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“Shock, devastation, anger”: an interview with the President of Oxford University Ukrainian Society

Photograph by Joseph Geldman

“Shock, devastation, anger”: the emotions of Katrina Marina and other Ukrainian Oxford students cannot be fully understood by the vast majority of us who have never experienced the trauma of seeing our country being brazenly invaded live on TV. Having studied many conflicts, for academic reasons or out of personal interest, Katrina knows you can’t help but feel sympathy towards the people of countries like Afghanistan and Georgia. But, she says, “it doesn’t hit the same as when you look at an image of a place where you used to go as a kid, or a street that’s close to your friend’s house where you used to spend your childhood, or a place you were a month ago.” Looking at pictures of Ukraine right now, Katrina “just thought ‘holy shit, I was here in January, I travelled this road, we went for coffee here’.”

We may never understand, but we can certainly listen, especially about the impact of the invasion on Ukrainian students in Oxford. Katrina mentions how great an effect the crisis has had in just the span of a few days: “academic work gets affected, financial support is getting affected, it’s difficult to focus”, Katrina told The Oxford Blue. Katrina herself has a university exam coming up which she doesn’t think it will be feasible for her to do. And all this alongside “the most obvious psychological impact that it’s having on students whose families and friends are either migrating internally or staying in shelters because their cities are being bombed”.

The work of the Ukrainian Society so far has been, frankly, awe-inspiring. Students who are rightly shocked and frightened, exhausted by watching and waiting for news, praying for the safety of their home towns and families, nonetheless organised a significant response within Oxford within hours of the invasion.  

Last Thursday, “the first thing” they decided to do was organising a protest. About 100 or so people attended. Katrina told The Blue it was very ad hoc “we organised it in the morning and then asked people to turn up three hours later, and the response was amazing.” Nor did they stop there, but they assembled to work out how they could best have an impact both in the University and beyond: “We’ve put together a plan of action for how we can help here from Oxford, from the UK, how we can raise awareness and how we can ask for support and respond to those who’ve told us that they will support us. They put on another protest, this Sunday’s demonstration.  “We are expecting a big turnout”, Katrina had told us before.

As anyone who walked by the Radcliffe Square on Sunday will know, the turnout was indeed very high- with hundreds gathering to protest. “We will keep raising awareness, asking people to fundraise, to donate to specific charities that have been verified or that have been recommended to us by the Ukrainian embassy.” They also plan to organise educational panels and events to inform the public at large; “at the end of the day, not everyone is an expert on Ukraine, not everyone is from Ukraine, or has friends there. But they want to know more about its history, its culture, the importance of this war, and, the intricacies of what is currently happening”, Katrina told The Blue.

It is the widespread positive response, both within Oxford and internationally, that has heartened Katrina throughout: She says she’s been looking at photos from around the world – London, Vienna, Germany, Georgia, Latin America, Canada and the US. “It’s impressive how quickly people have come together to protest, and not just Ukrainians. Even our protest on Thursday was attended predominantly by non-Ukrainians, because the Ukrainian community here is strong, but small”, Katrina points out “And we shouldn’t forget the Russian population that has come out to protest as well”, she adds.

This all leads to the question- why do so many people care about Ukraine? Katrina’s explanation is that “Ukraine is a sovereign nation that has been attacked, and invaded by a country that believes that it can do whatever it sees fit.” She argues Russia has violated international law and human rights on every level, and is feeding its citizens disinformation about what it’s doing in Ukraine. 

Potential Russian human rights abuses like “bombing kindergartens and sending missiles into apartment blocks and areas where there has never been and never will be any military bases” certainly contribute as well. Katrina also thinks Russia needs to be restrained immediately; she believes it has “gotten out of hand”. With its actions in Georgia, Syria, and around the world, for Katrina, “it feels like there is no limit to what it can do, but also no repercussions to its actions. There have been no repercussions to its actions for a very long time, and invading a sovereign state that has been peaceful and democratic and has not done anything to aggrieve Russia is simply impossibly aggressive”.

We discussed the international response to the invasion by other states, and though the initial response was “a bit slow and a bit soft”, the SWIFT sanctions were “a big win for Ukraine”, and many countries now seem to be heading towards a harsher program of sanctions, and sending more vital military equipment. She singles out Andrej Duda, the President of Poland, for praise. He “has been an enormous support and help for Ukraine”, though “in all of this, so many leaders worldwide have been very helpful and we thank them. President Zelensky constantly talks about how many people he’s spoken to every day and he is on the phone 24/7 with everyone, and Ukrainians are grateful to all these nations and their governments”.

The hope is that countries can come together to make lasting change and ensure this doesn’t happen again. Katrina begins her list of desirable long-term solutions with a recent proposal from Ukraine’s government: stripping Russia of its permanent membership of the UN Security Council, and its veto power. “I genuinely believe that this is in the short, medium and long term, an important thing to consider and enact”, she says.

The other key hope is for Ukrainian membership of NATO and the EU. Katrina believes Ukraine deserved to join NATO and the EU, saying “It [Ukraine] has worked tirelessly for this goal for the past 31 years of its sovereignty. It has reformed, it has welcomed help, and though every country has issues that it works through, and every country is imperfect, Ukraine has worked endlessly and so strongly to change all of its imperfections, and to fit into the framework of the EU and NATO.”

This hope, for a peaceful future within Europe and within the trans-Atlantic sphere, comes across very powerfully. It is incredibly clear that the main thing stopping Ukraine from becoming peaceful and prosperous in the near future is not any internal issue, but the existential threat that Russia poses.

How does the media fit into all of this? What has their reporting on the invasion been like? Katrina emphasised the framing of the conflict- not as another Cold War between America and Russia, but by highlighting the part played by Ukraine and Ukrainiansas a country and a people in their own right instead of as a proxy for a larger ideological interest. She applauds that figures such as President Zelensky and Mayor Klitschko have been made international heroes and that the actions of ordinary Ukrainians have been noticed, along with “their life stories, their struggles, their wish for peace”.

When asked about nomenclature and spelling, whether to call the situation a conflict or a war, and what spelling of Ukraine’s capital to use, Katrina made it very clear that these issues are very important. “It’s been so good to see how many news outlets have started using the appropriate spelling of the capital, Kyiv. And the differentiation between conflict and war: some may argue they are synonymous, but this is an act of war. This is an act of aggression, an act of invasion, an act of war.”

Katrina is proud of Ukraine’s actions so far- the country has shown its power and its might, and has shown that it can stand up to one of the biggest military powers in the world. In addition, the international spotlight on Ukraine might also lead people to explore the “depth and the history and the wonders of Ukrainian culture, to listen to Ukrainian music, to read Shevchenko and Lesya Ukrainka, and to read Ukrainian poetry”

The university’s response so far has been good, Katrina tells me. Her college, St Antony’s, “released a heartfelt statement to all the students saying that they aim to help as much as they can, which is very touching and very heartwarming to all the students here”. The most touching response for her, though, was seeing Teddy Hall flying the Ukrainian flag on Boathouse Island. However, the next steps for the university should be “helping students who are suffering financially: if they need financial assistance, perhaps to set up a fund or a bursary or some sort of aid for the Ukrainian students here”.

And now to the big question- what happens next? While obviously a question that no one can answer, Katrina emphasises that there can be no question of giving in to Russia’s desire for Ukraine to stay neutral. In terms of the coming peace talks, she doesn’t see how there would be a compromise with Russia. But she thinks “that Russia needs to back down” and “that every country in the world needs to work on making Russia back down and making Russia realise what it’s done and take its hands off of Ukraine”.   

So how can we help as Oxford students? The answer is twofold. First, if you are able and willing to donate, you should go through which lists verified charities and groups that are helping in the country, and breaks them down so you can donate for military support, for medical supplies, for humanitarian aid or other categories. Second, to follow independent reliable news outlets. The two Katrina recommended were the Kyiv Independent and the New Voice of Ukraine, as well as the English translations of government statements, especially from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.

Katrina’s final message is this: “we’re just really urging people to keep connected to this, to keep supporting Ukraine by any means possible, to keep spreading the news, and to keep donating to legitimate charities, even if it’s only a pound or a euro”.

Reflecting on the interview and Katrina’s situation, the phrase that stood out to me most powerfully was this: “I haven’t really had time to sit down and think about myself and think ‘Oh, what do I need?’ Because I can’t afford to do that.  I’m worried about my family at home, you know, I can’t worry about myself right now”.