Ukraine crisis hits home for BYU students and professors


The standoff between the interim Ukrainian government and pro-Russian insurgents is just another conflict for many students, but for Constantine Fesenko, a graduate student studying TESOL, the situation in Ukraine hits a lot closer to home.

Fesenko is from Pavlohrad, a city in eastern Ukraine just over 200 miles from the Russian border. Before the outbreak of World War II, Pavlohrad was home to anti-Soviet protests and uprisings against the occupation of Russian troops. With the recent occupation by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, cities like Pavlohrad are once again under the Russian spotlight. The crisis in Ukraine continues to intensify, although many Americans may not understand the nature of the situation unfolding in Eastern Europe.

At 5,762 miles from Kyiv, the capitol city of Ukraine, Provo is far removed from the effects of the current political standoff between Ukraine and Russia.

AP10ThingsToSee Ukraine
A woman watches as a group of pro-Russian demonstrators storm the military prosecutor’s office in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Sunday, May 4, 2014. Pro-Russian forces and their supporters have been seizing and ransacking government buildings across eastern Ukraine amidst mounting anti-government insurgency in the former Soviet nation. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

However, some BYU students, especially those from Ukraine, watch this situation closely.

Fesenko, for example, grew up in a pro-Russian home but has always identified himself as a native Ukrainian.

“I am one-third Russian, but I was born in Ukraine, and even though we live so close to eastern Ukraine, I’ve always been really patriotic.”

Fesenko doesn’t believe his family is in danger, but he worries about his family and friends in Ukraine on a daily basis.

“None of my friends want to become part of Russia. I like Russian people; I just don’t agree with their government.”

According to Jeff Hardy, an assistant professor of history, the situation in Ukraine has the potential to create a geopolitical conflict.

“As Americans we should also be concerned (with) other would-be dictators arising from that situation. We have a lot of reasons to be concerned and aware of what’s happening in Ukraine,” he said.

He also emphasized the need for BYU students to stay informed about international issues.

Most Ukrainians don’t want to live in Russia and are proud of their Ukrainian language, culture and lifestyle. Although many Ukrainians speak Russian on a daily basis, they still identify themselves as citizens of Ukraine. Many citizens living in eastern Ukraine know and speak Ukrainian, so the political unrest is more than simply a battle between eastern and western Ukraine.

According to Celeste Beesley, an assistant professor of political science, the situation in Ukraine is more complicated than it appears.  

“About 48 percent of preschoolers in the eastern city of Donetsk learned Ukrainian and went to Ukrainian-speaking preschools,” she said.

The parents who enroll their children in these schools want them to be fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian so they will be better prepared for successful careers throughout Ukraine. Many residents of Ukraine have strong ties to Russia but choose to live in Ukraine because of the higher standard of living and greater economic opportunities.

The situation in Ukraine has become increasingly more violent during the past month. Heavily armed protesters have occupied government buildings in several cities in eastern Ukraine, and recent violence in the city of Odessa has resulted in the deaths of 46 people. Ukraine’s interim government is trying to unify the country but lacks the resources and legitimacy to influence any change.

For Americans, the main concern should be that Russian President Vladimir Putin and senior Russian officials are not responding to international pressure or sanctions. While not an economic concern, this lack of cooperation could motivate other world dictators to respond to international laws in a similar manner.

Fesenko recognizes the importance of staying informed about the situation in Ukraine.

“I can’t just tell you about the situation in a few minutes. Be interested and watch the news. Be a little bit more proactive. It’s easy to go and hide from the world on campus, but you need to stay informed.”

The changing political landscape in Ukraine is also affecting missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serving throughout Ukraine.

The Associated Press reported this about the church’s missionaries in Ukraine:

“Due to ongoing uncertainty in Ukraine, 67 missionaries formerly serving in the Ukraine Donetsk Mission who had previously been transferred to other areas within Ukraine will be reassigned to missions within their home countries to complete the remainder of their service. Forty-one missionaries who anticipated serving in Ukraine have been reassigned to other missions.”


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