On Feb. 23, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin shocked the world by launching a large-scale military invasion into Ukraine, the culmination of years of tensions between the two nations. The attacks, which have continued over the past week, have reverberated across the world to Amherst College, rocking the lives of those students who hold ties to the region.
Ernest Protas ’24, an international student from Ukraine, said he realized that an attack was imminent on Monday night, when Putin gave a speech denying the legitimacy of Ukraine as a country. “Basically what he said sounded like a declaration of war,” he said, noting the hundreds of thousands of Russian troops that had been amassing at the borders since last year.
When the attack came, however, no one was prepared.
Ira Sobchyshyna ’24, an international student from Ukraine, was in bed when the first air strikes were launched at around 11:30 p.m. EST. “I was literally sleeping. That’s what I was doing,” she said. “I heard about [the attack] from my partner,” who had decided to wake her up upon learning of the news.
Across students, shock and disbelief dominated initial reactions to the invasion. A slew of emotions followed, once the attack had registered as reality.
“When I actually heard his announcement of the war, I was paralyzed,” said Protas. “I couldn’t believe what I saw, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was actually happening — it was actually happening to all of Ukraine.”
“It felt devastating,” he continued. “I felt a lot of anger for the fact that somebody was coming in and threatening the existence of my country. And I was angry that people were going to die.”
Anya Zak ’25, an international student from Russia, was up late finishing an assignment when a social media break revealed posts plastered across Instagram about the news.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said, recalling that the question of whether an invasion would occur had come up in conversation with friends and family when she was home in January. “We [had] thought that, no, the invasion will not happen.”
“I was sad and frustrated by the fact that this [was] happening,” Zak reflected. “And I was worried.”
For Zhasmin Ospanova ’23, an international student from Russia and Kazakhstan, it was a call from her mom that broke the news.
“I was just so shocked and astonished,” she said. “I was kind of expecting some sort of conflict to arise, but I couldn’t believe it because the way they attacked Ukraine was so similar to the way Germany attacked the USSR during the Second World War, … such a dangerous and inhumane way.”
“It was 4 or 5 a.m. in Ukraine, and they attacked the capital, they attacked the major cities,” she elaborated. “Everyone was shocked by the way they attacked Ukraine.”
Upon hearing of the attack, Protas and Sobchyshyna immediately reached out to their families and friends back home.
“I called my mom first,” said Protas. “I called all my friends. For the next couple of hours, I was calling everybody, everybody I knew, all my friends, and making sure that they’re okay, that they’re safe.”
“I reached out to my family and talked with my family, and they all seemed okay,” said Sobchyshyna. “When all of this started, my mom was at her workplace, one of the essential railway junctions in Ukraine, so that was really scary.”
Protas described feeling awful for not being there to protect the people that he loves.
“I cried [on Thursday] because my cousin called me and told me he’s going to sign up for the Territorial Defense,” he said. “He was going to go and get his AK and his uniform. It’s really, really scary.”
Although his family, who lives in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine, hasn’t been bombed, they have had to shelter after hearing air raid alarms. “They have to go to the basement — the cold dark basement — and sit in there,” said Protas. “The cat is in panic, and the cat really hates it. … My mom’s tired. She’s taking a bunch of melatonin to sleep every night, because otherwise she can’t sleep.”
Protas explained that since it’s just his mom and grandmother staying together, they haven’t been able to flee to Poland, out of fear of being robbed along the way. “My family is just staying where they are, and it really hurts to hear that,” he said. “I really wish I could take them out to safety.”
Sobchyshyna, who’s from Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi, a town in eastern Ukraine about 80 miles from the border of Russia, said her family has been sheltering in rural areas where they can hide in underground spaces when they hear explosions and aerial attacks.
“My aunt said [that], compared to what’s going on, they shouldn’t complain,” she said. “But I think it’s pretty f — ed that that’s the measure of what’s okay and not okay, what’s good and bad.”
“I used to say I wouldn’t wish anything upon anyone,” Sobchyshyna continued. “But I really wish that people who are involved in this — the Russian occupants, all of those who benefit from this — I really hope they experience the worst nightmares of their life.”
Ospanova spoke about the effects that the war has had on people in Russia, noting the drastic depreciation of the ruble and the fact that Russians cannot flee due to other countries closing their borders and denying visas and passports to them.
“Of course, I’m not comparing how it affects Ukrainian people and Russian people. … I’m sure it [affects Ukrainians] in a more dangerous and more troubled and more tremendous way,” she said. “But the politicians and Putin who did this, they’re not affected by sanctions; it mostly affects just regular Russian people. … They’re the ones who suffer the consequences.”
Trying to keep up with all the latest updates and stay in touch with their families has consumed students’ attention in the days since the war started.
“I tried to go to class and fulfill my duties as much as I can, but I simply do not care enough about them at this point,” said Sobchyshyna.
“All of it very quickly became irrelevant,” echoed Protas. “I went to class Thursday morning, I did not pay attention in class. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t. … I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day. None of my other commitments, nothing else.”
“I was with the people, I was trying to call everybody, I was trying to stay in touch with people, I was trying to follow the news,” he continued. “For every victory, I felt pride, and for every loss, I felt heartache. It’s very tense. I don’t think you can really understand what it’s like until you actually feel it.”
As the war has escalated over the past week, Protas has found himself immersed in ever-increasing images of violence and brutality, an experience exacerbated by the work he does translating posts from a Ukrainian news channel into English.
“A lot of the news goes through me — videos of people dying, videos of bombings, videos of violence towards civilians, videos of war crimes, videos of the most awful things I’ve ever seen — and it really hurts,” he said.
“I hate to admit this, but I feel happy when Ukraine destroys Russian forces,” Protas added. “I really wish I didn’t have to be happy about people dying. I really wish I didn’t have to cheer at seeing Russian soldiers burn.”
“But that’s all I can do,” he said. “Because they’re on my land killing people.”
Beyond the emotional toll that following the war’s developments has taken, students have also had to deal with ignorance about the conflict from those around them.
“I just hope people would stop making this about themselves, [and] think a little bit more before they say some insensitive stuff,” said Sobchyshyna. “I hope people make an effort to see the bigger picture and what this means for the world, [and] try a bit more to empathize with the people there [in Ukraine].”
Ospanova reported facing a lot of xenophobia since the invasion started, from hate messages online accusing her of “killing Ukrainians” to verbal attacks on the street.
“I was out yesterday in the town, and the woman, she heard my accent and asked me if I’m from Russia,” she recounted. “I was like, ‘Yes, I’m from Russia,’ [and] she was like, ‘I f — ing hate you’ and stuff like that.”
“Russian people don’t want this war — the majority of Russian people just don’t want this,” she said. “But a lot of people — they can’t distinguish between government and people, between Putin and Russia. … [It] definitely affects you in daily life.”
Zak said she was thankful to the Amherst community for not associating Russian students with the Russian government, adding that her friends who are studying in other countries have had problems with that.
Zak noted the sensitivity with which people had asked her about the situation in Ukraine. “I was amazed — in a good way,” she said. “Before asking questions, many of them said, ‘If you don't want to answer, don't.’ So they were taking care of me in a way.”
All students expressed appreciation and gratitude for the support they’ve received from other students, as well as faculty and staff members.
Protas reported that many people reached out to him, including professors, whom he described as very understanding, speaking to him after class and offering extensions. He said his advisor also set him up with counseling resources to help him manage his anxieties.
“I appreciate the support for me … and for my fellow friends from Ukraine that attend Amherst,” said Protas.
Ospanova concurred, saying that “multiple of my professors reached out to me and asked how I was doing.”
Sobchyshyna is grateful for the community of Ukrainian students at Amherst, who’ve been “staying in touch and supporting each other.” She and Zak also emphasized receiving support from the Center for International Student Engagement.
Students also said, however, that they wished the community would do more than just support them personally as individuals, and take action to support Ukraine as well.
Protas spoke about not having the energy and mental capacity needed to organize the large-scale protests and fundraising efforts that he sees as necessary.
“The more time I spend thinking about it, the more frustration comes through,” he said. “In terms of myself, I feel that I am mentally supported, I feel encouraged and everything, but systemically, … I wish we could make a stronger stance with Ukraine.”
Protas reported that he and a group of other Ukrainian students wrote a letter to President Biddy Martin expressing disappointment in her response to the invasion, after she had sent an email on Friday, Feb. 25, informing the college community of upcoming events about the conflict.
Martin responded to the students and met with them over Zoom on Sunday, Feb. 27. During the meeting, students asked Martin to release a statement standing with Ukraine, as well as leverage the college’s financial resources and alumni network to support the cause in Ukraine.
“She was reluctant to make a statement, saying she doesn’t really talk about geopolitics but she can talk about things related to students,” said Protas. “We were like, ‘We’re students, and this is affecting us right now.’”
Martin did end up sending out an email to the college community on Monday, Feb. 28, in which she emphasized the toll that the attacks are taking on the college’s Ukrainian students and described Putin’s claim that Russia’s aggression is to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine” as an “offense against reason and truth.”
“I ask that you offer friendship and kindness to our Ukrainian students and also our students from Russia, who bear no responsibility for what is being done in their country’s name,” concluded Martin.
According to Protas, Martin also promised that the college would help out in the other ways the students requested, but he said they haven’t heard much about what progress has been made on those fronts.
Protas expressed appreciation for Martin’s statement, but noted that “some people engaged in whataboutism on Instagram in comments to the statement,” referring to a comment on the post the college’s official account made about the statement that read, “4 years in Amherst as a Syrian student during 4 years of Syrian civil war and you guys didn’t even notice. #westernbias.”
Martin replied to the comment in a separate comment on the post, writing, “I apologize on behalf of the College and myself. I have not made statements on geopolitical conflicts in the past. Having now made an exception to past practice, I clearly see the problem you raise in response. And I am sorry.”
Protas, who also commented on the post expressing gratitude for the statement and hope that more students affected by war find themselves supported by the college in the future, described the original comment as “really appalling.”
“I understand that they have their own pains, and there’s definitely not just one conflict in the world,” he said. “Obviously the school should have spoken out on other conflicts, but I don’t think this is a good time to blame Ukraine for it, or blame Ukrainians for asking for help.”
“I believe that we should all stand up for everybody who’s hurt,” Protas added. “And today that means to stand up for Ukraine.”
Both Protas and Sobchyshyna called on students to also make any effort they can to support Ukraine.
“There [is] a ton of information online about the ways to donate and the ways to talk to your local representative and the ways to protest and all of those things,” said Sobchyshyna. “If anyone wants to help and has any questions, please reach out to me.”
Protas encouraged students to educate themselves and support the cause financially if they are able to. “If everybody at Amherst that could do that did that, that help would be much appreciated,” he said. “I believe [that] would be the best the community could do for us.”
Protas also urged people to recognize just how much is at stake in the war. “Ukraine matters,” he said. “We cannot put our heads away in the sand and hope that [the] problem goes away. I do believe that supporting Ukraine is supporting democracy and … the values that most people in the world share: freedom, respect, and love.”