When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, colleges all over the country suspended classes, uncertain when they would be able to resume. As artillery and air raids destroyed buildings and disrupted civilian lives, the most immediate response was for Ukrainian students and college staff to get to safety. Working toward a degree was set aside, as Russia attacked Ukraine on multiple fronts. Now, two months after the war began, some students are returning to classes remotely, muting themselves as air raid warnings go off and sheltering from possible bombing in bunkers belowground.
“On February 23, we either laughed or rolled our eyes at the information of a war,” Maria, an art history major at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, tells the Voice through Telegram. (We are using only the students’ first names.) “We said, ‘You have to be crazy to attack a neighboring country and start bombing it at night.’ It turned out that crazy people really live outside our eastern border.”
What once had seemed an impossible scenario became real life in Ukraine, and Maria had to flee Kyiv to protect herself from the attacks. She has since relocated to Lviv, the Ukrainian city closest to the Polish border and a transit hub for millions of the war’s refugees. In the days that followed Russia’s invasion, Maria’s classes stopped, and there was an understanding throughout her university that no classes could be held for the foreseeable future. “Education is the last thing you think about when bombs fly into your homes,” she says.
But recently, Maria’s classes have resumed—remotely, since most students and teachers have been displaced, finding refuge wherever they can. One of Maria’s professors, a man over the 18-to-60-year age range for men who must stay and fight in Ukraine’s army, has fled to California. Now the professor teaches classes over Zoom from a different continent with a 10-hour time difference, and reflects on his own experiences at the beginning of the war. “It was very strange at first to hear from him how he lived under occupation for three weeks, and then listen [to him speak] of Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, and Henri Matisse. Great dissonance,” she says.
Maria and her classmates try to discuss the topics they would have studied before the war, such as Greco-Roman, Medieval, and Classical art. However, too often that doesn’t work out. The reality of Russia’s bloodshed and the mass killings of civilians is constantly around them—the students can only stay focused for a few moments before they return to wondering what will happen to Ukraine, now and after the war. “At a lecture on forbidden music in the Soviet Union, we did not talk about music at all, but reflected more on the past and future of Ukraine,” Maria relates. The class discussions usually center on music banned under Stalin’s rule, such as reggae and church music. “Of course church music was banned, because the very existence of churches was forbidden,” she adds.
Maria describes her Zoom classes as “warm,” because the teachers and students haven’t seen each other since the war began, and they check in on each other and ask if anyone needs help before they begin their discussions. One topic is the safety of priceless art in Ukraine’s museums. When the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, two hours outside of Kyiv, was set on fire during an attack by Russian forces, an unconfirmed number of paintings by beloved Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko, known in her lifetime as having been praised by Picasso, were reportedly destroyed. In other parts of Ukraine, museums are sheltering artworks in basement vaults and piling sandbags around important statues and monuments to protect them from shelling. While the total damage to and loss of Ukraine’s art is so far unknown, Maria says there are stories of hope that show the strength of the people. After Russian forces left the Ivankiv museum, an as-yet-unnamed local risked his life to rescue the surviving paintings and bring them to a safe location. A representative from the Maria Prymachenko Family Foundation reported that they had been in touch with the man, but had lost contact as the fighting continues.
While some classes discuss the impact the war will have on the country’s precious art, others are talking about the environmental toll of the invasion. On the other side of Ukraine, just outside of Odesa, Anna, 24, is working toward her Ph.D. in climatology at Odesa State Environmental University. Anna spoke to the Voice through WhatsApp, saying that at the beginning of the war, even remote schooling was not possible, as many of her fellow students no longer had a stable WiFi connection, or they were in places where they constantly had to seek shelter. She says classes were canceled for weeks as students moved to safer areas, but now she has Zoom lecture classes every Wednesday and spends the rest of her school time working on her projects independently. Often she has to get to shelter, where she is sometimes lucky enough to have Internet access—she can continue her work while trying to save her life. Anna hopes to graduate in 2024 and wants to work toward changing Ukraine’s climate policy, which has become all the more challenging with Russia’s destruction of Ukraine’s natural world. “From the first days, shooting and bombing of industrial and energy facilities were recorded, forests were set on fire, oil depots were blown up, and the Black and Azov Seas were polluted,” she says. “Fires have even occurred in the Chernobyl zone. And the actions of the occupiers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant could have led to a nuclear catastrophe. Rare animals in reserves are also affected by the bombings, and animals die of starvation or cold in shelters.” According to the Center for Environmental Initiatives Ecoaction, a Ukrainian environmental advocacy group, Russia has committed numerous environmental crimes, and “hostilities in Ukraine can have particularly catastrophic consequences for the environment.”
Anna tells the Voice that local environmental organizations are already developing post-war recovery plans to help improve Ukraine’s environment. The initiatives would focus on moving the country toward decentralized renewable energy, sustainable waste management, and monitoring of air and water pollution. She hopes to be a part of the group that builds an independent and sustainable energy system in Ukraine. “It is important for me not just to do the science and become a climatologist, I want to influence Ukraine’s climate policy in practice,” she explains.
While some students have been able to return to virtual classes, young men are required to serve in Ukraine’s military and defend the country where needed. A 21-year-old student-soldier named Arthur is serving as a battlefield medic, for which he was trained by the military, and also as a field cook and scribe for Ukraine’s military. As a scribe, Arthur prepares documents having to do with military bureaucracy; he adds that there are aspects of his work as a scribe that are classified.
Last fall, Arthur began working toward his master’s degree in sociology at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, though he says he felt unsatisfied with his studies, and didn’t feel challenged. In January, after months of hearing that Russia might invade his homeland, Arthur prepared to join Ukraine’s military. His primary responsibility now is to treat wounded soldiers, gather medical supplies, and cook three times a day for his base. He tells the Voice through Telegram, “Every night I see Russian jets firing missiles. They light up the horizon like it’s morning already. This feeds people’s anger even more. It’s hard to just sit and wait when you see how they are destroying the city you’re supposed to protect.”
So far, Russian soldiers have not discovered the location of Arthur’s base—they haven’t yet been attacked. However, in past locations, he and his partner, who is also a young man in his 20s, were targeted by Russian artillery forces. “We were reinforcing a garrison in our region and our mission was to guard the flanks so that they don’t strike the garrison in the back,” he recalls. “At first I was paralyzed—this power, which was directed at us, was so overwhelming and so terrifying that I just didn’t know what to do. But I knew what I had to do, which was to remain in my position so that our flanks are covered. My partner said that if I’m scared, I can leave it and go to a safer place. I stayed. I knew I did the right thing.”
Arthur says that even after the war is over, he doesn’t have plans to return to his studies. At a time when young people throughout Ukraine are bearing witness to violent war atrocities committed by Russia, Arthur says that he feels stronger toward his family and friends, and toward Ukraine. “There are people on the frontline who do much more than me and who risk much more than I do. People in Mariupol, or in small villages occupied by Russian forces, are facing hunger, bullets, and missiles, while I can be waiting for orders doing nothing for days.
“The only thing heroic in me are my intentions,” Arthur says. “All I can hope for is that my intentions will lead to decisions and actions that will help defend my country and reduce the suffering of our people as much as possible.” He isn’t sure what he wants to do when the war ends. “I’m not sure if I will get back to my job. Maybe I’ll try finding people lost during the war. I feel like I could do it, and that it will be very much needed.”
HOW TO HELP
Razom for Ukraine: “Razom” means “together” in Ukrainian. The nonprofit has worked tirelessly to unite Ukrainian activists across the U.S. and has organized protests throughout New York City. Currently, it is working on an emergency response, shipping the most urgently needed humanitarian aid: tactical medicine and supplies such as tourniquets, bandages, combat gauzes, and sterile pads; hospital supplies and equipment; and communications equipment. See the website for more detailed information on how to donate and volunteer, and also find a link to StopPutin.net, which provides a schedule of where protests are taking place in cities all over the world, a list of humanitarian organizations, how to contact representatives, and how to organize and post “Stop Putin” events. (razomforukraine.org)
Ukrainian Helpers: The Ukrainian Helpers website is a one-stop shop for people to volunteer and donate to support Ukraine. The site directs people to various organizations and provides a list of “most needed” items and supplies to donate to the Ukrainian army and humanitarian groups. Ukrainian Helpers also has a map of warehouses all over the world where packages can be dropped off that will then be sent directly to Ukraine. (ukraine-helpers.com)
The UN World Food Programme (WFP): The WFP has launched an emergency operation to provide food assistance for people fleeing the war. Donations can be made directly through the website. (wfp.org)
The Kyiv Independent: An independent English-language newspaper, the Kyiv Independent has been producing high-quality, accurate accounts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nonstop since the war began. Some of the newspaper’s reporters are working directly in combat zones, reporting on air raids, ground attacks, and evacuations. GoFundMe and Patreon platforms are set up on the website. (kyivindependent.com)
Call Your Representatives: Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has pleaded with governments to send Ukraine weapons and to aid in its defense in any way possible. Calling local representatives can help push that to the top of politicians’ agendas.
Support Local Ukrainian Businesses: In NYC, patronizing restaurants such as Veselka, Ukrainian East Village Restaurant, and Streetcha, in Manhattan; Golden Leo and Rondel, in Brooklyn; and Varenyk House, in Queens, is one way to give to Ukrainian Americans in the city. Donating to the Ukrainian Museum is also a way to keep the heritage of Ukraine alive in New York. ❖
Anna Conkling is a freelance journalist in New York City whose writing focuses on environmental issues and, currently, the war in Ukraine. Her work has been published in the Village Voice, Gothamist, and Rolling Stone.