BU political science professors reach Ukraine, are touched by student war stories

A virtual lecture on Oct. 10 highlights the constructivist approach to explaining the Russian-Ukrainian war. Olivia Havre | Photographer

By Caitlyn Meisner | Staff Writer

Just after the Ukrainian university was bombed by Russia over the summer, Dr. Sergiy Kudelia began hosting a lecture series with Western scholars for Ukrainian professors and students at Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University.

Black Sea University is located in Mykolaiv in the south of Ukraine. Although Mykolaiv remains under Ukrainian control, Kudelia said it is close to other cities that are under Russian control.

Kudelia, associate professor of political science at Baylor and Ukrainian native, said when he learned about the damage done to the main buildings on Black Sea University’s campus, he wanted to organize an initiative to support the faculty.

“[They] have to continue teaching under the conditions of permanent attacks by the Russian side,” Kudelia said. “Many of these professors still live there. Hence, they have to juggle these security concerns — concerns for their life and the lives of their loved ones — with the needs of teaching.”

When figuring out how to structure the collaboration and the topics of discussion, Black Sea University’s political science department chair offered some ideas for Kudelia.

“She expressed some interest in having this specific topic: How do international relations theories explain the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war?” Kudelia said. “She suggested many students are trying to grapple with this. They live through it, but it’s very hard to understand it from the outside.”

Kudelia said he crafted a list of experts and themes he wanted to tackle in the lectures. He said he contacted individuals from all across the nation who specialize in varying topics.

Dr. Richard Jordan and Dr. Peter Campbell — assistant and associate professors in political science at Baylor, respectively — are two of those experts. The other experts include Dr. William Wohlforth of Dartmouth College, Dr. Peter Rutland of Wesleyan University and Dr. Mariana Budjeryn of Harvard University.

Each individual is speaking on a different topic they specialize in, including rationalist and irrationalist theories for war, genocide, consequences of the war, dictators, achieving peace and nuclear security.

Kudelia said the lectures are well attended by Black Sea University professors and students, but they are also accessible on YouTube so students from other universities can watch.

According to Kudelia, there has been an increase in interest from professors and other faculty members. He also said the political science department at Black Sea University focuses more on the history of political science than on its theory.

“Many of the scholars — their material is also very useful for [the faculty] as they think about their own classes and they structure their classes in a different manner,” Kudelia said. “I think there is an expectation that once you have this type of connection, they may want to establish individual collaborations.”

During the lectures, Kudelia said he translates the experts simultaneously from English to Ukrainian. He also said he translates the slides because Ukrainian students may not understand English political science terms.

“It’s not an easy task, but I think my command of Ukrainian and English is pretty well, so I think I’m doing a good job,” Kudelia said.

Kudelia said one of the most frequently asked questions from Ukrainian students is reasons Putin is engaged in the war on Ukraine.

“In view of the people who live through it, this seems completely unreasonable and irrational,” Kudelia said. “But when you’re trying to explain it, you’re trying to give logic and meaning to the world. Any type of explanation contradicts their own experience.”

Jordan gave the first lecture on Sept. 23, in which he spoke about rationalist theories of war. Jordan said the experience of talking to Ukrainian students was unnerving.

“Obviously, I’ve never been in a war,” Jordan said. “To be talking about academic theories of it to an audience which is already undergoing and suffering it — it brought reality home to me that I had not always appreciated.”

Campbell presented the second lecture on Sept. 28, speaking about irrationalist theories of war. He also said it was an impactful experience to talk to Ukrainian students.

“It’s one thing to sit in the ivory tower and read books about war; it’s another thing to talk to people who are going through it,” Campbell said. “It really brings home how it affects everyone’s lives, and it’s not theoretical for them.”

Campbell said it seemed ironic to examine a war that is currently happening.

“I think it’s very difficult to think in conceptual terms about war when it’s going on,” Campbell said. “Basically, every war that we examined, we always have the benefit of highlight. I try to replicate that kind of thinking when I teach my causes of war class.”

Kudelia said he plans on holding more lecture series like these, but he intends to ask different questions or to allow Ukrainian students at Black Sea University to obtain credit for attending.

The next lecture will be at 4 p.m. on Oct. 20; it will feature Dr. Dan Reiter of Emory University, who will be discussing how and why dictatorships wage wars. People who are interested can watch the recording on YouTube after it comes out or reach out to Kudelia for the Zoom link.