Reflections on Professor Dronova’s Lecture: ‘Breaking stereotypes: Ukraine, Kyiv, the War’

By Aino Arkko
The author is a student of Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki

Figure 1. damaged tank Russian’s war in Ukraine, Image by Freepik.

The fluctuating nature of modern warfare and armed conflict often ignore the severe environmental consequences which are frequently pervasive and devastating, not only impacting the immediate environment but moreover the larger global ecology and ecosystem. In this regard,  Global South Encounters lecture by Professor Olena Dronova, a distinguished Ukrainian geographer, gives a passionate and insightful analysis of the interconnections between urban geography, urban ecology, and urban sustainable development in the context of Ukraine under war. This passion is founded. Although her statement that “this [Russia] is a country of barbarians” is clearly an overgeneralization it must be understood in the context of her grief for the loss of loved ones, the destruction of her country, and the extermination of Ukrainian identity. Historically, this kind of labeling has typically only exacerbated dehumanization and stereotyping, but Dronova’s central arguments are based on a systematic analysis of the evidence, which is crucial to concentrate on addressing specific actions and policies that one might hold problematic.

The lecture itself is based on careful, systematic research, initially published in Urbani Izziv. the study by Dronova, Khomenko, and Brunn (2022) examines urban morphologies in Kyiv, concluding how crucial it is to comprehend the distinct social structure and human-centeredness to create a sustainable and comfortable living environment. In the lecture, Dronova draws from these insights and builds on the topic to include the broader global implications of urban planning and sustainability. She does this by theorizing questions of peace, war, resources, and sustainability through geography. Not only was this approach new to me, but her explanation of urban morphologies seems truly topical and relevant to our studies as a whole. By using her case examples Dronova shows how urban morphologies can both expand our understanding of spatial structures and organization of urban areas as well as help us understand better the intricate interplay of social, cultural, economic, and ecological elements that influence urban growth.

Prior to the war, Dr. Dronova’s work had focused on neoliberal approaches in urban planning and governance especially in post-communist cities (e.g. Dronova & Brunn, 2018; Dronova, Klyui, & Khomenko, 2021). Her research sheds light on the forces that drive urban development and how those forces affect urban populations. The social, economic, and environmental effects of neoliberal policies, such as the uprooting of vulnerable populations, the emergence of urban inequality, and the depletion of natural resources, can also be better understood. Furthermore, Dronova’s work often points to the direction of alternatives that put urban residents’ demands and interests first. More specifically, there is rising interest in participatory urban planning strategies that involve locals in decision-making and give public goods precedence over private gain. As a response to the undermining effects of neoliberalism on widely cherished collectivism, urban commons need to be protected and promoted more than ever before. To draw from Dr. Franklin Obeng-Odoom’s recently published book The Commons in an Age of Uncertainty, by promoting a change towards a more community-oriented approach, the protection of the commons can be examined as a decolonization process of economy, society, and environment.

But could that alternative be provided by Russia? Dronova’s analysis of Russian imperialism is graphic. As she points out, Russian forces have purposefully targeted Ukrainian cities during this war and the warfare has resulted in massive destruction of private residences, commercial buildings, and public structures, including hospitals, schools, and sites of cultural significance. When such horrendous attacks will end is not clear, but Dronova focuses on the possibilities that the aftermath of the war might bring, a radically “new perception for development” that is sustainable and equitable, ideals which hopefully will be reflected in city and community reconstruction and redesign, taking into consideration community participation and cultural heritage preservation. These are fundamentally different from both Western neoliberalism and Russian imperialism.

Finland has now joined NATO, changing years of hesitation to join this major defensive alliance. As a Finn studying development and change, locally and globally, I found Professor Dronova’s insights interesting on many levels. She is particularly clear in her stance and addresses the possibility to see the war not so much as a resource war but as a war on identity, a sensitive issue in Finland. This also opens my last point on Dronova’s notions of sustainability under war. Her remarks reminded me of our lecture in Cities in the Global South on “sustainable urban development”. It reflects many of the insights by Julian Agyeman, whose assigned article (Agyeman, 2008), quotes Shellenberger and Nordhaus (2004) approvingly: “Why, for instance, is a human-made phenomenon like global warming – which may kill hundreds of millions of human beings over the next century – considered ‘environmental’? Why are poverty and war not considered environmental problems while global warming is?” In other words, since wars are typically seen more as social, economic, and political issues rather than purely environmental ones, they are not considered environmental problems in the same way as global warming, for example. However, a just ecological political economy approach to war and warfare regards these questions as intertwined. Further development and closer examination of this approach are warranted, as Professor Dronova suggests in a GSE that clearly broke the stereotypes about Ukraine, Kyiv, and the War.