A persecuted university rises again. And it has a message

“The world should realise our political power. The Ukrainian people, me, my colleagues and my family – we are not guilty. It’s not our fault that we want to be independent. We didn’t invite Russia on to our territories for them to rule over the absolutely independent Ukraine.” – Rector Roman Gryniuk

For a moment, I thought the change in the faces of Roman Gryniuk, rector of Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University (Vasyl’ Stus DonNU), and Professor Anna Osmolovska, acting director of the Education and Scientific Institute for Academic Potential Development and a senior lecturer in the department of political science and public administration, was another transitory freezing of our Zoom call and that I would have to ask again what identification Gryniuk used to get through the checkpoints thrown up in the Donbas when Russian forces seized Crimea in early 2014.

Then I realised from half a world away – in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada – I was seeing something I’d never witnessed: faces that had bespoke openness and warmth now registered something approaching terror; approaching, because it also seemed all too familiar.

In this, the 39th minute of our call, Osmolovska, who was translating, turned slightly to her right so that she could point up and behind her. She said in an unwavering voice: “Oh, there. That’s the alarm signal,” alerting them to incoming Russian cruise missiles, the same sort of missiles that just a few days earlier had devastated the universities in Mykolaiv.

Twenty seconds – during which the three of us spoke over each other, me telling them to run, Osmolovska saying, “We are really sorry [for having to end the interview]”, and her thanking me for being so understanding – followed. Her last 10 words before the screen went black were: “Thank you. Thank you. See you. I will text you.”

Interspersed with her words, I twice heard Gryniuk say in his deep voice, in clear English, “Thank you”, as I again said: “Go! Run!” – motioning with my hands as if that might make them move faster.

Based on what had been shared earlier in our interview, I knew that Gryniuk and Osmolovska would be rushing down five flights of steps because, as during a fire alarm, the elevator does not work during an air raid.

As I waited for my smartphone to begin transcribing the interview, I imagined them counting off each flight and I wondered if the internal fire escape was a concrete rectangular box, as they are in most North American buildings built since the 1960s.

Two minutes after the screen went black, I assumed they’d reached the fire escape door, and I imagined them running 500 metres across level ground to reach their goal: a bomb shelter built by a Soviet diamond mining company for 600 people and equipped with water, chairs and a bathroom.

“It takes six or eight minutes to get to the bomb shelter from our office. It’s enough time to protect ourselves from Russian missiles,” Osmolovska had said with remarkable sang froid, 14 minutes before the air raid siren cut short our interview on the second day of September 2022, the 190th day in a row that Ukraine had come under Russian missile and bombing attacks.

(Shortly after our second interview on 7 September, a Russian missile attack again forced Gryniuk and Osmolovska to run to the air raid shelter.)

Facts on the ground

On 15 September, Gryniuk will be part of a panel entitled “Universities Supporting Society in Times of Crisis and Preparing for Uncertain Futures” at the 36th anniversary meeting of the Magna Charta Universitatum in Bologna, Italy, for which University World News is the media partner. The Observatory Magna Charta Universitatum is an association of more than 900 universities.

More than most academic presentations, Gryniuk’s will focus on the facts on the ground, starting with how he became rector of Vasyl’ Stus DonNU in November 2012. Following the dismissal of rector Volodymyr Shevchenko for opposing the centralising tendency of the government of president Viktor Yanucovych, the faculty demanded a free and fair election, and chose Gryniuk, a former head of the department of constitutional law and international law and, later, dean of the law and economics faculty.

Two years of “constant struggle for the ideals of academic freedom” followed until Yanucovych was toppled following the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014. The policies of Serhiy Kvit, the minister of education and science under president Petro Poroshenko, who was elected in 2014, were more amenable to both Gryniuk and the university’s staff, but, as he will say in Bologna, that hardly mattered.

For, shortly afterwards the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (made up of insurgents supported by Putin) took control of educational institutions in Donetsk. The situation soon grew more and more dangerous for pro-Ukrainian students and staff. On 13 March 2014, a graduate student named Dmytro Cherniavskyi was stabbed to death at a rally in Donetsk’s central square.

“There were frequent cases when our students or employees were abducted by the terrorists and kept in special prisons and tortured for their pro-Ukrainian views,” he wrote, adding that “the university made every effort to rescue them from captivity”.

Osmolovska, who a week before Cherniavskyi was killed, had taken part in the largest pro-Ukrainian rally in Donetsk’s history, where a huge yellow and blue flag was held over Lenin Square, added: “Even the use of yellow and blue elements of clothing became dangerous.”

A month later, the university itself became the target.

“In June 2014, an armed convoy of Russian mercenaries with tanks moved from Sloviansk through the central streets of Donetsk,” Gryniuk wrote in an email. “At that time, final exams were held at the university. We experienced all the horrors of war when the armed militants seized, first, our dormitories in which students were living at the time, and then looted the car park.”

A few weeks later, Osmolovska fled for her life.

“I had to leave the city at the end of July 2014. There was still then the opportunity to leave Donetsk by train. However, the route had to be changed because there was artillery fire on the outskirts of Donetsk. The train had to stop several times because of the shelling,” but she reached Ukrainian-held territory unharmed.

On 16 September 2014, the militants occupied all the administrative buildings of the university, removed the Ukrainian flag from the main building and replaced it with the tricolour of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.

The next day, as did many of his colleagues and students, it was Gryniuk’s turn to flee his home city.

“Miraculously, I managed to leave Donetsk through the roadblocks set up by the pro-Russian militants on the way out of the city,” Gryniuk wrote. When we spoke, he added that at the checkpoints, armed militants asked how much money he and his driver had with them and whether they had jewels, alcohol and cigarettes. Handing these over helped grease his way through the checkpoints.

Had his Ukrainian passport indicated he was rector of Vasyl’ Stus DonNU, he might have been arrested or worse. For, as he learned from friends who remained in Donetsk, his name was on a list of people to be captured and taken to a prison where he could have been tortured. Or, the militants at the checkpoints might have killed him on 17 September 2014.

Gryniuk’s wife, two children and their families were able to leave Donetsk at separate times somewhat later. He remains on a blacklist, unable to visit the graves of his parents in Donetsk, which has been occupied by the Russians for eight years.

Saving the university

Less than two weeks after Gryniuk reached safety in Ukrainian-controlled territory, on 30 September, Kvit signed a ministerial relocation order: “On the organisation of the educational process of Donetsk National University of Ukraine in the city of Vinnytsia”, 800 kilometres from Donetsk, giving an official stamp to Gryniuk’s hope to preserve the existence of the university that dates back to 1937 and is named for its most famous graduate: the poet, human rights defender, dissident and hero of Ukraine Vasyl’ Stus.

“At first, these were just intentions, efforts, because I did not know what the reaction would be by the academic and administrative staff and students who had fled. How will they respond to my appeal? This decision was somewhat risky. I was supported by a small group of employees and students who created the public movement ‘Save Alma Mater’,” Gryniuk wrote.

Since many Vasyl’ Stus DonNU students remain in Donetsk or are elsewhere in Ukraine and attend class virtually, Gryniuk can say that since the Russian invasion in February, “we have not lost contact with our students”. They have maintained the educational process in the format of friendly consultations between students and lecturers (that was perfected during the times the campus had to be closed because of COVID-19).

“This provides,” he adds, “important psychological support for young people because war is about fear and uncertainty.”

Back in 2014, however, the reconnecting of students in Donetsk with the university-in-exile took place by telephone. Volunteer students, professors and administrative staff called each student in Donetsk and asked if they planned to keep studying at the university.

According to Gryniuk, the call would begin with the representative of Vasyl’ Stus DonNU saying, “This is Donetsk National University of the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine speaking.”

There were two main responses. The first accused the caller of being a fascist or a Banderite. (This last is a reference to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist partisan in the Second World War who, believing Germany would support an independent Ukraine, from mid-1941 to the end of November 1941, made rhetorical common cause with Germany, only to end up in Sachsenhausen concentration camp when the relationship soured.)

The second response was: “I am so happy to hear you. I am together with you.”

At the beginning of October, Vasyl’ Stus DonNU acquired the first of its present three buildings. To get it into shape to receive students a month later, faculty, administrative staff and students whitewashed walls, washed windows and arranged furniture. On 3 November 2014, the building opened, following a special ceremony that reached an emotional high when Vasyl’ Stus DonNU’s flag rose up the flagpole.

Sounding more like a Napoleonic corps commander than a former professor of juridical science and law, Gryniuk says: “It is common knowledge that an army exists until it loses its flag.”

In October 2014, a student of Vasyl’ Stus DonNU took the university’s flag out of the occupied building and the city of Donetsk by hiding it under her clothes. Through numerous roadblocks and inspections of her personal belongings at gunpoint, the university’s flag was returned to its rightful owner.”

Asserting ownership of Vasyl’ Stus DonNU has required more than establishing a new physical presence in Vinnytsia, raising the school’s flag and, of course, running programmes – today 62 BA, MA and PhD programmes are taught by 300 scientific and academic staff – to some 5,000 students, 10% of whom are natives of Donetsk.

Unlike some of his fellow rectors who decided to leave their post in 2014, Gryniuk has had to combat the existence of another institution masquerading as his.

This pseudo-university operates according to Russian higher education standards. It has continued illegally using the name of Vasyl’ Stus DonNU, pretending to be a recognised Ukrainian institution of higher education; it has even cooperated with other foreign institutions under the ruse.

“In order to prevent the use of our symbols by the pseudo-university, we developed and approved the official brand book of our university,” writes Gryniuk.

Eight years of war

Gryniuk plans on thanking his fellow panellists, those attending his panel in-person and online, and through them, the larger university community that has pulled together to help Ukrainians and Ukrainian universities by offering aid to students and professors who have left Ukraine for Western Europe or North America and direct aid to Ukrainian universities.

“In my opinion, education and science have no borders. We should be internationalised,” he says.

Echoing an address by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this year to Canadian university students, however, Gryniuk will also say that students going abroad is a mixed blessing because of the danger that these students will not return to Ukraine to help rebuild it.

While Bologna’s picturesque winding streets may prompt medieval dreams, Gryniuk brings a stark present-day message with him.

“I will speak about Russia’s war in Ukraine; how it is the biggest military conflict in Central Europe since the end of the Second World War. But this war, I will tell them, did not start on the 24th of February [2022] but in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and mercenaries in Donetsk and Luhansk started killing civilians.”

In the eight years of war, he will tell his panel, more than tens of thousands have died in the Donbas.

The Magna Charta Universitatum, which will be re-signed at the conference, is not the only international document that will concern Gryniuk.

The former dean of international law will remind his colleagues of the 1991 referendum by which Ukraine became an independent state, with inviolate borders, as was recognised by Russia, as well as the US and UK, in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (in which Ukraine agreed to give up the nuclear weapons that the USSR had stationed on Ukrainian soil).

He will also tell his colleagues that even when it was subsumed within the Soviet Union, Ukraine was an internationally recognised country. It was one of the founding members of the United Nations; ultimately, 15 of the Soviet Socialist Republics held seats in the General Assembly of the United Nations.

These are, Gryniuk made clear when we spoke, hardly trivial bits of history. Rather, they underscore the fact that Ukraine has “truth on our side when we say we are free people”.

Gryniuk will call for Vasyl’ Stus DonNU’s international partners to support his university’s efforts to “destroy Russian propaganda’s informational infrastructure”. With the help of other universities, Vasyl’ Stus DonNU wants to expand its efforts to counter Russian propaganda on social media by spreading the truth about the war convulsing his homeland.

“On our Facebook page and our website,” he says, “we gather information about missile attacks, about victims, about murders of Ukrainians by Russian troops, and we publish official information from the Ukrainian government. It is a unique campaign among Ukrainian universities and we want our international partners to help us. The fight on the information front is very real,” he says.

Internationalisation as a norm

Gryniuk will have one further message for his panellists and audience. Though immersed in the details of running his university, like any good administrator, he looks towards the future and the role institutions like his can have in reconstructing the sundered world order.

“We understand that all international institutions that are responsible for international security today have shown that the mechanisms and processes of the world political order are very fragile. We can see there are lots of efforts to break old norms of international order.”

Universities are one of the few institutions where internationalisation is the norm, as demonstrated by the Magna Charta Universitatum conference, its charter, academic conferences around the world and faculties.

Accordingly, Gryniuk will say: “The role of universities in modern society is to fight for this new order of academic principles and democratic principles and freedoms, and international cooperation.”

*On 6 October at 13:00 BST (14:00 CEST and 15:00 Kyiv) Rector Gryniuk will be in conversation with David Lodge on the subject ‘Serving society in times of conflict: a case study from Ukraine’. The discussion, being hosted by Magna Charta Observatory, will deal with the university’s relocation and the importance of values, leadership and international partners in enabling the university to continue to serve society. Registration on the webinar will be open after the Magna Charta Universitatum anniversary conference.

This article is part of a series published in partnership with Magna Charta Observatory. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

This article was updated on 12 September 2022.