Last week, Maria Lyven PO ’22 messaged her family in Ukraine to ask how they were doing. Her mother replied that she had woken up to the sound of explosions.
Lyven’s extended family members described hearing “explosions everywhere” and evacuated to the suburbs of the city, unable to leave the country entirely due to the declaration of martial law that prevented men aged 18-60 from crossing the border. Friends of hers slept in basements and subway stations for safety.
Alexej Latimer’s PO ’24 grandaunt and granduncle, both in their 80s, were recovering from COVID-19 when they heard air raid sirens fill the city. Because Latimer’s grandaunt required hospice care, she was forced to remain in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine and a main target of the ongoing Russian invasion.
As family friends attempted to drive to Moldova or Romania for safe refuge, Latimer’s uncle was issued a gun by the Ukrainian government in preparation for potentially being sent to fight in Kyiv.
Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, its missiles targeting civilians and residential buildings alongside military targets. At the time of this article’s publication, hundreds of Ukrainian civilians have been injured or killed and more than one million residents of the country of 44 million have fled the country as refugees.
The invasion will have deep global consequences in the long run, but for students at the 5Cs with friends and family in Ukraine and Russia, the effects have been sharp and swift.
Latimer grew up visiting his grandmother in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, where his mother was born. In 2014, Russian separatists seized control of local governments in Donetsk and the neighboring region of Luhansk, declaring them the independent Donetsk People’s Republic and attempting to join the Russian Federation.
As a result, the current invasion isn’t the first time that Latimer has experienced the fallout of Russian aggression. Though Russia did not recognize the independence of the DPR, Latimer described the new state of the region as being under “Russian occupation” under which Donetsk became a “ghost town,” with a large number of residents fleeing to other parts of Ukraine.
Before the current invasion, Latimer was aware that the possibility of further Russian aggression “had been discussed in academia, politics [and] international relations.” But even with his prior knowledge and personal experiences, the magnitude of the invasion caught Latimer by surprise.
“We didn’t realize that this would be a full scale invasion of the entire country. [Only] when I spoke to people in the west and east and in [the southern Ukranian city] Odessa did I realize that this was supposed to be a full, sweeping, surrounding the country kind of invasion and takeover,” he said.
Nastia Kurochkina SC ’22, a dual Russian-US citizen, had planned to return home to Moscow next week. Although technically graduating this May, Kurochkina finished her remaining courses in the fall and intended to go home to work while finishing her remaining senior requirements remotely. Now, she is unsure of when she will next see her family, as they view the current conditions as unsafe for her to return.
Kurochkina wakes up every morning and messages one of her closest friends from Ukraine. Although her friend was able to catch one of the last flights out of Ukraine before the border closed, her family still remains in the country.
“We [Russians] all have friends who are Ukrainian. We all have some some family members who are Ukrainian, some of us who have teachers who are Ukrainian, and to see Ukraine being bombed by my own country, it’s just devastating.”
“We [Russians] all have friends who are Ukrainian. We all have some some family members who are Ukrainian, some of us who have teachers who are Ukrainian, and to see Ukraine being bombed by my own country, it’s just devastating,” she said.
Lyven, an international student who calls Kyiv home, had just visited friends and family there over winter break.
She shared Latimer’s surprise about the current scale of the invasion, even recalling being frustrated that US news coverage exaggerated the extent of the conflict in the fall.
“Nobody really expected that this would escalate so quickly,” she said.
Pomona Russian literature professor Robyn Jensen agreed that even experts were surprised by the sudden escalation. There were no indications that Russia was domestically preparing for war, such as campaigns rallying public support, she pointed out; the war seemed “obviously not a proportional response” to grievances like NATO expansion that were aired beforehand.
“Many others who work on Russia, who work on Ukraine, who live in Russia [or] live in Ukraine [or] had ties to the region didn’t think it would come to this,” she said.
When possibility ultimately turned to reality, though, Latimer and Lyven both felt the personal toll.
“It was really hard to sleep the first few nights [because I was] just worrying. The time difference is especially challenging [when] worrying about family members,” Latimer said.
Latimer’s mother, father and sister live in the U.S. far from the rest of his family, which further contributed to “a sense of hopelessness,” he said.
Lyven’s separation from her family has also deeply affected her.
“I feel ashamed that I’m not there. I wish I could be there with my family, but at the same time I’m grateful that I’m safe here,” she said.
“I’m just constantly anxious about what’s gonna happen next and how my family is going to be.”
Lyven described being in a constant state of anxiety, from which she could only distract herself during classes and practice with her varsity tennis teammates.
“I’m just constantly anxious about what’s gonna happen next and how my family is going to be, and constantly checking in on my family and friends, whether they’re safe or whether anything is changing,” she said. “I feel very uneasy about what is happening. It’s not fun. It’s very scary.”
Since Feb. 24, 5C community members and organizations have expressed their support for those affected by the invasion.
On Feb. 27, Pomona’s Russian program issued a statement condemning the Russian government’s aggression against Ukraine.
“We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, as well as with the people in Russia and around the world who protest Putin’s criminal war,” the faculty wrote. “We also wish to express our solidarity with students at the Claremont Colleges who are from the region or have ties to it. We share your pain, and we pledge to be a source of support during this time.”
Pitzer College’s Office of Study Abroad and International Programs announced in a Thursday email that a candlelight vigil would be held on Pitzer’s campus on Monday for the purpose of standing “against EVERY war, with a focus on Ukraine due to recent events.”
At the institutional level, Jensen said that larger research universities have made efforts to directly help Ukrainian refugees by arranging for displaced scholars and graduate students to be admitted. While Pomona doesn’t have the same level of resources, Jensen said she hopes that it will make similar efforts to admit those impacted by the war through undergraduate admissions and visiting scholar programs.
Lyven said that the U.S.’ general support for Ukraine was “very comforting,” but both she and Latimer noted difficulties brought on by the 5C campus environment.
The large amount of social media content about the invasion being posted “really amplified what’s happening” and made Lyven “even more nervous,” she said.
Latimer felt that students discussing the invasion sometimes came off as unempathetic or unwilling to learn more.
“People are talking about it without understanding how little they know … or seemingly not trying to learn more about it when posed with a suggestion of a different way to look at [the invasion] or something else you could be thinking about,” he said. “To me it feels like a very isolationist, non-global, non-empathetic perspective. I would argue that this stems from American elitism, some of which inherently permeates an upper class institution in America.”
“People are talking about it without understanding how little they know … or seemingly not trying to learn more about it when posed with a suggestion of a different way to look at [the invasion].”
Pomona politics professor Mietek Boduszynski hosted a Q&A on campus March 1 about the invasion. As a former U.S. diplomat, he emphasized the role that balance had to play in how the US and European countries approached the war.
“Diplomacy is all about balancing — that’s one thing I’ve learned as a diplomat. That’s why certain options for punishing Russia you know, until now have been off the table,” he said.
“We’ve seen these extraordinary actions like Germany sending military equipment to Ukraine, which I thought would have been impossible … [for economic sanctions] we’ve also gone a lot further than we’ve ever gotten before,” he added. “But it’s complicated because it’s also about leaving an off ramp, because at the end of the day, we’d like this war to stop. If you go pose every single punishment and sanction possible, [Putin] may not have the incentive [to negotiate].”
Boduszynski also compared Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion with the resistance of guerilla groups to the US military during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“[America] obviously had a much more powerful military than the insurgents that were fighting against us … but what those insurgencies did is they had the ability to deeply moralize and make things really difficult for the U.S. military,” he said. “If the Russian soldiers start dying or getting severely injured in large numbers, that could change the calculus of some of the supporters [of the war].”
Boduszynski was set to moderate a conference in LA Feb. 28 with the Estonian ambassador, but the event was canceled as Russia began its attacks on Ukraine and the ambassador was called back.
Jensen said that, on the other hand, the Russian people as a whole should not be condemned for their country’s actions, as they were not given a say in Putin’s decisions.
“The right to protest has been seriously curtailed in Russia in recent years. It is written into the Russian constitution, that there’s freedom to peaceably assemble,” she said. “And yet, in recent years, there have been various major restrictions … Like various punishments that can be doled out to people for protesting openly in the street.”
And yet still, Russians have staged anti-war demonstrations throughout the last week.
“Ukraine, a place where many [Russian] people have friends and have family, there’s a sense of the kind of shared culture and history and [the war] feels quite senseless to people,” Jensen said.
Kurochkina said she is worried for her high school friends who are likely to protest the war in the streets of Moscow and have, in the past, been jailed for up to a month for protesting.
“A lot of people are still coming out and protesting,” she said. “But it’s not the same as protesting in the Western world. It’s scary and people feel very helpless.”
Students with ties to the conflict have turned to each other for a shared sense of understanding and community.
Lyven has reconnected with friends from Ukraine who now attend college in the U.S. She has also found support from friends on campus who have reached out to her about the situation, bringing her cookies or telling her she is in their prayers.
However, she is eager to see a bigger network of support for Ukrainian students at the 7Cs through organized actions like a fundraiser or a petition in support of Ukraine.
“And I’m hoping that more spaces will be created in the coming days where we can care for each other because I think that’s priority number one on our campus.”
Dave Ruiz PO ’24 agreed, adding that professors should be taking class time to discuss the implications of the conflict and create space for those affected.
“Really my hope in the community, because people have been so anxious and fearful, is just that we remember we are in such an international, diverse community,” he said. “And I really think that we need to be here for each other. And I’m hoping that more spaces will be created in the coming days where we can care for each other because I think that’s priority number one on our campus.”
Latimer said that educating oneself on the history of Ukraine and the possible effects of the invasion is vital for students.
“The news is new and strange and confusing. And it feels like history is happening all around us. And it is. But it’s also that we’re in a place where we have the luxury to really develop our own understanding of the world through the events that we get to experience or hear about or read about,” Latimer said.