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Interview with Edinburgh students organising protests in solidarity with Ukraine

The Student interviewed Edinburgh students Liza Novikova and Helena Gorecka. They are just two of many who have helped to organize demonstrations to spread awareness and solidarity on campus and around Edinburgh city centre over the past three weeks. 

While this article was written prior to the university’s ‘Statement on Ukraine’, the frustrations and topics discussed in this interview are still upsetting for the people involved. The delay in publishing this statement is seen by the protest organisers as not only unsatisfactory but remarkably delayed, sent nearly 3 weeks after the invasion, on the 14th of April. 

Liza is from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Helena is from Warsaw, Poland. Liza is a Psychology student at Edinburgh, grew up in Kyiv, Ukraine, until she was 15. Liza’s mother and grandmother were just two of the thousands who have fled Kyiv. Their grandfather, uncle, family, friends are still in Ukraine. Helena is a History and Politics student, she grew up in Warsaw, Poland, until she was 19 and come to Edinburgh. Helena was in Poland on February 24th.

February 24th marked the invasion and war of Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians have been left without homes, food, medications and hygiene products.

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Liza Novikova has stated: “I, as a Ukrainian, feel the responsibility of doing at least something in order to help my compatriots. My Ukrainian friends and I are thankful for the individual help for each Ukrainian student, however, we do not think the university is doing enough in order to support Ukraine and its people.” 

Liza has partnered with a Polish family who is going to the Polish-Ukrainian border from Edinburgh. Their hope was to raise humanitarian aid donations, as well as have a list of products needed by Ukrainians at this moment to bring what is actually needed. 

Among their hopes for these demonstrations is to raise awareness, compassion and solidarity. They claim the University of Edinburgh has remained neutral in its press releases, identifying the war in Ukraine as a ‘crisis’, or rather identifying Ukraine as an ‘affected region’. 

Demonstration in solidarity with Ukraine. Image courtesy of Edinburgh Polish Society.

Liza, Helena and many more have been in contact with the Edinburgh University Students’ Association and other departments to discuss welfare and student life, and received “little help, condolences or support”. When contacted to request permission for having donation boxes outside the library in George square, to raise awareness and funds for Ukraine, as well as a university email announcement, unfortunately, the request was refused for two reasons:  

“1. The university cannot be politically associated. 

2. There is an increased security requirement if amounts of cash are on display in public places”  

Upon further discussion, Liza discovered that while the Students’ Association team aren’t able to assist with a space in George Square as this is managed by the university, support could be offered in Potterrow or Teviot Row House. The EUSA Welcome Desk currently has a donation point for collections.

University Chaplaincy is also organising a vigil for ‘The Ukraine’. One demonstrator addressing the crowd on Friday 4th of March stated: “I don’t want your vigils, I want your support.”

Helena commented powerfully on the impact of the language of the University as an established institution. William Taylor, 2006-9 U.S. ambassador to Ukraine has stated that “Ukraine is a country, The Ukraine is the way the Russians referred to that part of the country during Soviet times … Now that it is a country, a nation, and a recognized state, it is just Ukraine. And it is incorrect to refer to The Ukraine, even though a lot of people do it.” 

The protest organisers argue that the idea that ‘the university can’t be political’ is inherently misunderstood, the symbolism of their current language used to refer to ‘the situation in The Ukraine’ is inherently political.

Helena also said that it’s important for the university to be an institution that represents its students, and has appropriate responses and support. “A university with a Ukrainian and Russian population needs to acknowledge the war and offer support. Particularly when it has the financial resources to do so.” 

Demonstration in solidarity with Ukraine. Image courtesy of Edinburgh Polish Society.

Liza commented: “There’s an overwhelming sense of guilt and powerlessness – shared with lots of Ukrainians who have a shared sense of survivor’s guilt.” Being so far from her friends and family, who have had to flee Kyiv, everyday tasks such as going to the grocery store have become surreal.  

Liza acknowledged the power of solidarity in demonstrations, and that the student population needs to be reminded that people and things matter, just by the virtue of being people. Conflict doesn’t have to affect you personally, but it’s people’s lives at the end of the day.

Helena pointed out the irony in that the war in Ukraine is reflecting the importance and symbolism of our western ideals that we hold so strongly. According to her, the UK had the luxury of leaving the EU; Scotland, however, wanted to remain a part of the European community, yet right now it feels more separated than ever. Scotland as a country tried to stay in the EU, because of (among other things) the values of solidarity and community.

She added: “The UK isn’t an island.”

Helena feels the “privilege of comfort” in Scotland, of not having to know, of being able to put her phone down and ignore the war. She urges students to go to demonstrations and listen to people affected by the conflict, because it humanizes the problem. The symbol of hundreds of people gathered to support also means a lot for the Edinburgh international community. 

The Russian Society at the University of Edinburgh responded to The Student’s request for comment on the war in Ukraine:

“There has been a new law in Russia that restricts what can be said about the situation in Ukraine. Many of our committee members are Russian citizens and they are risking their safety by expressing certain opinions. Therefore, unfortunately, we can’t openly comment on the situation on behalf of the society”. 

A university spokesperson said:

“We understand that the evolving situation in Ukraine will be distressing for many people in our community. We are deeply troubled at recent events and we fully endorse the Universities UK statement on this issue.

“Edinburgh Global and the Chaplaincy continue to work closely with affected Ukrainian and Russian students and staff, and will be communicating directly with them over the coming days and weeks to provide ongoing support. 

“Understandably, in response to this ongoing conflict, public demonstrations are taking place in Edinburgh and across the UK. The University Chaplaincy is organising a Vigil for Peace on Wednesday 9th March  – offering a safe space for staff and students to come together and support each other. Everyone is welcome to attend.”

Images courtesy of Edinburgh Polish Society and Ash Tomkins

Ways that students can get involved and help from Edinburgh:

  • Sign the Polish Societies petition “Call the University of Edinburgh to support Ukraine and condemn the Russian aggression” https://chng.it/7Jfr7n7xWS 
  • There are a number of charities providing humanitarian relief in Ukraine where people can donate money. For example, Disasters Emergency Committee. The UK Government has pledged to match public donations to this appeal pound-for-pound for up to £25 million.
  • The UK Government, Ukrainian Government and others are using #StandForUkraine support on social media. Take care with what you share, there is a lot of false information about the conflict circulating online.