Yana Prymachenko helped her 67-year-old mother flee her home in Chernihiv as Russian forces advanced through Ukraine in March 2022. They packed into a car with complete strangers, bringing only important documents, a laptop, and their cat. “I left all my life behind,” Prymachenko said. She arrived at Princeton six months later after receiving help from the organization Scholars at Risk. Prymachenko is now a visiting research scholar in the Department of History, having left the Institute of History of Ukraine.
Around the same time, Evgeny Roshchin prepared to leave Russia after refusing to endorse a pro-war statement at his previous institution, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) in St. Petersburg. Roshchin is currently a visiting research scholar at Princeton in the University Center for Human Values.
The University has granted temporary positions to 10 Ukrainian and six Russian scholars since the beginning of 2022. Individual academic departments and programs made the decision to sponsor scholars at risk and have provided most of the necessary financial support.
“Each scholar was given the opportunity to be here for up to two academic years,” University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote in a statement to The Daily Princetonian. “After that, they may seek other placements in the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere.”
Princeton’s history of supporting scholars at risk — defined by Hotchkiss as “an academic, artist, writer, or public intellectual who is escaping persecution” — dates back to the 1930s when Oswald Veblen, a mathematician who had just moved to the Institute for Advanced Study, convinced the University to shelter Jewish scholars persecuted by Nazi Germany. In recent years, the University has also welcomed scholars displaced by Hurricane Maria and has hosted Afghani scholars after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, providing them with professional development support in addition to a short-term position.
‘In their classification, I should be destroyed.’
Many of the recently-arrived scholars lived in active conflict zones. Prymachenko and her mother only escaped Chernihiv after it had already been besieged for several days.
“From the very beginning, my mom didn’t want to leave her home,” Prymachenko said. Her mother had lived there almost all her life, and it took their street being hit to convince her to flee.
“The Russian army shelled this residential area, and it was 28 people just killed at this point,” she said. “It was like 200 meters from our house.” Many of the people killed were waiting in a long line at the pharmacy because of shortages caused by the war, Prymachenko said, adding that the blast felt like an earthquake and that it destroyed most of the windows in their building.
“It was really awful,” she said, “and after that, my mother told me, ‘Okay, we need to move out.’”
They spent five days driving to the Polish border. The trip normally takes seven hours, but the constant shelling resulted in traffic jams and forced them to take detour after detour. After crossing the border on foot, friends helped them find a temporary apartment in Warsaw.
Prymachenko said she was especially scared during their escape because she believes Russia has likely included her on a list of Ukrainians to be killed immediately upon being found, given her history of activism against Russian propaganda since Russia’s seizure of Crimea — a peninsula that the United States and European Union still consider to be part of Ukraine — in 2014. In a letter sent to the United Nations in February 2022, the United States stated they held credible information showing that Russian intelligence organizations were compiling lists of targets in Ukraine. Since then, news organizations have reported that Russian troops have hunted Ukrainians by name. Government officials, activists, and journalists are common targets.
The 2014 attack made Prymachenko decide to become actively involved with “counterpropaganda” efforts against Russia — work that made her afraid she was on the Russian list of targets. Her goal was to demonstrate that Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine is unsupported by reality, using her specialization in history. “We [Ukrainian historians] couldn’t just stay aside,” Prymachenko said. “We needed to do something.”
She continued her civic activism until she had to leave Ukraine last year. “In their classification, I should be destroyed,” she explained, adding that others who feared they were on the list tried to hide their identity.
Prymachenko said she doesn’t know where she will go after her time at Princeton ends next summer, but she hopes to stay in the United States or Canada. She would still be in danger if she returned to Ukraine. “Because if Chernihiv were occupied, I couldn’t survive,” she explained. “They would look for people, those who are activists.”
‘Every day, my Facebook has an elegy.’
Iuliia Skubytska, a visiting research scholar in the Program in Judaic Studies supported by the Humanities Council, was working for the War Childhood Museum in Kyiv when Russia expanded its invasion in 2022. Her job was to supervise the collection of interviews with Ukrainian children and adolescents who had been affected by the war since 2014.
She arrived at Princeton in September 2022, but found it difficult to work. “One of the side effects of the invasion was that our cognitive abilities were not exactly the best,” Skubytska said. “By the time I arrived here, I was barely figuring out everything around me. Just arranging my daily life was quite an effort.” She credited her colleagues with helping her to adjust.
Skubytska said that she did not want to talk about certain experiences of her escape from the Russian advance, explaining that the war still impacts her even now that she is physically far away from the violence. “The end of the war is nowhere near in sight,” she added. “And that’s a huge psychological burden to bear.”
Most of Skubytska’s friends and family members have stayed in Ukraine, and many have joined the military. “A ton of Ukrainians feel this survivor’s guilt,” she said. “This is something that weighs heavily upon us — that somebody is dying right now, is being killed right now, for me to be safe, for my parents to be safe.”
The United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR) has reported that over 9,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed since February 2022, and in August, U.S. officials said that total military casualty numbers are approaching 500,000. “We live in a situation where I read news about people dying every day,” Skubytska said. “Every day, my Facebook has an elegy.”
She noted that it is important to hear about these deaths, even if it makes it more difficult to focus. “We read the news because that’s respectful to the dead,” Skubytska explained. “Very often there will be stories about our fallen soldiers, and it is respectful to them to read their name and to read their story.”
Like Skubytska, Oksana Nesterenko, now a visiting research scholar in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), found it difficult to work even after coming to Princeton. “My first year [here] I was not like a normal person,” she said. “I was traumatized, definitely.” She credits her colleagues and supervisors in SPIA with supporting her as she adjusted to her new life, though she may have to readjust to another situation after the spring semester ends.
Therapy helps Skubytska work through some of the trauma, but there is always more. “There isn't a way to deal with it,” she said. “At some point you basically develop certain adaptation mechanisms. It is important to recognize them because you might become less empathic. You might react less, you might read the news less.” She said she doesn’t think these are good ways to respond to the war. She added that she worries people are already forgetting Ukraine as time passes and other conflicts emerge.
Skubytska will again teach JDS324: Trauma and Oral History — Giving Voice to the Unspeakable next spring. She said her goal is to help people learn how to listen to traumatic experiences and then communicate with those who have not been exposed to similar circumstances. “Because it’s very hard to communicate to those who never have gone through anything like that,” Skubytska explained.
‘We have to speak out.’
Roshchin, the visiting research scholar at the University Center for Human Values, was born in Russia and spent most of his life there. In February 2022, he was the head of the faculty of International Relations and Politics, the political science school of RANEPA.
Roshchin said he opposed the war from the beginning, calling it “a huge crime” because of his strong belief in human dignity and human rights. “I didn’t want to be part of it in any way,” he said. “And like many other Russian scholars and citizens, I spoke out.”
On March 4, 2022, Russia enacted a law criminalizing protests against the war. The punishment includes up to 15 years of jail, and many Russians have faced imprisonment and abusive treatment since. Alexandra Skochilenko, a 33-year-old St. Petersburg musician and artist, recently received a seven-year sentence for placing stickers with anti-war messages over price tags in a grocery store weeks after the law was passed. The Washington Post reported that she faced sexual aggression and cruelty in jail as she waited for her trial.
Roshchin said he refused to endorse the idea of making a collective pro-war statement on behalf of RANEPA at a council meeting of school administrators later that same March, instead suggesting to release a call for peace. Roshchin had already signed anti-war petitions by this point, and one administrator warned him to retract his signature to avoid facing criminal charges.
“I indicated that I wouldn’t change my publicly voiced opinion, [that] this is what I hold dear and this is what I believe in,” Roshchin explained. “Instead, I resigned to protest.”
The war had reduced the number of flights out of Russia, and Roshchin began looking for tickets as soon as he resigned. He told his superiors that he was going to withdraw from public life and rest even as he secretly made plans to leave the country. He flew to Istanbul, Turkey, two weeks later with only one checked bag. His wife and two daughters, ages 9 and 4, took another flight. They left behind their home, their car, most of their belongings — almost everything except their dog, Greta.
Roshchin and his family arrived at Princeton in August 2022. His research focuses on how free speech may be limited in academic environments by institutions or government interference, or by the fear of it.
“I focus on self-censorship, on the voice of dissent, and what it actually means to leave one’s community,” Roshchin said. “We have to speak out.”
He said his protest against Russia’s invasion happened naturally. “It’s not that I trained myself and thought of doing something heroic,” Roshchin explained. “It’s just that the circumstances and [my] inner values and ideals came together. And that explains [my] choices made.”
Roshchin hopes to start a new position at another English-speaking university when his time at Princeton ends next year to make the move as easy as possible for his daughters. “Kids switching their linguistic school environment to something else — that might be very stressful,” he said. “Because they just adapted to this environment.”
‘I can continue to be useful to my country.’
“Oksana, look, Russia closed the sky. So you need to wake up, we need to pack our stuff, because the war is going to start in a couple of hours.”
This is how Oksana Nesterenko remembers her 70-year-old father waking her up at 1 a.m. the night Russian forces attacked Kharkiv, Ukraine in February 2022. She fled with others and now specializes in anti-corruption in SPIA.
Like Prymachenko, Nesterenko said she fears that her name is on the Russian list of targets due to the nature of her work. She is the former co-founder of the first interdisciplinary Master Program in anti-corruption in Ukraine and the Eurasian Academic Anti-Corruption Network. She added that the war has been constantly on her mind since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.
Many Ukrainians have now lived in uncertainty about their safety and future for almost an entire decade. Even now, she said she doesn’t know where she will be next year after her time at Princeton ends. Nesterenko said she avoided buying her own car and apartment in Kyiv where she had been working since 2015, because she worried that both would be destroyed if the war expanded. The war did reach her in 2022, and she had to leave nearly everything behind.
She packed documents and photos, but there was no time to bring her clothes, books, or even food and water. At 5 a.m. she woke up her 6-year-old son, and the trio began a five-day journey to western Ukraine. Bombs fell on the city as they drove away.
“I’m going to remember this all my life,” Nesterenko said. “I was paralyzed, I almost couldn’t move. Because maybe in one moment I’m not going to be alive.”
She joked that while some people say they have a phobia of swimming or flying, she’s “scared of only one thing: missile attacks.”
Russian missiles continue to hit Ukrainian cities, and Nesterenko said that she will not take her son back home until the war is over. Her father, who also moved with her to Princeton, wants to return, but she is not willing to take the risk. Nesterenko said that she could not handle the constant fear of another missile attack.
“It’s not normal when people literally understand that tomorrow they can die [at] any moment,” she said. “I was crying, crying, crying, because you cannot go to the shelter for every alarm. We don’t have a safe place ... It’s so scary.”
Nesterenko is part of a joint project between the University’s Innovations for Successful Societies program and Kyiv’s Anti-Corruption Research and Educational Center that is titled “Rebuilding Ukraine Corruption Free.” The goal of the project is to put anti-corruption tools into place, including by training officials, to prevent corruption as Ukraine rebuilds after the war.
“I can continue my research, I can continue my job, and I can continue to be useful for my country,” Nesterenko said. “Because Princeton provides me with these facilities, I can sit down, I can analyze information, I can do papers, I can be an advisor for the Ukrainian government. Why? Because I can relax and focus on my job.”
Each of these scholars expressed gratitude to Princeton for providing them with two years of safety to continue their research and writing. The fighting in Ukraine remains intense, and many still don’t have a safe home to return to. Next year, they may be forced to thank someone else.
Lauren Blackburn is a staff Features writer for the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any correction requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.