Swat Community Grapples with War in Ukraine

Viktoria Zakharova '24 and Olivia Medeiros-Sakimoto '25 handing out cookies baked and donated by Jillian Provaznik '25 at a student-organized fundraiser raising money to support Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Abby Chang for The Phoenix.

Less than a week since Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine on Thursday, Feb. 24, Russian forces have already destroyed hundreds of “transport infrastructure facilities, homes, hospitals and kindergartens,” killed at least 2,000 people, and forced an estimated 650,000 people to neighboring EU states. Though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be half a world away geographically, members of the Swarthmore community are affected by this escalating war and resulting humanitarian crisis in a multitude of ways.

On Feb. 25, Dean of International Students Jennifer Marks-Gold sent an email to the international students on campus expressing her sympathy and wishes for peace for the people in Ukraine. 

“I am completely horrified and saddened by the attacks of violence in Ukraine. I wish safety and resilience for the people of Ukraine. I hope that the pro-peace protesters will be able to continue their plea for peace without harm,” she wrote in her email. 

Marks-Gold also informed students of the vigil the Interfaith Center organized that same day. 

For the vigil, Ukrainian international student Vika Zakharova ’24 helped pick a song to play and a poem to read and agreed to give a speech for the Friday evening event. Surrounded by candles in the front of Parrish, Zakharova shared her story. 

“I was a little weak because I haven’t slept for a while at that time and I still haven’t. But yeah, I still knew I should do it and I wanted to do it, and like I went up there [and] gave a speech…” Zakharova said. “I guess seeing people come one after another like, really encouraged me. I saw a lot of my friends in a crowd. I felt like, I don’t know, I’m in the movie; you know, that inspirational moment when everybody comes together. A lot of people were very supportive. I’m glad I was able to give a speech, encourage them to learn and support Ukraine.”

The conflict hits close to Zakharova’s family and home in Kryvyi Rih, which has been targeted with air raids. 

“The first day when it happened and the second day, I was flooded with messages … So many DMs like asking me ‘how am I?’ and ‘is my family safe?’ And I just kept responding [to] them the whole day, and it made me feel heard and appreciated,” Zakharova said. “So the Swarthmore community, especially the students, are very considerate and very supportive.” 

A friend of Zakharova, Alicia Liu ’24, attended the vigil and expressed her solidarity. Liu reflected on her family who came from authoritarian China — whose great grandfather was executed by the communists and whose parents protested in Tiananmen Square and barely escaped fatal violence. 

“For a lot of people this is not just Russia invading a country, this is literally a battle for freedom for a lot of us,” Liu said. “It is a greater metaphor for the battle between authoritarianism and liberal democracy.” 

Over the weekend, Zakharova, along with American and international friends, made and put up posters as well as little Ukrainian flags with QR codes around campus. The QR code website directs people to a linktree with reliable information, trustworthy donations efforts, and petitions. All these resources were compiled by the Ukrainian Global Scholars, of which Zakharova is a member. The program is similar to the Questbridge program that helps high-achieving, low-income, first-generation Ukrainian students get into foreign universities and colleges to gain knowledge and useful skills to help Ukraine. Zakharova and fellow Ukrainian Global Scholars emailed their campus administrations to further raise awareness and encourage them to release an official statement. 

On Monday morning, President Valerie Smith sent out a statement over email to the entire Swarthmore campus community in response to the conflict in Ukraine.

“The unprovoked attack on the people of Ukraine is devastating; the images and stories are heartbreaking. These acts of aggression are a stark reminder of the assaults on democracy and freedom across the globe,” Smith wrote. “Swarthmore College joins the chorus of voices around the world in condemning these atrocities and calling for an immediate diplomatic and peaceful resolution.”

Smith guided students, faculty, and staff members who are struggling to cope with these events towards the college’s mental health and emotional support services. Moreover, Smith implored able community members to donate to UNICEF, Save the Children, or the International Rescue Committee. 

Zakharova said she appreciated that the email clearly expressed condemnation of the aggressor, supported the people of Ukraine, and was sent to every community member — regardless of their field of interest and on-campus status.

On Tuesday March 1, students interested in learning more about the conflict attended a talk by Doctoral Student in History at the University of Pennsylvania, Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12 entitled “WHAT IS GOING ON IN UKRAINE?,” organized by the Swarthmore Project for Eastern European Relations, and sponsored by the Swarthmore Program for East European Relations, the Department of History, the Department of Political Science, and the Russian Program of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. 

While St. Julian-Varnon’s talk was organized months ago, President of the Swarthmore Project for Eastern European Relations Grace Sewell ’23 said the event took on a strong relevance and larger scale in the past week when its focus became not only the crisis of escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine, but also the invasion of Ukraine. 

Sewell appreciated St. Julian-Varnon’s flexibility and for bringing her enriching expertise back to Swarthmore.

“I think she did a really good job of addressing the urgency of the situation and how much things have changed, but also situating it in the historical context that she understands so well through all of her research and time and the region,” Sewell said.

To accommodate strong interest for the event, they decided to move the talk’s location from a classroom in Kohlberg to the large Scheuer Lecture Room, which even then was still packed with students sitting on the ground and standing in the back of the room.

Like many students at the event, Fenja Tramsen ’23 decided to attend the talk because she felt uninformed about the current events in Ukraine.

“I feel like even though I am a [political science] and history major, I haven’t been watching the news as much as I should. So, I think the talk would be a very good opportunity to learn about what is currently going on,” Tramsen said. 

After Professor of Russian Sibelan Forrester recounted the long list of St. Julian-Varnon’s academic accolades and recent appearances on mainstream media, St. Julian-Varnon began her talk. 

Standing in the lecture hall with no notes in hand nor slides behind her, St. Julian-Varnon looked at a younger generation of Swatties and recognized the hardness of this moment. 

“I have friends who are in bomb shelters right now. I have freinds whose children are crying because their homes are being bombed. I have friends whose grandmothers are having their last days with Covid being bombarded. This sucks, and I have been crying a lot,” St. Julian-Varnon said.

She spoke about her Russian friends who are suffering at the hands of oligarchs, and how  archives she uses in her research at in Kyiv and Odesa have been bombed.

“So when I speak about Ukraine, I am not speaking as an academic but as a person … It is my soul, it is my life and it will be long after Putin’s monstrosities are done,” St. Julian-Varnon said.

She also reflected on how people turned to her for knowledge and assistance, sharing how on Sunday she went to bed with 9,000 Twitter followers on Sunday and woke up with 30,000 followers and now she has 90,000.

“What I do and what Swarthmore taught you to do is nuance and critical thinking. I use my knowledge, the thousands of pages I read here, at McCabe, at Wharton, at Renato’s … for this moment that I thought would never happen,” St. Julian-Varnon said.

She then drew upon her historical expertise to contextualize Putin’s goals and dispel several of the myths about the war. She brought attention to the fact that Putin has not said he wants to reunite the Soviet Union, which recognized Ukrainian nationality, but instead recreate the Russian Empire, seeking to erase Ukraine’s cultural and language uniqueness.

She further spoke to her expertise on race in Ukraine, stressing that Ukraine is a multi-cultural, multi-racial nation that was only recently considered white. She pointed to the crisis at the border and the several African and Indian students who are in need of safety and protection. She stressed that the world must not turn their backs on Ukraine despite racial violence occurring. She also spoke to the recent releases of videos depicting racial violence at the borders of Ukraine and acknowledged the presence of the Afro-Ukrainian community and their prominence in her research and studies.

Moreover, she argued that Russiophobia is not the answer to this crisis and instead emphasized the need to hold Putin accountable.

“Russiophobia is not the answer to this. And I’ve seen members of Congress who have called for Russian students to be kicked out of American universities … Russians are not responsible for this — not Russian students. They’re here, they’re studying … Understand that this war is horrible for everyone,” she said. 

Although St. Julian-Varnon believes the war will get worse, she maintains hope.

“I want Ukraine to survive. I want Russia to survive. I want Russians to experience what the world is like without being under the yoke of Putin. I want Ukrainians to realize what it is like to have a country with territorial sovereignty — to be able to produce, and to study and to live. But I also want this for the entire world.”

In addition to learning more about the conflict’s historical dimensions and racial dynamics, Tramsen said she will take away the emotional resonance of the moment. 

“The speaker did a good job of ensuring that students understood how scary and important it is to not let this become a media trend and let it die out when people lose interest in Ukraine…” Tramsen said. “She did a very good job of showing the emotional impact of it. I think it was a good idea that she let the audience see how emotionally vulnerable she was about it. Like there were times when she was speaking that her voice became heavy and her eyes welled up a bit.. I think that was important for people to see because I think sometimes people are far removed from the conflict and it becomes [trivialized to] a social media trend.”  

The grim reality of war, however, never leaves Zakharova.

“I hear people like talking about going to parties and doing their schoolwork and [how] it’s midterm season,” Zakharova said. “ And I still feel like it’s Thursday. But I still keep reading the news, [and in Ukraine] nothing [has] changed. It actually became worse; it didn’t become easier. The first couple days my city was safe, but now my city started having air attacks and sirens and people have to hide in bunkers. And my family started evacuating–my mom and my brother. It’s getting worse for me, and I really don’t want this issue to fade away from the awareness.” 

On Wednesday, in Sci Center Zakharova and Olivia Medeiros-Sakimoto gave away cookies home-baked and donated by Jillian Provaznik ’24, encouraging donations to support Ukraine. Liu, acknowledging her financial privilege, plans to donate her student job salary regularly for the foreseeable future towards Ukrainian relief efforts.

“This is really important to me,” Liu said. “And I think a lot of Swatties can feel pretty meaningless sometimes. I think that’s just like the phenomenon of our era of meaninglessness. But this is a chance for me to really make an impact.”

Zakharova, who has only been sleeping four hours a night and regularly checks on her phone for bomb raids, shared how thankful she is for the Swarthmore community. 

“I’m really really really really, really grateful to everyone, especially my friends who helped me and every single person who even reached out to me. I’m super thankful for every single question, thought, prayer, and [helping] hands… It really made me feel heard and seen and loved and supported by the college community,” Zakharova said. 

Also responding to the crisis in Ukraine, several students hosted a student teach-in on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Sci 181, entitled “The Anti-War Movement & NATO’s Bloody History,” in which they invited guest speakers Corinna Mullin, professor of Political Science at The New School and Majorie Cohn of The International Association of Democratic Lawyers. 

Sicheng Zhong ’22 went to the event because he was concerned about the ways in which the speakers were framing the crisis.

“The event sparked much controversy among students who attended since the speakers assigned primary blame for the war to US and NATO aggression and advance in Eastern Europe in mid February. They also framed the 2014 Revolution of Dignity as a ‘coup spooned by the US,’ which was pointed out as false information by some attending students,” Zhong wrote.

Zhong and several of the other students expressed their disagreement with the speakers.

“Students further pushed speakers on the topics such as agency of the Ukrainian people, reliableness of speakers’ source of information (they used “alternative” news sites), role of Internal political dynamics of Russia in the war,  growing authoritarian tendency of Putin, and his influence on Ukrainian domestic politics,” Zhong wrote.

To further expand knowledge of the current crisis, the college plans to host a virtual discussion on Friday, March 4, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. titled “Russia/Ukraine: Context, History, Present, Future.” The conversation will be moderated by Professor Forrester and include Associate Professor of Anthropology Maya Nadkarni, Associate Professor of Political Science Emily Paddon Rhoads, Isaac H. Clothier Professor of History and International Relations Bob Weinberg as well as St. Julian-Varnon. 

Additionally the Swarthmore Quiz Bowl plans to support Ukrainian refugees by hosting a trivia fundraiser at the Crumb Café on Monday, March 14 at 10:30 p.m. They will be offering an optional Venmo cover charge, sending all profits to the International Rescue Committee. 

While Zakharova expressed gratitude for these current supportive efforts, she encouraged students and the world not to become complacent. 

 “I really want to tell everyone [not to] get used to it. Don’t let it fade away. Don’t stop on one post. Keep fighting for it because Ukraine’s ability to fight this war depends on the future of democracy overall, and Ukraine is really fighting that battle for everyone right now. And with the global forces joining, it’s more than just a Ukraine-Russia situation, [it] is a whole world situation,” Zakharova said. “Just keep learning. Keep asking. Keep supporting in any way you can.”


  1. Thank you so much for this article. It is heartbreaking to see the situation at hand, while also warming to see how many Swat students are trying to help. I attended the NATO talk on Wednesday and can say that it was not only barely disguised Russian propaganda: it was a direct and disgusting assault on humanity, beginning with praise of Muammar Gaddafi and ending with a proposal to ignore civilian deaths in Ukraine and blame the entire situation on the United States. Never in my four years at Swarthmore have I felt more ashamed of being at this school than during that talk. If you’re interested in donating to help the situation in Ukraine, I highly recommend savethechildren.org to provide Ukrainian refugee families with hygiene kits and psychological support.

  2. As a Swarthmore alumni Class of 1952, I am not surprise, but never less pleased, that Swarthmoreans as they have in the past are standing firm in their opposition to international aggression, for the peaceful resolution of international conflicts and for democracy

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