Nouse talks to Ukrainian society President Vitalina Schevchenko, a year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine


“It was like another life”: Vitalina reflects on Russia’s invasion with the first anniversary approaching

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Image by Ira Lebega

By Alanah Hammond

On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine resulting in mass casualties and the displacement of millions of Ukrainians. This Friday, 24 February 2023, marks the anniversary of the invasion.

One of the many displaced Ukrainians is Vitalina Shevchenko, who was Head of the Student Council at Kharkiv National University when the war broke out. Vitalina helped displaced students throughout the war as Kharkiv became increasingly unsafe, until she was forced to flee her home-city. Vitalina’s journey brought her to the University of York, where she is currently studying for her Master’s qualification in International Political Economy.

Recently, Vitalina founded the University of York’s Ukrainian Society, taking on the role of President after its ratification. The society provides a local community for Ukrainian students, as well as a space for students of any nationality who want to help Ukrainians. To mark the anniversary week, the society has planned a series of events including the public event ‘Never-ending February’ on 24 February 2023, where the personal stories of the daily lives of Ukrainian people living in the war will be shared.

Nouse asked Vitalina about the significance of the one-year anniversary to both her and the society. Personally, Vitalina explained, “Honestly, it’s kind of difficult to realise it’s been a year. On 23 February, I could never have imagined that in a year I would be doing my Master’s degree at the University of York after living half of the year in Spain and organising events for my home country”. Vitalina added, “I actually wanted to try and do my Master’s degree abroad, but not like this. I could never have imagined this.”

Vitalina described, “It is a very strange feeling after the realisation that just within the year, how much has changed. Everybody is a new person, and we don’t have our lives back – almost all of my friends are displaced right now”.

Vitalina continued, stating, “We had to change our personalities and sacrifice our hobbies to contribute to help our home country. It’s difficult to realise this, but on the other hand I’m very proud to see how everyone is still strong. I’m very impressed, I’m telling you, honestly, that nobody is sitting and doing nothing. We realise that we have to be strong and together”.

Nouse asked Vitalina if she had any memories of where she was when she first heard that Russia had invaded Ukraine, Vitalina explained, “I remember it like it was yesterday, literally. I remember sitting with my student council team at Kharkiv University. We were discussing plans for the next week as we had an event coming up. We had news and hints about the invasion which were all over the news – everybody was talking about it, but nobody really believed in it”.

Vitalina continued, “One of my friends and team members told me that if war breaks out, they would quit the Student Union and join the territory defence forces of Ukraine. That was the moment I realised. Of course, we were discussing the war, but nobody actually believed it. But when your friend and team member, a person who you rely on like no one else, tells you this, you realise how real it could be”.

Vitalina added, “At that moment, in the student council meeting, we didn’t want to discuss the war – we were like ‘Please! Let’s talk about the deadlines’. It was like another life. Everything changed in one day, in one night.” Vitalina concluded, stating, “Nobody actually believed in it, even the day before the invasion”.

With the one-year anniversary approaching, Nouse asked Vitalina how she feels about the future of Ukraine. Vitalina said, “Ukraine definitely has a wonderful future and there is no other choice to be different. There is a lot of work to do, that is true, but each and every Ukrainian not only believes in our victory but already thinks how we will rebuild our country. I have realised that I am so proud to be part of this wonderful nation.”

Vitalina then recalled a personal memory from when she returned home to Ukraine, during the invasion, to see her family in December 2022. Vitalina explained the significance of this memory to Ukraine’s future. Vitalina noted that, “During the last day of my stay in Kharkiv there was a huge attack and there was no electricity in the whole city at all. But honestly, I could not tell because almost everything was working – people had adjusted and were using generators”.

Vitalina continued stating, “I had to go to the pharmacy and I was so impressed by the sight of three very young and skinny pharmacists, all together, holding a very big bottle of petrol, pouring it into the generator to make the pharmacy work. I was so impressed seeing this scene, and I was like ‘Oh my god, no way, we will win’”.

Nouse also asked Vitalina about her presidency of the newly formed Ukrainian Society and the events for the anniversary week. Vitalina explained, “It’s one of our biggest goals for this term to commemorate and gather all together and reflect on what Ukraine has gone through during this whole year”. Vitalina continued stating their public event– ‘Never-ending February’– will consist of “personal Ukrainian stories which show that behind each number of people dying, there are real families and real people”. Vitalina concluded adding, “We want to remind people that the war goes on unfortunately, that it is not yet getting better, and that Ukrainians still need your support and solidarity.”

The Ukrainian Society has also been a comfort to both Ann Hryshyn, the society’s Treasurer, and Olena Kurnytska, the society’s Secretary. Ann told Nouse, “It’s a nice place for us to gather to share our culture and remind people what’s going on. The war is still not over, and it still hurts us every day”.

When sharing with Nouse what the society means to her, Olena said, “When I used to introduce myself, I would say I was from Ukraine and people would ask ‘Excuse me, where’s that?’”. Olena explained, “It pains me to say that it’s taken so much sacrifice for the world to learn our geographical location, but we want to grasp this opportunity of sentiment and transform it into something important”.

Olena concluded, explaining, “To this day, whenever you read a piece of news, you never get used to the death toll, the statistics or seeing the horrible imagery from the warzones. For example, I came across a video of a missile flying above the park I grew up in on YouTube and that put a toll on me mentally. So, to unite [in our society] is a form of therapy for all of us”.

This week you can support the Ukrainian Society and any displaced Ukrainians by raising awareness of the one-year anniversary. In particular, on the University campus, at the Eat Shop and Drink outlets you can buy a ‘Cake for Ukraine’. All of the money raised will be given to the Ukrainian Society.

You can also attend their public event – ‘Never-ending February’– on 24 February 2023 from 14:15 - 17:30 GMT at the York Guildhall.