Maksim Narodnitskiy was born in Ukraine, and most of his family still lives there. The senior business major used to visit his homeland regularly until the COVID pandemic hit, and he would like to return. Unfortunately, that place has forever changed.
“My grandparents said if I went there right now, it would be unrecognizable,” he said. “Everything is destroyed.”
Russia’s war on Ukraine has spurred dire concern in every corner of the world, and while it is taking place almost 5,000 miles away, the fear hits close to home for many members of the Stony Brook University community, including students, faculty and staff.
Narodnitskiy felt compelled to help, so the resident assistant began collecting supplies to send to refugees near the frontlines. Through Vice President of Student Affairs Rick Gatteau, Narodnitskiy connected with sophomore Thomas Brinkley, who had begun coordinating his own relief effort. The result was a hugely successful relief drive on March 9 at the Student Activities Center.
Since the invasion, Narodnitskiy and his family have tried to stay in touch with relatives in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, near the Russian border. “Their home was destroyed two days after they left,” said Narodnitskiy. “They’ve gone to the outskirts of Kyiv, in the countryside with my grandparents. They’re safe right now.”
Narodnitskiy said his grandparents, who had lived through the Soviet Union, never imagined that this could happen, despite “tensions” that existed since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
“The whole world is against this war,” he said. “I think the best way for this to end is for other countries to come in and put a stop to this. But politics gets in the way. And the bad thing about politics is that it doesn’t regard human life.”
Honors College sophomore Maria Zozulya’s immediate family came to the U.S. from Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union, but her grandparents, aunts and other extended family all remained. Before the invasion began, Zozulya and her family sensed something was coming.
“We tried to convince them to stock up on food and water when it really became evident that something major was about to happen, and it wasn’t going to be for only a few days,” she said, adding that her aunts in Kyiv are disabled and unable to get to a bomb shelter. “My mother’s sister stays in her bathroom when the bombing starts, and she sleeps in there at night because she’s afraid that if something does happen, she won’t be able to get away.”
Zozulya described the mental toll of the war for those whose families are still there. “The first night, I was up until four in the morning reading about what was happening,” she said. While she has never been to Ukraine, going there has been a lifelong dream. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child,” she said. “But with all of this happening, it’s unlikely that we’re going to be able to travel there. And even if we can, Ukraine is not going to be the same anymore. A culture is being lost.”
Jonathan Sanders, an associate professor in the School of Communication and Journalism, has spent more than 50 years working in Russia, including many years as the Moscow correspondent for CBS News, and has been connecting with friends and colleagues there. “They’re thinking about getting out now,” he said. “Fear is coming back even on the most mundane levels.”
Disinformation is rampant in Russia, said Sanders; his colleagues in Moscow are prohibited from reporting on what’s really going on. He described the Russian people as extremely patriotic, but victims of propaganda. “If their sources of media are Russian state television, they hardly know that there’s a war going on. They simply don’t know.”
Sanders said he is amazed at how well the Ukrainians are doing. “Putin’s approach is cruel, extreme and devastatingly anti-civilian,” he said. “This is a battle of David and Goliath, and I’m rooting for David … I think it’s going to get worse, and I’m afraid for what’s going to happen to my dear friends and the folks in Ukraine.”
Anna Geisherik, a lecturer and Russian program coordinator in the Department of European Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, grew up in Kharkiv. “They’ve been bombing it very badly ever since the beginning,” she said, adding that while some family has escaped the city, she has friends who are still there.
Geisherik has lived in the United States since 1994, and said incalculable damage has been done to a generation of Ukrainians. “Thousands of people have been killed or injured, millions of children will have psychological trauma and more than a million people are already refugees. We can’t ever go back now.”
The possibility of an invasion was something Geisherik said Ukrainians have long lived with. “When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, people said Ukraine was going to be next,” she said. “[Putin] was never going to allow Ukraine to exist independently. It was just a question of how he was going to interfere.”
Geisherik has tried to maintain in contact with friends and relatives in Ukraine, and describes a desperate but resolute situation. “They’re not thinking anything besides surviving another day,” she said. “They have been sleeping in the basement and on subway platforms that have been turned into bomb shelters. They are afraid to go out and buy food, so they’re thinking about what they’re going to eat tomorrow.”
She also has heard stories of great courage.
“I have a friend with two teenage kids, and I’ve been begging her to leave,” she said. “But she said, ‘No, this is my country. This is my home. This is my city. I’m not leaving.’ Her courage is amazing.”
Geisherik said the most difficult thing is feeling helpless so many miles away. “My husband actually went to the local army recruitment center here in New York to maybe help as a translator or something, but they said no. He’s never held a gun in his life, and he never wanted to have anything to do with this. But we just want to do something.”
— Robert Emproto