By Dr. Jaclyn Maria Fowler
Department Chair, English and Literature
In sheer size, Ukraine is one of the largest land masses in Europe, second only to Russia which borders the country to the east and northeast. Over the centuries, Ukraine’s position at the crossroads between East and West and its moniker as a “breadbasket” made it a battleground for its right to self-rule. The Mongols, the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottomans were among those who attempted to seize power in the country.
I recently talked with Professor Halyna Kurochka, Head of the Center for Modern Foreign Languages at Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), about the current situation in Ukraine. She explained that despite Ukraine’s age-old fight for freedom, “We are a people of peace. We are peaceful people.” Since the country won its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrainians have also been a free people in an ever-emerging democracy, and they would like to keep it that way.
Related link: Tensions Continue to Rise on the Russia-Ukraine Border
The Invasion of Crimea
Even after it gained its independence, Ukraine was beset with Russian-aligned leaders like Viktor Yanukovych who was finally deposed in 2013 in a groundswell of popular protests that became known as the “Revolution of Dignity.” The corruption surrounding the Yanukovych government left Ukraine unprepared for Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and the subsequent war in Donbas in the eastern part of Ukraine.
Professor Kurochka talked about how the political class under Russian-backed leadership had courted “separation” between the Russian-speaking population in the east and the rest of Ukraine. “We were naked,” Professor Kurochka admitted about the Russian invasion of Crimea. “No army. No money.”
It was a dark time for Ukraine and its inhabitants. For all intents and purposes, the world appeared to look the other way.
A Country United
Now, her country finds itself surrounded on three sides by the Russian military. “Why do we have such a neighbor?” Professor Kurochka asked wistfully. “We only want a strong economy.”
On the day I spoke with her, artillery shells were being dropped on the Donbas region, yet she remained hopeful. “This time, we are prepared,” she said in contrast to the invasion of Crimea.
Professor Kurochka referred to the support of European nations and the U.S. as proof. She talked about how President Biden helped train and arm Ukrainian soldiers.
Citizens, too, have taken up arms to fight for their country, including an almost 80-year-old Ukrainian grandmother – known as a baba – who has been keen to learn how to protect her home and family. “She is real,” Professor Kurochka assured me.
The thousands of soldiers on the Eastern front are equally real. Professor Kurochka mourned the predicament of these soldiers who “are intelligent and young and left their businesses” to fight for Ukraine.
“I think about them all the time,” Professor Kurochka admitted. “I sleep in a warm bed in my apartment,” she said, “while they sleep in the cold.”
“Still,” Professor Kurochka noted, “we are united,” owing in part to the Ukrainization programs that taught all Ukrainian people the language. “Language is important for unification,” Professor Kurochka assured me.
Living in a Time of Crisis
While Professor Kurochka admitted she was disappointed when the current Ukrainian president was elected, she recognized the good work President Zelensky had been doing to minimize the feeling of crisis. “I feel sorry for him,” she confided. “He finds himself in the darkest time.”
Still, Professor Kurochka sees strength in the way the people of her country have pressed on. “We need to live. We go to work. We make plans….Spring is coming,” she said, pointing to the sun filtering through her window. “We make plans for our vacations.” The way life has continued in her community is proof that “Putin will not destabilize Ukraine.”
At the University in Lviv
In her hometown of Lviv, a beautiful 13th-century Ukrainian city on the western border with Poland, Ukrainian citizens are as far from the Russian front as they can get in Ukraine. “We love our city,” Professor Kurochka gushed. “It is beautiful…[and] it is far from Donbas.” In fact, the staff of the American embassy moved to Lviv when fears rose of a possible Russian takeover of Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine.
In the winding cobbled streets of Lviv, where the vibe is Prague-like, the students at Ukrainian Catholic University “come from all over.” To them, she said, “Life is normal.”
“They are young,” Professor Kurochka explained. “They don’t realize until the last minute” that there is a problem. Instead, “they go for coffee, and they laugh.” She added, “I love to see them laughing.”
Preparing for the Potential of War in Ukraine
But as an administrator at the university, there has been little time for coffee drinking and laughter. Professor Kurochka confirmed that she and her fellow administrators have done a lot of work to prepare UCU students for the potential of war.
First of all, she noted, “every other day and sometimes every day,” the “schools, stores and banks” are victimized by cyberattacks. In response to the Russian mining of infrastructure data, Professor Kurochka announced that “we [the university] went offline.”
All classes, therefore, have been held in person despite the continuing COVID scare. “It’s like we forgot about COVID,” she said, shaking her head.
In addition, the university in Lviv has a “Plan A, Plan B [and] Plan C,” Professor Kurochka said, to keep UCU students safe in the event the Russians enter the country. She explained, “We teach them where to go. We have webinars…We tell them what to bring and where to go. We have water everywhere.”
In the end, however, students are responsible for learning. “They go to classes, and they study,” she said. “That is their job.”
Professor Kurochka talked about reading newspapers and magazines from the West, including The Atlantic. “I like Anne Applebaum,” she said, referring to one of the magazine’s top writers on authoritarianism. “And Timothy Snyder [the writer of “On Tyranny”] is speaking here today at 5 p.m.,” she added excitedly.
Later, Professor Kurochka sent me the Facebook post and the link to Snyder’s talk. To her, these writers represent the intellectual freedom Ukrainians value, the kind of intellectual freedom Russian citizens do not have.
At the end of our discussion, I asked Professor Kurochka what she needed from Americans. “Maybe a small group of our students could meet with yours,” she suggested. Then she added, simply but poignantly: “Pray for us.”