Crimes against the world – Russia’s attacks on universities

Over the course of several days in early March, rocketeers based in Belgorod in Russia, 80 kilometres away, fired missiles at Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine. The buildings hit on the campus of VN Karazin Kharkiv National University – also known as Karazin University – near the centre of the city of 1.4 million people.

The attacks were of no more military value than was the library at Louvain University that was burned by Kaiser Wilhelm’s troops in the opening days of World War I. The Daily Mail was only one of hundreds of newspapers to label the destruction of Louvain’s irreplaceable rare book collection, which dated back to 1425 and included 750 medieval manuscripts, a “crime against the world”.

Russian missiles damaged a number of Karazin University buildings, destroyed its Institute of Public Administration and exploded in the university’s Rare Book Library, which housed 60,000 of the university’s 3,350,000 books and manuscripts.

Among these are incunabula (books printed before 1500, that is, before the invention of movable type), palaetypes (1501 to 1550), 16th and 17th century Ukrainian books, thousands of manuscripts, personal papers of scientists, and Greek and Polish manuscripts.

The library’s buildings, some of which follow French Renaissance or Classical models, testify to the fact that Ukrainian architects looked west and not east for inspiration.

The explosions did more than blow out hundreds of windows, sending shards of glass through the air at hundreds of miles an hour, giving them enough force to embed themselves in the books and manuscripts that remained on the twisted metal racks and on those pitched into heaps on the floor onto which decades-old plaster and shards of wood from the ceiling were also falling.

The blast waves destroyed the heating system and blew apart century-old steel fire prevention doors, and ruptured pipes, sending water pouring over the books and manuscripts. Even after these streams of water were stopped, the same rains and snows that famously stymied the Russian armoured column heading toward Kyiv blew holes in the walls.

According to Iryna Zhuravlova, director of Karazin University’s Central Scientific Library, mould and fungus soon began growing on the pages of the books and on the manuscripts that had been immersed in the “unhygienic water” that pooled around the books and debris.

Karazin University’s librarians “had no practical or theoretical experience in how to deal with book collections in wartime conditions”, Zhuravlova told University World News by email.

She turned to a number of organisations for guidance, including the Ukrainian Library Association, several in Poland, UNESCO, the Prince Claus Foundation in the Netherlands, the San José State University School of Information in California, and the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative in Washington DC.

As Zhuravlova’s team moved to save what they could of their collection, academics and administrators across Ukraine were moving to keep Ukrainian higher education functioning.

Universities fall in Mariupol and Melitopol

After weeks’ long shutdowns following the Russian attack on 24 March and despite continued missile attacks, universities in Kyiv, Kherson, Odesa, Lviv and elsewhere have continued to operate.

In the eastern cities of Mariupol and Melitopol the story is much darker, as they were first besieged by and then fell to what Ukrainian soldiers refer to as ‘Orcs’, the zombie-like martial race in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The entire city of Mariupol has been in Russian hands since the last defenders holed up in the Azovstal steel plant surrendered in mid-May. Reports indicate that the campus of Mariupol State University was destroyed in the battle.

Both the rector and the assistant rector escaped the city and, according to Dr Anzhela Stashchak, project director for the United Kingdom-based Cormack Consultancy Group that specialises in international education, they are working to re-establish the university in Kyiv.

Neither Melitopol nor its two universities were razed to the ground. However, the two universities ceased to exist the same day Mariupol fell, when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order merging them.

The new Melitopol State University “will be a large university incorporating educational institutions from across Zaporizhzhia”, the oblast (region) that Melitopol is in, announced Yevhen Balytskyi.

Elected in 2020 to the Zaporizhzhia regional government, where he sat in the opposition, according to The Odessa Journal, Balytskyi threw in his lot with the Russian invaders. The paper calls him a ‘Gauleiter’ – tellingly, the title the Nazis used for regional government officials they installed to do their bidding.

In an exclusive report provided to University World News from sources in occupied Melitopol, Igor Semyvolos, executive director of the Ukrainian Middle East Studies Association, wrote that the merger of the two universities – which had been discussed before the war – had nothing to do with ‘efficiency’.

Rather, it was about controlling higher education in the newly occupied Zaporizhzhia. Semyvolos explained what lay behind the plans reported by The Odessa Journal: “The university would modify its educational system to match that of Russia.”

Semyvolos’ sources told him: “The occupiers prevent any attempt to use the Ukrainian language in public spaces because for them the Ukrainian languages is a sign of disloyalty [to the newly established Russian regime] and a sign of Ukrainian nationalism.”

The decision to ban the Ukrainian language is not sui generis. For, starting in 1720 with Tzar Peter the Great’s ban on Ukrainian in the Orthodox Church, Imperial Russia progressively restricted the use of Ukrainian. In 1876, Russia banned both Ukrainian theatre productions and concerts where Ukrainian songs were sung, while in 1915 Tzar Nicolas II officials ordered that all schools in the Galicia, formerly part of Austria-Hungary, teach in Russian not Ukrainian.

Russia is presently moving to replace Ukrainian as the language of school instruction in Zaporizhzhia.

On 18 July, The Washington Post reported that the director of a school in Chuvashia, 600 kilometres east of Moscow, had posted on the school’s chat that teachers were needed for the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions to prepare for the new school year. ‘Preparing schools’, the teachers understood, was a euphemism for Russifying them.

At a meeting of United Russia, Putin’s party, at the end of June, Russian Education Minister Sergey Kravtsov said Ukrainian students’ understanding of history, nationhood and even the Ukrainian language, “must be corrected”.

In essence, this means they must be brought into line with Russia’s irredentist claims that the Ukrainian nation has no independent existence and that the Ukrainian language is only a (poorer) Russian dialect – claims reiterated by Putin in his polemical essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” and by hosts and guests on Russia’s top-rated television shows.

To ensure that Melitopol State University is thoroughly Russified, Russia has installed individuals Semyvolos calls “collaborators, those who deliberately agreed to work with the enemy”.

The ‘rector’ of the university is Andriy Chuykov, who is both a former teacher at Kharkiv University and a former police colonel. He is, says Semyvolos, “a well-known opponent of the Ukrainian revolution of 2013 to 2014” – the Revolution of Dignity that ousted the pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych.

Moscow responded to this assertion of Ukrainian national will by seizing Crimea and unleashing irregular soldiers in the Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine’s easternmost provinces and the nation’s industrial heartland, the Donbas.

Chuykov, Semyvolos wrote in his email, is the “so-called Olena Shakurova”, director of the ‘Department of Education’ of the occupational authorities and – as my sources claim – [allegedly] a person with a criminal past”.

Semyvolos’ contacts informed him that “most of the universities’ teachers have left the city and are now in territory controlled by the Ukrainian state”. In an effort to entice students, tuition at Melitopol State University will be free.

There are rumours that the Russians – who have made the ruble the default currency in the parts of Ukraine they occupy, and who know that many families have lost their incomes due to the fighting – will also cancel the student debt of those who enrol in the university.

New regime at Luhansk University

The future of the Russified Melitopol State University can be seen in the Russified universities in the so-called people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, which were established by Russian-backed separatists in 2014, at the same time the Russians occupied (and annexed) Crimea.

At Luhansk University, pro-Russian officials replaced administrators and faculty members who either fled to parts of Ukraine controlled by the government in Kyiv or refused to work for the Luhansk, with their own supporters. Some of the administrators and faculty members re-established Luhansk University in Kyiv.

The new regime at Luhansk University and other universities in the Donbas erased Ukrainian law from law faculties, says Vladislav Davidzon, a non-resident fellow at the Washington DC-based Atlantic Council and chief editor of The Odessa Review, who is of Ukrainian heritage.

“They haven’t been annexed,” so they do not use Russian law at the Donetsk or Luhansk legal faculties. They study ‘quote Luhansk and Donetsk unquote’ law, which is a hodgepodge of stuff, local law, some Russian law, unwritten law.”

Further, the new university regimes de-Ukrainianised faculties of social science and, crucially, Davidzon says, literature.

“They put in their own pro-Russian curriculum, what students would learn in Russia. They no longer learn about things that are important for Ukrainians, like the Holodomor [the deaths of five million Ukrainians on Stalin’s orders in the early 1930s] and Ukrainian history. The history of the Donetsk region is Sovietised; they’ll learn the more Soviet conception of Donetsk history.”

When I asked Davidzon about how his use of ‘Soviet’ squared with the wealth of the oligarchs who support Putin, he said: “Soviet is a nomenclature which is bad in Ukraine, but it is now good in Russia.

“They didn’t really create a new ideological system (to accord with the word), rather they want to go back to an imaginary idea of a past glory without usually enunciating what that would be, except a kind of nationalistic, xenophobic, expansionist ideological conception of Russian greatness.”

Davidzon continued: “They don’t actually want something like the Soviet ‘Brotherhood of Man’ or Soviet centralised economy. They don’t want to go back to the old Soviet economy. What they want is all the trimmings of past greatness. So, you can get that from the Russian Empire. You can get it from the better memories of Soviet times, which is what they thrive on.”

The diplomas of students who graduate from the universities are not recognised by the Ukrainian government, which keeps a central registry of university students and graduates. According to Davidzon, the Ukrainian government recognises only two documents issued by Luhansk and Donetsk – birth and death certificates.

COVID’s online learning has helped universities to survive

Each of the seven professors or administrators I interviewed at six universities across Ukraine told me that the shift to online learning necessitated by the closures of campuses because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is one of the main reasons Ukrainian higher education has continued despite the war.

“I think COVID provided good training,” Professor Volodymyr Dubovyk, who teaches international relations at Mechnikov National University in Odesa, told me from Western Ukraine, where he moved for safety.

Though he says with remarkable sang-froid: “It’s kind of tense because once in a while there’s a missile flying [nearby].” During the COVID shutdowns “we learned how to use online tools and skills to work with our students”.

Karazin University political science Professor Yuliya Bidenko also credits online teaching during the COVID shutdowns for the perseverance of Ukrainian higher education. “I never believed I would say that the lockdowns were useful. But they are for the crisis of education we face now in Ukraine. Students and teachers were prepared to work online.”

Recurring problems with students’ internet connections mean that professors have to be understanding about absences from discussion groups, late assignments or missed online tests.

“Last week,” Bidenko recalled, “we had an exam and some of my students were writing me messages (we use Telegram) that they were in occupied territories and their internet connection was very bad. ‘We are very sorry and we cannot be present in real time to link up with the test,’ they told me.”

Students have performed better than might have been expected under the conditions they are dealing with because of the war, including being displaced and in many cases in areas under sporadic attack by Russian missiles. Several professors told me that this made it easier for them to be lenient.

Leniency has not equalled indulgence, however. For example, if a student is unable to attend a class, Dubovyk says: “I can give them some kind of make-up assignment. They can write an essay on a certain topic, for example.”

Although men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been forbidden from leaving Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has not ordered a national mobilisation, which means that the government expects male (and female) university students to continue their studies.

While professors too are exempted from military service, some have volunteered. Dubovyk knows of several cases of professors being turned away from the recruiting centre by officials saying: “We need you more teaching your students than actually being on the frontline.”

Time and again, Zelenskyy has stressed the importance of university students completing their studies. In an address to Canadian university students in June, for example, he told the two Ukrainians who are now studying in Canada that they must study hard and come back ready to rebuild Ukraine.

Professor Yuriy Khalavka, who chairs the chemistry department at Chernivtsi National University in south-central Ukraine, north of Romania, puts his own spin on the message, telling students that their chemistry skills will be needed in the near future to help design new processes when the Donbas is liberated and the nation turns to rebuilding industrial concerns such as the Azovstal steel plant – which, before it was destroyed, was among Europe’s largest.

Knowing, for example, that university students who had been enrolled in universities in Mariupol and Melitopol can no longer attend school and that other universities have had to close depending on the ebb and flow of battle, a number of professors have used online access to courses to further this national educational imperative.

A mathematics professor at the Kyiv School of Economics wrote on Facebook a day or so after the Russians attacked that his courses would be open to students who needed mathematics for their economics, engineering or physics programmes.

Khalavka’s chemistry department has done likewise. When the battlelines were close to the cities of Kyiv and Sumy, 333 kilometres east of Kyiv: “We had several students from [the state university in] Sumy enrolled in our chemistry lectures and some people from Kyiv have also joined.” Most returned to their home universities when the security situation improved in April.

Even universities that are far from the frontline are using a hybrid format because reducing the amount of time students gather on their campuses limits the risk of Russians targeting places they know will be crowded. Khalavka’s students are on campus only one day a week for the chemistry laboratory.

He has been especially impressed with one student, who made a long trip every week to do experiments for his bachelor thesis. “It was quite dangerous, but he came to do his work.”

Reducing the time spent on campus also allows students to volunteer for the national effort.

“We made our classes one hour instead of one hour and 20 minutes. And we made them in the second half of the day, not in the morning, because our students have their volunteer activities early in the first half of the day,” says Professor Yegor Stadnyi, Kyiv School of Economics’ undergraduate rector and former deputy minister of education and science.

The exigencies of war have caused some professors to alter course evaluations. At the Kyiv School of Economics, final exams were replaced with term papers. Yuriy Pidlisnyi, director of the ethics-politics-economics programme at Ukrainian Catholic University, says that to lessen the stress on students during the semester, his programme and others have eliminated tests in favour of a cumulative exam at the end of the semester.

Keeping students on track

Prior to asking how they keep students on track, I told each professor I interviewed that I had been a college English professor for more than 30 years and the closest I came to what I imagine they must do to keep their students on track followed the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

While the most obvious impact of these attacks in Ottawa, Ontario, which is 640 kilometres from the World Trade Center, was the eerie absence of planes from the sky, my students knew I was born and raised in Brooklyn and that my parents still lived in New York.

Keeping my students on track meant deviating from the course’s content to explain the geopolitical situation and, since I am also a military historian, America’s military options, as well as accepting their heartfelt efforts to reach out to me, and, through me, to Americans as a whole.

By contrast, keeping students on track in Ukraine means reaching out to them. At Ukrainian Catholic University, tutors keep tabs on undergraduates while mentors regularly connect with graduate students.

Dubovyk says that he has contacted Mechnikov National University students who have missed classes, to determine if they are struggling with war-related difficulties and to offer what aid he can.

According to Khalavka, at Chernivtsi National University “the general policy was actually to do our basic tasks and also to ask from our students that they try to study as much as they can because it takes them away from the psychological stress”.

This won’t work for every student, he admitted in a matter-of-fact tone born of being at war for five months. His own experience of having meetings cut short and fleeing to an air-raid shelter after the air-raid sirens began to wail, informed his efforts to help a student he had tried to contact the day before we spoke.

Yesterday rockets were falling near where he works, Khalavka says. “I wrote to him because he was fairly close to the explosions.” While he knew that he could not expect the student to remain calm, he saw it as his duty to try to help him be as calm as possible.

“We want to be an island of calm, a kind of strength for our students,” he says, before adding something I hadn’t expected to hear: “I have some military training, it helps.”

Keeping Kyiv School of Economics’ graduate students on track required a different strategy than doing the same for undergraduates (who are more reliant on their families), explained economics Professor Tymofii Brik.

Because they are adults and from different parts of the country, they responded to the outbreak of war by wanting to pitch into the national effort. “There was a period of time in the first weeks after the invasion,” he says, “when the masters students did not care about education at all. “They cared about the country and they wanted to do something to deliver medicine or helmets or whatever.”

Instead of pressuring students to sign into online classes, Kyiv School of Economics recognised students needed to be active citizens.

“We supported them. We just wanted to make sure that they were safe and that they knew what they were doing. We did not force them to study, but we had a lot of on-and-off-again communication with them via Telegram chats, emails and video conferences,” says Brik.

Since Kyiv School of Economics was heavily involved in volunteering, the university maintained close links with students who volunteered through its auspices.

After several weeks, masters students began returning to class. Brik noticed a change in them, one he described with the word “resilient”.

The intrusions of war

Each of the professors I interviewed told me of the war intruding into university life, beyond having to return to online teaching and learning. All have had air-raid sirens go off during classes or meetings. Several told me of air-raids elsewhere, which caused the tile on a screen where a student’s face had been, to go black as he or she ran for shelter.

On the fourth or fifth day of the battle for Kyiv, the fighting was a mere 200 metres away from the building where Stadnyi and Brik sat when I spoke to them.

The destruction of their universities’ buildings is a special sorrow shared by Bidenko and Mihail Myhaylov, assistant rector at Admiral Makarov National University of Shipbuilding in Mykolaiv.

Though Bidenko told me about seeing the black chalkboard that, two stories above the wreckage of the building that housed Karazin University’s Institute of Public Affairs, remains affixed to the wall and the heavily damaged library, she at first resisted discussing the emotion such a scene elicits.

After a few moments, however, she said: “From the first, you can understand that it is a building where you have had meetings numerous times. Or you think about when you were sitting in the library and now it doesn’t exist.”

After the atrocities in Bucha, she continued, you can’t be too surprised at what the Russians will do. “Even before the war, when I spoke to my friends from the Donbas region, they told me that if you can’t imagine something they will do, they will do that.”

She continued in an elegiac tone after telling me she would send me photos of the damage to the university she so obviously loves. “I’m thinking every day, because they are shelling Kharkiv every day, about the future of my city, about the future of my university. About my own future.”

At 07:45 on 15 July, a week before I spoke with Myhaylov, several Russian missiles struck the main building of the Admiral Makarov National University of Shipbuilding. One side of a six-story building Myhaylov described as a fort – a box with a central garden – was destroyed by a missile, the warhead of which appears to have blown up only when it had pierced to the second floor. Whether from this explosion or others, the rest of the building has been rendered unusable. Instruction is continuing at two smaller campuses outside Mykolaiv, and online.

The loss, Myhaylov says, is more than just the building. Founded in 1901 as a marine technical school, the Mykolaiv Shipbuilding Institute played a major role in the development of the Soviet navy before the Second World War.

The university is, Myhaylov says, “the heart of the city”.

The institute, renamed the Admiral Makarov National University of Shipbuilding in 1946, became a university in 1994, three years after Ukraine became independent. The Ukrainians kept Admiral Makarov’s name for two reasons. Stepan Makarov, an admiral in the Imperial Russian fleet, had been born in Mykolaiv, and thousands of Mykolaivians had been educated and worked in the institute that honoured his name.

Myhaylov speaks of these men and women with a gentleness not usually associated with a senior administrator of a technical university. “We have a lot of older employees, professors who built this campus by their hands when it was the Soviet Union for 70 years. And now they watch and see it destroyed. I cannot even imagine what they feel in their hearts,” these last words said in a slow cadence.

However, Myhaylov noted the irony that Russians were firing on a university named for a Russian admiral. Given where the university is, 100 kilometres northeast of Odesa on the Pivdennyi Buh River that empties into the Black Sea, it is likely that the missiles that struck the university were fired from guided missile destroyers and-or nuclear submarines in the Black Sea.

“A lot of members of the crews for the Russian navy got their education in the former Soviet Union; they got their education in the technical sciences in our university. So, it is possible that some of them who were in Mykolaiv in our university are now bombing it,” he told University World News.

He added, a few moments later, that yesterday a shower of missiles struck Mykolaiv, one blowing a large hole in the ground 400 metres from the rector’s house and about a kilometre from Myhaylov’s – an act the assistant rector says is simply “terrorism”.

Stepping out of the classroom

The war has led professors to step out of their classroom and speak to the general public, even as it has altered both the material they present in class and the topics students choose to work on. Khalavka, for example, has given public lectures and written popular articles on chemical threats and safety procedures during fires.

When lecturing on radiochemistry Khalavka no longer focuses on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but, rather, on the very real threat of a nuclear attack on Ukraine. Some of his students have changed their bachelor degree theses to the composition of smoke or other things that could be related to defence.

“We were also monitoring radiation levels at the public’s request because journalists were constantly asking of us if there were threats regarding Chernobyl, regarding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant,” he says.

The students in Dubovyk’s course on international conflict spend less time on half-century old topics and more on what led Russia to invade Ukraine and trying to determine what might happen next – as well as on present-day wartime censorship.

His course on foreign politics asks: “What can NATO do? What can it not do? What are the red lines for the US? What’s Black Sea security?” Ukraine’s inability to export its grain through the Black Sea forms a major part of this last discussion.

Some student essays are on such traditional topics as: “How can we secure our country better since all of the guarantees and assurances did not work?” He allows others to write about the social or psychological impact of the war for two reasons. First, he is genuinely interested in seeing what his students have to say about these issues and, second, he recognises that for some students, writing about these issues is a useful coping mechanism.

During Kyiv School of Economics’ recent summer graduate tutorial on data and coding, almost every student worked on something related to the war. One group of students used open-source data on air raids, air-raid sirens, shellings and destroyed Russian tanks to code, and then produced a map that “visualised the data and allowed it to be analysed statistically”, says Brik.

As well, the university ran short summer courses informed by the war, one focusing on war-time economics and logistics supply, and the other on international trade. This autumn, Kyiv School of Economics will inaugurate two new masters programmes.

One is in urban studies. “We need to educate experts who will rebuild towns and cities,” says Brik. The other is memory and conflict studies. “We want experts who can address and protect Ukrainian culture and identity, to understand the human nature of this terrible context,” he says.

The school’s undergraduate division will be making changes to its economics and data science courses. Internships in these courses will see students preparing summaries of damage for different cities, villages and regions. Additionally, the university will be adding an undergraduate course in civil defence.

“Ukrainians are now professionals in some areas such as evacuation and shelters. But still, we need that component in our curriculum. And we need that not once in four years of study but on a repeat mode. Like each year, because those are physical activities which you need to remember and your muscles need to remember them,” says Stadnyi.

Bidenko’s course, democracy from theory to practice, developed with an American professor, now includes sections on war and humanitarianism, and the failures of direct democracy.

Students in her media and politics course examine Russian propaganda as well as Ukrainian advertising and symbols. A central part of this course deals with hate speech and asks: “What kind of hate speech is allowed towards Russia at the moment? Or should we fight hate speech in the public space regardless of circumstances and regardless of class?”

Bidenko finished this part of our interview by telling me that she has seen her 17- and 18-year-old students grow up quickly over the past few months. Some now seem more like 30-year-olds.

Equally striking is the change in many students who began the year, as Karazin University allows, speaking Russian in class. Most now not only speak Ukrainian. Some have told her about conversations in which they explain the facts on the ground in Kharkiv – that is, the reality of what Putin euphemistically refers to as a “special military operation” – to family members in Russia.

Shortly after the war began, Dymtro Sherengovsky, head of the academic department of Ukrainian Catholic University, instructed the university’s professors to develop in-service learning projects to augment the content of online courses. Over the course of the semester, more than 40 such projects ran.

In a course on Ukrainians’ identity and dignity, students produced English language podcasts aimed at explaining Ukrainian identity to foreigners. In another, students updated and fact-checked Wikipedia entries.

Projects in the faculty of applied sciences saw students print pieces for drones and prostheses for wounded people. In another, students effectively became civilian cyber soldiers as they developed code that automatically posted complaints to pro-Russian television channels. One project flooded channels identifying the location of Ukrainian military forces with fake information, a strategy meant to crash their computers.

Sherengovsky and two colleagues in political science collapsed four courses into one project in which students wrote “position papers and requests for our parliament that were sent to different parties in European Union countries”, he says.

Ukrainian Catholic University is one of many Ukrainian universities that have teamed up with American, Canadian and British universities, the faculties of which either teach courses with Ukrainian professors or host courses. DePaul University in Chicago has hosted 100 Ukrainian Catholic University students in 42 courses.

“When presented with the opportunity to help, our staff and faculty immediately provided the logistics and support to make this happen. DePaul is living our Catholic Vincentian mission by helping these students pursue their education with their country under assault,” says DePaul’s Provost Salma Ghanem. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul was founded in 1833 and was originally dedicated to providing aid to impoverished people living in the slums of Paris, France.

Along with economics Professor Gabriella Bucci, economics Professor Rafael Tenorio’s team taught a 10-week course on business innovation that began in late March. It was taught to both students in Chicago and six in Ukraine.

Since the time difference between Ukraine and Chicago is eight hours, Bucci and Tenorio ran an ‘open mic’ discussion session with the Ukrainian students at 20:00 their time, in which several students in Chicago chose to participate, including an older female student who had immigrated to the United States from Ukraine about 20 years ago.

What struck both Bucci and Tenorio about their Ukrainian students was how entrepreneurial they were. The one male student, says Tenorio, is thinking of pivoting toward cybersecurity because he believes the war will have weakened Ukraine’s internet and communications systems. One woman who works in the wine industry wants to collaborate with Polish vintners.

Tenorio was especially impressed with another woman’s ability to think outside the box for an assignment that required her to design a business experiment for the start-up company, Cameo, from which people can purchase a personalised birthday or other message from a celebrity.

In the assignment, the company wanted to increase its revenue by having clients pay more if two celebrities delivered the message. For a bare-bones company, such research would be prohibitively expensive, says Tenorio.

His Ukrainian student suggested adding a button on the website that clients could click if they were interested in this premium service. The button would take clients to a page saying this project is under construction. This was a business experiment that could test an idea in a rigorous way without costing the company too much money, he says.

Stiff-necked resolve

Despite what professors in Ukraine told me about the Russians using artillery and missiles to terrorise the population, they also told me that they were not about to give in.

Myhaylov averred that the exhaustion of being woken by an air-raid siren in the middle of the night and having to run to a shelter was wearing. But air raids during the day would be more dangerous because missiles could be targeted on buildings and other installations where there were lots of people.

“So, if I need to choose what is better, to have the missiles in the middle of the night or the middle of the day,” he said phlegmatically, “I prefer the middle of the night because people are not gathered in large groups.”

Dubovyk ended our discussion by telling me he believed that as much as the Ukrainian people are the target of Russia’s bombings and shellings of civilians, so too is public opinion in the West. “The message to the West is that the Ukrainians are suffering, apply some pressure on Kyiv for them to start peace negotiations, because the suffering will become worse,” he says.

At the same time, Russia’s killing of civilians is aimed at Ukrainian public opinion. “They’re looking for the breaking point for Ukrainians, when the pain would be just too much to bear. When maybe Ukrainians stop backing their own government and have negotiations by whatever means. We’ll do these concessions just to stop the carnage.”

It is having the opposite effect; people are backing Zelenskyy in saying no to negotiations because of Russia’s war crimes, says Dubovyk.

This stiff-necked resolve came across quite clearly to both Tenorio and Bucci, 8,000 kilometres away from Lviv. On the whole, during their open mic sessions, students did not talk about the war.

When they did, Tenorio told me, he was struck by the expressions these excellent English speakers used. “When they referred to the war or post-war, they never spoke in terms of a question,” that is, in the conditional ‘if’. Rather, Tenorio said: “They’d say, ‘when we win, this is what will happen’.”

This same spirit can be found in a message that remains on the website for the destroyed Central Scientific Library of the VN Karazin Kharkiv National University:

Dear Users

In conditions of the introduction of martial law in Ukraine, you can return to the library previously borrowed materials on subscription according to the following schedule:

Monday-Thursday, 10.00 – 14.00, room 1-28 (Subscription of educational literature No 1 in the main building of the university)

Thank you for your responsibility! We are waiting for you!

Keep yourself safe.