Austin Charron is a Wisconsin Russia Project postdoctoral research fellow in the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia (CREECA), working under the mentorship of Robert J. Kaiser, professor of geography. Austin received his PhD in geography from the University of Kansas in 2018. He is a cultural and political geographer specializing broadly in Eurasia and the former Soviet Union, with a focus on Crimea and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Charron has conducted extensive fieldwork in Crimea and mainland Ukraine with funding from the Fulbright Program (2008-2009) and a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation (2015-2016). His current postdoctoral position at UW-Madison is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Austin, you recently received your PhD in geography. Can you tell us more about your subfield of political geography?
Political geography is one of the major subfields of human geography, which, as its name suggests, studies people and society within the larger discipline of geography. It is akin to political science in its focus on political relations, power, and influence, but it analyzes these relations from the perspective of place and space. Political geography pays particular attention to borders as a way of controlling space.
My research focuses on national identity, which, I argue, is shaped by the way space is divided and controlled. I am interested in how these discourses and practices of territory influence the way people understand themselves and how they identify with a particular place, be it a whole country or just their own town. I want to understand how these different territorial layers influence people’s perception of belonging, how this perception in turn intersects with culture, and how culture is tied to territories.
Your research focus on national identity is so timely, given the rise of nationalism on the one hand and globalization on the other. How does political geography enrich our understanding of this tension?
Indeed, we see drive toward greater unification, such as the creation of free trade and the Schengen Zone, expansion of the EU and NATO, which break down physical, economic, and political barriers. At the same time, we also observe populist nationalist pushback toward these processes in many countries. From the perspective of political geography, there is often tension between exclusivist discourses of national or ethnic identity and more inclusive notions of identity and belonging that extend beyond one’s national group or borders. In general, I think places that attract a lot of diversity such as large cities or centers of higher education, can help cultivate more inclusive attitudes and promote supranational or cosmopolitan identities. On the other hand, I think smaller, more homogeneous communities or rural areas can engender xenophobia or more exclusive identities.
This discussion brings us to your area of expertise, which, quoting the words of Manuel Castells, was characterized by “schizophrenia of Soviet policy toward the national question.” Why have you picked up that area as your major scholarly focus?
The whole post-Soviet region fascinates me precisely because of its legacy of national territorialization with fifteen union republics and dozens of autonomous regions. In these geographical divisions culture and territory were explicitly linked to each other, creating a very diverse ethnic and linguistic tapestry within the Soviet borders. Managing such diversity wasn’t an easy task, but the Soviets had a very noble idea of giving these republics and oblasts institutional and political tools for preserving national language, and promoting their own culture and identity. Unfortunately, this idea was only a façade, both figuratively and literally. For instance, while national language was preserved on paper and on the front of buildings, it did not stop massive Russification, which erased a lot of national languages. As the slogan stated, local cultures in the Soviet Union ought to be national in form, but socialist in content, which meant that at the core these cultures had to promote values of the Soviet state, which was clearly dominated by Russians. So this dualistic approach over time eventually contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and created a legacy of conflict in many areas such as the Caucasus, Transnistria, and Crimea, which became my specific area of expertise.
Crimea is indeed a very hot topic these days. How did you choose it for your dissertation before it was all over the news?
I became interested in Crimean regional identity while I was a Fulbright scholar there back in 2008-2009. I wrote my master’s thesis on Crimean regional identity, where I used survey data to look at how this identity is expressed and how it intersects with other identities, for instance, being Ukrainian. After March 2014 I became aware of a group of internally displaced people from Crimea who created an organization called “Crimean Diaspora” in Kyiv. This is a pretty unique case because, according to commonly used definitions, one has to leave their country of citizenship to become part of a diaspora. But to me, knowing so much about Crimean regional identity, this situation made perfect sense. So my dissertation examines the case of internally displaced Crimeans and considers whether their experiences and identities resemble those of a diaspora.
And what is your answer – can displaced Crimeans in mainland Ukraine call themselves a diaspora?
The short answer is “yes,” and this is a very timely and significant topic for my area of study. In political geography we talk about the “territorial trap,” which is the tendency to view countries and nation states as basic containers of politics, power, and identity. In the case of the Crimean diaspora, I have to challenge the common perception that diasporas appear only when a group migrates beyond their national borders. My research focuses on regional identities, which are equally important to consider alongside national identities. I argue that we should frame diaspora as something that emerges from the tension between feelings of being “in place” and “out of place” among migrant communities. Diaspora is not just a static label that we can apply to a group, but it’s a dynamic process of negotiating identities. So as long as people from Crimea maintain a strong sense of belonging to this region while living in the Ukrainian mainland, they may be considered a diaspora.
This is a very interesting and book-worthy argument. Are you going to transform your dissertation into a book during your post-doc at CREECA?
This is indeed the major goal that I have set for myself! I am hoping to get a book proposal together and have a contract with a university press publisher by the end of the summer. I also hope to publish an article developing this theoretical argument about diaspora in a prominent geography journal. Additionally, I am currently working on a few encyclopedia entries about migration, as well as writing a short article about Crimean Tatar cultural representation. I have also been invited to join as a second author on a paper concerning human rights violations in occupied Crimea. Aside from my writing, I also look forward to getting more actively involved with CREECA and the Department of Geography at UW-Madison.
In addition to your research work, have you been engaged in any other projects about Crimea?
Yes, I was invited to play a role in a short film about the annexation of Crimea from the perspective of Crimean Tatars titled Crimea. Resistance. This film was sponsored and funded by the Ukrainian Ministry of Information Policy and I played the part of a Western researcher, which was very natural to me (laughing). While doing field work in Kyiv, I also appeared in one of the episodes of “StopFakeNews,” a YouTube series that debunks Russian disinformation about Ukraine.
To learn more about the Wisconsin Russia Project, see https://russiaproject.wisc.edu/