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ISU professor to draw on personal, academic background during talk on Russia-Ukraine war

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Mostly, the talk that Illinois State University associate professor Christine Varga-Harris will deliver Wednesday on the Russian war against Ukraine will draw upon her academic purview.

Among other credentials, including a Ph.D from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Varga-Harris has a master's degree in Russian and East European history and teaches courses at ISU on Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia and Daily Life in the East Bloc.

But there's a little bit of a personal element informing her perspective, too.

"I became interested in the Soviet Union and Russia, in general, due to growing up and visiting Hungary — my parents were actually Hungarian immigrants," she said in an interview with WGLT. "My father left Hungary in 1956, during the revolution."

Varga-Harris, a child of parents who know war, said watching the humanitarian crisis play out in Ukraine and the surrounding countries has been especially heartbreaking.

"One of the things that is going on in my head as I'm listening to all of this and watching the news in the refugee crisis — how phenomenally intense it is already," she said. "We're just four weeks in and have millions already. That temporary life that they have to enter is, sort of, infecting my mind."

Relatives still in Hungary have told her parents that refugees from Ukraine are "trickling in," that it hasn't reached the level of what is occurring at the Ukrainian-Poland border.

These are the more personal of her worries, though, in a way.

The talk that she's giving Wednesday isn't about the human consequences of this war; it's about the centuries of context that's shaped it.

Titled Russian and Ukraine in Historical Context — Facts and Maps, the lecture will span "a thousand years" and "show how complicated the development is — the relationship between Russia and other ethnic groups."

"People here are familiar with certain 'blurbs' — the things that are really talked about a lot," she said. "But I think all the context surrounding that is a bit of a mystery, still, to people."

Varga-Harris said her academic work looks at Russia in "broader" context, looking at it as both an empire and the former Soviet Union as a "multi-ethnic country."

"What I want to do is look at how different ethnic groups within Russia and the Soviet Union were approached by different states, then try to bring in the Ukrainian case in particular so that people can understand these ideas about nationality grievances — plusses, even, in some cases — that you see within these different nationality policies over time," she said.

Asked if there was one, overarching takeaway from the message she delivers Wednesday, Varga-Harris said the matter doesn't lend itself to being distilled down or neatly packaged.

"That's a very hard question for a historian; it's always way more complicated than soundbites, but also these little nuggets are strewn throughout the narratives that are being created," she said. People have to "be careful with history, because we're seeing it being abused. It can be used wonderfully, but kernels of truth can be taken and twisted into different formations."

In a way, the fact that she is giving a free, open talk tomorrow on the "straight history" surrounding Russia points to a "privilege" that not everyone has: The ability to educate oneself via varied and free news and academic sources.

"I think we're beyond the Cold War and people have realized that the Russian people are not their Russian government," she said.

"Being understanding, being tolerant, I think, is one of the key things here. I think we're beyond the Cold War and people have realized that the Russian people are not their Russian government. I just hope it doesn't turn into a situation where we have that kind of Cold War-mentality that all Russians are bad — that they should all be lumped together, judged by the actions of their states."

Varga-Harris will deliver Russian and Ukraine in Historical Context — Facts and Maps at 4 p.m. Wednesday in University Galleries in Uptown Normal.

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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