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‘I Had to Speak’: Harvard Affiliates Decry War in Ukraine Amid Disappointment in University Response

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Nika O. Rudenko ’24 and her family first became war refugees in 2014 when she was 13 and forced to flee her hometown of Donetsk, Ukraine.

The second time was on the night of Feb. 23, when Russia began its latest war against Ukraine. Rudenko was in her Mather House suite when friends began sending condolences by text message. She checked the news, lay down on the floor of the common room, and bawled. Her parents, asleep in their apartment in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, at first didn’t believe her when she called and said they were under attack.

“It was just horrible,” she said. “They were like, ‘No, nothing is gonna happen, we’re good, everything is safe.’”

“Unfortunately, nothing was good anymore,” Rudenko said.

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As the academic year draws to a close, however, there is still no end in sight. Russia’s efforts to capture Kyiv failed, but Russian forces occupy Ukrainian territory, including the destroyed city of Mariupol, which provides a land bridge to Crimea. Meanwhile, fighting is still fierce in the eastern Donbass regions. Thousands of civilians have been killed and more than 7 million Ukrainians displaced. Thousands of Russians — especially opposition politicians and journalists — have also fled their homes, fearing persecution and imprisonment.

Rudenko, co-president of Harvard Ukrainian Student Association, is one of a dozen Harvard affiliates with close ties to Ukraine or Russia who said that they initially reacted to news of the war with tears, but that their despair quickly turned to a determination to find a way to support Ukraine from halfway across the world.

This drive to speak out against the invasion has been coupled with growing disappointment in Harvard, which some students say has fallen short of its promises to support affected affiliates.

'This Truly Affected Every Single Ukrainian'

Taisa Kulyk ’22, whose parents emigrated from Ukraine to the United States, said that after learning about the invasion she managed to sleep for a few hours. When she woke up, she immediately began planning a rally.

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“Life just went on as usual in the University whilst the war started,” Kulyk said, explaining that for some students, the news “was life-changing.”

“We wanted for there to be an outlet to gather and to actually process the war together and to protest the war and to come together as a community,” she said. “Because, literally, there was nowhere to go.”

In Cambridge, during the three months since the start of the invasion, Eastern European undergraduate students have organized two rallies in support of Ukraine, created a petition signed by 650 Harvard affiliates to support students affected by the war, organized poetry readings of work by Ukrainian authors, and raised money to help provide Ukraine with medical supplies.

Several hundred people braved the snow on Feb. 26 to attend the first protest against the war in Harvard Yard.

“It was very inspiring to see how many students showed up to support,” Kulyk said of the rally.

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Kulyk, who is graduating in May, said she spent most of her final semester at Harvard finding ways to stand up for Ukraine, including meeting with administrators throughout the semester to discuss how the University could support its students affected by the war.

Asked why she immersed herself in activism during her last months on campus, Kulyk’s answer was simple: “I love Ukraine. I love my people.”

“This truly affected every single Ukrainian,” she added.

For Georgiy A. Kent ’22, a former president of the Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers, his initial response to the war was musical. He demonstrated his support for Ukraine by playing the country’s national anthem on the Lowell Bells the day the war started.

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Kent, who is half Crimean Tatar, said he passed Lowell House when walking back to his dorm from class and decided “if there’s any day to play the Ukrainian anthem, now it’d be the day.”

“It was probably one of the most immediate things that I felt like I could do to make a symbolic gesture of solidarity,” he said.

'Fighting with Fear'

For Russian students, the urge to support Ukraine was mixed with the horrible realization that their country had brought full-fledged war to Europe in the 21st century, along with fear that they may never be able to return home.

Alexander Zhigalin ’23 and Polina Galouchko ’23 said they were studying in the library of Dunster House when they learned Russian President Vladmir Putin had declared war.

“The first reaction is horror,” Zhigalin said, explaining that he does not think he can return to Russia.

“I feel that it’s not a home anymore,” he said. “Now I need a new one.”

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Galouchko said she immediately started texting her relatives and friends in Ukraine and felt the world “basically collapsing” around her.

“Everything stopped making sense,” she said. “It just shattered so many things about my identity.”

Zhigalin said he was “fighting with fear” during the first few days of the invasion, aware that speaking out against the war could result in government retaliation against him and his family.

But Zhigalin quickly decided that he could not keep silent.

“I felt that anything we can say or do needs to be said and done,” he said. “I had to speak.”

“This is a country that started genocide on Ukrainian people, that betrayed a long relationship with a separate nation to which there are many ties,” Zhigalin added. “This is just evil.”

Galouchko said she was also compelled to denounce the actions of her country’s government.

“It was very important for me to establish firmly the fact that I, as a Russian, am very much against this war,” she said.

“A lot of people have this natural instinct to think, ‘Oh, Russian people, they don’t protest enough against this war, they could have done something to prevent it,’” Galouchko added. “I just wanted to make it very clear that I am definitely not the person who is supporting this war.”

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Zhigalin and Galouchko said they both helped organize the second rally in support of Ukraine and students affected by the war.

At the March 26 rally, Zhigalin told the crowd he was calling on the University to provide additional academic support, increase access to mental health services, and suspend its term-time work expectation policy for impacted students.

“We want our second home, which is Harvard — which might be the only home now — to help us,” Zhigalin said.

‘Offensive and Thoughtless’

But three months after the start of the invasion, affected students say the University has still not done enough to support Ukraine and its Ukrainian and Russian students.

Rudenko said the “worst thing” about the University’s response to the invasion was President Lawrence S. Bacow’s justification for not sending a University-wide statement condemning the war.

In an interview with The Crimson on April 8, Bacow said that “when people get a message from me, I want them to read it because they know it’s important.”

“If people are getting too many of those, then it loses its impact,” he said. “I try to be thoughtful about when I speak, when I don’t, how I speak.”

Bacow pointed to “a whole series of events” which he addressed through personal remarks posted online rather than with mass emails.

Rudenko said Bacow’s comment made her question her place at Harvard.

“Am I just a data point to show that you have diversity?” she asked. “Or am I actually a valuable human being who you care about in this university?”

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“I thought [Bacow’s explanation] was incredibly offensive and thoughtless,” she added.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the criticism of Bacow’s remark.

Diana Lysenko, a student at the Harvard Extension School who is also a co-president of the Harvard Ukrainian Student Association, called the decision by Bacow not to release a University-wide statement “truly heartbreaking.”

“Leadership is about inspiring people to take action,” Lysenko said. “And so I think him being in that unique position of power and not using it for good is very unfortunate.”

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While Bacow has not sent out a University-wide email about the war in Ukraine, he addressed it in an email sent to the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and delivered opening remarks at a panel hosted by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies on Feb. 28.

In his remarks to the Davis Center panel, which have since been posted on a University website detailing resources for affiliates affected by the war, Bacow said that “now is a time for all voices to be raised.”

“The deplorable actions of Vladimir Putin put at risk the lives of millions of people and undermine the concept of sovereignty,” he said. “Institutions devoted to the perpetuation of democratic ideals and to the articulation of human rights have a responsibility to condemn such wanton aggression.”

“Harvard will continue to support in whatever ways we can members of our community who face grave uncertainty,” Bacow added.

'A False Sense of Hope'

But six undergraduate students from Ukraine and Russia who were unable to return home for the summer say Harvard is not supporting them in every way it can.

While the students received summer housing from the University, they had to pay a $200 housing fee and were not offered access to Harvard’s dining halls or financial support to cover meals.

Aleksandra Denisenko ’25, an international student from Russia, said all her “plans for summer got crushed in the end of February.”

After her original plans were disrupted, Denisenko said she got “very lucky” and managed to get a research job at Harvard Medical School. But her work will be unpaid because her application for compensation was rejected.

“I am left without funding,” she said. “I’m left without any money for housing and for food.”

“I’m still very grateful to have housing, but I don’t have meals,” Denisenko added. “And housing means nothing without dining.”

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Denisenko, a member of Harvard’s swimming team, said the lack of access to dining options will inhibit her ability to train for the next season because she will need to work part-time to afford meals.

“I need to swim,” she said. “If I work over the summer, plus do lab research for 40 hours over the week, it doesn’t give me a chance to swim twice a day.”

Harvard College spokesperson Aaron Goldman wrote in a statement that “the College is committed to supporting students from Ukraine and Russia during this extraordinarily difficult time.”

“All students from Ukraine and Russia who requested summer housing were approved,” Goldman wrote. “While meal plans are not included, each student has been assigned to a unit with a private kitchen.”

Zhigalin said he has “some savings” to help afford his meals for the summer, but was disappointed in the University’s decision to maintain its term-time work expectation for students affected by the war who are on financial aid.

Across Cambridge, MIT offered meal swipes and suspended expected spring term work contributions for Ukrainian undergraduates.

Zhigalin said he has found his financial situation especially constrained because he has to support his mother, who he persuaded to leave Russia after he began to openly denounce the war.

“Now she’s renting an apartment, she’s buying food, she’s buying medicines,” he said. “I have to send her money.”

“This affects how you’re studying, this affects your life,” Zhigalin added. “And this is the mission of financial aid to not let this happen — but they let this happen.”

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For Zhigalin and Galouchko, the lack of support for dining in the summer and the refusal to alter work expectations demonstrate a failure by the University to put actions behind its words of empathy.

“What is the value of those words if there’s no action that they’re taking to actually help you?” Galouchko asked.

“It would be better if they didn’t say anything, because this offers you a false sense of hope,” Zhigalin added. “And then there is no action that follows.”

Rudenko said her inability to get the University to take more action to support Ukraine and students affected by the war reminded her that she does not “have any influence over them to make them actually do it.”

For now, Rudenko said her plan is to strengthen her ability to effectuate change by receiving “a good education” before going back and rebuilding Ukraine.

“I think that’s kind of my obligation,” she said.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

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