Antonians on Ukraine

A year on from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, alumni, current students, and our Max Hayward Fellow explain how they are involved and impacted by the war in Ukraine.

One of a series of paintings by Dr Dayra Tsymbalyuk, Max Hayward Fellow at St Antony's College. Painted in 2017 in response to the war.

Painting by Dr Dayra Tsymbalyuk, Max Hayward Fellow at St Antony's College. Painted in 2017 in response to the war.

Darya Tsymbalyuk (Max Hayward Visiting Fellow 2022-23)

A year since Russia escalated its war on Ukraine to a full-scale invasion, and nine years into the war, I ask myself what does it mean to be a scholar of Ukraine and a scholar from Ukraine now?  

For me, this has been exacerbated by the fact that the first year of the full-scale invasion coincided with my first year post-PhD. During this first turbulent year of my journey as an early career scholar, the question of knowledge acquired a deeper existential dimension for me. For many scholars globally, Russia’s full-scale invasion finally exposed the ugly rotting carcass of Soviet and Russian imperial regimes, and with it the toxic fixation on Russia in most post-Soviet, Eurasian, Slavonic, Eastern European (where all umbrella terms also proved to be unsuitable) area studies programmes. In addition to creating blind spots, the focus on Russia had also resulted in viewing Ukraine, as well as other places, through the twisted and reductive colonial lens of Moscow. Russo-centrism contributed to the epistemic erasure of Ukraine as a unique socio-political and cultural space, where this epistemic erasure must be understood in connection to the current material erasure enacted by Russia through air bombs, missile, and drone attacks. For Ukraine, the lack of knowledge about our country, its civil society and postcolonial history, has had real and dangerous security consequences. This past year has made it clear to me that knowledge is part of life or death, shaping our material worlds. This year, I have felt knowledge viscerally, where the only knowledge that matters, is the knowledge that leads to liberation, the knowledge that brings justice.   

This is what has been driving me as a scholar to continue writing and researching, and to continue learning about Ukraine (and other places) in seminars, lectures, and reading groups. The existential threat exposed the thirst for knowing and preserving Ukrainian cultures, where learning is a mobilisation against Russia’s ongoing erasure of Ukrainian livelihoods, cities, and ecosystems. This has also been reflected in the frantic rush of area studies programmes to address the ongoing violence, and for many, to try to compensate for the previous absence of discussions on Ukraine. The latter was often possible as universities welcomed Ukrainian scholars fleeing the war. As great as this support for Ukrainian scholars has been, most fellowship and scholarship schemes are short-term, and academic institutions are yet to find a way to integrate the studies of Ukraine sustainably and permanently, as well as other places and regions once colonised by Russia, into their curriculums. But while the addition of Ukrainian-focused courses and rigorous engagement with decolonial thought is a necessary step in our reckoning with colonial violence, it would be only superficial if we think of it as our final goal. We must seek justice. That means, that as scholars and students, we must think of knowledge in relation to justice. We must think about how through knowledge we can bring justice to all those oppressed, murdered, raped, and injured by Russia, and other genocidal regimes. This is a harder task than it seems, especially as knowledge is conventionally constructed as “objective”, abstracted, and passionless.

This year, Russian war crimes in Ukraine made me weep, made me rage, and I hope they made you weep and rage too. Let us not forget that Ukraine is not an abstract case study or a geopolitical puzzle. Let us use our knowledge to bring justice, to expose and document Russia’s atrocities, to locate them within bigger contexts and longer temporalities of colonial violence, and to make sure Russia is made accountable at the International Criminal Court. That is the only way we can hopefully avoid being blinded by another spectacular power regime, such as Putin’s, and by the seduction of the myth of “great Russian culture”.  

This year, Russian war crimes in Ukraine made me weep, made me rage, and I hope they made you weep and rage too.

Brooks Newmark is an MSc graduate of St Antony’s currently working on his DPhil in Education. Brooks was a Member of Parliament in the UK Government and Minister of Civil Society. Before entering politics Brooks was a Senior Partner at Apollo Management LP a leading Private Equity Firm.

On February 24 last year, I had just finished my field research for my DPhil in Education – I was in Rwanda at the time – when I saw a post on Instagram by a Latvian friend of mine on the Polish border with Ukraine who was beginning to evacuate civilians away from the war which had just started. I asked if I could help for a few days, flew to Poland and ended up in Ukraine for most of the next 12 months. One year on, I have now evacuated almost 22,000 women and children away from the war zones in the east and the south of the country.

Why did I do this? I am not sure why other than a compunction to “do something.” How did I do this? By being incredibly organized and methodical, working with two regional bus companies in Ukraine who knew the roads and most importantly working closely with various local government authorities in Ukraine. I began in Kyiv and Lviv early in the war, evacuating women and children to the Polish border. I then moved south to Vinnytsia and Zaporizhzhia to help people escape Mariupol, when it was under siege by the Russians. Eventually, I ended up in Dnipro and Kharkiv where I spent most of the rest of the year. From the Kharkiv region, which borders Russia and was partially occupied, I evacuated over 11,000 women and children to the west side of the country. By year-end, I had 10 hubs around Ukraine from which I was either moving people to or from.

I have been shelled, moved anti-tank mines, witnessed horrendous war crimes almost daily, seen schools and houses flattened and saw the mass grave in Bucha. I have also seen the resilience and fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people. We must do all we can to support the people of Ukraine who are fighting for their freedom and our freedom against a brutal Russian regime set on destroying Ukraine, its people, its heritage and its very existence.

Brooks will be in Ukraine for the foreseeable future. He has set up a charity ‘Angels for Ukraine’

Kateryna Marina (Current student - MPhil Russian and East European Studies, 2018; DPhil Oriental Studies, 2020)

I still remember the morning of 24 February 2022 vividly. Having woken up at 5:45am to go rowing, I was suddenly confused and shocked at the news headlines that appeared on my phone screen. As the horror, fear, and tears engulfed me, I immediately got in touch with my family – my mother and sister who were still in Kyiv, my grandmother, and my father – to make sure they were all safe. I still turned up to rowing training that morning because I simply could not let my team down. Being on the river far away from my phone was both a blessing and a curse; I was unable to check the news and yet I could distract myself from this new reality. I realised that I could not let fear rule over me, as that was exactly Russia’s tactic – to make Ukraine tremble in fear and surrender in a matter of days.

That morning, as President of the Oxford University Ukrainian Society (OUUS), I messaged friends, colleagues, and professors to organise a protest that same day in support of Ukraine. Plunging myself into my work at OUUS gave me a sense of purpose in these dark times and set us on a clear mission to do everything we could for our country. Over the next days, weeks, and months, we engaged the media and gave interviews to the BBC, ITV, as well as local channels and newspapers. We organised four protests, which were attended by more than 1000 people. OUUS set up collection drives and sent three shipments of humanitarian aid directly to Ukraine. A small team from OUUS was also given an opportunity to speak to the PM’s Special Advisers at 10 Downing Street, and to meet the Prime Minister himself. We exchanged ideas on the support that could be provided to Ukrainians entering the UK, and for those who are already based here.

Through various events – black tie dinners, auctions, concerts, and bake sales – we raised over £25,000 that we distributed among Ukrainian charities. My small team and I have been immensely grateful for the immediate support of all Colleges, professors, University staff, and students, as well as residents of Oxford and Oxfordshire. Without this immeasurable support, we would not have achieved so much in such a short period.

I owe a debt of gratitude to St Antony’s College and St Antony’s Boat Club (SABC) for their unconditional love and solidarity. My supervisors, Dr Michael Willis and Professor Paul Chaisty have shown their utmost support to me throughout this time. Professor Goodman, Filiz McNamara, Professor Gerry, the College administration, and the student community have been incredibly understanding, attentive, and kind. And SABC, the people that have been there for me through it all: actively attending protests, donating, displaying solidarity during regattas, and providing me with distractions and victories (like winning the Torpids 2022 blades) that I desperately needed. I am extremely proud to be an Antonian.

Anastasiia Zagoruichyk (current student - MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise, and the Environment)

Just over two months after the war in Ukraine started, in May 2022, Oxford announced the launch of a fully funded graduate scholarship scheme. Building on Oxford’s long-standing commitment to refugee scholars, the Graduate Scholarship Scheme for Ukraine Refugees offered a full-time, one-year Masters course across a broad range of subjects for those displaced by the war. The scholarships were co-funded by the University and participating colleges, with each scholar given free accommodation and meals within their college, and a grant of £7,500 to support their study and living costs. St Antony's is proud to have been able to support the scheme and we are grateful to the Antonian donors who have contributed to this opportunity.

In October 2022, the University welcomed 26 Ukraine refugees. Among them is Anastasiia Zagoruichyk, who travelled from Kyiv to the UK in a 24-hour drive following the Russian invasion. One year on from the start of the war, Anastasiia is halfway through her studies for an MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment at St Antony’s.

When she returns to Ukraine, Anastasiia wants to build a green future for her country. She told us that: "To do this effectively, I’ll need to understand the technical policy changes that are needed, so I can help to implement them because although Ukraine has huge potential to be a green economy, we don’t have all the basics yet. We had about 10% of our energy from wind and solar before they invaded. Now sadly it is less, but we also have a huge opportunity to rebuild our economy to be much less reliant on coal and gas."

Myroslava Hartmond (MPhil International Relations, 2012)

Receiving my copy of The Antonian in the middle of a busy day back in Kyiv was a highlight during the 8 years that followed my graduation. The chance to crisis-manage my family’s art gallery in Kyiv’s picturesque Andriyivskyy Uzviz following the Euromaidan was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss, given my fascination with the culture’s potential to shape opinion, policy, and define national identity. 

In the years that followed, I engaged with Ukraine’s vibrant art scene to showcase the work of emerging and established artists and collaborated with numerous embassies and international organizations to bring great art to Ukraine from abroad. All the while, I was aware that I was running a cultural institution in a country ravaged by war — the Russian invasion started back in 2014, when its ‘little green men’ invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula and occupied parts of Ukraine’s eastern territory. In February 2022, the Russian Federation finally had the decency to take credit for launching a full-scale genocidal war against Ukrainians as far west as Lviv.

My current role coordinating Oxford’s university-wide Refugee Academic Futures programme in its pilot year sees me working with Prof. Alexander Betts, a fellow Antonian, to ensure that refugees across the collegiate University are not only surviving but thriving, we will soon be launching Oxford Sanctuary Community. In May 2023, the Refugee Studies Centre will partner with local charity Asylum Welcome on the first-ever town-and-gown Sanctuary Fair. It hopes to match OU members with volunteering and employment opportunities in civil society organizations in the migrant rights sector. 

A few days ago, I was delighted to receive an award at the Vice-Chancellor’s Professional Services Awards after mere months in my first “real job”. My greatest reward, however, is the ability to apply my knowledge of the Ukrainian context and cultural exchanges to support students and visiting academics with a background of displacement after my own recent uprooting. 

Darya Marchenko's artwork, 'The Face of War', 2015

Darya Marchenko 'The Face of War', 2015. A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin made from 5,000 bullet shells. One of the works Myroslava used in a recent talk she gave in Oxford on 'A History of Ukraine in 12 Artworks'.

Darya Marchenko 'The Face of War', 2015. A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin made from 5,000 bullet shells. One of the works Myroslava used in a recent talk she gave in Oxford on 'A History of Ukraine in 12 Artworks'.

William Flemming (MPhil Russian & East European Studies, 1996)

When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, like many people I felt strongly that I wanted to do something to help the refugees fleeing the war. Thinking that I might be able to put my knowledge of Russian and very basic knowledge of Ukrainian to good use, I got in touch with KHARPP, a charity founded by a group of Oxford lecturers and graduate students who had gone to the Polish-Ukrainian border right at the start of the war to volunteer at the train station in Przemyśl (south-east Poland). Przemyśl is a key transit point with thousands of refugees from Ukraine passing through every day.

By the time I arrived there in August for three weeks, the initial exodus of refugees had subsided – in fact, more people were returning to Ukraine than leaving at that point – and the magnitude of the challenge facing volunteers was not comparable to what it had been in the first days of the war. Many refugees knew exactly where they were going and needed only limited assistance. However, there continued to be a steady flow of refugees leaving Ukraine for the first time, often disoriented or in shock and with no concrete destination to go to. Our work at the station involved everything from carrying luggage, interpreting, buying tickets and paying for accommodation for the particularly vulnerable, to advising on options for onward travel and providing suitcases or other essential items. Some would share horrific stories of surviving in the grimmest of conditions in basements for weeks on end, of escaping from occupied territory, of homes destroyed and much worse.

After this initial trip, I returned in October for a longer stint, fearing that there would be a winter refugee surge due to a combination of cold weather and Russia’s systematic missile strikes on civilian infrastructure. Thankfully, despite Putin’s apparent best efforts, this did not come to pass.  

William worked with KHARPP when he went to Ukraine, a charity repairing homes and supporting communities in eastern Ukraine.

Anna Zelkina (DPhil, 1990)

At 4am Kiev was bombed, and we were informed of the start of the war... So goes the opening line of one of the most popular Soviet songs of the second world war period, a line that was playing in my mind and in the minds of many Russians when, on February 24, we woke up to the news that at 4am the Russian air force had bombed Kiev, thus starting a full-scale war in Ukraine. The uncanny parallels between the military invasion by Nazi Germany and by Putin’s Russia were glaring to anyone who was not blinded by Russia’s propaganda. I was in Moscow that day, trying to convince my mother to leave with me; in the end, she stayed while I took the last British Airways flight from Russia back to London. In the following months, I saw this story echoed in the experiences of many Russians who were appalled by the invasion. Their children were leaving while the older generation stayed behind, glued to their computer screens in shock and disbelief.

There is an ongoing discussion about the extent to which the unjustifiable Russian aggression against Ukraine is supported by the people in Russia. One of the leading Russian sociologists, Aleksey Levinson, believes that “the Russian society at present is gripped not by fear, but exalted enthusiasm for the war.” Another anti-war intellectual, psychologist Alexander Asmolov, explains the effectiveness of the state’s propaganda by the emotional longing of many Russians for the perceived ‘former glory’ of the Soviet Union as ‘a great world power.’ Others, like human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, believe that the distaste for the war among Russians is under-estimated, while Grigoriy Yudin, a Russian political scientist, views Russian society as being gripped by both fear and enthusiasm in equal measure. 

Having left in 1989 a country that was, at the time, still the Soviet Union, I am not in a position to evaluate the current state of Russian society. I only have my personal experience to share, and I understand that it may not be a common one. I am exceptionally lucky that my family and virtually all of my Russian friends have been on the same side of the demarcation line drawn by this terrible war. At the same time, I am painfully aware of how this war has torn friends and even families apart, and the pain that people experience when they realise they have lost their loved ones to pro-state propaganda or their own imperialist ambitions for their country. I also witness the widely different ways in which people who are against the war attempt to cope with its unimaginable reality; some, especially those outside Russia, have plunged themselves into participating in demonstrations and protests, humanitarian aid and volunteering; while others are frozen, depressed, waiting for the nightmare to end, feeling totally defeated, helpless and hopeless. Many, like me, feel that our generation has lost its chance to see Russia come out of the totalitarian grip in which it finds itself, and are left passionately hoping that Ukraine will win the war and secure a better future for its people than for our own.