One Year After the Russian Invasion of Ukraine: Interview with Yuriy Uhryn

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Yuriy Uhryn is a third-year law student at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine and is currently an exchange student at Bocconi University studying Global Law. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Uhryn has joined multiple organizations helping Ukraine and attempting to lessen the effects of the war. As a member of the Ukrainian Team in the Clooney Foundation, for example, Uhryn helps to keep the Ukranian justice system alive.

At the one-year mark of the invasion, he agreed to talk to us about his experience.

What was your experience during the invasion? How has the past year been?

Two days before the invasion, I arrived in Kyiv, I had been on a holiday trip with my brother. It was a Monday, and I had many meetings. We had a moot court thing, it had been months of hard work, and we were almost finalizing everything. But there was a weird feeling among everyone that something would happen. There was some feeling of war in the air, but it was all news; no one knew exactly what was coming.

Then a lot of the airlines were trying to close their work in Ukraine, which was a sign that something was going to happen. I finished all of my stuff in Kyiv, and by my mom’s recommendation, I left the capital for my hometown in West Ukraine. I was sleeping on the train when the war started until I heard people talking and realized something had happened. I looked at my phone and was in shock for about two minutes, and I couldn’t do anything.

Luckily nothing happened, but the train experience was horrible. It was really dark, and hard to tell where we were. I was really lucky, in a sense. A city in western Ukraine, Ivano-Frankivs’k, was shelled four minutes before I passed it.

From February until June, I stayed in my hometown in West Ukraine. In the days following, I started looking for ways to help; many of my friends were from cities that were bombed, and I wanted to do something. For the first two months, I joined a group of volunteers documenting and gathering as much as possible on the war crimes allegedly committed by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine.

I was still eager to find more things to do because I knew there were more ways to help. Then my classes at the Ukrainian university started again, and that was a really tough period. Specifically, at the same time, I joined the Truth Hounds team, which is the main NGO gathering evidence on war crimes in Ukraine.  Soon after that, I became part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice team, and I started working even more on the war subject matter. It was really tough over the summer, they had started shelling, and emotionally it was a lot to take in (seeing all the photos of dead people, worrying about the close ones in big cities, etc.). At the very same time, I was also applying to Bocconi, so I was preparing the official documents to leave Ukraine.  

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How was the process of leaving Ukraine? You mentioned that it is especially hard for men to leave at the moment?

Before September, students could get out of Ukraine if they had all official documentation done. But now, I haven’t heard of anyone that has been able to get out, even politicians. There have been a couple of scandals about people leaving without legitimate reasons, and public opinion and the government are both very against it. You should really have a reason to go as a male.

I needed to have all my official documents ready when I did it. Usually, when you are at the border, everything needs to be authorized because they want to avoid people translating and copying fakes. I was fortunate, though, and could get through without any issues. We were on the border for around 12 hours, and I saw, on the one hand, many people leaving their close ones in Ukraine and, on the other hand, many people arriving back home. I would say that the whole trip from Ukraine to Milan took 46 hours.

How did you find Bocconi when you got here?

I think it was a good decision. After the mass-scale invasion, my university, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, was proactive in concluding agreements with different universities abroad. Respectively, I had a chance to apply to Bocconi as an exchange student and was waiting for the response from the election committee. Once Bocconi and my Ukrainian university let me know I had been selected, I started to prepare the documentation. The university helped me a lot with this; all of the official documents from the Ministry of Education were explicitly signed for us at the request of my university.

By arriving in Bocconi, I understood that this place is full of friendly people with some of whom I am friends now. Bocconi also helped me a lot, for example, with scholarships for housing or tutoring.

You mentioned at the beginning that there was a sentiment that something was going on or that something was about to happen. Can you talk a bit more about that?

There is also an article written by the Washington Post about this. I think in October 2021, the Ukrainian government was getting some signs that Russia wanted to invade, but no one really took it as seriously as in 2022. At the time, only people in the government or the military knew. Then closer to December, as the article writes, the intelligence services of America and other countries like the UK were trying to precaution people of an invasion, which should have happened very soon. I remember, in December 2021, I was sitting with my brother in Kyiv and talking about this, but then nothing, fortunately, happened. That winter was weird in a sense, and it was like the quiet before the storm.

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Also, it should be mentioned that just at the start of 2022, each Ukrainian saw tons of photos of the Russian military and their equipment located near our borders in Belarus from satellites. This was the so-called joint drill of Russian and Belarussian forces “Allied Resolve 2022” which was Russian preparation before the mass-scale invasion of Ukraine.

But President Zelenskyy tried not to exaggerate and keep calm among Ukrainians through his evening speeches. I even remember the 23 February 2022 evening speech of Zelenskyy in which he was telling people not to worry and panic.

Nevertheless, the people of Ukraine still had a vibe and feeling that something was coming. Already a week before the invasion, one of the top airlines, KLM stopped flying to Ukraine, this meant something. We all had a feeling that something was coming but did not know what exactly. My friend even messaged me in the evening of the 23rd of February, saying “Let’s not plan ahead, we don’t even know what will happen tomorrow.”  

And then, you know, what happened… Just in 5 hours, Russia was invading Ukraine…

Recently social media has become an important tool for spreading information in moments of war and crisis. What is your opinion of these “social media awareness campaigns”?

If you take the percentage of all the donations raised [for Ukraine], I think it is likely mostly through Instagram, Facebook, or Telegram. It is also good in the sense of spreading information, something happens, and people are notified immediately. In another sense, it can be bad because you don’t have the “responsibility” for the information that you give, and the Russian propaganda machine sometimes might use this. But still, I believe that most people are clever enough to understand whether what they share is true information. Media plays a huge role in how people see the war. It has allowed for lots of movements and mobilization, and it’s playing a really great role in different countries when it comes to donations and the exchange of fast information.

Can you talk a bit about the Ukrainian association here at Bocconi?

It was recently launched last year. We are part of the Ukrainian Students Union, which involves a massive network of universities. The Union, for instance, succeeded in organizing the meetings with the President of Ukraine and with, the First Lady of Ukraine, and many other prominent people. It has launched many initiatives to help Ukraine.

Speaking specifically about us, we have organized humanitarian aid events near Bocconi in November. A few organized events have connected political figures with Ukrainian students, like people from Italian Senate. We have also visited the Ukrainian Ambassador in Italy to discuss certain things we want to implement here in Italy for Ukrainian students.

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At the present time, we are holding a project for Ukrainian students to have internships in the Italian Senate, and many other things.

How can students or people, in general, become more involved?

There are many volunteer initiatives in Ukraine, but the biggest point right now is donating and raising awareness. The more people that know what is happening, the better. There are many articles coming out talking about the terrible things happening in Ukraine; there are lots of videos going around, too, and sharing them is important. And there are also different options for donating; you can choose to donate to the army directly through ComeBackAlive foundation or donate for humanitarian aims through humanitarian organizations or just through the initiative of our President “UNITED24”.

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