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“From small violence comes big violence”

At SSE research center SITE, the war in Ukraine has not just hit close to home for research assistant Hanna Anisimova. It is literally devastating her hometown of Donetsk and threatening the lives of friends and family. But also creating rifts between them.

A Russian-speaking Ukrainian with a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother, Hanna Anisimova has always felt she landed somewhere in between the two. On the day of February 25, her first thought was: “am I guilty for speaking Russian, for being Ukrainian?” But since then, she says, she’s come to a realization.

“My self-identification process is finally over. I am unequivocally Ukrainian. I feel it in every cell of my body.”

Originally from Donetsk in the disputed Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, Hanna lived through Russian military attacks on her city in 2014. After months of sheltering in the family’s basement or the floor of the corridor, listening to the sound of bullets and grenades chipping away at the life they knew, Hanna’s mother was badly injured in a grenade attack just after a ceasefire agreement was signed the same year. Now her mother, like many others in the region, is trying to survive war for the second time in less than a decade.

Misinformation and Russian propaganda

At the end of 2014, Hanna left friends and family in Donetsk and moved to the Ukrainian city Vinnitsa along with entire relocated Donetsk National university, becoming an internally displaced person. Since then, she’s found a home as a research assistant at the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE), a research and policy center with a particular emphasis on transition economy and policy research in Eastern Europe – topics that are urgently relevant today. For the past eight years there has been deluge of misinformation and propaganda coming from Russia, the effects of which have become apparent.

“For example, recently my mother tried to assure me that Jen Psaki [the White House press secretary] admitted to the presence of biological weapons in Ukraine. My mother does not speak English, and she and many others rely on Russian and pro-Russian channels and Russian translations that are often the opposite of what is actually said.”

That is why the main mission for educators is to teach critical thinking and the ability to analyze. But as an academic, taking a political stand is not always a given, when you’re used to letting research and data speak for itself. Hanna herself hasn’t always been that interested in politics. But she now says she’s changed her mind.

”I always thought my voice was a drop in the ocean, but I’ve changed my mind. Everybody can do something; they can at least speak up. The most dangerous thing in a situation like this is to stay neutral. It’s far too easy to get used to injustice if we let it go uncommented. To think that as long as I can live in peace, it doesn’t matter under what flag. But we know that for a normal life, it does matter. Because from small indifference comes small violence, and from small violence comes big violence. It might sound too pathetic, but it's true,” says Hanna Anisimova.

Connection between equality and peace

She explains that in a country where the rights of women, minorities, children, and political dissidents are not respected, it is impossible to expect any social justice: On the contrary, aggression only increases.

“Research has shown a clear connection between equality and peace. Moreover, there are many studies pointing to the connection between gender inequalities and international military aggression. And there is evidence that gender-unequal armed actors are more likely to be perpetrators of sexual violence in conflicts,” she adds.

Hanna says she’s grateful for the clear stand that SSE and its employees and student has taken when it comes to her country. Walking into the atrium and seeing the Ukrainian flag was emotional for her. As war continues, she’s left with a lot of conflicting emotions, not least with regards to her own friends and family.

“The biggest question and task for me personally is whether I’m ready to forgive my Russian relatives and friends. Should – do I want to – speak to them at all? The final answer is still unclear to me, honestly. But thinking beyond myself, it’s obvious that despite all of this we will eventually need to find a way towards forgiveness so as not to lose a generation of Russians and prevent hate from continuing to grow between nations. But it won’t be easy.”

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