Classes here, war at home
Though Anita Gimpleson and Volodymyr Korol try to feel like any other university student in Groningen, they have both carried the weight of war on their shoulders since they were children. Anita was only fourteen years old when her hometown, Kharkiv – which is nestled right next to the warzone in Ukraine – became a hub of protests and military supplies. Now Kharkiv is one of the ten Ukrainian cities currently under martial law. In western Ukraine, Volodymyr grew up with strange and distressful talk of war ringing in his young ears.
Five years later, the two watch from Groningen as tensions continue to mount between Ukraine and Russia, while their fellow students seem blissfully unaffected by all of it.
What happens now?
They were going about their regular lives on 26 November – preparing for exams, hanging out with friends – when they heard that Ukraine had declared martial law.
In some ways, the news brought a sense of relief. Before, says Volodymyr – who is stern-faced, serious, and very careful with his choice of words – there was no real evidence that Russia was at war with Ukraine at all. But now that the world has seen ‘Russian ships attack Ukrainian ships in a neutral zone’, he says, ‘the situation is finally clear.’
At least we’re prepared now
Anita is distressed about the sailors on the captured ships. ‘Russia took our sailors into custody and Putin expressed that he has no intention to release them. They continue to use Ukrainian lives as a bargaining chip.’ But Volodymyr says it’s important that the sailors are considered prisoners of war. That means that ‘Russia has recognized a war which it always denied before. It always claimed that Ukraine was having a civil conflict, a civil protest – but now they have taken our sailors as prisoners of war’.
‘I remember talking to my Ukrainian class-mate when we got the news’, says Anita. ‘We were like, what is going to happen now? I called my sister who lives in Kharkiv and she assured me that everything was fine. Martial law was announced to prepare our country for full aggression. At least now we’re prepared in case something happens.’
And people back home are prepared. The students say it’s amazing to watch everyone come together: tens of thousands of volunteer troops have stepped up, prepared to protect their homes and families. ‘Volunteering has become a national movement; people are binding together’, says Volodymyr.
Everyone contributes, even if that means making only a small gesture of protest. Anita started speaking only Ukrainian, even though Russian is her native language. Her friends started wearing more traditional clothes and supporting Ukrainian artists and designers. Volodymyr stopped buying Russian products when the war started, ‘which may seem like a minor thing, but it was kind of like a silent protest.’
Both students are proud of the way Ukrainians are working together. ‘They are giving everything’, say Volodymyr. ‘They understand: “if not us, then who?”’
But there is a strange dissonance to their lives here. The contrast between their concerns and the concerns of their fellow students (which mostly revolve around Christmas plans, parties, and exam grades) feels strange. Dutch people – and Europeans generally – are really lucky, says Volodymyr. ‘People are happier here. They enjoy their lives. They’re not always afraid of not waking up tomorrow.’
For his part, he says, even Ukrainians from areas where there is no martial law ‘still feel the war. Our people are coming back in metal boxes. We feel the aftermath of what is happening to our friends and families.’
Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it’s not happening
Even worlds away in Groningen, there are small reminders of everything happening back home. In the centre for Russian studies there hangs a sign that reads, roughly translated, ‘Russian World’. The Director of the centre says it’s harmless; a common slogan penned by a poet. But Volodymyr says the slogan was also used during the military occupation of Georgia and is now a military slogan that Russia is using in its war with Ukraine. Clusters of students mill around the building and don’t ever give the poster a second glance. But Volodymyr refuses to go anywhere near it.
For now, Anita and Volodymyr say they aren’t afraid of the future. But they are worried: worried that Russia will continue to make more and more aggressive moves; worried that the war will never end. ‘All I want is for the war to be over’, says Anita, ‘and to focus our resources on developing Ukraine instead of protecting our homes.’ Volodymyr shares that longing. ‘I don’t want one country to “win” over another. I just want peace and a respectful sentence for those who have committed crimes against humanity.’
Until then, Anita and Volodymr want to encourage RUG students to learn about the political position of Ukraine. ‘Ukraine is between Europe and Russia. Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I want people to pay attention to what’s going on and what it might mean for them in the future as well’, says Volodymyr.