Students express concern over Russia-Ukraine conflict

This story was originally published in the Oct. 27 issue of Fourth Estate.

The effects of Russia’s annexation of Crimea are being felt by Ukrainian and Russian students as well as faculty here at Mason.

Junior Daniel Rohov and freshman Claire Walker, both Ukrainian students at Mason, agree that they feel affected by the conflict.

“In a way it affects me personally, because my mom and grandmother are currently living in Ukraine, and since the available media is usually biased, I don’t always know what’s really going on back home unless I talk to them,” Rohov said. “I’m also affected by the fact that some members of my family who live in Russia don’t understand how the media is trying to manipulate the situation, so there have been a few arguments with some of my family members.”

“The conflict in Ukraine, which is influenced by Russia, can affect students at Mason, and people globally because I think how the situation is being handled by and [being] shown to the rest of the world shows how we really react to invasive situations as a globe,” Walker said. “Though we, personally, are far, the problems directly influence us. They also influence the American economy and ties between Russia and the U.S.”

The conflict is not just in Ukraine. Junior Alex Lysenko, a Russian student, says that Russian students can be affected by the conflict too.

“It is really hard to know anything that is going on on the other side of the planet since there is no objective information. Russian news say one thing, American say another, Ukrainian say another. The only true information I know is the one from my relatives in the military who were sent to the border with Ukraine and to the refugee camps,” Lysenko said. “I am from the major city that is situated right by Ukraine – two hours from the border – and when I went home this summer everything that was going on was really close to where I was. Just an hour away from us you could find bombshells from bombings. We had refugees living in our house. It was terrifying.”

Professor of History Rex Wade agrees that the conflict can affect Russian and Ukrainian students’ and teachers’ identities, but that it really depends on how politically and nationally involved those students and teachers are.

“A rabid nationalist, say a Putin type Russian, might have hostility to Ukrainians, while some Ukrainians, especially those from the northwest regions that became part of Russia only as a result of World War II, might have strong anti-Russian feelings in any case,” Wade said. “But, that probably doesn’t apply to all or even most Russians and Ukrainians.”

To better understand Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea and how it affects Mason students, it is important to go back to when Ukraine first became an independent nation. According to the EastWest Institute’s website, from the moment Ukraine separated from the Soviet Union to become its own independent country, the Ukrainian leaders were faced with the difficult task of forming a national identity from a population of very diverse people. Many Russians living in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine never saw themselves as Ukrainians and identified with Russia. This ethnic diversity played a part in the annexation of Crimea, a former part of Ukraine, to Russia, and has affected Ukrainians all over the world.

Walker said that Ukrainian students would feel just as affected by the conflict studying in the U.S. as they would in Ukraine, regardless of distance.

“With me not technically being from Ukraine, I still feel close ties to the outrageous occurrences within the borders,” Walker said. “I think that watching your home be at war with itself and with another country would be difficult for anyone, near or far.”

Just because a Ukrainian or Russian Mason student is affected by the conflict does not mean they share the same opinion as if they were studying in Ukraine. Karina Korostelina is a professor of memory and conflict in the school for conflict analysis and resolution. She is also a Ukrainian and author of a book titled “Constructing the Narratives of Identity and Power: Self-Imagination in a Young Ukrainian Nation.” Korostelina said that she believes that student studying here have much better perspectives of the conflict than students studying in Ukraine.

“[For] students in Ukraine, reality can hide, and they do not understand the complexities of what’s going on. They’re emotionally involved. I think that for many students who live here in the United States and study here, they have a better understanding,” Korostelina said.

Wade agrees that Ukrainian or Russian students studying here or in Ukraine could cause students to have different opinions and added that being directly from Ukraine versus having parents or grandparents from Ukraine could also affect students’ opinions.

“A student who is from Ukraine would seem the one to be most stridently defender of Ukraine, but a lot of the people of those grandparents’ generation were bitterly anti-Russian and super Ukrainian nationalists,” Wade said. “Many, perhaps most, of those who came over to the U.S. and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century were from the western, more anti-Russian, areas.”

With many of these Ukrainian and Russian students affected by the conflict, it is not surprising that some are getting involved. Korostelina says that Russian and Ukrainian students here at Mason are trying to make an impact on the conflict. According to her, there has been a program created in the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution to help Ukraine.

“I do believe that the more information these students have about real democracy, about real openness, about human rights, about equality and shared society, the better help they’ll be,” Korostelina said.

Rohov believes that students here at Mason are limited in their impact, but agrees that they can help.

“The mutual conflict really brings both sides together, and allows us to discuss the situation, while not being manipulated by media sources,” Rohov said. “This can help foster better relations between the people, something that all of us can take back home to our respective countries.”

Illustration by Laura Baker