On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine, shattering peace in Europe. One year later, as the war continues, Penn Today discusses the experiences of some of the visiting and displaced Ukrainian scholars and students who are on Penn’s campus.
Olena Lysenko, a documentary filmmaker, and Dariya Orlova a lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, are being hosted at the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication.
“These scholars’ work reflects a wide range of the spectrum in thinking about what media practice looks like right now in Ukraine and what kind of expectations we can have for its future,” says Barbie Zelizer, director of the Center and the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School. “We want to know how we can amplify their stories in ways that might make a difference on their end.”
Serhii Shadrin and Hannah Kaluher are graduate students participating in a one-year program for displaced scholars in the Russian and East European Studies Department.
“Penn has benefited a lot from Serhii and Hanna’s presence. The departments of Russian and East European Studies are themselves undergoing a process of decolonization and a big part of that is that countries like Ukraine, that have often existed in the shadow of the Russian empire, are being given more weight in the field,” says Mitchell Orenstein, graduate chair of the department. “These students have helped us to integrate a Ukrainian perspective in our teaching and research.”
Maksym Potlov, a fourth-year from Odesa who has been at Penn for four years as a Penn World Scholar, is majoring in health care management and public health at Wharton.
“The presence of international students and scholars on campus should be appreciated and celebrated because it offers unique opportunities in and out of the classroom for all students to learn about the world around them,” says Rodolfo Altamirano, executive director of the International Student & Scholar Services program at Penn Global that supports Penn World Scholars. “An intercultural classroom is a haven for rich learning experiences which are reflective of the real-world students will face after graduation.”
Olena Lysenko is a lawyer-turned-documentary filmmaker from Kyiv. Her film “I Never Had Dreams of My Son,” which she co-created over a period of eight years with American director Jason Blevins, was recently released by The New Yorker. The documentary looks at Russian aggression in Ukraine through the lens of a father whose soldier son went missing in 2014. The film recently won the Special Jury Recognition award at the New Orleans Film Festival.
Before coming to Penn in October, Lysenko was working as a local producer—or fixer, as it’s known in journalism—with reporters for National Public Radio as they covered the unfolding war in Ukraine. She also worked previously with reporters for The Wall Street Journal and Vox.
When Russia invaded last February, she decided her skills were needed at home, so, while many residents fled the country, she stayed put. She continued her work as a fixer, giving the mostly American journalists a local perspective and insights about political actors, where to search for stories around the country, and more. Despite being a filmmaker, she says she didn’t have the urge to pick up her camera. “I felt like I wanted to do something more practical to help the country. We rely on foreign help so I thought helping the media properly cover what was happening in Ukraine was the most important thing that I can do to help my country.”
She arrived at Penn in October and says she’s been taking advantage of all that Annenberg and Penn has to offer.
“It’s amazing to see how many resources students have here,” she says. “There’s so much to do it’s even hard to even choose.”
Being far from home has its own difficulties, she says, especially knowing your friends and family are suffering and struggling.
“It’s important for people to realize what’s happening in Ukraine is happening to real people,” she says.
Lysenko has facilitated workshops with students on the lessons she learned while working on the documentary. She’s also working on articles about Ukrainian filmmaking during her time at Penn.
“I’m really grateful to share my experience at Annenberg and also being here broadens my perspective on the world,” she says. “It is kind of funny that I've been working previously with Americans for so many years, but I’ve never been here. I have always been a fan of American culture and American film, and this is an amazing opportunity for me for other media practitioners to learn from everyone’s experiences and expertise here.”
Lysenko’s film will be screened at the Center for Media at Risk during “How Is War Changing Media Futures in Ukraine?,” a two-day forum April 13 and 14.
Dariya Orlova, a lecturer at the Mohyla School of Journalism, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, was surprised and flattered to receive an email from Zelizer inviting her to come to the Center for Media at Risk for a year.
“I have known about the Annenberg School since I’ve started my studies in communication because it’s one of the greatest places in the world to study media communication,” she says.
When the war broke out, she didn’t plan to leave Ukraine, despite offers from colleagues around Europe. But the invitation from Zelizer changed her mind.
“Annenberg is just such a great school, and I realized it was too amazing an opportunity to miss,” she says.
The war transformed her work in Ukraine, as the classes she taught were moved online due to the violence, and typical year-end projects for students were scrapped as people managed their own unique stresses, developing new routines for how to handle air raid sirens and managing the fear of the sound of explosions. But they also made sure to keep old routines as well. Her son continued his roller skating classes; they went to the pool in the summer; she’d make appointments to go to the hair salon. It added a sense of normalcy to a difficult time, Orlova says.
“It means a lot to see that these businesses continue working despite the war and that you can still buy your favorite cookie from your favorite bakery, you can see the waitress that you know, you can go to the dentist,” she says.
During her time at Penn, she has taught seminars for graduate students at Annenberg, as well as Zoom classes for students in Ukraine, where class can be disrupted at any time due to air raids.
Orlova sees that there is a deficit of knowledge about Eastern Europe in the West, not only in terms of politics but also with the media and society in general.
“I’m really happy that I can bring that perspective and that knowledge here, and I can see the interest in the students,” she says.
She says she has been impressed by the quality of questions and level of engagement of students at Penn. Being at Annenberg also has given her a chance to take a cutting-edge look at the discipline of media and communications at a historic institution.
“In Ukraine, we don’t have such resources. We don’t have such a history of this discipline development because it didn’t exist during the Soviet times in Ukraine,” Orlova says. “We lack that tradition, and here this tradition is everywhere. I can also see these new directions, topics, approaches, and methods. So, it's extremely, extremely interesting. I cannot overestimate that.”
Serhii Shadrin is from central Ukraine and was working in a media position at a Ukrainian information technology company when the war broke out. Just a few months before he took that role, he was an international consultant for the Ukrainian transmission system operator, which was responsible for the synchronization of the Ukrainian power grid with the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity.
“It was huge, and it was of strategic importance for Ukraine,” he says.
He’d planned to go back to school to get his Ph.D. in political science in the spring of 2022, but the war complicated the process, and his next moves were put on hold. Then a friend forwarded to him the announcement that the Penn’s Department of Russian and East European Studies was looking for Ukrainian Ph.D. scholars to come to campus for one year to work for their theses. “I applied immediately,” he says.
He learned he was accepted to the Penn program and finally got to campus the first week of September. He’s taken a wide range of courses ranging from geopolitics to history of the Napoleonic Wars to French. But a course at the Annenberg School for Communication with Joseph Turow on advertising and the digital era really hit home for him and his newfound interest in the intersection of media and political studies: a deep dive into the dynamics of response to politically charged social media feeds in wartime, in the case of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
It’s really up to date and I think that the profile of President Zelensky is of high interest for many scholars, but not so many of them can analyze this data in Ukrainian, Russian, and English. Since I have this ability to do that, I think that the results may be very interesting and surprising,” he says.
He says as much as he loves the experience of being a Penn student, it would be more ideal to not be here because of the war at home.
“I would probably be more happy to be here as a regular student, just as other people are,” he says. It’s difficult because as fantastic as the experience is, he says he feels he cannot enjoy it fully and focus on his studies calmly while his friends and family at home are struggling with the realities of war like power outages, the lack of running water, and the constant stress of missile attacks.
“Mastering my ability to think globally as well as an opportunity to get profound knowledge in my sphere of interest were two things that motivated me to apply to this program. So, after successfully completing the program, I hope to use these skills to contribute to building prosperity in Ukraine,” he says.
Hannah Kaluher, whose research focuses on, among other topics, contemporary art in Ukraine, the history of Soviet intellectuals, and criticism as a decolonization, heard from a colleague at Princeton University about Penn’s open call for scholars from Ukraine to visit for a year. At the time, Kaluher, who is from Kyiv, was working at Tel Aviv University.
“During that time, I had begun to reorient my studies from Ukrainian studies specifically to the critical territory in between Russian and Ukrainian studies. Furthermore, I began writing articles about Russian and Ukrainian historical narratives in art critical traditions from the 1990s to our days. Penn, especially the Russian and East European Studies (REES) and the History of Art Department, were the perfect intellectual field to improve my research plans,” she says.
Since her arrival in September, she’s appreciated the opportunity to be in the center of important discussions in her fields of study and has been taking advantage of the library collections and the academic support from REES and Art History.
“It’s important to present the Ukrainian perspective and view in this current discussion about decoloniality, narrative transformation around post-Soviet mythology, and Eastern/Western cultural histories,” she says. “It is also important to help Ukrainian scholars avoid dangerous situations and have the opportunity to continue working and producing new cultural material.”
Maksym Potlov, a fourth-year student from Odesa, Ukraine, is a Penn World Scholar majoring in health care management at Wharton. He came to Penn because he was interested in nursing and business, after his semi-professional tennis career hit a snag.
He was accepted to pursue a dual degree in nursing and the Wharton School.
“With Wharton being a top business school and the nursing school being one of the world’s best, coming to Penn was the best deal for me,” he says.
Even before Russia’s invasion last year, he says his fellow students were always asking how he was doing being so far from home and how his family was there.
“But certainly in the first couple of weeks after the invasion happened, there was a lot of attention drawn to it, and Penn helped me a lot, and even my professors were taking time out of their day to check in with me and help out,” he says.
After graduation, he hopes to get a job in the United States to help support his family financially; his parents’ small housewares business shuttered due to the war, and he’s been working in Philadelphia and sending money home to help them and his grandmother.
“I’m a health care management major, so I definitely want to return to Ukraine at some point to help rebuild the system. That will be definitely needed after the war,” he says.
He hopes Americans understand that the investment their government is making in Ukraine isn’t just beneficial to Ukraine but is in turn helping the world by halting authoritarianism.
“This kind of terror is possible, not only in Eastern Europe, but also wherever there is human life. What’s happening right now is that people are dying for no particular reason, and that’s the most horrible thing that can happen.”