Russian invasion of Ukraine reaches campus

Photograph by Venus Edlin

On the morning of Feb. 24, Chaplain and Director of Spiritual Life Hilary Martin Himan set up a table scattered with candles in the foyer of the Agnes Flanagan Chapel. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had just started hours before in the largest escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War since it began in 2014. The invasion was also the most significant military attack in Europe since World War II.

Himan said it was important  to provide a space on campus for the community to reckon with the historic and tragic event. The opportunity for community members to light candles is still available.

“For some, lighting a candle is a sacred act of remembering those affected, not only the Ukrainians, but also for (the) many Russians who do not support this military action, and for whom they may have family members living in Ukraine,” Himan said via email. “For others, the act of lighting a candle is a ritual of prayer, a moment to pause and ask a higher power to intercede.”

Many community members woke up to the news and later that day posters supporting Ukraine were put up across campus. That same evening, President Wim Wiewel sent out an email to faculty, staff and students calling for support of those who are affected by the war.

“Along with the rest of the world, I am shocked and distressed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Wiewel said via email. “I am writing to ask you to join me in supporting our students and other community members with close ties to that region.” 

Both Wiewel and Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students Robin Holmes-Sullivan pointed to counseling resources for those in need, as well as details for a panel called “The Russia-Ukraine Crisis” which took place on March 2 over Zoom. In a separate correspondence, Holmes-Sullivan emphasized the role of community in “difficult times” such as these.

“We are all quite concerned for our international students and their families who have been directly impacted by the recent invasion by Russia on Ukraine,” Holmes-Sullivan said via email.

Kaylee-Anna Jayaweera ’22 is one of the students who has been directly affected. Though Jayaweera was born in Claremont, Calif., she identifies as a Third Culture Kid. Directly before coming to LC in Fall 2018, she had attended high school in Russia in a small city in the Volga river region. Jayaweera also worked for ScrumLaunch, a Ukrainian-based company, from 2020 up until the end of January 2022, two weeks before the invasion started.

Jayaweera traveled every two to three months to one of the company’s headquarters in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The city is now one of the main targets of the Russian military. 

“I was getting very live into the updates of literally my friends’ apartments being bombed or having shrapnel coming through the window,” Jayaweera said. “Them having to pick up everything and leave at a moment’s notice driving, nonstop for 17 hours to try and get to the countryside where they feel it was safer.”

Jayaweera described one particular story that stuck out to her.

“It’s really tearing these unions apart, which is very hard to see,” Jayaweera said. “I’m friends with this family. They have a little girl and she actually just turned three two days ago and the dad was very adamant that he would get her birthday cake. He literally risked getting shot or caught in crossfire to go outside and find a cake.”

Another LC community member who has been directly affected by the escalation in the war is Instructor of Russian Tatiana Likhacheva. Her husband left to visit family in Russia shortly before the invasion and is now stuck in the country. Russian Club President Feya Dawkins is currently in one of Likhacheva’s classes.

“He was just visiting his parents, and then the war broke out,” Dawkins said. “He’s just trying to get back home. It’s a little bit of a sensitive topic for her because she’s really stressed about that.” 

For those who do not have direct ties to either countries, the Russia-Ukraine panel served as a key point of information and historical context. The event reached a cap of 300 participants, including panelists. Assistant Professor of International Affairs Kyle Lascurettes was on the panel and discussed the role of The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the conflict. He was inspired by the turn out.

“While what’s going on in Ukraine is horrible, it’s heartening to see so many people in our community here interested in the topic, as it’s heartening to see so much the country and indeed the world paying attention to what’s going on in Ukraine,” Lascurettes said.

Assistant Professor of Russian Maria Hristova also spoke on the panel from her own personal viewpoint and conveyed how deeply affecting the invasion has been.

“I want to start with a brief personal note that, together with most of my colleagues and friends in the

Slavic and Russian studies fields, I feel completely distraught and crushed by these events,” Hristova said. “I know I speak for many of us when I say that we all feel anger and helplessness and dread for the future. Many of us have friends and relatives in Ukraine. Many of us are from mixed Ukrainian-Russian families and this war will have long term devastating consequences professionally and personally for all of us.”

Other panelists included Associate Professor of Political Science Leah Gilbert and Associate Professor of History and Department Chair Mo Healy. Alumnus Lucas Lyons ’20 served as the moderator. After the panel concluded, there was space for comments and questions.

Professor of Theatre and Department Chair Štĕpán Šimek was the first to take the floor and discussed his early life in Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, which was part of the Soviet bloc in the ’60s until the communist party began implementing reforms to increase freedoms within the state. In August of 1968, the Soviet Union decided to invade the county.

“I was six years old at that time,” Šimek said. “I remember it very, very vividly, how it was. I remember tanks in the streets. I remember the main square in Prague being bombarded by Soviet tanks. I remember people arguing with the Soviet soldiers, trying to send them home.”

Šimek drew parallels to the early stage of Russian occupation of Ukraine, though the war has since progressed further than it did in Czechoslovakia which had no armed combat. Still, the memories have haunted Šimek in the weeks following the invasion of Ukraine.

“I remember my father who was declared on a list, supposedly of the enemies of the Republic Revolution and had to go into hiding for two months,” Šimek said. “I still remember as I was standing in front of our house and my father was getting into his little Fiat 600. We were all hugging him, and then he disappeared for two months. We didn’t know where he was. Unlike in the Ukraine, of course in Czechoslovakia, there was no war.”

As the community turns to the future and the actions they can take to aid in the war, many have described the same helpless feeling both Hristova and Šimek pointed to. For Jayaweera, she has asked those who she is in touch with how to help, but the options seem few. Sending money is not feasible due to economic collapse and sponsorship is ineffective for any men who are not allowed to leave Ukraine due to gendered legal restrictions. Because of this, Jayaweera has deleted social media to cease the constant exposure to these events.

“I was afraid that I was becoming desensitized to it,” Jayaweera said. “Waking up first thing in the morning and seeing just places that I literally recognize, places like hotels that I’ve stayed at, city centers, places that I have literal photos of on my phone, just completely destroyed and demolished.”

Russian Language Assistant Aleksandr Veselkov has also described a similar feeling despite wanting to change the political situation.

“I’m here with the Fulbright grant, which basically means that I’m a Russian ambassador,” Veselkov said. “I’m here to bring the culture and show how rich it is. I feel so helpless, that I want to change it, I want to change the political situation.”

Veselkov has been approached by students to discuss the topic in class and he felt the need to address the topic. He also felt equipped to do so in his class since it is a conversational level course. Though he insists he “cannot be silent,” he also sees the risks he may face as a Russian citizen. Veselkov was living in Moscow as recently as last year.

“(It) made me also realize that I want to focus more right now on positive things you know, because I’m kind of helpless,” Veselkov said. “I can’t do anything. If I send some money right, I will be put in danger for treason if I send anything.”

Hristova also spoke about the risks for Russian citizens, especially those who remain in the country, for speaking out. Russians also face propaganda from the government, are restricted from independent media and are facing mandatory conscription.

“Of course, there are people who are aware of and say they are against the war, they are actively protesting and let me tell you that this is incredibly difficult,” Hristova said. “If you go out on the street, there is a very good chance you will be detained, probably face police brutality, debilitating fines and sometimes even prison time.”

For Dawkins, who is half Russian, these times have also been difficult as she said it is painful to see her culture being attached to violent aggression. She is disheartened by the events, but also views the war as part of Putin’s agenda, rather than actions supported by Russians. Despite the war, Dawkins is committed to still celebrating the positive aspects of Russian culture. 

“We’ve truly tried to separate our club from the political aspect of Russia,” Dawkins said. “Really, it’s about the culture. We recently had a blinchiki event, which was like crepes and eating breakfast, and we really made sure that it didn’t seem like we’re celebrating, because we are not celebrating the war.”

Other members of the LC community have also been involved in war efforts or have connections to the warring countries. Professor of History Elliot Young wrote an article for the Washington Post drawing parallels between the conquest of the western region United States during the 19th century and Russia’s current siege on Ukraine. Hanna Tereshko is a current law student from Ukraine, who also currently serves as a committee member of the Ukrainian Bar Association. Luke Rodeheffer ‘11 received a Fulbright grant to study in Ukraine in 2011. 

Going forward, many community leaders continue to call for support as Russian aggression increases. 

“Regardless of affiliation, I would love to see the Lewis & Clark community really claim our hearts as well as our heads and recognize the moral imperative to stand up for our fellow humans who are suffering,” Himan said.

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