BEFORE THE WAR, UKRAINIAN LAW STUDENTS STRADDLED EPOCHS
Written by Scott Smith
In early 2020, my partner Elizabeth Hull and I spent two weeks in Ukraine as visiting professors to teach Western legal fundamentals and civics to Ukrainian law students. Local hosts looked us up every day and transported us among 15 or so universities in Kyiv and Kharkiv. I returned home just two days before the pandemic closed their borders, and Elizabeth just hours before the closure. At the time, COVID-19 seemed like a serious tragedy, but we had no idea what would follow.
During a beautiful and unseasonably warm late winter, we crisscrossed Kiev and its suburbs and took trains across a vast fertile land, soaking up all we could about this country we had known nothing about. Even then, what concerned Ukrainians most was being bogged down in a war of aggression by Russia on their Eastern border. Our Ukrainian friends expressed a sense of betrayal over reaching a joint defense agreement with NATO in which Ukraine had committed to being called upon to defend NATO partners, had de-militarized in reliance on that pact, then saw absolutely no response when Russian invaded in 2014. All that was so close. At the history museum in Kharkiv, we saw a group of young Ukrainian military recruits learning about their military history, including a display with before and after pictures of a brand-new airport that had been completely bombed out and burned by Russians. The cemetery in Lviv has a large new section for the remains of local service members killed in that combat. Tile versions of their actual photos are mounted on headstones with dates like 2018 and 2019. They stare out toward a schoolyard just a short distance away where boys played noisily in a Saturday soccer match.
Ukrainians are somewhat light on national identity and history, since until the 1990s they enjoyed only half a decade of national autonomy, right after WWI. Ukraine is a country without shared linguistic, cultural, or historical ties. But they were striving to identify and grow them. They have purged traces of Soviet occupation. All kinds of plazas and parks where the former focal point was a statue of Lenin or Stalin now stood open. Municipal leaders in Kharkiv removed a giant Stalin statue and then even debated about whether its pedestal should remain in the square. One missing Soviet statue had had a fallen flag at his feet. The bronze flag on the pedestal had been painted in