Ukrainians in St. Andrews
A Journey From Kharkiv to Kennedy Gardens
In February, millions of Ukrainian families had their lives turned upside down almost overnight in the wake of the Russian invasion. The UN reported that, as of the 4 July, more than 5.2 million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded across Europe. The British government responded with two schemes: the Family Scheme – aimed at those who already have relatives in the country – and the Homes for Ukrainians Scheme, whereby ordinary Brits volunteer to house Ukrainian nationals and families fleeing from their homeland. On 28 July, the government claimed that more than 100,000 Ukrainians had arrived in Britain under these schemes. St Andrews, for its part, has welcomed a number of refugees since the beginning of the invasion; the University itself has invited several Ukrainian scholars to travel to the town and continue their research in safety. I got in touch with two Ukrainians living locally to find out about their experiences.
Viktoriia is a PhD student at the University and teaches beginners’ Ukrainian classes, which is how I became acquainted with her. She tells me that she initially came to St Andrews through her Erasmus Masters programme, ‘Crossways in cultural narratives’, spending two of her four semesters here. It was then that she met her Masters supervisor, Victoria Donovan. Owing to the pandemic, Dr Donovan was unable to go to Ukraine to do her research, so she offered Viktoriia a research assistant position, allowing her to get involved in the ‘global challenges’ programme with the University’s Centre for Urban History. The role entailed spending time in the archives of her home city of Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine. She explains that the project “slowly grew into my PhD”.
This year, as a result of the invasion, she was forced to change her PhD topic as she could not return to Ukraine to carry out her research: “My initial topic was ‘the city as a machine’, vulnerable legacies and green reimaginings in Kharkiv Ukraine, so it was dedicated to industrialisation and industrial myths. But after the full-scale invasion I changed it into the study of wartime myths”. She is being supervised by Dr Donovan and Dr Mette High of the Social Anthropology Department.
I ask her about her impressions of St Andrews; she responds, “I really like that feeling of the university-town, because my first masters was in my hometown, Kharkiv, which is known to be a student city, so I like the vibe of a studenty, energetic, very young city.” One drawback she points out is the “high prices for rent”, which, as an urbanist, she considers “a big problem for the town”. She elaborates, “I have rented two places in St Andrews during my Masters and they were by far the highest that I’ve ever paid for a room…and, at the same time, the quality was not as high as I would expect for the price”. This, combined with the fact that she prefers living in larger cities, spurred her to find accommodation in Dundee instead. “I’m used to public transportation”, she adds.
I was curious to know how life in Scotland compares to life in pre-war Ukraine. To my surprise, the first thing she mentions is the fact that, in Ukraine, there are four distinct seasons, “so you get used to very cold winters and very hot summers and whatever is in between”. It came as a shock to her that in Scotland there is “green grass all year round”. On a more profound note she remarks, “Scotland is more like Ukraine than, for example, England in that we have this history of colonial imperial legacy, and that we have distinct identities and languages and cultures that are extremely difficult to preserve”. For this reason, she explains, “there is this easier and better understanding of Scotland for me than it would be for England”. Her attachment to Scotland stems partly from the fact that she enjoys her research so much: “There is this feeling that I’m in the right place now”.
In reply to my question of whether she has plans to return to Ukraine, she states firmly, “I have always had a plan to come back to Ukraine”. Nevertheless, she admits that “today it’s very difficult to say where you’re going to end up.” Tentatively, I bring up family. I was relieved when she answered with no obvious trace of hurt or anguish. She says, “My parents still live in Kharkiv in my childhood apartment, and my brother and their three children are still in Kharkiv now….Also, some of my relatives fled to Poland. Some of my relatives were staying in the occupied territories but in September the Kharkiv region was almost entirely liberated and we found our relatives that we hadn’t heard from for six months. They are alive and seemingly they are staying in Izium [a city near Kharkiv] and the little towns around Kharkiv”. Needless to say, it has been a stressful time for Viktoriia.
To steer the conversation onto a lighter tone, I bring up Viktoriia’s language classes. She tells me that, while she has a masters degree in teaching English and German from Kharkiv University, where she picked up the skills for teaching languages, she has never taught Ukrainian before. She adds, “it is quite interesting for me because it’s my mother tongue but at the same time I feel I would probably be more comfortable teaching English”. We proceed to discuss how, although there has been a lot of research in the fields of East European and Post-Soviet Studies at St. Andrews, it all comes under the umbrella of the Russian department. “From what I know”, she says, “there used to be Ukrainian and Polish studies within Modern Languages, but they were cancelled because they were not very popular”. So far, there hasn’t been enough demand to reintroduce Ukrainian or Polish studies into the curriculum, but Ukrainian evening classes are certainly a good start. Viktoriia remarks, “If there is interest in the evening course, maybe there will be a possibility to introduce Ukrainian within the school”.
She herself grew up bilingual, with her mum being a native Ukrainian speaker and her dad a native Russian speaker. Her home-city of Kharkiv is predominantly Russian-speaking, which she puts down to the “history of colonialism”, pointing out that, in Soviet times, “you had to switch into Russian to get anywhere”. On the other hand, in rural areas of Kharkiv region, people mainly speak Ukrainian, so whenever her mother returned to her village of birth, she would revert to her native tongue. In 2014, the situation changed completely. Where before she spoke mostly Russian, after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Donbas, she and most of her friends changed to Ukrainian. She explains, “a lot of people, including some of my relatives, fled Crimea and the Donbas region and went to Kharkiv and Kiev. They were the first witnesses of the war, and we saw the consequences of this difficult history of Soviet times. And I think it influenced many people to rethink their identity”. She relays an anecdote about her favourite Ukrainian comedians, who, before the invasion, spoke mostly Russian: “they all dedicate their stand ups now to this process of switching, how it’s interesting and difficult, and how whenever you hear a russian bomb falling, you start speaking Ukrainian.”
I ask her about the University’s role in supporting Ukrainian scholars. About her own experience, she says that “the University was open to give me an extension for three months to reconfigure my research”. She proceeds to mention that the University has invited several scholars through the Homes for Ukrainians Scheme as well. “This I think is a good development because for Ukrianians generally it is a difficult programme, because it does not offer you work or any kind of employment — it just offers you a house, somebody else’s house, for a number of months. But thanks to the University offering scholarships for Ukrainian PhDs, I know two Ukrainians in Marine Biology who were invited through Homes for Ukrainians and had a chance to continue their studies. They have benefited from this, and I think, generally, this is a smart move”.
She talks passionately about the idea of exchanges between Scottish and Ukrainian universities. “It creates these strategic connections,” she says, “which might be beneficial for both Scottish and Ukrainian universities”. She also remarks that it helps solve the brain drain problem because “Ukrainian scholars remain within the frames of their universities but they have the chance to move temporarily from the warzone to safer places and at the same time these connections will be established”.
Moving back onto tender territory, I ask if she ever feels homesick for Ukraine. She responds, “I felt homesick very much from the first day. I had an idea: okay, in the worst case scenario, I will go through Poland, somehow walk to Ukraine, and so on. I am terribly missing my country and I think most of the people that I know do. And I hope it will soon be safe to come back to, because the war creates another sense of belonging to your country. Now it is in danger, and now you become the carrier of this culture and the representative of this land more than before”. She concludes with: “And, of course, I feel very worried for Ukraine and I would be happy to come back as soon as it’s possible”.
I ask how long she expects it will be before things return to a relatively normal state: “If you’d asked me in August, I would say, well, half of the Kharkiv region was occupied. But it was liberated so fast, it feels that everything is possible in this war. So I hope that, if we survive winter, then in spring there might be improvements”. The interview ends on a sombre note: “I think that it won’t be [better] for another six months for sure”.
Unlike Viktoriia, Katya moved because of the war. “Me and my two daughters decided to go here, because we found out about this Ukrainian sponsorship scheme in the UK and Scotland and volunteers helped us to find a really nice family, who invited us here”. She credits Dr Emily Finer of the University’s Russian department with helping her find the best way of getting to St Andrews and giving her useful advice along the way.
First impressions? “Scotland was my dream land for a very long time even before the war. I always wanted to visit this country, because for me it’s like a place from fairy tales and books and legends. So I like it a lot”. She adds, “I didn’t know anything about [St Andrews] before we came here but I started googling it when we knew that we would go here. It was a beautiful, nice place from the internet and, when we came here, it’s completely true!’ One of the things she likes most about it is the proximity to the sea: “it’s still so exotic to me that you can just go to the beach every day whenever you want — so perfect!” Unlike Viktoriia, Katya really wanted to live in a small town; she expresses enthusiasm for the fact that “you can know all the people in the shops, you will have your favourite spots, you will know every street”. Were there any culture shocks, I ask. After a pause, she remarks on the fact that “people here are always walking, not driving”. It took a while for her to adjust to the small distances and she found it “hard to imagine how people could move here without cars.” Now she and her daughters are taking advantage of being able to casually run to the beach and back.
She went on to compare life here with her life in Kharkiv, where she was living when the invasion started: “Kharkiv is a huge city, two million people, really huge. And there we moved around only on public transport, like the metro, or else by taxi or our own car.” St Andrews, on the other hand, is, in her words, “small and nice and cosy. But I wanted it that way, so I didn’t want to go to London or some big cities in Scotland. I really want to live in a small city, because it’s my dream”. Another difference she has picked up on is that whereas in Kharkiv, “you can just get everything in at any time of day”, in St Andrews “there’s old shops that close at 5 and you can’t just go there and buy whatever you want at any time”. On top of this, she notes, “supermarkets are not close to people’s houses — you need to walk fifteen minutes to get there. You have to really plan your shopping”.
Again, I raise the topic of family: “My parents are there and my older brother, so they are all in occupied territory and I have actually had no connection with them for more than two weeks because in that region there is no internet connection now”. Looking visibly stressed, she adds, “I just hope that they are okay”.
Changing the subject, I ask her about her writing career (she has written two books in Russian and Ukrainian, mainly young adult fantasy). She explains, “when I came here I hoped that I would continue writing. I plan to complete a duology. So I have my first book finished and now I’m writing the second one to complete this dulogy. Here in Scotland it’s inspiring. I knew that it would be like that”. Just a few days ago, she wrote a new fairytale about a witch, containing heavy Scottish influences: “I heard many stories here about witches and witch hunting and all of that stuff”. Among her oeuvre are numerous short stories and poems, as well as a larger novel orientated towards young adults. Seeing that she was sporting a Hogwarts jumper, I ask whether her fantasy stories are Harry Potter-inspired. She laughs and responds in the affirmative but reveals she likes Lord of the Rings better.
We move on to the topic of Ukrainians in St Andrews. “I will not say that there’s a community, but I knew people who lived here before, who moved here many years ago and families here. I’ve met some of them — they’re really nice and our children go to the same school, so we see each other almost everyday”. Katya has also made friends with Ukrainians who are in the same boat as her, living in and around St Andrews and Guardbridge. I ask whether the transition was difficult for her children. “They don’t speak much English”, she says, “but my elder daughter understands English, I think on a level she needs to. So she’s trying to communicate with people”. She jokes that, while her younger daughter is too shy to speak, “she just touches people and shows them what she wants from them”.
Does she have plans to return to Ukraine? “If it is possible I think I want to stay here, because it’s really hard to imagine when it will be completely safe in Ukraine, and actually we thought about moving abroad even before the war…just to see the world”. She and her husband have plans to look for their own place to live, preferably in St Andrews so that she can keep her daughters at the same school. “They like Lawhead school a lot, and they ask me if it is possible to keep them there at least for this year. So now we’re looking for our own house, and if we find it, I think we will stay”.
Eager to find out what life in eastern Ukraine was like prior to the invasion, I ask Katya whether the events of 2014 impacted her and her family at all. She responds, “In Kharkiv it was completely fine but I’m originally from Donbas, so in 2014, half of our region was occupied. My native town and my parents' village weren’t occupied but they were really close to this frontline”. She adds, “In 2014 it was really hard and everyone was trying to evacuate – not my family, but they were still in danger. Also, there were some fights in my native town”. As the years went by things got a lot better. “After  it looked like everything in my town and my native village were going back to normal, and in Kharkiv it was completely fine. So before February, it felt like we were living a good, normal life and Kharkiv was a perfect place to live”.
I wondered whether, like Viktoriia, the invasion had caused Katya to switch from Russian to Ukrainian. She declares that it wasn’t like that for her, since her parents speak a different language altogether – Surzhyk – which is native to the small village where they’re from. Surzhyk, she explains, is a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. Her husband, on the other hand, is from a Russian-speaking family, which is why she mainly speaks Russian at home. Katya considers the question of language to be irrelevant, dismissing the idea that there is some kind of rivalry between Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers as mere “propaganda”. She observes that “in Kharkiv, all people are mostly Russian speakers, and it doesn’t mean they support Russia or want to be a part of Russia – it was just like that historically”. Before the invasion, she declares, “no one thought bad about people who speak Russian. So it's not true that this is the reason for war”. Although she believes it is a good thing that there are new laws encouraging people to speak Ukrainian on the grounds that “it makes sense that in Ukraine, your official language should be Ukrainian”, she fears that the invasion might trigger some animosity towards Russian-speakers.
To round off the interview, I compliment her on her excellent English. I am astonished to find out that before coming here she had barely had any practice speaking English – most of her knowledge comes from watching English-language films and TV programmes.
Illustration: Sarah Knight