Following the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last Wednesday, over one hundred students and members of the College community attended a talk hosted by four faculty members last Friday to discuss and answer questions about the conflict. Associate Professor of History and Chair of the Russian Department Page Herrlinger, Professor of Government Laura Henry, Visiting Lecturer in Russian Miroslava Nikolova and Lecturer in Russian Reed Johnson convened to lead the conversation.
“When we planned the event as a glimmer of something we should do and [when we] picked a date and a time, Russia had not yet invaded Ukraine, so conditions were changing rapidly as the event approached,” Henry said. “We had thought about possibly postponing it … but we also felt it was hugely important for people to understand that as much as we would differentiate between American government policies and American citizens, we differentiate between the Russian people and the Russian government, and we all have a deep attachment to the wellbeing of people in this region.”
The speakers first provided political, historical and social background on the Russian government’s motivations for invading Ukraine and examined the situation on the ground. For the last hour of the event, students posed a wide range of questions touching on the role of media sources, economic sanctions and international governing bodies, among other facets of the ongoing conflict.
Herrlinger cited the 2014 invasion of Crimea, along with ideology from Russia’s Orthodox Church and Soviet past, as major influences in the motivation for the invasion.
“We still live under a lot of Cold War assumptions, and I think that anybody who knows Russia knows that since the fall of the Soviet Union, we’ve moved very little in the West towards Russia in a constructive way,” Herrlinger said. “I think our ability to respond effectively has been hampered by that.”
Above all, the speakers emphasized the current dangers that Ukrainians face at home while expressing a collective shock that ongoing tensions in the region escalated into a full-scale land war.
Students and faculty alike underlined the importance of continued education and awareness during this time of crisis. Radu Stochita ’22 attended Friday’s talk and called on students to engage in active citizenship in support of the Ukrainian people.
“It’s a conflict that’s far away, so people don’t necessarily feel impacted by it, but I tell people every time … you’re gonna see it everywhere in the [coming] months” Stochita said. “There’s so much more we can do.”
After hearing about the influx of Ukrainians fleeing into his home country of Romania, Stochita began writing pieces on the issue for Romanian publications and labor unions. He also contacted and began working with the Romanian United Fund, an NGO which has already amassed over $125,000 in donations for Ukrainian refugees in Romania.
After the invasion last Wednesday, Herrlinger discussed the crisis with both of her classes the following day. She said she hopes that students will utilize social media along with a variety of news outlets to gain a better understanding of the ongoing crisis and the struggles that Ukrainians face firsthand.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation,” Herrlinger said. “Truth went out the window before this invasion started, and now it’s even more distorted.”
Herrlinger planned to conduct research in Ukraine while on leave next year, due in part to the growing inaccessibility of Russian visas. However, this opportunity now seems unlikely, and the future of academic cooperation between the U.S. and Russia appears less clear.
“One of the great things that’s happened since the fall of the Soviet Union is scholarly exchange,” Herrlinger said. “I started doing this during the Cold War, and we didn’t have relationships with Russian colleagues. Now, we have very close working relationships with Russian colleagues … Those windows have really narrowed.”
Henry said she was particularly interested in a question about the mobilization of NATO forces in response to Russia, also citing student questions about the implications of the crisis in Ukraine for other global conflicts, especially given China’s complicated alliance with Russia and territorial claims over Taiwan.
Looking to the future, Henry and Herrlinger aspire to host more community forums that will further examine the global impact of the crisis, including the imposition of economic sanctions and what this could mean for U.S.-Russia relations. But for now, the common sentiment lies in a deeply-held sympathy for those personally affected by the conflict.
“I think we are deep in a crisis situation right now, and first and foremost, we have to think about the actual human beings who are putting their life on the line in Ukraine,” Henry said. “While I do think it’s incredibly consequential to think about what this means for NATO, what this means for the European Union, what this means for the U.S. midterms or what it means for Taiwan, I think we should be cautious, because there’s a lot that we don’t know.”