Student life in Odesa
‘It’s like an extended lockdown’
Masha and her friend Ihor are sitting outside a café in downtown Odesa, in front of windows boarded up to protect them from the blast waves of close-by missile strikes. The two are part of a group of students that gather here almost every day — for some much needed socialising, but also to charge their phones with the café’s emergency generator.
But ever since last week’s Russian drone attack left over a million Odesans without power, securing a seat and a plug in the overcrowded cafés has become like a daily lottery. Today, Masha and Ihor are not among the lucky ones.
After the war started, Masha says, it took her two weeks before she dared to leave her apartment again. It was March 8, International Women’s Day. The first thing she saw was a woman walking down the street with a rifle in one arm and a baby in the other.
‘I will never forget that image. For me, it encapsulated the reality of the situation, but also the strength of our people.’
The day the attack started, Masha’s father came to get her. They hoped to escape the city. But while waiting in line in front of the municipality office for their travel documents, a rocket struck just down the street. Masha saw it in the reflection of a window: a terrifying ball of fire that turned an entire building into dust and smoke. Then the documentation office closed, putting an end to their escape plan. Masha went back home and hid under the covers, clutching her phone like a lifeline.
When the power is out and there’s no internet, it’s difficult to study
‘If you look at my call log from that day, it’s just outgoing calls every few minutes. Hundreds of them. Every time I heard an explosion, I called my family, my friends. Just to know if they were still alive.’
At the end of the day, all the worrying had left her exhausted. But still she couldn’t sleep. The rockets kept coming, shaking the ground, rattling the windows. Knowing she might have to run for shelter any second, Masha went to bed fully dressed, wearing her most practical sneakers. At five in the morning she and her friends got on a Discord call together, microphones on, so that they could check in on each other whenever they heard an explosion.
‘We stayed on that Discord call for weeks. I think that’s the only thing that allowed me to sleep during those days: that I never felt truly alone, because I could listen to the chatter of my friends, and know that they were okay.’
What does her life as an economy student look like right now? ‘When the rockets hit, it’s scary. At first, classes would be cancelled and we’d go to a bomb shelter. Now we mostly ignore the air raid alarm’, Masha says. ‘When the power is out and there’s no internet, it’s difficult to study. That’s why I prefer to do that in cafés, they have emergency generators. But it’s also boring. Most days it feels like we are in an extended Covid lockdown.’
In the beginning of the war, everybody was too distracted to study. Many professors and students fled to other countries. Education started up again after a month, but most students have a study delay. ‘Because of the circumstances, professors are lenient.’
Indeed, like in 2020, campuses in Odesa are closed and all classes are online. There is no nightlife because of the 11 p.m. curfew. Most cultural events, like plays and concerts, have been cancelled. Masha’s social life right now consists of meeting up with her friends and drinking coffee for as long as the café’s emergency generator can power the espresso machine.
‘But’, she is quick to add, ‘every time we survive another missile attack, I’m grateful I get to enjoy such moments at all.’
cIt was still dark outside when Ihor woke up to a call from his grandmother: ‘Putin just attacked us.’
He wasn’t scared; there was simply no time for that. Instead, he opened YouTube and looked up videos about prepping for survival. ‘Like, what preserved foods should I buy for my family? I knew that if I’d wait too long, the supermarkets would already be emptied by people panic-buying food and water.’
So he threw on a coat and went down to the stores with his friend, explosions sounding all around them. They had just left the supermarket when a missile hit so close that it shook the entire street. It was then that his friend suggested they take a ‘final’ selfie, just in case.
The two made it back alive. Ihor dropped the cans of food and water off at his grandmother’s, then went home and looked up how to shoot a Kalashnikov — he was convinced that he would need to in the coming days.
As long as I’m not called upon to fight the Russians with a gun, I will fight them with my art
Thankfully though, that has not come pass yet, and he’s been able to fight the invasion using his true talent: ‘I’m a conservatory student: my music is my weapon. As long as I’m not called upon to fight the Russians with a gun, I will fight them with my art’, he says.
‘I’m proud to be part of the movement that is reclaiming our Ukrainian culture and shedding the Russian influence that has stuck to our nation for so long’, Ihor says. ‘Why should we play Tchaikovsky when there are so many fantastic Ukrainian composers — like Mykola Lysenko — that deserve the spotlight just as much?’
Some people said it was ridiculous for Ukraine’s minister of culture to call for a ban on Tchaikovsky’s music during the war. But Ihor does not agree with them. ‘Just like culture is my weapon, so it has been for the Russians for decades. Even before the USSR, the Russians tried to supplant Ukrainian culture with their own ideas.’
For Ukraine to escape Russia’s sphere of influence, it needs a strong cultural identity of its own, he feels. ‘And I will keep fighting for that.’
But studying music is difficult now that the conservatory is closed. ‘Normally I would play on a conservatory piano, the professor standing behind me, listening and watching my finger work. Playing on a cheap Casio keyboard over a Zoom call just doesn’t do Lysenko justice. Though I think he’d forgive me, given the circumstances.’
French language and culture student
‘Let’s wash our hands first’, Serhiy tells me outside of the restaurant where I meet him for lunch. It has nothing to do with Covid; a pair of missiles slammed into the city just an hour before, and rumours are that Odesa’s water supply has been damaged in the attack, and will soon be cut off entirely. We open the taps and a last trickle of water drips out, just enough to rinse our hands with.
‘That may have to last us a few days. Just don’t touch anything dirty until then’, Serhiy says practically, having lived with such inconveniences since the war started.
He does not remember being scared when Russia first attacked — rather, he was in a state of total disbelief. ‘I was one of the few people who defended Russia before the war, telling everybody they were our brothers, and that they would never attack us.’
But the morning of February 24, Putin shattered that idea with a barrage of rockets. Serhiy felt betrayed. He should have fled, him and his mother, but they were simply too shocked to act. ‘How can you make a decision when your entire worldview has been so brutally upended? Now that Russia was our enemy, all of sudden nothing felt certain anymore.’
Those first weeks were a haze. He can’t recall anything other than being glued to the TV, clinging to every bit of news while explosions rocked the city. But life does not pause for war. For years he’d been working hard to achieve his dream of studying abroad, and when he finally got accepted into a prestigious programme in Milan, he refused to let the war sabotage his goals.
I felt more determined than ever to make the most of my potential
In fact, it motivated him: ‘I saw the destruction the war wrought on my country, and felt more determined than ever to make the most of my potential, so that I could put my career in the service of Ukraine.’
But September brought another disaster. This time a personal one: male students enrolled at a foreign university were suddenly forbidden to leave the country. This came as a surprise, because they make up a group of only about three thousand men, and they’d been exempt from martial law for the duration of the war so far.
Serhiy does not understand the reasoning behind the decision. ‘Ukraine’s reserves number in the millions, what difference will three thousand men make? Why not let us finish our studies abroad, so that we can bring back the knowledge and connections to help rebuild our nation?’
When the time comes that every man is needed to fight for Ukraine, of course, he will fight too, Serhiy says. But right now, he wants to fight for his right to finish his academic career. That is why he and some of the other men affected by the travel ban have started a campaign to have the restriction lifted.
‘We don’t know how long this war will last and neither does our government. So at least let us finish the degrees we are already pursuing, and then send us to the front lines if need be.’