A year of war: Counting the psychosocial cost for students

Recent interviews with Ukrainian students and a separate survey designed to extract information about the experiences of over 1,600 students since the Russian invasion reveal the psychological damage and the social fallout suffered by young Ukrainians as a result of the war.

Exactly one year before we spoke on 24 February 2023, Anastasia Lytvynovych’s grandmother woke her near 7am with the words: “The war has started.”

Lytvynovych looked out the window. “Not far away is the airport. On top of it, there was a huge black cloud of smoke. It was obvious that it had been bombed,” said the second-year philology student at Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University (VSPNU) in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, 100km east of Poland.

“Damn, why us? I haven’t lived long enough to be killed by some kind of missile tomorrow,” the 18-year-old recalled thinking.

A few hours earlier, when she was woken up by a friend who called to tell her about the bombing, Nataliia Pyliachyk, one of Lytvynovych’s philology professors, felt as though she was in “a horror film”.

“I didn’t know what to do. I ran around the house trying to find documents and trying to decide whether to put money or maybe some jewellery or clothes into a bag,” she recalled.

When describing that morning, VSPNU Philology Professor Olga Trotsenko’s thoughts spilt together: she spoke of her grandfather who fought in World War II, but never spoke of his experiences of the Great Patriotic War (as it was called in the Soviet schools Trotsenko attended as a child); of how she “couldn’t imagine that it can happen again”; that “we have civilisation, computer technology, the internet”; that there is no need for missiles; that Ukraine is not a hostile country.

Convinced that war was about to break out, Iryna Horobets’ mother took her to France days before the war began. Yet, the now first-year Kyiv School of Economics (KSE) mathematics student told me that her reaction to images of battle and the destruction of cities she saw on television has given her a completely altered sense of time, as days and weeks tumbled together.

“It was like one long day. I was shocked when I realised it was summer because every day felt like winter. I started my new calculation of dates in the middle of summer,” Horobets said. The “awful emotions” of seeing the bombing of Mariupol, where the theatre sheltering children was destroyed, the pictures of the massacres of civilians in Bucha – all of these led the soft-spoken 17-year-old I interviewed to “hate all Russian people. Everything Russian”.

The rule of two walls

To understand the psycho-social impact of a year of war on students since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I interviewed seven students at three different universities and used a survey of 1,685 students, “Ukrainian Students After a Year of War: Study-abroad experience, war, trauma, challenges, and needs”, conducted by Anna Ishchenko of Socioplus, the Scientific Research Centre of Applied Sociology at the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute (ISKPI), and Professor Olha Demydenko, who teaches in ISKPI’s faculty of linguistics.

More than 1,500 of the survey’s respondents were in Ukraine. To understand the impact of the war on professors, I interviewed five professors at VSPNU, KSE and ISKPI.

The survey was conducted between 22 February 2023 and 3 March 2023 – ie, after the heavy missile and drone bombardment that began in late 2022 had lessened. This fact might appear to explain why 46.5% of the students answered that they did not feel stress and another 22.5% answered that they couldn’t say if they felt more stress.

Yet, these results accorded with what they told me about their experiences earlier in the war. Yulia Tsuiryk, a first-year sociology student at ISKPI, for example, who is studying conflict resolution and mediation, went to the bomb shelter only twice: on the first night of the war and once in her home city of Khmelnytskyi (300km south west of Kyiv) where she went after the war began before returning to Kyiv in June 2022.

Even during the heavy bombings, she remained in her apartment building in the centre of Kyiv, avoiding the cold basement because, she said, “if the building collapses, they will not be able to save us”. Instead, she took responsibility for herself, making sure that when the air-raid sirens sounded, she went to her bathroom because it provides the protection of two walls.

Horobets also followed the ‘rule of two walls’. She found it safe enough to do an interview with me from inside her wardrobe on a day when the air-raid sirens blared. She explained the rule this way: “If a rocket hits your home, nothing will save you. However, if it hits nearby, your window and the outside wall will be destroyed. But the second wall will be saved. Following this rule helps you not to die from debris.”

For Vadym Yudenko, who spent the first nights in the metro like tens of thousands of other Kyivans, the most memorable air raid occurred on 7 June 2022 when two missiles launched from strategic bombers struck the shopping mall in the centre of Kremenchuk, 300km south east of Kyiv. Yudenko, who had returned to his hometown to be with his parents and help with civil defence, was 500 metres from the mall when the warheads blew up.

The police and military personnel who were soon on the scene prevented the nearby civilians from helping with the recovery. Yudenko, however, had another reason to refrain from rushing towards the burning building – his father worked in a building on the other side of the mall, and he ran there to check if he was all right. He was.

It is a testament to both the effectiveness of the Ukrainian armed forces, which defeated that attack on Kyiv, liberated Bucha, recaptured Izium in September 2022 and Kherson in November 2022 and shot down hundreds of missiles and drones, that 72% of respondents said they felt either “rather safe” or “safe”.

However, 47.6% of students said they were either stressed or severely stressed when assessing the safety of their loved ones, a point underlined by Tsuiryk, who, after having returned to Kyiv, worried about her parents and called to check up on them often.

Financial stress

Almost 45% of respondents indicated that their financial situation caused them stress. Almost half of the 56 students who answered the open-ended question “What kind of help have you received since the beginning of the war?” referred to their financial status in their answers. Five students referred to receiving food from friends or relatives abroad, one mentioning “a box of spaghetti from Turkey”.

Several indicated their employers had given them financial support, while four received support from their home university and six from the European Union’s Erasmus+ program. Lytvynovych discussed her family’s strained financial situation, with the other students mentioning the parents’ low salaries and the high prices of food and electricity.

In percentage terms, 26.4% of respondents indicated that they had received financial aid from either the country they were presently taking shelter in or from humanitarian organisations in those countries. 70% of the students who have had to move outside Ukraine received financial support from international organisations or humanitarian organisations outside Ukraine.

Financial concerns were paramount for Professor Inesa Melnyk, who is now teaching English at VSPNU. A native of Donetsk, where she had been part of the area’s social service network, Melnyk, together with her daughter and son and her parents fled to the city of Bakhmut when Russian-backed insurgents seized control of part of the region in 2014 at the same time that Russian president Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. Over the next eight years, as Melnyk worked in social services, her father built up a profitable construction business.

Then came the full-scale invasion and soon Bakhmut’s streets were filled with people fleeing the fighting to the east. “We saw injured people, children with eye sores, some with only one shoe. We saw soldiers without legs and hands,” she said.

In late April 2021, as the Russians inched closer to Bakhmut, Melnyk asked her supervisor to relieve her of her responsibilities to help care for the human wave caused by the invasion so that she could move her own family further west.

“He thanked me very much for what I had done for the refugees coming into the city, but he understood that since I’m divorced and I’m the only person my family could rely on, I had to move with them.”

In July 2021, she was offered the position at VSPNU where she moved with her parents and daughter; her 16-year-old son is studying physics on a scholarship outside Ukraine.

When we spoke on 1 March, Melnyk’s voice broke for a moment when she said that the Russians had destroyed both her and her parent’s homes in Bakhmut. It broke again when she told me, a stranger on another continent: “I lost everything. My parents lost everything. They won’t be able to buy a flat or any place where they can spend the last years of their lives.”

Anti-Russian sentiment

The survey did not ask the students about their attitudes towards their Ukrainian identity. However, their answers to several questions, and what the students I interviewed told me, sketches a portrait of a people committed to their Ukrainian identity and to their nation’s survival.

Almost 70% of respondents had volunteered in some manner since the war began. One quarter collected money for the armed forces or territorial defences. 16% volunteered online, while almost 12% provided “social services to Ukrainians living in severe living conditions”. 56% of the 320 students studying abroad said they expect to return to Ukraine, while 36% answered they did not know yet.

Horobets, who returned to Kyiv from France to begin her studies at KSE, said in early April of last year, she realised that listening to popular Russian music became increasingly emotionally difficult; after the missile attacks began in the fall, she could not bear hearing Russian spoken. She dismissed the argument – ‘It’s just music, not politics’ – her friends made to defend their continued listening. “If you listen to them [the music], you are paying Russians. And because of this [taxes collected on royalties] we have bombs and rockets falling on us,” Horobets told University World News.

Filling her music library with Ukrainian popular music took a few months. “But, I understood that it would be better for me. I cannot respect people who don’t have the same position on politics [about Ukraine] as me. It’s a small thing I can do for my country.”

Anna Myslytska, a second-year student at KSE, admitted to a certain level of guilt because she is safe in Spain; she took her courses online. Since she was originally from Moldova, I asked her if she spoke Romanian, the country’s official language and/or Russian, which is the first language of approximately 14% of the country. Like so many people from the region, she is a polyglot.

Since arriving in Spain, however, she has spoken Russian only with her mother, who does not speak another language. “Now I speak Ukrainian outside. I want to be identified as a Ukrainian and not as a Russian speaker,” she said.

Speaking Ukrainian had an effect Myslytska didn’t expect – one she clarified with a rough and ready explanation of the “language relativity hypothesis” (LRH) Pyliachyk taught in her philology classes.

According to the LRH, the language we speak (largely) structures thought and how we perceive and interact with the physical world and social reality. “It was difficult at first. But, when you start thinking in Ukrainian, it’s much easier to develop your thoughts about the culture,” said Myslytska.

Lytvynovych explained her attitude toward Ukrainians speaking Russian succinctly: “I feel betrayed every time I hear Russian from Ukrainians, because that is the language of your killers.”

For her part, Trotsenko has also seen her view of Russian – the language of the country that has invaded their homeland, and murdered and tortured civilians – change drastically.

Having lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union, the creation of an independent Ukraine, the Revolution of Dignity (which in February 2014 led President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Moscow) and numerous democratic reforms, Trotsenko struck a realistic note about politics. “It’s one thing when, for example, political systems change and you change governments. But we were shocked and traumatised by what was discovered at Bucha after the Russians left.”

The images of tortured and massacred civilians were so disturbing they affected Trotsenko’s attitude toward Ukraine’s ‘sister Slavic language’ Russian.

“I was rather tolerant earlier towards the Russians, I mean, towards the Russian language,” Trotsenko told University World News. “Now, I hate the Russian language. I don’t use it in my ordinary life. I don’t use it with Russian-speaking Ukrainians.”

Trotsenko went further: “I understand that maybe it’s not correct because not all people in Russia are the same. But it is not Putin who was killing people in Bucha. It is not Putin who is torturing people. These are Russian people. It is not one person, or two or three. There are thousands of them who did all these things. So, on this occasion, I can talk about the nation,” she said.

Trauma and fear

78% of respondents indicated that their psychological state had declined since the beginning of the war. In the “comments” section, students listed stress, depression, chronic fatigue, lack of sleep, needing psychological help and wanting to live normally.

All of the students I interviewed and several of the professors said that the television reports and photos they saw of the atrocities in Mariupol or Bucha were traumatising.

Maria Kovalchuk, who was in Kyiv when the war broke out and is now studying for a PhD in Eastern European History at Ludwig Maximillian University (Munich), explained how being outside Ukraine did not lessen the fear engendered by the sexual violence perpetrated by Russian soldiers.

“I was shocked and horrified. And even though I have not been under occupation, on an emotional level it [being raped] is very present in my fears. Fear of being violated physically [by an army], in the 21st century in Europe is something we were raised to believe was impossible, that it was something left in the past.”

A moment later, Kovalchuk linked the torture of civilians and the rape of Ukrainian women to the history of Russian violence against Ukrainians including the forced famine, the Holodomor, of the early 1930s in which four million Ukrainians starved to death.

“The invasion by Russia,” she said, “and the violence against women is an attempt to push me back into what my parents and grandparents went through. The genocidal war is a denial of my right to exist, my right to speak.”

To maintain their mental health, several of the students and professors I interviewed limited the amount of news they followed. Lytvynovhch, for example, told me that almost immediately after she began limiting herself to reading or viewing the coverage about the war that other countries were giving Ukraine, or statements by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, or other world leaders, her mental state improved.

Several of my interviewees told of others who coped with the stress by drinking heavily. Others said their doctors had put them, or people they knew, on antidepressants and sleeping pills.

Impact on study

The impact of the war on the students’ academic lives was difficult to pin down. 71% indicated a decline in their education and/or work lives, while 76% said that since the start of the war they had made significant gains in their knowledge.

This paradox was present in the students I interviewed. Yudenko, for example, could easily have been in the first group had he answered the survey between the outbreak of the war and June 2022 when he found it almost impossible to focus on his studies. “I had to write my [BA] thesis. I have no idea how, but I managed to do it.”

Since he started his MBA, however, his workload kept him so busy that explosions and air-raid sirens became an annoyance and not a threat.

“Oh, sometimes there are explosions. Everyone is sort of aware that if there’s an air [raid] alert, you have to go to the bomb shelter, which in this case is in the basement of the economics building”, which is furnished with both battery and diesel power and has a stable internet connection – and in which Horobets took an exam the day before we spoke.

Though safe in Spain, for months Myslytska didn’t feel like doing anything, going out or even seeing the city her parents had taken her to. The psychological state she compared to a “mental breakdown” began to lift in the early summer, even as she worried about her boyfriend who remained in Ukraine.

“It came to this bit where I said, I have to study. I have to work for my country and put myself together and do something useful. And this mood continues.”

In addition to her studies at KSE, Myslytska volunteered for the university’s Center for Food and Land Use Research. She was the lead author on a summary of studies titled Impact of the RF’s (Russian Federation’s) Invasion of Ukraine on Global Food Security and the main researcher on the study “Is Ukrainian Wheat Easily Replaced? Global Trade Flows Review” written with KSE Professor Pavlo Martyshev, who studies food markets, agricultural policy and econometric modelling of agricultural prices.

At first, coping with her own anxiety, heightened by concern about family members in the armed forces (one of whom, sadly, was killed, leaving behind a 28-year-old widow with two young children, one he never saw) and keeping her courses moving took all of Pyliachyk’s strength.

Following the advice of a friend, who is a psychotherapist, to do something she liked to do, Pyliachyk returned to her research. After recovering from a bout of COVID-19 that landed her in the hospital for 26 days, she led a team of four other professors from VSPNU in researching and writing a paper analysing the metaphors the media used in writing about COVID-19.

Pyliachyk’s second paper, “Visual, Auditory, and Verbal Modes of Metaphor: A Case Study of the Miniseries Chernobyl,” was published last month in the Lublin Studies in Modern Languages and Literature.

The paper shows that Mikhail Gorbachev’s government deliberately suppressed knowledge of the nuclear disaster that unfolded 90km north of Kyiv. By analysing the interviews in the five-part HBO series Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, Pyliachyk’s team showed that the imperial attitude of the ruling country, Russia, had no mercy for ordinary Ukrainians.

Similar distortions, Pyliachyk said, can be observed today, as Russia uses television and social media to deliberately mislead the civilised world about the war against Ukraine.

Mental and physical exhaustion

Both Melnyk and Trotsenko reported that after the initial shock wore off last spring, students were extremely motivated, their attitude being that doing well in university was their way of fighting back against Russia. Now, however, many students are mentally and physically exhausted, and have trouble concentrating.

Accordingly, said Trotsenko, the quality of students’ work had suffered, and she thought it best not to press them. “Sometimes they ask me not to give them too many tasks for their homework because they do not feel good or something has happened.”

Professor Georgiy Shevchenko, who teaches maths at KSE, also said that while most of the students are doing okay, there has been a rise in the number suffering from psychological problems.

Aside from the stress caused by air raids, the reality of the war can at any moment dissolve the illusion that the classroom is a shelter from the storm, as it did one day Trotsenko told me about.

During a Zoom lesson with a group of 14 students, Trotsenko noticed in the chat that one of her female students had written that she had just learned that her father, a soldier, had been killed. And, a moment later, she left the virtual room.

“Everybody just kept silent. I didn’t know what to say,” recalled Trotsenko. “She wrote in the chat, ‘that she doesn’t believe it, didn’t believe that, and that she was going to try to get some additional information’, but I understood that it was true, otherwise they wouldn’t have informed the family. Everybody understood that and we just kept quiet.

“I saw that there was 20 minutes left till the end of the lesson. I told the students that we will finish the lesson [another time] because I supposed everybody would like some time for themselves,” said Trotsenko.

Teaching the war

Lytvynovych could be taken for speaking for most of the students interviewed when she answered my question about whether in her English class she would choose to write an essay about the war: “I never want to write about the war because it’s something I face every day.”

Yet, as Pyliachyk explained, the war provides important source material, such as Zelenskyy’s 8 February 2023 address to the British House of Commons. In preparation for a class on it, she showed her class a video that explained the seven reasons why countries make war so that her students understood that Ukraine is fighting a defensive war.

Pyliachyk and her students anatomised the speech that ended with Zelenskyy thanking the British for “delicious English tea” and thanking parliament “in advance for powerful English planes”.

“At the end, my students thanked me. They said that if I hadn’t asked them to watch the video, they never would have seen it. I was really impressed and proud of my students,” Pyliachyk said.

For his part, KSE Professor Maksym Obrizan, who teaches macroeconomics and health economics, said it was impossible to keep the effects of the war out of his classes.

In his macroeconomics classes, his students study the war’s destructive impact on the Ukrainian economy – high unemployment, inflation, dropping GDP, lost earnings for farmers whose wheat the Russians stole from Kherson. “When it comes to health economics, of course, we have to mention higher mortality, that medical facilities have been destroyed, that health reforms have slowed down.”

An enduring resilience

At the end of our e-mail interview, Tsuiryk distilled the effects of one year of war into four sentences. It was a message of resilience and resistance.

“We are not poor and unhappy but strong and powerful. Ukrainians have finally awakened to national consciousness; the Russification of the country has stopped. We got rid of the inferiority complex, and we have cool foreign partners. We have proved that we are not a suburb [of Russia] but a separate, powerful state with a huge history,” the 18-year-old wrote.