JURIST Deputy Features Editor Jaimee Francis talked with Ukrainian student Kateryna Kyrychenko to get her unique perspective on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kateryna is originally from Kharkiv, Ukraine, and is now based in the Czech Republic. This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with JURIST’s Ukraine correspondents, who include law and policy students and young lawyers with ties to Ukraine. Below, you will find the original video footage of their interview, followed by a text transcript.
Kateryna, will you please introduce yourself and tell us more about yourself?
Hi, my name is Kateryna. I’m a fourth-year law student at Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University, which is located in Kharkiv, Ukraine. I’m originally from that city. I’m studying international law and before the war I was also paralegal at a Ukrainian law firm.
Can you please tell us more about what your life was like before the invasion?
Yes, it was actually quiet, an average life for a Ukrainian law student. I was, you know, going to university during the COVID era. And I was also interning at a law firm, where I was actually promoted to paralegal a week before the full-scale invasion. It was a pretty simple student’s life. I was also involved in the international law society, so I was surrounded by very active law students.
So how did you learn that the invasion had begun? And what were your initial thoughts when you found out?
Well, actually, it’s difficult to define the exact moment. Because that day, I was actually planning a trip to another city on February 24. That’s why I decided to stay with my family that night. I couldn’t fall asleep. And I’ve read some news about the shootings and Ukrainian controlled interview poll. And also that they’ve closed the sky above the plane. So, I went to my family and said, “Look, I think the wars have started.” They told me I was paranoid. And, because that week I was very exhausted, I thought so too. So I fell asleep, because I didn’t sleep properly the entire week. And then I woke up in two hours. And my family just told me to pack my things; we’re leaving. And I didn’t ask for an explanation. I understood what’s going on. But I just didn’t want to hear the words out loud. So I guess that’s how I found out.
Yeah, and my initial thoughts. You know, shock. You can believe that is going on. My whole set of values and beliefs were damaged. Because, you know, I believe in international law, I believe that something like this cannot take place. And suddenly something like this just burst out. I was shocked. Not only because this war has taken place, not only because somebody was killing the civilian and attacking us, just I couldn’t believe how it’s allowed. So, I guess that was my initial reaction.
How has your life changed since then now that we’re into several weeks into the invasion?
I had to evacuate to the European Union with my mother and my brothe. But a lot of family members are in Ukraine and some of my friends are in Ukraine Some also have evacuated. It’s difficult for me to estimate right now how my life has changed because you know, it’s still an ongoing conflict. But as many as my friends do, I still believe that in time I will be able to go back and I’m in to return to my house. But, of course, it’s really very difficult for me to understand the impact and to evaluate what’s going on. I think I will take it will take an entire lifetime.
So you spoke about leaving Ukraine but you still having some friends there. Do you know who exactly is left in Ukraine right now?
Yes, of course, I’m talking to my friends even to like close friends and to some friends who are kind of distant. But you know, since the war broke out, you just want to check on them, too. It’s 50/50. A lot of my friends have moved here. Some of them didn’t, I can’t calculate. But you know, there is a rule that I still believe in Ukraine. For people who are defined in their passport as women, they can leave without any barriers. As for people defined as men, there are some limits for those older than 18 and below 60 or 65. They cannot leave unless they have for instance, three children. For men it is much more difficult to leave the country. So a lot of my male friends, they are in Ukraine, but probably some of them have advocated to west of Ukraine, but some of them have decided to stay in the markets and volunteer.
So for those that are left, what are their biggest concerns? And how are their needs being addressed during this very ongoing conflict?
The attacks on Ukraine, for instance, the situation and hardship in Mariupol? Well, those are incomparable. But, for instance, the Western of the country is much better than in the eastern regions.
So it depends on where you stay, because, for instance, in Kyiv some of the coffee places and markets are opening again. And some of the people have decided to join the army. Some of the people have decided to join the Territorial Defense Forces. People volunteer so they might help with the humanitarian effort or with just, you know, trying to collect money for the army or for other people. Even those who moved to western Ukraine, they still try to do something to help. And even people like me, that have evacuated the country will still try to find how we can help.
Do you have a sense of how many journalists are left in Ukraine that are able to cover and report on the developments?
Well, as far as I know, this was, you know, heavily documented. It depends on the location. Like I’ve read recently a story about a journalist. The Russians were trying to find him and kill him. So I know for sure that being a journalist, especially in the hot areas, is very dangerous, because those people are actually among the primary targets of Russians. But in other cities, as far as I know, there are many journalists, but I don’t know the numbers.
For people who have left the country, do you know if there’s any plans to ensure that those individuals will be able to return in the future?
Well, of course, not all of them will be able to return. As for me, for instance, I know that even if I return home, nothing will be the same and I’m not sure if I ever will feel safe at home. But of course, a lot of people want to return. I know that there is already a project of Ukrainian architects, such as Slava Balbek, who are actually trying to find out what Ukrainian cities will look like. I remember reading about how the new buildings will be more adjusted for wars and for bombings. Probably a lot of you, infrastructure will be built. There is already news about some of the European funds trying to sponsor the rebuilding of Ukraine. So there will be a lot of rebuilding, but unfortunately, it’s not new. We have the Second World War has taken place in our territory, and it damaged a lot of our infrastructure. So a lot of it was rebuilt. And one particular example is actually the city of Medina where in 2014 suffered a lot from the shilling. But then, after it was taken on the Ukrainian control, it has become an example of the prosperous city. A lot of cultural projects have taken place, and it was actually one of the fastest growing cities in Ukraine. Actually, I remember discussing with my friends that they have published projects from university, and was really cool, especially in comparison to the other universities in Ukraine. So it was actually one of the good examples of how we’re able to rebuild when we will have to rebuild once the conflict is over.
How else do you think the future of Ukraine will be impacted, especially considering the large number of individuals who have left the country and might not return?
Well, I believe that it depends on the outcome. I try to keep in my mind different scenarios. Of course, I try to believe in victory. But you know, if you look into the history of Ukraine, there’s a lot of oppression, a lot of colonialization, and artificial famines that are considered genocide. So I don’t know. There are different scenarios, and I hope for the best. Of course, not everyone will be able to return. But a lot of people are willing to do so. And, you know, rebuilding, I believe that we will be able to –– everybody’s hoping that we will be able to –– live even better than before. But once again, it depends on how the story turns out.
What are your thoughts about how other nations around the world have responded to the conflict?
Well, there are some very positive surprises and some disappointments. Everybody here appreciates, for instance, the reaction of other Eastern European nations, such as the Baltic states, because of their support. They were willing to take Ukrainian refugees, and they were also very helpful about the geopolitics of Ukraine. There are also some of the disappointing examples for Ukrainians. But it’s not the nation that we are disappointed, but how the government reacts. For instance, there was a scandal with Germany when the Ambassador told one of the senior officials that day, the war broke. He told him it will be over in two days, we don’t see a reason to argue. So it was very, heavily discussed here. A lot of people are grateful for to the United States and to NATO. But a lot of us emphasize that more needs to be done more like closing the skies. The reaction of Britain was quite surprising for a lot of Ukrainians since they decided to be such a strong ally. A lot of people were also surprised by the reaction of Japan and disappointed by the silence of China or some African and Middle Eastern states.
How do you recommend that individuals respond effectively, especially given that you made a distinction between the nations and the government?
Well, I think that one of the examples might be Germany. Although a lot of people are very disappointed in the actions of their governments, especially in comparison with Baltic States, a lot of their people seem to be very welcoming the refugees. Maybe you’ve seen the pictures of meetings in Berlin? That was very nice. And you know the sanctions were made and there was a lot of support in Congress from Georgia. So we’re still trying to make the distinction. But, yeah, sometimes governments do reflect the position of people who they represent.
So how do you think that this conflict will change the EU or European politics? Do you think there will be a long-lasting change?
Yeah, I, you know, I’m a law student. So I think that it must be noted that my opinions are you know, not very accomplished. But I think things have already changed. Before this, nobody saw Russia as a threat. And now everybody uncovered how much Russia intervenes and influences affairsAlso, in Britain, for instance, they try to uncover how much money laundering that’s there and around the world. So I think that for democracies, this will have an impact. It already has had some in that they are trying to find out how they have ties with corrupt regimes. And not only Russia. After 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion in Donbass, although states have imposed sanctions, they have actually deepened the ties with Russia and they have continued to supply them with weapons. So there is fear here that after some time, everything will go back to business as usual. So we hope this will not be the case, because we are now killed with the weapons that were supplied by European states, which isn’t really great.
I know you touched earlier about some of your hopes for Ukraine and I wanted to finish off with asking you more about those hopes about your future.
I had some plans for my future, and now I’m trying to adjust them to navigate. What’s my plan? Because, you know, I’m a law student specializing in Ukrainian law, and I’m still hoping to go back. But also, as cynical as it sounds, I also have to find out what is my plan if I’m unable to go back. So it’s a little bit turbulent. I’m trying to find opportunities for growth.