When War Comes Home

3 May 2017

How can combat trauma in a parent affect their child’s development? UTS graduate and PhD candidate Anna Denejkina is drawing on her own experience, and that of others, to find out.

Anna DenejkinaAll too often, children are the innocent victims of war. Even those far from the battlefield, waiting to welcome returning soldiers home, can be left with scars. But just how does combat trauma in a parent affect a child’s development? PhD candidate Anna Denejkina is drawing on her own experience, and that of others, to find out.

On 24 December 1979, 30,000 Soviet Union troops invaded Afghanistan to support the communist government’s attempts to quell a violent uprising. It was the start of a 10-year war that saw five million Afghans flee their country, one million civilians die and more than 100,000 Afghan soldiers, Soviet soldiers and rebel Mujahideen fighters lose their lives.

For those who survived, and their loved ones back home, the trauma of the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) would be felt long after the guns fell silent.

PhD candidate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Anna Denejkina (Master of Arts in Journalism 2014) was born just one year after the war ended. At the time, her father was a captain in the Soviet army.

“I was born in Mykolaiv, in Ukraine, in 1990,” says Denejkina. “My father's Russian and my mother is Ukrainian-Russian.”

In 1993, Denejkina and her family (which includes an elder sister and younger brother) moved to Ulyanovsk in Russia, 900 kilometres east of Moscow. Six years later they emigrated to Australia.

In 2014, the then 23-year-old Denejkina watched, stunned, as armed Russian troops invaded the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and seized control of the parliament.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine I was asking myself a lot of questions about what it meant for me because I am both Ukrainian and Russian,” recalls Denejkina.

"I'm looking at how that potentially unhelpful environment is detrimental to a child’s development"

The resulting war left an already-inquisitive Denejkina asking: Why are we here? Why are we the way we are? And why do we do the things we do?

Denejkina, then a Master of Arts in Journalism student at UTS, discovered a way to start finding the answers – writing about the invasion, and the Euromaidan protests, for her master’s major project.

About the same time, she says, “One of my lecturers, now my PhD supervisor, Sue Joseph, was talking about her PhD and said, ‘Just do it’. So I thought I’d apply and see what happens, and then I got accepted.”

It’s a journey that’s led Denejkina through the ethics of auto-ethnography (the study of one’s self) and all the way back to the Soviet-Afghan war. Today, the PhD candidate says, “I'm looking at how combat-related trauma transmits from parent to child, but I’m specifically looking at the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan and speaking with veterans and the children of returned Soviet veterans to see if there’s any link in the trauma being transmitted.

“As part of my research I've been reading books and papers pertaining to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma transmission. I realised there was a gap in knowledge, that more research still had to be done, and that hopefully I could add something to that,” says Denejkina.

“A lot of the research suggests that if a parent has combat-related PTSD they have anxiety, they try to either isolate themselves or become possessive of the people in their family. So I'm looking at how that potentially unhelpful environment is detrimental to a child’s development.”

To do this, Denejkina has been conducting interviews and surveys with the children of Russian and Ukrainian veterans (all of whom are now over 18). “I'm also looking at my familial experience,” she adds.

“It can be confronting, and that's when the ethics really comes into play; not only when you speak with participants, but in terms of how you write about yourself and how you write about people close to you and the questions of ‘Is it my story or is it their story?’.”

To navigate these issues, Denejkina has developed a unique research methodology that combines auto-ethnography with the history of the self, including how indirect experiences can impact a person by proxy.

Eventually, says Denejkina, she’d like to complete a transdisciplinary project by “teaming up with someone who's done a PhD in psychology or psychiatry and work on something similar, but on a much larger scale; perhaps to do with Australian veterans.”

But for now, she hopes, “that when I come to the end of my research I'll have a body of work that could potentially be used to influence social policy – how veterans are treated when they finish their tours and how combat-related trauma is treated, because when you put children into that equation, if there aren't programs and funding allocated for their support and veterans are just left to their own devices, the veterans aren’t the only people who are going to suffer.

“There's a chance their children will also face the repercussions of what happened while at war.”

If your parents fought in the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) you can participate in Denejkina’s research by completing her survey online in Russian or in English

Reproduced with permission from U:mag and available via UTS Newsroom.

Story by Fiona Livy
Photography by Stella Thai (A Denejkina) and Anna Denejkina (monument)