Professor visits Ukraine, shares stories of protest and revolution | Community Spirit
The possibility of imprisonment, witnessing protests that could turn violent at any moment, navigating your way through a country on the brink of war—there are enough reasons to think twice before launching yourself into the middle of the ongoing situation in Ukraine.
But for Georgia College Associate Professor Dr. William Risch, his role as a historian trumps all else.
“I was nervous at first,” said Risch. “I wasn’t sure if it was my place to take part in the demonstrations but eventually I did. I always said that my first priority was one of a historian and it wasn’t until later that I got more involved.”
Risch has a background in Ukrainian and Soviet history, with a special interest in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where he taught for two years at Lviv National University. Since the demonstrations began in Ukraine in November 2013, Risch has visited three times, with the last being March 15-23. Each time he’s visited the region, Risch conducts interviews, gathering stories from people about the ongoing situation. Each story is different, but ideas of hope glimmer through the tales of despair.
“The interviews generally end on a critical note that something has to change with the current government,” he said. “What I found interesting in a lot of the interviews was that there was this message of hope but they also said at a certain point danger doesn’t mean anything anymore. There is no fear—you’re just out there helping people.”
Risch has also translated first-hand accounts about events in Ukraine for the Facebook group “Euromaidan News in English,” which he administers.
The protests in Ukraine began after discontent with the president and administration, but attracted world attention after Russian involvement and the recent Crimean referendum. Risch’s knowledge of the region has led to three on-air interviews with CCTV America, the English language news channel of China Central Television, with the latest interview being on the annexation of Crimea. On March 25, the radio program for BBC World Service, Newsday, interviewed him on the paramilitary group Right Sector, which has been highly critical of the new government’s handling of the Crimean crisis.
As an expert source on the region, finding a balance between his role as an academic and as a participant in demonstrations has been at the forefront of Risch’s mind during his visits.
“There is a balance that I had to strike between my role as a historian, but also as a participant in this time in history,” said Risch. “The only thing I could do is set a principle for myself. I decided that if it any way involved the violation of human rights, then I would take part in it. But if it was campaigning for a political party, then I wouldn’t be part of it.”
The protests are somewhat personal to Risch for a number of reasons, one of which being the death of a former student in his department during his time teaching at Lviv National University. It’s cold realities such as these that he comes to terms with back at Georgia College.
“A lot of the protestors are the same age group of my students and they’re out there getting killed,” said Risch. “I tell my students about what’s going on and they look shocked. They are just now raising questions about it and that’s a joy for me as a teacher.”
Risch plans to visit Ukraine again in May and is set to begin work in the fall on a book on the history of the protests based on stories he’s collected from others. But it’s his first hand accounts that have made his own stories ones to remember, including a night he spent guarding a protest camp.
“Every hour they would sing the Ukrainian national anthem and pray,” said Risch. “Seeing everyone stop what they were doing and come together in that moment of unity—it was a moving experience.”