the feeling that they are not really taken seriously by the West, that they are second-rate individuals.”

“Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They lie to you here,” said the sign the Russian editor Marina Ovsyannikova held up to the camera on Russian state television in mid-March. Her action was applauded worldwide. First made to pay a fine by the Kremlin, Ovsyannikova now faces another trial that could end her up in prison for to 15 years for “discrediting the Russian armed forces”. Source: HANDOUT/AFP/picturedesk.com

Drastic penalties for critics

Russian opponents of the war would make up their own minds, outside of the state-controlled sources of information, in social networks and various news sources on the internet. “These people are in a state of shock, shame and depression,” says Gudkov. They are threatened with drastic punishment. One remembers the journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, who held up a placard saying “stop the war” to the camera on national television. In a first trial she was sentenced to a fine. Now she is on trial again. The video of the Russian artist Yevgenia Isayeva went viral: she protested in St. Petersburg in a white dress, soaked in fake blood and continuously repeating the words: “My heart is bleeding.” A short time later she was detained by the police, still shouting these same words. One does not know what punishment she faces. At any rate, speaking out publicly against the war is prohibited. “I wouldn’t want to protest in the streets in Russia at the moment,” Jobst says. She understands why people are scared. Even Russians living in the West have to choose their words carefully so as not to endanger their relatives at home.

Evil West vs evil East

Yet another factor is the historical mistrust between the worlds of the East and the West. Jobst understands scepticism towards what is unknown first and foremost as a primordial human instinct born from a wish to protect oneself. “It is true that at first you don’t know whether a stranger means well or not.” But that’s not all – Jobst sees a dynamic at play: “Across all ages of humanity people had a feeling that the other, the stranger, is of lesser worth.” She considers this general mistrust of the unknown to be a constant in human history. “The image of ‘the barbarian’, for instance, already existed in Antiquity, and ever since the Age of Enlightenment it has been very much cultivated by Europe in respect of Russia.” The deeply rooted Russian mistrust of the West is thus juxtaposed with an equally deeply rooted image of the “evil East”.

Since ancient times, there has been an image in Europe of the Russian barbarian.

Kerstin Jobst

This black-and-white mindset is currently surfacing again when, for example, children of Russians who live in Vienna are accosted on their way to school. Moreover, Jobst, a native German, reminds us that this conflict is a fight between two peoples who could not be more closely connected. “Many are related to each other, spent their holidays together on the Black Sea coast, have a common memory of the Soviet Union, which is not all bad. There are Ukrainian patriots whose mother tongue is Russian.”

Exchanges and common cultural roots

So how does the historical awareness of people living together emerge that the following generations come to have? History is shaped by the information that is available to us. There is a lot more information handed down about violent conflicts than about cooperation arrangements. “We know more about major battles than about successful coexistence,” says Jobst. And why is that? “Wars are easier to document.” Ergo: bad news has always been good news. Research is quite clear on one point: relations between West and East were not only marked by violent conflicts and mutual distrust, but also by periods of good cooperation. The Habsburg Monarchy, for instance, maintained good relations with Russia. “There were exchanges and common cultural roots,” notes Jobst.

Wars are easier to document than successful coexistence.

Kerstin Jobst

Polish-Ukrainian conflicts

This is also the era that Kerstin Jobst addressed in her thesis. She explored the role played by the issue of nationalities in Galicia at that time. Relations between Poland and Ukraine were punctuated by many violent conflicts. During the Habsburg period the Poles had tried to dominate the area, arguing that they were more cultured. They thus became a privileged ethnic group – at the expense of the Ukrainians. In order to balance things out, the Habsburgs granted development opportunities to the Ukrainians. There was, for instance, a chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Lviv. “It was during this period that the Ukrainian national movement received its first big boost,” explains Jobst. After the collapse of the monarchy, very violent Polish-Ukrainian conflicts marked the interwar period and had a very lasting effect. Jobst finds it all the more remarkable that Poland is showing a particular commitment to helping the Ukrainians in this crisis.

Marked by the Cold War

Kerstin S. Jobst herself has many personal links to Eastern Europe. Her sense of dismay is not only the result of her numerous contacts with friends and colleagues from Ukraine and Russia, but also of her biography. Having grown up in a divided Germany, 64 kilometres from the border to the GDR, this native of Hamburg describes herself as a “child of the Cold War” – although she points out that her entire childhood was already shaped by the politics of détente, under Willy Brandt, for instance, and the sense of optimism in her parents’ home. Childhood memories of visits to relatives in the GDR are marked by these noticeable differences. After the wall had been built, her grandfather, a staunch communist who hailed from the Erzgebirge, returned to the East to help build socialism there, while the rest of her relatives were anti-communist.

What is happening in Ukraine today is a watershed in world politics.

Kerstin Jobst

The insight obtained in childhood that there are different ways of life had a strong impact on Jobst and ultimately prompted her interest in the history of Eastern Europe. “I would not have become a historian if exchanges and communication were not important to me,” she says. In Germany, she still perceives, at least in her generation, a certain sense of superiority of the “westerners” over the “easterners”. “Many a West German should drop that attitude,” she says and adds, “Austrians, too, are sometimes exposed to this German arrogance.” Kerstin S. Jobst has been living in Vienna for almost ten years and feels equally affiliated to Germany and Austria. She finds it all the more regretful that according to Austrian law she cannot have a dual nationality.

This war marks a caesura

58-year-old Jobst has experienced several world-changing moments in her life: 9/11, Chernobyl, glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall – moments that have also significantly reinforced her interest in Eastern Europe. While no one can predict how the current conflict will develop, the historian is absolutely certain of one thing: “What is happening in Ukraine today is a watershed in world politics.”


Kerstin Susanne Jobst is a professor at the Department of East European History at the University of Vienna. She studied history, psychology, literature, Finno-Ugric studies and Slavic studies at the universities of Hamburg, Mainz, Krakow and Vienna. At the University of Hamburg Jobst gained her doctorate as well as her professorial qualification on the topic: “Die Perle des Imperiums: Der russische Krim-Diskurs im Zarenreich”. Jobst was a lecturer at the Bundeswehr Command and Staff College in Hamburg and a visiting scholar at the universities of Leipzig, Salzburg and Munich. Her research focuses on the history of East Central and Eastern Europe, imperialism and colonialism in a comparative perspective, religious history and hagiography, cultures of remembrance and politics of history, the history of tourism in Eastern Europe and disaster research.

Comments (0)

Currently no comments for this article.

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.