From more than 6,000 miles away, Ukrainian students, professors reflect on their home country

Sasha Maksymenk/Creative Commons
Protesters form a barricade at Hrushevskoho Street in Ukraine on Jan. 25. Protests that initially began in response to President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to back out of final negotiations for an association agreement with the European Union escalated when police began shooting live ammunition.

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Masha Andreyeva, a Ukrainian native and UC Berkeley junior, is scared.

While she sits in classes in Berkeley more than 6,000 miles from home, her family is in Ukraine — a normally peaceful country recently fractured by a series of violent protests culminating in scores of deaths, the ousting of its president and what many Ukrainians have called a “land invasion” by Russia.

“I have no influence, no control,” said Andreyeva, who hails from Zaporozhye. “I’m just here to watch, and that’s devastating. It’s the biggest turnaround in the history of our country.”

Protests began in November after President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of final negotiations for an association agreement with the European Union, instead turning to Russia for loans and gas subsidies. For more than a decade, Ukrainian foreign policy has pursued EU integration, according to Monica Eppinger, an assistant professor at Saint Louis University and a current UC Berkeley visiting scholar who served as a diplomat in Ukraine.

Two weeks ago, the situation escalated when police began shooting live ammunition at the thousands of protesters who had gathered in the central square of the capital city, Kiev, leaving more than 70 dead.

This kind of crackdown on nonviolent protesters is not typical of political culture in Ukraine, a country whose citizens are accustomed to protesting freely and frequently, Eppinger said.

“People couldn’t get to work,” said Eppinger, who earned her doctorate at UC Berkeley. “There were live weapons in the street. It was truly terrifying and an unusual Ukrainian political climate.”

Ukrainians awoke the morning of Feb. 22 to reports that their president was missing, later discovered to have fled to Russia. An interim government is now running the country in his stead until the May 25 presidential election, although Yanukovych still claims he is the president.

The day-to-day atmosphere in Ukraine has become increasingly tense since Tuesday, when Russian troops were sent into Crimea because Russian President Vladimir Putin said ethnic Russians needed protection.

“I was hoping everything would die down … I thought things would slowly, painfully, start getting into places they’re supposed to be,” Andreyeva said. “Now, there’s a military issue to be dealt with.”

While the concerns among UC Berkeley-based Ukrainian students and professors vary, there is a consensus among many of their perspectives — they want Russia out.

“To justify the invasion, Putin says he is protecting the Russian-speaking population,” said Yuriy Gorodnichenko, a Ukrainian native and campus associate professor of economics. “There are Russians in New York. Should Putin invade to protect them? Where do you stop?”

After Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in 1994, the United States, United Kingdom and Russia pledged to defend the country’s territorial integrity in an international treaty called the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.

“Now, Russia, one of the guarantor countries within that treaty, is invading Ukraine,” Gorodnichenko said. “There is no credibility unless the Russian aggression is stopped.”

Conversely, recent UC Berkeley alumna Luba Pislar — who identifies as Ukrainian, Russian  and American — said her family in both Odessa, in southern Ukraine, and Russia support Putin.

“You see these people from Odessa coming to Russia and begging for help,” Pislar said. “They have been accused of being traitors for supporting Russia and fear for their lives.”

For the future, Evgeniy Kozhemiakin, a Ukrainian native pursuing his master’s degree at the Haas School of Business, believes that uniting with the EU could help push forward reforms to the court system and law enforcement and secure other basic rights for Ukrainian citizens.

“In reality, people are fed up with corruption, the way the country is governed,” said Kozhemiakin, who lived in Ukraine for more than 20 years. “This is something true across Ukraine, whether you live in the east or west or south.”

After Ukraine responds to the aftermath of the protests, it faces the challenge of “trying to find a unified path ahead,” Eppinger said. As a young country, Ukraine is faced with reconciling an economic crisis, ending corruption and getting back on track with the EU association agreement, she said.

For Andreyeva, the future of her country remains uncertain, but she is hopeful.

“I’m very proud of my people, knowing how hard it is to live in an unstable economy … Still they go protest at risk of their job, at risk of their safety, at risk of their family, at risk of not knowing what tomorrow will be,” Andreyeva said. “To me, for people of Ukraine to protest this long, things must be pretty bad and in need of change.”

Contact Taryn Smith at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tarynshelby.