In the four weeks since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Vassar students, along with the rest of the world, have watched the horrors unfold from abroad in fear and disbelief. Since then, Vassar’s Ukrainian students have been finding ways to reach out to the community while reflecting on family, history and homeland.
Filipp Kazatsker ’23, born in Odessa, Ukraine, explained, “Putin, he’s seen Russia, Belarus and Ukraine as one nation. As he describes it, we are all brotherly people.” He added, “We’ve been at war since 2014, with Crimea…[Putin] is an imperialist. He’s seeing Ukraine as something to conquer, something to take over, to install his own president, his own puppet.”
Zheka Chyzhykova ’25 described Ukrainian-Russian relations as long-established and complicated; she grew up in eastern Ukraine, but moved to Kyiv when Russia invaded the region eight years ago. “Throughout centuries, Russia had never had any respect for or understanding of Ukraine as an independent country,” she said.
Igor Martiniouk ’24, a Ukrainian-American, agrees: “[Putin] writes this idea that Ukraine is not an actual country, that Ukraine is legit just part of Russia.” Though he was born in the United States, Martiniouk has family in Ukraine; they have since scattered to Poland and Romania, seeking refuge. Over the phone, he told me: “Mariupol—I was just there, like six months ago. And now there’s a genocide going on over there.” He mentioned that the areas the Russian military is targeting are not military bases. “We have theaters that were sheltering people, right in the center [of Mariupol], being bombed. And there was a sign that said дети, which is children in Russian, in large letters, so that it was understood ‘don’t bomb this,’ there are civilians living there…And we still see those areas being bombed.”
Kazatsker moved to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn when he was two years old, an area of New York with a dense Ukrainian and Russian population. “English was my second language. Ukrainian culture has been very, very prominent in my life,” he explained. Of the war, he commented: “Many didn’t believe that [Putin] would actually go through with a full-scale war…My grandmother especially did not expect this. There’s been this huge shift in attitude from ‘this will all be over soon’ to genuine fear.”
Marina Hrytsenko ’23, who was born and raised in Kharkiv, told me: “[My family] could not believe until the last moment that [the war] would actually happen…Especially for me, for my family, because we knew if Russia would invade, it would be our city first.” The day after her birthday, Hrytsenko woke up to a string of phone calls from her family and her boyfriend, telling her that the bombs had started. “My little sister, she’s twelve. And she’s like, ‘we’re all going to die.’ And it’s like, at first, I didn’t even know what to say.”
Reaching family and friends has proved especially difficult. Kazatsker has been in contact with his godmother, who managed to flee to Romania but had to leave without her sons. “In times of war, like now, any male from 18 to 65 cannot leave the country. They are required by law to stay in Ukraine,” he said. Every day, he calls his grandmother in Odessa. “It’s nerve-wracking, waiting for that call to ring…You’re kind of just praying that, with each tone, the call gets picked up.”
For a little while, Hrytsenko had to rely solely on the news for updates: “I would look at news channels about my city specifically, where they would post which houses were bombed,” she said. “You just look there praying it’s not yours.” Her father, who works at an airforce university in Kharkiv, has been out every night trying to protect the city. “I have not heard his voice since the war started. But he’s been able to text me sometimes. He wouldn’t say much, just ‘I’m okay,’” she mentioned. “I used to talk a lot with my parents, but now it’s just like, ‘I’m alive.’ This is the way we communicate now with everyone.”
Since the invasion, Vassar has demonstrated support for Ukraine. The door of Gordon Commons was pasted with the Ukrainian flag. On March 2, the Offices of International Services and Religious, Spiritual Life and Contemplative Services sponsored an open, candle-lit vigil in the Peace Garden. And students have been encouraged to donate humanitarian contributions, like clothing, medical supplies, feminine hygiene products, and canned food into drop-off bins in Main. Kazatsker told me, “Me and a couple of other Ukrainian students helped to organize the donation drive. I’ve been very thankful for all that Vassar has done. I was the one who drove the donations down to Brooklyn for shipment, and they didn’t fit into my car and my dad’s car. We had to rent a U-Haul to get it all down. It was a really great show of support.”
Though appreciative of the effort, Martiniouk added that more is needed from individuals and organizations. He said, “I will be honest, statements and solidarity on its own will not change the outcome of the war. Regardless of that, I think it’s necessary to put out these statements, and it’s necessary to promote donations for clothing and essentials. It’s extremely important.” Chyzhykova expressed that she hopes Vassar increases its support of Ukraine: “I just really hope that Vassar takes initiative, or becomes more proactive, particularly with financial aid for Ukrainian students.”
What the College can do and what the international community can do have a crucial role in the outcome of the war. Martiniouk argued, “This is not going to be an easy rebuild, and a lot of people will be without their homes for a long time. If NATO doesn’t do anything right now, like close the sky, then a lot more individuals will have a much harder time going back to Ukraine.”
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have often been attributed to NATO’s expansion into eastern Europe. But Martiniouk maintains that this war is exclusively a product of Putin’s disregard for Ukraine as a sovereign state. “It has nothing to do with NATO’s expansion. NATO is just an excuse that Russia points out…[Putin] wants to create this greater Russia, like the Soviet Union.” Hrytsenko added, “There is no actual logical reason for this war to happen…This is happening because Putin is crazy and he wants to reestablish Russian influence the way it was during Soviet times.”
NATO’s role in the war has been an international debate. When asked if she believed NATO should get involved, Chyzhykova responded, “I don’t think NATO would accept us, just because they don’t want World War III. And it’s understandable, but I also understand why Ukranians should still be pushing for a no-fly zone because our children and people are still dying.” She continued, “Personally, I’m the one who thinks that the ideal scenario is where Ukraine is fully neutral. Where we don’t need to be in the EU or in NATO. But the reality is, to be fully neutral, a country needs to have very high economic resources to be able to build their own military and other stuff, which is very complicated. Even before the war, our economic situation was not very good.” She added, “Hopefully we’re going to win, but we need resources.”
The Russo-Ukrainian War is a developing story. Until the conflict is resolved, we are left only with aspirations of peace, like those expressed by Hrytsenko: “We like to be free…I’m sure we will win. But it is unfortunate how many people have to die.”