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Ukrainians look back on 2022

‘Teaching is a way to distract myself’

Photo by Pexels / Алесь Усцінаў
The lives of Ukrainian students and staff at the UG have been forever changed because of the war at home. Five of them look back on the past year. ‘In times of turmoil, nobody but Ukrainians can understand you.’
20 December om 15:38 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 9 January 2023
om 12:55 uur.
December 20 at 15:38 PM.
Last modified on January 9, 2023
at 12:55 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Yuling Chang

20 December om 15:38 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 9 January 2023
om 12:55 uur.
Avatar photo

By Yuling Chang

December 20 at 15:38 PM.
Last modified on January 9, 2023
at 12:55 PM.

Uliana

Researcher at the Faculty of Science and Engineering

‘I didn’t feel the need to be around other Ukrainians before’, says Uliana, who hasn’t lived in Ukraine for eleven years. That changed when the Russians invaded her home country. ‘In times of turmoil, nobody but Ukrainians can understand you’, she says. ‘You don’t even need to explain how you feel. So you want to be around your people and culture.’ 

She even listens exclusively to Ukrainian songs now. ‘Seriously, I couldn’t listen to anything else. The sound of the Ukrainian language is comforting and helps me feel connected to my country.’

Historically, Russia and Ukraine had close ties: the majority of Ukrainians are bilingual, for example, and many speak Russian with their friends and family. Now, Uliana says, a lot of Russian-speaking Ukrainians have switched to Ukrainian in their daily lives. ‘Ukrainians no longer want to be in the Russian sphere of influence, for example with books, music, and news.’  

‘The first trigger was the invasion of 2014, when Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine were annexed’, Uliana explains. She and her family have also switched to Ukrainian. ‘It just happened more or less naturally.’ 

She only talks to Russians if it’s absolutely necessary. ‘Now more than ever, language is a matter of your identity. When you hear Russian, you don’t know if those are Russians or Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Language matters.’ 

‘I’m hoping Ukraine will break free and cut all ties with Russia’, Uliana says. But their neighbour won’t make it easy, she knows. ‘The Soviet Union is not in the past in Russia. They still have their imperial ambitions; they still want to colonise surrounding countries.’

Uliana is a pseudonym.

Yuliya Hilevych

Assistant professor of economic and social history

In October and November, Yuliya Hilevych’s hometown Khmelnytskyi was bombed. ‘My mother witnessed it. The energy facilities were destroyed’, she says. Most of her family is still in Ukraine; only a cousin has moved to the Netherlands.

‘There was no electricity and no internet, so I couldn’t contact my mother after it had happened. The only thing I could do was wait for the news to hear how many people died and what kind of infrastructure was affected.’

Her family survived that attack, but Hilevych’s eighty-three-year-old grandmother was an indirect victim of the war. She broke her hip and resources in the hospital were limited, so she died. ‘I know a broken hip is almost a death sentence for elderly people. But in times of war, health services aren’t oriented to them either.’

It’s important to her that people understand that the war in Ukraine was going on long before February 2022. ‘There was already a war in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea. This year, the full-scale war started. It’s not a different event, but one big event with different stages. We’re in the extreme stage now.’ 

Kostia Gorobets

Assistant professor at the Faculty of Law

‘I feel uncomfortable talking about the situation in Ukraine. It takes me back to the emotional states I’m trying to escape’, says Kostia Gorobets. Still, he’s sharing his story now because he wants to help keep Ukraine in the public eye.

Gorobets’ parents live in Novotroitske, a town in the occupied Kherson region. His father was editor-in-chief of a local newspaper there. ‘It’s really dangerous to be a journalist in occupied territory. Printing isn’t possible and many local media had to shut down.’ 

Nevertheless, his parents decided to stay for pragmatic reasons: ‘Your house will be robbed if you leave. Russian soldiers will be stationed there, and they will destroy everything. That’s what happened in many occupied regions in Ukraine.’ 

When he sees on the news that the Ukrainian army has liberated an area, ‘it’s always a bittersweet feeling’, he says. ‘You celebrate because people are safe, we’ve reclaimed the occupied territory and restorations will begin. But you know some horrendous things will come to the surface.’

He tries to avoid the news as much as possible. ‘This flow of information causes an enormous wave of anxiety. It doesn’t matter whether the news is good or bad. That makes no difference at all’, says Gorobets.

It isn’t easy for him to concentrate on life in Groningen. ‘Teaching is a way to distract myself, because I’m talking to students about things that have nothing to do with war. I’m glad for that.’ 

Like Uliana, he’d rather not talk to Russians. ‘If I have to, I try to keep the conversation to a bare minimum. It’s not about the person, but it’s emotionally challenging for me.’ Even though he spoke Russian for most of his life, he doesn’t want to use the language anymore. ‘I switched to speaking Ukrainian with family and friends after 2014’, he explains. 

Now, when he hears Russian spoken on the streets in the Netherlands, ‘it’s immediately a trigger that this is an enemy’, he says. ‘I get tense and very uncomfortable.’ 

Some Ukrainians he knows do still speak Russian. ‘I don’t blame them, because I know how much of an effort it takes to switch to another language’, Gorobets says. ‘But language is one of the things that allows you to tell the difference between a friend or an enemy when a person is in front of you. So it pains me when I don’t know.’ 

Olha Cherednychenko 

Professor of European private law and comparative law

‘A couple of weeks ago, a missile hit a playground twenty metres from the University of Kyiv where my father works and where I started studying Dutch’, says Olha Cherednychenko, who has lived in the Netherlands for twenty-five years. She couldn’t believe it. ‘It’s right in the city centre. That was terrifying.’

The first two weeks after the invasion, she hardly slept. ‘I was constantly awake, checking the news to see whether my home was still standing.’ 

Working kept her sane. ‘I’ve continued working as if nothing was happening. It gives structure to my daily life. It would be harder if I couldn’t work’, she says. ‘It’s important for me to do the things I have to do in order to keep going.’  

Cherednychenko is still constantly worried about her parents. ‘At one point a few weeks ago they didn’t have water for twenty-four hours, but they were lucky enough to have electricity. My biggest fear is that there will be a total blackout and then it’s going to snow.’ 

Valeriya Kornilova

Recent bachelor graduate of international and European law

Valeriya Kornilova remembers the day Russia invaded Ukraine like it was yesterday. ‘All Ukrainians woke up to a completely new reality’, she says. When she called her parents and friends to see if they were alright, ‘they told me they were awoken by the noises of the bombings and shelling’. 

She asked her parents to come to the Netherlands. ‘But they decided to stay, they don’t want to leave.’ Luckily, she says, the situation in her seaside hometown Odesa is stable now. ‘I still worry, but I don’t feel as much stress as in the beginning.’ 

Life has changed for the people of Odesa, though. ‘Fewer people are able to work, for example. Or their income has been affected.’ That’s the case for her parents, both lawyers. ‘Their income depends on their clients, who have been leaving because of the war.’ 

As for Kornilova, her life in the Netherlands may be stable, but she herself has changed. Politics suddenly interest her a lot more. ‘I was only fourteen years old in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. It didn’t directly concern me, so I thought it should let the politicians make the decisions. I was on the neutral side of the conflict.’  

Now, ‘I’m definitely on my country’s side. There’s no compromise in this situation. We have to support Ukraine or we could cease to exist.’ 

Dutch