‘These people would rather die than give up:’ Russian and Ukrainian students reflect one year into war


Erin Fine

(left to right) Moderator Gretchen Heefner and panelists Oleh Kotsyuba, Mai’a Cross, Julie Garey and Stephen Flynn discuss the implications of global policy at a CSSH panel March 1. Ukrainian students at Northeastern said they remain vigilant about the war and hope others do as well.

Emily Spatz, news correspondent

Maya Mele, a first-year Ukrainian student majoring in international relations and political science, remembers the day Russia invaded Ukraine as the day the world froze.  

“Time stopped. I felt like it was really the end,” she said. “It’s almost like you’re carrying a glass of water and you drop it, and it shatters everywhere.” 

The war in Ukraine broke out Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia’s president Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” and initiated a full-scale land, sea and air invasion of the Eastern European nation. One year into the conflict, as media coverage and discussion about the fighting dwindled, Ukrainian and Russian students reflected on the war’s effect on their own identities, connections and feelings. 

“The novelty of the war has faded away as other topics have begun to dominate the media and American society [grows] tired of the same news,” said Benya Vishnevetsky, a first-year Russian-Ukrainian student majoring in international affairs and international business. “I feel a desire and a responsibility to join my people in reminding Americans that [the war] is not over.” 

The university’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities held a panel March 1 to discuss the prolonged impacts of the war on the two countries and the international community. 

Oleh Kotsyuba, a panelist and manager of publications at the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, was born and grew up in Ukraine. He focused on a Ukrainian perspective throughout the discussion and said the conflict matters because “human suffering matters.” 

“There are many stories that don’t make it into the American media, and a lot of events on the ground that people experience are not known outside of Ukraine,” Kotsyuba said. “Many people are displaced, children are separated from their parents [and] male Ukrainians aged 16 to 60 cannot leave the country and have to stay behind in case they are called up to fight.” 

Mele, who still has family and friends in Ukraine, said that while some fled to neighboring countries, many of them are still “volunteering, helping to create safety nets and working with organizations in order to support the country.” 

Other panelists focused on broader implications of the conflict, including instability in international nuclear agreements and the post-World War II world order. 

“[International] norms that helped us manage the nuclear age have largely become undone because Russia is talking about the use of nuclear weapons in ways that were pretty much forbidden by the great powers,” said Stephen Flynn, panelist, professor of political science and founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern.  

Flynn also discussed Russia’s weaponization of food in the conflict, saying the destabilization of the Ukrainian economy, known for its grain exports as one of the breadbaskets of the world, has led an additional 30 million people to food insecurity.  

The perseverance of the Ukrainian people, both in the country and internationally, has been evident through the unexpected length of the conflict, which many experts anticipated to be short-lived due to Russia’s military strength. While support from the West has been crucial in Ukraine’s tenacity, Kotsyuba noted that Ukrainians have more personal stake in the war.  

“For Ukrainians it’s a generational struggle, it’s a generational fight for survival. We feel like we have been at this for so long, we have experienced so much abuse, torture, rape and everything from Russians that if we give up again, we better perish,” he said.  

Anton Khlebas, a graduate student in supply chain management at Northeastern and co-founder of the Ukrainian Cultural Center of New England, or UCCN, described the emotions he felt watching a recently released video depicting a Ukrainian prisoner of war being shot by Russian troops. 

“He looks at [the Russians] and he just cries ‘Slava Ukraini,’ which means glory to Ukraine, and they just start shooting him,” Khlebas said. “It produced such sorrow, such anger, but also pride for the guy looking straight at the camera saying, ‘glory to Ukraine.’” 

Kotsyuba reiterated that for the Ukrainian people, this struggle is not about land, but about Ukrainian values and freedom.  

Putin has used the two countries’ close ties and shared roots to claim Ukraine does not have the culture or identity to be a separate state from Russia. Though the countries share similar customs, Khlebas says Ukraine has kept its identity despite “400 years of Russian influence…we [keep] coming back to our language, our heritage [and] our history.”  

According to UNESCO, 245 cultural sites such as museums, monuments and libraries in Ukraine have been destroyed. Mele says these attacks feel like intentional erasure of her culture.  

“There’s a reason why they’re not only destroying military places and places of power within Ukraine and governmental institutions, they’re also bombing museums, they’re bombing maternity wards, they’re bombing hospitals, they’re bombing schools,” Mele said. “It’s not only this fight over land, it’s this fight over identity and this fight over people.” 

Vishnevetski, whose father is Russian and mother is Ukrainian, said that while he felt proud of his Russian identity before the war, he now rejects it.  

“[Ukraine] used to be a relatively unknown country [and is] now a nation of warriors that became famous around the world for resisting one of the strongest world powers,” he said. “I never understood taking pride in one’s identity until I felt it within myself. I refuse to call myself a Russian. I am Ukrainian.” 

Mele said she’s grateful for U.S. military support for Ukraine and urged people to remain vigilant about the war. She condemned hate towards Russian people, saying “they’re also in the dark about this.” 

“I think that people should educate others on the issue to get more involved in Ukrainian culture, read Ukrainian literature, look into the history and look into the fashion and the culture and the religion there, because there is so much vastness and diversity even within Ukraine itself,” Mele said.  

Khlebas urged people to donate to organizations that support humanitarian or military related efforts within the country and encouraged continuation of U.S. support, stating that this aid is “supporting another democracy, another freedom, another country that wants to live in freedom. [Military support is] one tenth of of 1% of U.S. GDP.” 

Speaking about his grandfather, who refused to give up his apartment to Russian forces, Kotsyuba reiterated the intense moral commitment Ukrainians feel to the war effort.  

“He’s sitting in the corner and not moving from there and saying, ‘okay, if the house collapses, I have higher chances of surviving sitting in the corner,’” he said. “If you listen to someone talking to you like that, you get goosebumps. And you realize that these people would rather die than give up.” 

The Northeastern Ukrainian Cultural Club continues to raise money for Razom, a charity providing humanitarian aid in Ukraine and is working closely with UCCN to organize events to raise awareness.

Editor’s note: Anton Khlebas’ name was mispelled in a previous version of this story. The story was updated at 10:50 a.m. March 17 to reflect the correct spelling.