25-year old Yaroslava Bukhta (St John’s, 2022) looks back with amazement on the past year. Speaking in Oxford, where she is nearing the end of her Masters in Social Anthropology as a student of St John’s College, she never dreamt that she would come to Oxford to study.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, 2022, she was working for the investigative media organisation Slidstvo.info from a Kyiv base.
‘My parents lived west of the city in Berezivka. I moved there thinking I would be a bit safer than staying in the city.’
No one could have guessed that the main invading force of Russians would pour down from the north and then be diverted west, coming around to the capital from the side furthest from Russia, including Berezivka which was occupied with a couple of days.
It quickly got worse. Russian troops began to shoot at civilians trying to escape by car, so the decision to try and flee was a highly loaded one.
‘We left in a car with about seventy other cars in a large group, partly managed by Ukrainian territorial defence soldiers. But it was very dangerous and none of us knew what would happen. We had a Russian tank swivel its turret to train its main gun on us as we left. Children were told to cover their eyes because you could clearly see charred human bodies in vehicles that had come under attack, littered along the road.’
Once they were free, the family continued to Yaroslava’s grandparents who lived in Vinnytsia, a regional city well to the south-west of Kyiv. From there, Yaroslava continued alone to Brussels to join her Aunt and take up an internship at EU-focused news website EURACTIV, joining the agrifood team.
‘This internship was a way to learn about Brussels, the EU Commission, and how it all works, which is also very important for Ukraine…I did it for six months.’
Working out her next move while still working the original job at Slidstvo (Yaroslava says it was two jobs at once from the Brussels base and as such, challenging), Yaroslava’s mother passed on a link about some Oxford Ukraine scholarships and she decided to put in an application before the late-June deadline, 2022.
A month later she saw what looked like a generic email that began with the probably-no opener, ‘Thank you for applying….’ But the next sentence, she recalls, began with the heart-leaping ‘We’re happy to offer….’
She was speechless and later learned that the 26 one-year Masters Ukrainian scholarships offered by Oxford, had attracted 850 applicants.
Part of her qualification was that her BA had been in political science while she already had a Masters in Journalism from a top Kyiv university.
In a delicious quirk, she adds that her mother had years earlier bought her a tourist-emblazoned ‘Oxford’ hoody and when she evacuated Kyiv it was one of very few items she stuffed in a bag. It is now a treasured item, a sort of totem of what was to come, and what became.
Come September she got on Eurostar in Brussels, got out at London St Pancras and took the bus to Oxford and hence a room in St John’s College.
The day we speak she had just completed a week-long essay project that counts towards her final grade, blinking as if emerging from a crazy tunnel of work the likes of which Oxford seems to specialise in.
Her broad area of study has been the comparative reporting of the war in Ukraine, thus continuing from her previous studies and direct working experience. She now hopes to attain funding towards an MPhil / DPhil, having already been offered a place at Oxford to continue.
The comparatively generous Ukrainian Scholars Programme offers a tuition-free degree, board and lodging within a college, plus a stipend.
Yaroslava has been very busy besides pursuing an advanced degree in her non-native language.
She notes, ‘The University Ukraine Society existed before the 2022 invasion but was tiny. The invasion ignited a wide interest in it and now it has about fifty members.’
Yaroslava is President of the Society and says that it has raised and coordinated a great deal of humanitarian aid from the Oxford community, both Town and Gown, over the past eighteen months, while playing a core role in helping the 26 scholars find friends and welfare within the collegiate University.
Yaroslava was a panel member on May 11, 2023, the day that Oxford University was able to announce that it had attained sanctuary status, part of a wider UK higher education initiative.
She says she has enjoyed her time in Oxford, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t like to make some changes, noting that chicken ‘Kyiv’ is still misspelt ‘Kiev’ within St John’s College dining hall, while more seriously the nomenclature of an academic department needs to be updated – some might say decolonised.
She argues that ‘Russian and Eastern European Studies’ which describes the Oxford department under which Ukraine falls, reads like a vague proxy for the Soviet Union that disintegrated over thirty years ago. ‘Studying Ukraine within that departmental description is akin, she says with a grin, ‘to studying Indian history within English studies,’ alluding to the British colonial past.
In a subsequent email, Yaroslava expanded on the point being made:
'In my personal opinion, the persistent Russian influence is problematic in academia as such; thus, for example, when Ukrainian scholars were persecuted by the Soviets, Russian anthropologists were actively writing and recognised by the West. We need to understand its imperialism, and the fact that many nations constituting the USSR in the past were simply silenced, not just Ukrainians. Unfortunately, even after the Soviet Union disappeared, all these independent states were often perceived as ‘Russians’, with too often a lack of research on them. Hence, a huge re-evaluation about everything written is needed; it will almost certainly be a very uncomfortable process since Western academia still needs disillusionment from the persistent Russian agenda obscuring all the other voices. And the presence of such department in Oxford is the mere consequence of this which I think now can be questioned and discussed.'
As a journalist, she has also been critical of some western reporting of the invasion, noting that the pursuit of ‘balance’ has led to situations where the ‘Russian point of view’ has been aired with insufficient regard for the fact that it’s not a free point of view at all but just an instance of Kremlin disinformation.
She also says that the broad notion that has taken hold in parts of the West, that all ordinary Russians have been deceived by Russian propaganda, is not quite true. She cites a family relative who took an anti-Ukrainian position despite access to social media such as Instagram, where there are copious resources to realise that Russian actions have been despicable. There is a basic civil responsibility there, she suggests, but too many ordinary Russians have decided simply to ignore the truth because it is inconvenient.
Another bugbear is continued reference she hears to ‘the Ukraine’, the definite article casting a sovereign state as a mere ‘border land’ for Russia.
But Oxford has been great, and Yaroslava has made real friendships. Above all her studies have been fertile and she has doctoral advisers waiting in the wings– as long as funding can be found. She is hopeful that she will be able to stay.