On Tuesday, Nov. 15, the student-run organization Vassar Alliance for Ukraine hosted the College’s first discussion panel on the Russo-Ukrainian War. The organization’s co-presidents Benjamin Fikhman ’23 and Marina Hrytsenko ’23 felt that this public discussion was long overdue. The event consisted of five speakers and concluded with a Q&A section. The organization also sponsored a fundraiser, selling pins and other items to raise money for Ukrainians affected by the war.
In an email correspondence, Fikhman stated, “As an organization seeking to raise awareness about the war and offering students avenues to support Ukraine and its people, we felt it was incumbent upon us to engage the campus and do so in an educational and discursive setting.” He continued, “In regards to the war, we are trying to do the most with the small part we are given this semester. That includes fundraising to help vulnerable Ukrainians and being very vocal about our convictions, as well as personal stories of the org. members. We are looking forward to growing our presence heading into next semester and potentially connecting with other campuses in finding solutions to help others.”
The discussion panel began with an introduction from Professor of History Michaela Pohl, who provided historical context behind the 2022 invasion and the subject of Russian colonialism. She first addressed the Russian missile attack that occurred in Poland that same morning, killing two citizens. Audience members asked Pohl for her predictions, to which she stated that the recent attack on Poland, even if unintentional, will escalate the war. “Putin will not survive politically or literally,” she said.
Following Pohl, Ukrainian-American Zoe Ripecky ’14 discussed how her Ukrainian identity influenced her time at Vassar, as well as her current humanitarian and environmental work with non-profit organizations. An advisee of Pohl during her junior and senior years, Ripecky wrote her thesis on gas corruption in Ukraine and traveled there to complete her Fulbright Scholarship, where she worked on modernizing the energy sector. “Ukrainian voices were not well-represented at Vassar,” she stated. Due to this lack of attention, she founded a campus organization called The Group for Tomorrow’s Ukraine, which was made up of mainly Ukrainian students who expressed their experiences through blog posts and informative articles.
Ripecky later became the head of operations and strategy at Razom, which, according to its official website, is a non-profit Ukrainian-American human rights organization established in 2014 to support the people of Ukraine. Razom means ‘together’ in Ukrainian. Following the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Ripecky’s work adopted a humanitarian approach. “We were seen as a trusted organization in the U.S. that was supporting Ukraine, and since Ukraine was at the top of everyone’s minds, we kind of blew up in support and were able to have a sustained emergency response effort.” Razom began to partner with larger organizations to transport hospital equipment to Ukraine. According to Fikhman, “[Ripecky’s] humanitarian perspective and experience, coupled with her Vassar past, is important to our organization and the campus at large.”
Finally, three current members of Vassar Alliance for Ukraine stepped up to share their stories surrounding their lives in Ukraine, providing a personal dimension to the discussion. Hrytsenko is from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Her mother, sister and grandmother were at home when a bomb went off, demolishing a building a few blocks away and shattering every window of their own home. Hrysenko showed a picture of the rubble, saying, “The only reason my apartment doesn’t look like this is luck.” She explained how it took her a long time to learn that the Russian language spoken in her household was a result of colonization, to which several Ukrainian audience members responded that since the war, their families are making a conscious effort to embrace their Ukrainian culture and limit their use of the Russian language.
The next student speaker, Karolina Naidon ’26, began her story with the destruction of her home: “Similar to other areas, for me, the morning of [Feb. 24, 2022] started with missile strikes in my city.” Naidon was born in Dnipro, and because a member of her family is disabled, she was forced to escape Ukraine alone. She went by train, surrounded by refugees. “Almost everyone on that train had lost their home,” she remarked. They were forbidden to leave the train, and eventually, they ran out of warm water and proper food. For up to four hours, she and others sat in complete darkness with the lights and their phones shut off, the sounds of shooting in the distance. “After that, we were in Poland. All the people were glad that they were safe but there were some who had left some relatives there [in Ukraine] and yes, they were safe, but at what cost?” She concluded, “That was the last time I saw my family.”
The final speaker, Valerie Malykhina ’25, lived in Donetsk and then Mariupol. “I have been displaced for the past eight years, since the Summer of 2014,” she said. Her family simply climbed into their car and started driving. “I thought it would only be two weeks.” Malykhina also described what it was like to not hear from a close Ukrainian friend for three weeks. “By the third week, I had started hoping that her death had been quick and painless.” Her friend was eventually able to make contact. She and her family had been sheltering in a basement for nearly a month.
The stories that were shared by the three students, as well as Ripecky and Pohl, were not only informative but deeply personal. According to Fikhman, to hear and understand their experiences would greatly benefit the Vassar community. When asked what he hopes people will take away from the event, Fikhman responded, “Vassar Alliance for Ukraine hopes attendees will gain a more nuanced understanding of the invasion. By providing context and detailing the existence of a strong historical precedent behind Russia’s aggression, we promote a well-informed student body and campus community.” He added, “we hope that the insight students gain from our speakers answers their own questions and spurs further action and participation in our organization.”
A sense of unity has developed in Ukraine and amongst Ukrainian students. Hrytsenko recalls her trip to Ukraine this past October where she witnessed nearly 200 people spontaneously break into the Ukrainian national anthem, hanging out of windows, peering out of storefronts and standing in the middle of the street. However, this sense of solidarity has yet to develop in the greater Vassar community. Fikhman said, “Surrounding student activism, we seek to promote an energized student body that is educated on the issues. That will promote the spread of solidarity and accurate information about the war.” It is the goal of Vassar Alliance for Ukraine to create a pro-Ukrainian campus, a campus that denounces violence and genocide and assures that the experiences of our Ukrainian students are recognized and understood to be a vital aspect of a united community.