Doctoral candidate Oksana Dudko returned to Ukraine to help friends and family – and to ‘keep the conversation alive’

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On February 24, signs of impending Russian aggression against At Oksana Dudko Ukraine, the country of origin, had been visible for months.

Still, the University of Toronto graduate student says it was still a shock to open Facebook and Instagram and see her friends in Kyiv sharing the sound of bombs falling around them.

“No one expected such a ruthless war to happen – that it would be the first day of a full-scale invasion where the whole country would be targeted,” says Dudko, a doctoral student in the history department who is co-appointed for the Anne Tanenbaum Center for Jewish Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“It’s a radical departure from the Ukraine I know.”

Many of Dudko’s friends are fighting on the front lines – especially in Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine next to the Russian border. Like much of the Ukrainian military, Dudko’s friends aren’t trained soldiers — they’re academics, artists, and cultural workers who volunteered to fight. Some of their families are constantly bombed and hide in basements. And, when war broke out, they were all in desperate need of medical supplies.

So Dudko, who specializes in modern Ukrainian history and 20th-century European history, left Canada for Warsaw and then Lviv to help. She contacted colleagues abroad to procure and transport medical kits to their friends and relatives, across the border to Lviv and throughout Ukraine. What started as an intimate effort grew into a larger network of dedicated volunteers who delivered supplies — under frantic bombardment — to civilians who were managing everything from chronic illnesses to war wounds.

Left: A shrouded and reinforced Neptune Fountain in Rynok Square. Across the country, Ukrainians shrouded monuments and statues to protect them from possible Russian shelling and shelling. Lviv, May 16, 2022. Right: A Ukrainian soldier prays in the St. Petro and Pavlo Garrison Church. In the background shrouded church statues are visible. The church is frequently used as a place for military funerals. Lviv, May 11, 2022. (photos by Oksana Dudko)

“Because Kharkiv is an active war zone, some large humanitarian convoys were unable to enter it,” Dudko explains. “I am an academic and my colleagues are academics who work in cultural centers like the Academic Puppet Theater in Kharkiv. We are not professional humanitarian volunteers. We just felt like we had to do everything we could to be actively involved, because this is our country, our city and our neighborhood.

It has been more than six months since the war began and there is now a more established network of humanitarian initiatives.

“At the time, we didn’t realize the war was going to be this long,” says Dudko. “Media coverage has diminished, but the war continues, more brutal than ever in eastern and southern Ukraine. We must be optimistic and strong and continue to help Ukrainians in the face of what looks like a war of attrition.

The war in Ukraine is not only deeply personal for Dudko. As a historian of the First World War and the revolutions in Eastern Europe, she also understands how steeped it is in the patterns of the past.

She left her Lviv home in 2015 to pursue her PhD under the guidance of Piotr Wrobel, professor in the Department of History and holder of the Konstanty Reynart Chair of Polish History. Also member of its thesis jury: University Professor Lynne Viola and teacher Doris BergenChancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies.

Dudko’s research and teaching often bring her back to Ukraine.

For many centuries, says Dudko, most Ukrainian territories were under Russian imperial control and there were harsh policies of “Russification” – Ukrainian schools were closed and Ukrainian culture and language were banned. Similar restrictions continued under the Soviet Union: Ukrainians could express their ethnic identity but were not allowed to have an independent political life.

When Ukraine became an independent state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dudko said Russia tried to maintain imperial control by interfering in Ukraine’s internal politics. “For example, investing money in pro-Russian parties and helping pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians win elections, like former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.”

Left: A damaged residential building in Kyiv. One person died during the shelling of the area. Kyiv, May 1, 2022. Right: A tourist map of a Kyiv neighborhood that has been painted over. Ukrainians painted maps, road signs and street names to confuse Russian troops who invaded Ukraine. Kyiv, May 1, 2022. (photos by Oksana Dudko)

She also points to the expansion of Russian culture across Ukraine as another method of imperial maintenance.

Ukrainians’ current efforts to protect their cultural heritage amid Russian bombardment abound, with many historical monuments and street signs wrapped in protective tarps.

Saving physical signs of Ukrainian identity is important, says Dudko, as others are lost to the violence of war.

“We have already lost the museums that held works by local artist Maria Prymachenko and philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda. Faced with this destruction, many grassroots organizations such as Korydor – a contemporary culture magazine – are doing important work to help keep independent Ukrainian culture alive.

“We can constantly see these Russian attempts to control Ukraine throughout history, and now we have this on a bigger and different scale – like a full-fledged war,” Dudko said.

Prior to the invasion, Dudko taught students in Canada and Ukraine the importance of demilitarization and diplomacy in the face of conflict – to fight for an independent democracy through peaceful means.

“We see that dialogue between countries with problematic histories is possible. There are many dark spots in Ukrainian-Polish relations. For example, Poles persecuted Ukrainians in Galicia, and later the Radical Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists participated in the massacre of Polish civilians in the Volyn region during World War II,” Dudko explains. “Now these countries have chosen democratic development and working to overcome historical traumas, so as not to repeat the same mistakes.”

But after witnessing the devastation of war today, with her friends and students among the many young people who have died, she says it is difficult to reconcile this belief.

“My generation championed the importance of peace and demilitarization because we wanted to live in a peaceful country. Now we’re in the position of having to protect him with weapons – it’s a huge identity crisis,” Dudko says. “My friends who are in the military don’t want to fight, don’t want to kill, don’t want to die – but they don’t want to live under Russian President Vladimir Putin either.

“It’s a war of survival.”

Dudko returned to Canada this summer and was joined soon after by her aunt and cousin. While she completes her thesis and teaches classes, she will continue to support Ukraine by raising funds to help civilians in eastern Ukraine, where much of the fighting is concentrated. She also plans to interview Ukrainian refugees and possibly create a digital archive of their experiences for the historical archive.

For the rest of us who want to help, Dudko has a message: “Keep talking about Ukraine. Keep the conversation alive. Focus on the Ukrainians because it’s a long war and global solidarity matters.

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