Podcast: Cold War historian Dr. Jaclyn Stanke discusses invasion of Ukraine

Dr. Jaclyn Stanke, associate professor of history whose research has included U.S.-Soviet Cold War relations and Cold War popular culture, talks about her experiences in Ukraine and her understanding of Russia’s invasion of their neighbor.

Stanke was part of a faculty panel on March 1 to answer student questions about the history of the two countries and what effect the invasion may have on the United States going forward. Click here to read about the faculty panel. 


[Classroom noise in D.Rich]

Billy Liggett: It’s the first day of March, and at Campbell University, it’s a typical late winter day. The weather is getting warmer. The trees in the academic circle are starting to bloom their pink flowers, and students are shedding their coats. It’s quiet here. Peaceful.

[Classroom noise in D.Rich]

Billy Liggett:  A classroom on the second floor of D. Rich Hall is filling up. The seats are all taken, and the late arrivals have chosen to stay and stand along the walls in the back. Professors are hovering outside the door. They’re all here because 5,000 miles away, it’s anything but quiet. Anything but peaceful.  Professors from College of Arts & Science’s history and political science departments are hosting a quickly put-together faculty panel to talk about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which on March 1 was entering its sixth day. In the U.S., the majority of Americans have consumed coverage of the invasion on television and through social media. The majority of Americans also have questions about the history leading up to the violence. Many worry about future U.S. involvement. There hasn’t been a world war in nearly 80 years — and many feel we’re on the brink. 

[Student 1: There’s so I think question for all of you, but I think I read this morning that fell over is for sending in troops to Ukraine and siding with the Russians. Do you know why that may be?]

[Student 2: There are several things that just don’t really add up with how or the invasion is being carried out. And if it’s happening at the exact same time that there’s problems with China over Taiwan? And do you think that this is part of some kind of a bigger picture?]

[Student 3]: So if, say Russia were to launch like a nuclear attack with Ukraine, what is the possibility of that happen? And if they do end up doing that, what kind of effects are to be expected for the rest of the world?

Billy Liggett: Campbell University is equipped to answer these questions. Dr. Ethan Alexander-Davy is assistant professor of political science who earned his bachelor’s degree in Russian and ancient Greek from Amherst College and his Master in Philosophy degree in Russian studies from Cambridge (after spending a year as a Fulbright Fellow in St. Petersburg, Russia. Dr. David Thornton, associate professor political science and history whose fields of research has included international relations and European politics. Dr. David Beans is an assistant professor of security and computing NATO/European Union officer for the U.S. European Command in Germany. 

And Dr. Jaclyn Stanke is an associate professor of history whose research has included U.S.-Soviet Cold War relations, and Cold War popular culture.

About 40 minutes of the hour-long panel is spent answering questions. The professors don’t claim to know everything about what is going on. Nor do they have the answers about where this is all heading. But who does? 

What they’re able to do on this day is provide insight. Share their experience. Squash rumors. Ease a few worries. 

[Jaclyn Stanke to students: All right. So, um, I thought, recently, I’ve interviewed about the historical disagreements between Ukraine and Russia. And there was a part of me that wants to say, Where do I begin? Okay. How far back do I want to go? And so I think for just today, with the immediate thing is, is I can take this off a little bit. Right. Okay. Is I’ll go back to 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart, and as it was breaking apart is many of its 15 independent republics… ]

Billy Liggett: A few days after the successful faculty panel, I was able to sit down with Dr. Stanke to talk more about her research, her experiences in Ukraine and her emotions as she’s watched a country that she fell in love with get torn apart by a country whose history she’s studied since her own college days. I’ve been a co-host for this podcast for 80 episodes now. Longtime co-host Kate Stoneburner has moved on to bigger things in her writing career, so instead of wallowing in sadness of losing a colleague and a friend, I’m taking this podcast in a new direction. More storytelling. Deeper interviews. And unfortunately, more editing. I’m aiming at six of these per semester.  So without further ado, our guest this week is Dr. Jaclyn Stanke, associate professor of history and an expert on U.S.-Russian Cold War history. I’m Billy Liggett, director of news and publications at Campbell University, and this … Rhymes With Orange. 

[Theme Music]

Billy Liggett: I’m sitting in Dr. Stanke’s office on the first floor of Dr. Rich — a messy office (her words, though I won’t argue) full of books and photos and Buffy the Vampire collectibles. It’s been a long week, she admits, not only keeping up with the news a half a world away but working it into her courses at Campbell. I begin by asking her about that faculty panel — it’s not often you see students clamoring for space in one of these. 

[Billy Liggett: You walked in that room? You look like I would get my been a little bit surprised. There was standing room only and, and it was well, very well attended. Where were you surprised that there was so much interest on that event that, as you said, was put together pretty quickly?]

[Jaclyn Stanke: yes, and no, my fear was because we are coming into midterms that students would not be able to attend. But I have been getting a lot of questions from students in class. I teach a class right now on Russia and Eastern Europe since 1850. And so we are devoting a good portion of the day. Why don’t we start on that. But I’ve also been getting questions from students in my other classes that have nothing to do with it. So I think as students heard about it, we we actually thought about getting a bigger room, but then we thought, well, if we do then we’ll have five people. So I will admit the short version as Yes. I was very pleased by the interest and I’ve been pleased by students questions.]

[Billy Liggett: How do you explain that interest like for people like me? Countries are invading other countries all the time, I guess. Countries are invading other countries. Why? Why this why why is this one why does this have not only our attention, but why does this have the world’s attention right now?]

[Jaclyn Stanke: Um, that is a really good question. And I have been asking that myself. And I think I think part of it is we have been part of the West The international order since the end of World War Two, and one, this is the world with which we are most familiar with the fact that we’re a NATO member. But it came up in the discussion the other day, is we’re used to hearing about maybe small conflicts somewhere else about regions we don’t know that much about. Whereas we are most familiar with the post world war two history and the fact that you have kind of a traditional war going on here, a country has invaded another country. The other reason I’ve been wondering this myself is is why is this getting so much attention? is? I think it’s because you got one of the world’s superpowers doing it. As I think because when we when the United States is involved in conflicts overseas, we don’t see the media and the information from the other side of how we are being portrayed. But I’m sure it’s getting a lot of attention. But I think in this case, it’s because it is a superpower. And it’s like ground invasion.]

Billy Liggett: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a 21st Century news event. Told mostly by the people experiencing it. Told through social media. TikTok and Instagram videos are be shared all over the world. It’s trending 24-7 on Twitter. But the saturation of social media has had its downside — not everything going out has been accurate. At one point in the faculty panel, a student asks about Snake Island and rumored demise of 13 Ukrainian soldiers there. 

[Stanke: As I’m sure you’ve heard when the question at the panel was about the Snake Island prisoners and stuff. It’s like, were they were they killed? Are they still alive and stuff? And I’m not sure if you’ve heard about the ghost of Kiev, the right where, you know, debunked. Yes, yes. And so I do have Ukrainian colleagues on my, my feed. And so I am watching things come through. And as I just actually told my US history class, I said, I think you guys know where my sympathies lie. In this where I look at this. It’s just it’s naked aggression. And it’s hard not to stand with Ukraine on this. But we also have to be careful about the information we’re receiving from different sides.]

Billy Liggett: Stanke says she’s a child of the 80s, known as the Cold War when tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were at their peak. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher altered Western foreign policy and increased diplomatic, economic and military pressure on the Soviet Union in the early 80s, and this time presented the biggest threat of a nuclear strike since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The U.S. boycotted the summer olympics in Moscow in 1980, and the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles. The Cold War began to decline with the ascension of reformist Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Toward the end of the decade, Stanke was entering college, and almost on a whim, decided to study Russian. 

[Jaclyn Stanke: I knew I was gonna do political science. I was political science at that time. And so I double majored in Political Science, and then Russian Language and Literature, and I fell in love with the language. And to be quite honest with you, for the majority of my life, the focus was on Russia, or the Soviet Union. And it wasn’t until I met a colleague at a conference from Ukraine, and I had the chance to travel to Ukraine, that that became more important. Not in comparison to Russia, but it kind of put it on the map. For me, it’s not to say that I wasn’t aware that it wasn’t there. But I took more interest in it, because I did have that personal connection.]

Billy Liggett: Stanke first visited Ukraine in 2011 and returned five years later in 2016. She loved the history of the country

[Jaclyn Stanke: So I don’t think I went in with any expectations whatsoever. What I did want to see I do remember when I went to the Capitol was the spot where the 2004 Orange Revolution had taken place. In which, again, you had a contested election, and the supporters of Victor Yushchenko had come out onto the streets, and protested, and so to see Independence Square, which is what my done is. And I think it was on that trip that my friend had arranged. To two students of hers, they were twin boys, and we joked by calling them boy one and boy two, because they were kind of trading off like boy one was going to show me the site’s in the morning and then I was going to do a bus tour, you know, at you know, one of those hop on hop, hop, hop off tours, they haven’t Yeah. And then the boy two is going to pick me up after that. So this is Euromaiden eventually fled the country, is there seem to be a real change in terms of Ukrainian nationalism, and again, I apologize if I’m all over the place. I’m trusting your editing here is thinking again, is getting comparison to 2011 to 2016. In 2011, as we were preparing for the conference, mainly to get the paper presenters out of the way while they organized, is they had the university students give us a tour of the sites, and separations, it’s about a million people. And it has, at the time, it had the longest street named after Lenin. Because there was a lot of streets named after Lenin in the Soviet Union, okay. And they, and they joked about it, that they still hadn’t changed the name. Okay. And what I remember is, as we were walking down the street, visiting sites from World War Two, okay. And we ended up at the square on the nipper River, which now for being proper, we’re going to say me pro Ukrainian. But at the end of this square was still a huge Lenin statue. And that’s 2011. And so like, said, 2014, changed everything. And that statue was no longer there in 2016. And I remember one of my colleagues posting a picture of its removal.] 

Billy Liggett: I asked Stanke if she’s been able to keep up with her friends and colleagues in Ukraine who’ve either fled the country or stayed during the Russian invasion. 

[Jaclyn Stanke: There’s one in particular that I did get a message from today, because she’s in I think she’s in Kiev. I haven’t asked her where she is, because just in case, but I’ll usually just check in and say, Are you okay, or I’ll just make sure she’s online. So I know that she still has internet and she did respond today that she was okay. I don’t know if she’s attempting to flee. She posted on her Facebook page, what her former students we’re doing for the effort. And I’m sure you’ve seen media where regular citizens are putting together whether it’s Molotov cocktails or an artist, I think it was only beef is putting together netting for camouflage. And she posted what the students were doing is they were putting together like medical supply packages and relief packages for people. So everyone is you know, really definitely pulling together their part I’ve there are some we’ve met some students on our study abroad trip who are from Ukraine, but live elsewhere in Europe. And so there’s been a number of posts. Today, one post came through about how to join the Foreign Legion, because you’ve heard about people wanting to come in and join the fight. As far as right now as I didn’t share that one. I feel I felt like there was certain things I really shouldn’t pass on.]

Billy Liggett: Now the tough question. Based on what she knows, what she’s studied, what she’s seen. How is this going to end?

[Jaclyn Stanke: I don’t know, I have to actually even make any type of forecast because I think we just have to see how things evolve. One of the the things that the BBC has, they have a list of five ways this can end. And let’s see if I can remember them. Short War, in which Russia basically either takes over Ukraine and installs a puppet government. Okay, a longer war let’s say a diplomatic solution, that would be the best to be quite honest with you a diplomatic solution that they were able to find this and and I think, a greater war. And then I think the fifth one was, Putin is overthrown. And I think we just have to watch it day by day. And I think that’s the agonizing part. is one of the things that I was trying to emphasize the other day is I know, everybody was saying, Well, look, Putin’s got 190 thing. 90,000 troops, of course, he’s going to invade us like he just can’t I mean, he’s, it’s gonna be a great miscalculation. And I was obviously wrong, he invaded. But I was right about the sense of Ukrainian nationalism. So even if the Russian start to do better in Ukraine, and it doesn’t, if it somehow does not manage to escalate into Europe, is there’s going to be a great Ukrainian resistance, I think. And there’s a history of this that goes back to the Russian Civil War, even in World War Two.]


[Dr. David Thornton: so heartening to see all of these folks interested in this topic. It’s unfortunate that most Americans guard their world geography when there’s a war, so they have to figure out what, what in the world is going on. But I’m glad to see that this one’s got your attention because it deserves it. This is a very serious and dangerous situation in Ukraine, in Europe, and, you know, you dig back in the history and try to find comparable circumstances and the ones you run across, are all really don’t work out well.]

Billy Liggett: If the faculty panel did anything, it showed our young people — the next generation — cares about not just their fellow countryman, but their fellow man. Attendance wasn’t a requirement — at least not that I’m aware of, and certainly not for everyone. The concern was genuine. And the content from Stanke and her colleagues was enlightening.

[Dr. Ethan Alexander-Davy: What we’re seeing among Russian elites is not, I would say, the strategy for the Soviet Union, but nostalgia for the Russian Empire, that the term that they’re using is Russkiy, Mir, Russian world or Russian civilization, which would include Ukraine, Belarus, and perhaps the northern part of Kazakhstan. Now, none of none of what I’m saying is to justify and provide any kind of moral justification for Putin’s actions. What’s happening in Ukraine is truly horrific. And every time I checked the news, I’m afraid, fresh, or am I going to read about but the point is, it’s not so much about morality. This is about understanding your opponent and trying to act appropriately to avoid the kinds of outcomes that we’re seeing here.]

[David Beans: Okay? What can you do about this? Anybody be informed. That’s it. Look, if you’re starting to get anxious, if this is scaring the hell out of you, turn it off. And be informed. Don’t let it run your life. You’ve got things that you’ve got to do. You’ve got tests, you’ve got classes, you’ve got friends and loved ones. Concentrate on that. Be informed and understand what’s going on. Do elect your leaders for a reason or military’s there for a reason. And there’s nothing you can do about it right now. Luckily, for the first time in a long time, we’re not at the center of this. Okay, it’s not the US invaded another country, is Russia and Ukraine. So be informed. If you want to get involved, look at the charities that are out there. There are charities for Ukraine that you can contribute to. Online, if you have any friends in Ukraine, we should the best of your prayers are with them. But you’ve got to go about your life. And you can’t let this run your life.]

Billy Liggett: I ask one final question of Dr. Stanke. Her students are witnessing history. What are they learning from this moment? 

[Jaclyn Stanke: Well, as a historian, I’m going to say that it is the importance of knowing your history, because things tend to just pop up. And suddenly we’re like, Well, where did this happen? And we do need to know the history of it. And a lot of the students are very interested in what’s the origins of this conflict? And I Yeah. Yeah. And I think, you know, Dr. Bean said the other day is is stay informed. Be informed, and how events across the world do actually have an impact on their lives.]