Members of GVSU community with ties to Ukraine proud of unity amid worry for homeland

As the conflict in Ukraine continues, a student and a faculty member who are native to that country shared their concerns about the Russian invasion of their homeland and their fears for loved ones, as well as their thoughts on how the country has responded.

Also, in a message shared this week with the university, President Philomena V. Mantella expressed support for the Grand Valley community members who are deeply connected to the situation and the region, as well as outlined resources available to Lakers.

Angelina Avramenko, student

Angelina Avramenko smiles in a picture with her grandparents.
Angelina Avramenko poses with her grandparents for a recent photo.
Image credit - Courtesy photo

A second-year student in Frederik Meijer Honors College, Angelina Avramenko is keeping an anxious watch on the events in her native Ukraine since Russian military forces invaded the country last week. 

While her grandparents and her mother have escaped the conflict, she fears for her boyfriend, other family members and friends who’ve remained in Kyiv, the nation’s capital.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “They’ve said there are bombings all the time, shootings at civilians, houses, apartment buildings, infrastructure, power stations.”

Her grandparents escaped Ukraine before the invasion began and are now living with an aunt in Grand Rapids. Her mother was on a business trip in Romania when Russian troops marched into her country. 

Avramenko said she’s in constant contact with loved ones and has been amazed at the response of Ukrainians, rallying together and coordinating services for their fellow citizens.

“We are very united,” she said. “Ukraine is like a family who would have inside conflicts and arguments in the country, but when it comes to foreign aggression or misleading information about us, we always stick together. I was stunned at how people could organize all of this and can be very helpful in difficult times. My friends and I are sharing information constantly, where to find this, where to find that.”

Though she wasn’t a supporter of him initially, Avramenko said she's been impressed with her president, Volodymyr Zelensky, since the turmoil began. Zelensky has drawn international praise for his leadership in standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and fighting alongside his soldiers. 

“When the war started, he became a true leader for our people,” Avramenko said. “I’m proud of what he’s doing and how he’s doing it. I fully support his actions now. I think he’s a great example for other countries’ leaders of how a president should fight shoulder to shoulder with soldiers and not by sitting in an office or shelter, but being there.”

Avramenko said the crisis has shown the international community what an asset Ukraine is on the world stage, and the best thing governments and people can do to help Ukraine is keep information flowing.

“I’m very, very proud of being Ukrainian,” she said. “We have shown our strength, our generosity, our kindness and we will never give up. We will protect ourselves.” 

Alex Nikitin, faculty member

Alex Nikitin
Alex Nikitin

Alex Nikitin, professor of biology, was born and raised in Ukraine. He said he was part of the military for the Soviet Union, serving as one of its last soldiers.

In 1992, he came to the United States after the Soviet Union broke up to attend Bowling Green State University. He said he wanted to pursue science and didn't see that in his future if he stayed in Ukraine.

He said he also has baggage from his military experience, which is why the events of the last few days were deeply shocking. But then he sought an outlet for his emotions and the need he felt to act.

"My combat experience is more than 30 years old," Nikitin said. "I'm not in the shape to go on the front lines, but my weapon is education. To me, I figured the best thing I could do under the circumstances is to explain to people what this is about."

As one key takeaway he wants people to understand is the profound cultural transformation of Ukraine since the Russian invasion began. He said before, Ukraine was widely viewed as a political boundary, a kind of buffer with Russia.

"Five days ago, we actually saw the birth of a country," Nikitin said, "with a self identity that defines itself not by its borders but by its attitudes."

Ukraine had been experiencing years of internal, regional tension related to geopolitical identity, Nikitin said. Western Ukraine was more pro West, while those in eastern and southeastern Ukraine were more neutral or sympathetic to Russia and tended to speak Russian in conversation, he said.

The resistance from across the country to the invasion was something that surprised Nikitin, and he suspects surprised Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Whatever the rifts were in the country prior to this war, I think we're passed that," Nikitin said. "What we see is a unification of the country against a common enemy. That's how I feel about it."

He said he fears an emboldened Putin who "has his own version of reality" is trying to rebuild the Russian empire, and that Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, is central to what he is envisioning.

He said he is hopeful for intervention from the West before the city where he was born, and where his mother and mother-in-law are now living under siege, is destroyed.

Peg West of the University Communications staff contributed to this report.


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