Lisa Korneichuk is a Ukrainian Fulbright scholar at the School of the Art Institute. Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Korneichuk

On February 24, Russian troops invaded Ukraine under the orders of President Vladimir Putin in an unprovoked, illegal invasion that sent shock waves around the world. While Putin may have hoped Ukraine’s government, led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, would be quickly overthrown, what he got instead was a mass resistance movement of Ukrainian civilians defending their homes and neighbors and fighting alongside the country’s armed forces. 

The international community has responded to the Russian aggression with economic sanctions and provided financial and military support to Ukraine. Businesses have suspended operations in Moscow and other Russian cities. Individuals from all walks of life have lent their support through private donations and humanitarian aid, and many have even opened their homes to some of the 2.5 million who have fled the invasion as of this writing. 

On February 28, the Reader connected with Lisa Korneichuk, a Fulbright scholar who moved from Kyiv to Chicago with her husband in September 2021 to study at the School of the Art Institute. Lisa has dealt with Russian aggression firsthand since 2014, when her hometown of Horlivka was overtaken by Russian-backed separatists as part of a wider effort to occupy Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. She shared her account of the events leading up to this moment in history, and what life has been like for her in Chicago and her family and friends in Kyiv in the days since Putin launched his full-scale war on Ukraine. As the situation continued to unfold, we followed up with her on March 14. 

What follows are Korneichuk’s own words, as told to the Reader.

I’m a Fulbright student and I really wanted to study arts journalism in Chicago. I found this program [at SAIC] when I was in Ukraine, and I thought it was the perfect program for me because I run a small arts newspaper in Ukraine called VONO (which is currently on hold). I applied for the Fulbright grant program, but it was postponed because of COVID, so I only came to Chicago in September 2021.

Before I came here, I lived in Kyiv with my husband, but originally I’m from Horlivka, an industrial city in the east of Ukraine. It was occupied in 2014 by Russian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists, and I haven’t been there since. This war that started five days ago—this full-scale war in Ukraine—began in 2014 as a Russian invasion of these territories. [The Russians] encouraged these territories to separate from Ukraine, using propaganda and some very bad tactics that Russia actually performed before in Abkhazia, Georgia, and in other countries, including Moldova. After this, my family had to travel to other cities that were controlled by Ukraine. 

Right now my family are in Kyiv, and my uncle and his family and his young children are in Kharkiv, a city that is under very heavy shelling and missile attacks. These attacks are happening in civilian areas. Kyiv is surrounded by small suburban towns, and all of them are suffering very heavily. Many of them are almost completely destroyed. People there are on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, and this happens not only in these big cities, but around all of Ukraine. 

There are many saboteurs, groups who are trying to provoke the conflict from the inside. So all of my friends in Kyiv are doing something to oppose this. Some of them are joining the Territorial Defense Forces. One guy I know [who joined] was a cook. He worked in a ramen cafe, and he has no military background whatsoever. Many of my friends are artists and designers and creative industry people. Now they have to make Molotov cocktails and help our military, and deliver medical aid and food to those who can’t leave the city. Many people in Kyiv who are disabled, or people who need some support, some of them are just cut [off] from food and medicine and help. So my friends are working very hard to help those people right now, and to defend the city. 

Since the very first day of the war, many people have joined the resistance as volunteers. Some companies and organizations reorganized their processes to fundraise, deliver aid, and promote informational campaigns. Some people have to leave their work to join the army or defense forces in their cities. Yet many people, like my family, can’t take an active role in resistance. They have to take care of their relatives, neighbors, and pets. They can’t evacuate either, so they have to hide in shelters and basements. And every day—five or seven times—my parents have to go back and forth from their flat on the eighth floor and the basement. The basements are not really the places you want to spend time in at all; they are dusty and dirty, and there is no place to sleep. Some people have to just sit for the whole night, listening to the bombing. This is a horrific situation.

Oleg Gryshchenko, 2022

There are many people who are suffering deeply, and [everyone] wants an independent, liberated Ukraine—independent of Russia. Some of them are just pure heroes who can stop Russian tanks with their bare hands, saying, “Go home. You are not welcome here.” In the south of Ukraine, in occupied cities like Berdiansk or Kherson, people protest every day, gathering with Ukrainian flags for peaceful rallies to show the Russian military that they are against the Russian government.

[The Ukrainian government] has accused Russian troops of trying to organize a fake referendum to announce this region as an “independent people’s republic,” the same as they did in Donbas in 2014. But people protest against this every day. I think this is an eloquent example of Ukrainian stances on this. 

To add some context, the whole problem for Russia with Ukrainian independence started in 2014, when Ukrainians organized mass protests around the country against the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was a notoriously corrupt supporter of close ties with Russia. But the Ukrainian people were against economic or political collaborations with Russia. And they gathered on the squares and demanded the shift of Ukrainian politics toward Europe because Ukraine has historically been a European country. It has European culture, very deeply on many levels. This protest was called Euromaidan, or the Revolution of Dignity. 

It started with students, young people. They gathered in the main square to protest for integration with Europe when the police heavily attacked them. When everyone saw this footage on TV of young children being beaten violently by the police, everyone just ran out on the squares. It lasted for many months. People were living on the square, singing, making art, cooking, and building barricades. After a few months, the police started to attack the protesters, while snipers killed over one hundred people on the Independence Square in Kyiv. Casualties were reported in other cities too. It was a very tough battle, but finally, Yanukovych left the country—which is what Ukrainians wanted at that time. 

I was there. My family was there. Everyone I know was there. Many artists were there. Art played a huge part in the protest. Artists produced a lot of cultural materials, posters, songs, and artworks. The consequences of Euromaidan were significant: It was a huge boost for our cultural development, for our economic development, for our human-rights development. 

After that, the LGBTQ+ organizations got more exposure and established mass demonstrations in Ukrainian cities. They happened in many cities, where it was just unthinkable before. Many new art and cultural platforms opened after 2014, both governmental and artist-run. Ukraine stated its desire to join the European countries, to join the democracies, to join some sort of basic idea of how the contemporary society should work based on the values of law and freedom.

Russia sees Ukraine as a satellite—as a small supplement of its empire—and it denies the possibility of independent Ukraine. So what we see now is a vendetta of the Russian empire against us. [When] they occupied parts of our territories in 2014, they started prosecutions of, for example, Crimean Tatars, a huge diaspora in Crimea. Those people are basically political prisoners, whom [Russia] claimed to be terrorists just because they are Muslim. That’s horrible. 

Ukrainians are so resilient now, and they are fighting so hard and so tough, because they don’t want to be part of a country where human rights are under scrutiny, that doesn’t have free elections, that kills people who are in opposition or who try to speak up. We aren’t and never will be like this. I think that’s very important to understand that this conflict—is not a conflict, actually, it’s a war—is targeted at those of us who don’t want this kind of life. 

“The way the world has responded to the war is very insightful. I see how capitalism works in war, I see how lobbying works in this context, how countries can state some values and never follow them.”

Lisa Korneichuk

I think if in 2014, there were still places and regions that were kind of neutral about Russia nowadays, I feel like every city, every town, every part of Ukraine has made a decision to fight till the end—until the last Russian [soldier] leaves the country. It’s war, of course, and everyone is very upset and scared for their future, but no one wants to negotiate with Putin. No one wants to negotiate with the criminals, and this is what the Russian government [is]. They’re breaking war rules now. They’re using our uniforms pretending to be in the Ukrainian army, but they’re not. And they are bombing civilian areas right now, using vacuum bombs that are banned by the Geneva Convention, shelling humanitarian corridors and blocking humanitarian aid to the occupied cities. So what they are doing now in Ukraine are war crimes. They deserve to be prosecuted in the international courts.

I was thinking today that I’ve actually learned a lot about the world in these past couple of weeks. The way the world has responded to the war is very insightful. I see how capitalism works in war, I see how lobbying works in this context, how countries can state some values and never follow them. I see how both the far right and the far left can take the same position of “These are two empires [the U.S. and Russia] fighting each other.” This is bullshit. As a person who supports left ideas, and who has many leftist activist [friends] at home in Kyiv, I feel betrayed by these narratives of the U.S. promoting the war, or that we should leave Ukraine in the Russian zone of influence. I hear that a lot from the left. There are plenty of those responses on many Twitter accounts, many websites. 

Oleg Gryshchenko, 2022.

I just don’t want to imagine a world where Russia gets Ukraine . . . I have to say, Russia has larger ambitions than just Ukraine. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, maybe Finland. Those are countries that are definitely under the same threat. And who knows what’s next?

[Living here in Chicago during this], I don’t have time to go for the counseling service at my school. I have to constantly check on my family, my friends—I have to ask them every two hours, if it’s quiet, if they’re in the shelters, if it’s OK in Kyiv. I beg them to leave, but it’s hard to leave the city now . . . I constantly feel the guilt of not being there. And I try spending every minute to contact anyone, to sign letters, to translate news, to write to writers and the media—to do something.

I don’t think any kind of support can be enough. What’s happening now is a tragedy. Maybe a year ago, or two years ago, many big American media companies wrote about Kyiv, about its legendary music scene and its techno parties. So many foreigners came to Ukraine, to our venues and festivals, and we felt like we were kind of discovered as a place and community.

I feel like there are some places in the world where the people are never, ever going to feel something that other people feel. I can’t imagine how people from Syria, or people from Ukraine can [relate] to people from some big cities in the U.S., or Belgium, or the Netherlands, or some other countries where people can just live their normal lives—where [the average] problems are just “what to do with my life, how to build my career, how to develop my future.” We don’t have these challenges in Ukraine. Our only challenge is to survive—just to survive one more day. And we’re constantly aware that the peace we had a few weeks ago was very fragile. Now, I don’t really know what to say. I feel like my life will never be the same. 

In the West, it’s hard to explain that when you are talking about Ukrainian topics, you have to invite Ukrainians to speak. You have to amplify Ukrainian voices. There is research that suggests that 70 percent of the Russian population supports this war or actively approves of the actions of their government, but I often see how art institutions, cultural institutions, and schools invite Russian speakers to talk about the events while Ukrainians are missed. 

For example, the School of the Art Institute just had an event that was aimed at explaining the politics of Russia toward Ukraine and the history of the Russian-Ukrainian relationship. They invited a Russian speaker to explain how sanctions hurt and negatively impact the Russian population. No one from Ukraine was represented . . . I feel sad that a school in the city of Chicago, where there is such a big Ukrainian diaspora, couldn’t manage to find a Ukrainian speaker—they couldn’t even find a Ukrainian student in their school. It’s like, “Maybe invite me to join this talk.”

This is a very common situation. It happens a lot with journalists and opinion makers who are trying to compare Russian suffering with Ukrainian suffering . . . We are not fighting [about] who suffers most, but it’s very obvious that when you are short on money, it’s not the same as when you can be [killed]. 

There are various ways to resist [the war], both personally and collectively. And it’s up to Russians to decide how to respond. I don’t want to judge them. I just feel it’s wrong to distract from the suffering of Ukrainians, and to occupy the platforms that Ukrainians should use to speak right now.

It’s important to apply postcolonial optics on the relationships between Russia and Ukraine, and understand how Russia—contemporary Russia and also Russia as the main country of the USSR—oppressed and exhausted the former republics of the USSR, its neighboring countries, and how it appropriated their resources to enhance itself. These narratives are still in place. For example, when people think of the USSR, they think first of all about Russia, and everything that was made in the USSR is perceived as Russian. 

When we fall into this type of thinking it leads many people in the West to omit other nations and other voices. So it’s important for the media to be very careful about “Who are the people who are talking about this issue?” Specifically on the issues of war. It’s crucial to talk to Ukrainian journalists, to talk to Ukrainian experts, to invite Ukrainians to speak about it. In terms of institutions, it’s important that if you hold events on this topic Ukrainians are represented . . . 

Words are very important in contemporary wars. How you represent things, how you talk about things, and whom you give platforms to speak. It’s very important. It may be a game changer. That’s something that Americans have to try to find some empathy to understand, and I think American media should realize that some of the coverage they promote about this war is very ignorant.

‘Are we calling this an invasion? It’s really a war.’

There were two crowds in front of Saints Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ukrainian Village on a frigid afternoon last week. One was the medieval crowd that’s always there, on the church’s iconic mural—a depiction of the baptism of the Ukrainian people. The other consisted of several hundred live and livid Chicagoans reacting…