Editor’s note: Stacy is a Ukrainian foreign exchange student at Jay County High School in Portland, Indiana. The Ball State Daily News interviewed her host family for this story and was asked to keep Stacy’s last name private to protect her and her family.
Ask Sergei Zhuk how he’s doing and he will respond with two words.
On Feb. 24, Zhuk watched Ukraine — his home country — fall to Russian troops.
He hasn't had a good night's sleep since then. He and his wife, Irina Kozintseva, have spent every night watching CNN, checking social media and Skyping their relatives who are unable to move to the States.
Zhuk grew up in a country called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, he was drafted into the Soviet Army for about three months. He became unpopular among his friend group for blaming the Soviet government for the disaster, and in 1997, six years after the fall of the Soviet Union, he immigrated to the United States.
Nearly 25 years later, Zhuk sees the Russian government making the same mistakes it made before. He's not convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to stop the invasion of Ukraine. Much as Ukraine was one of the founding members of the Soviet Union 100 years ago, he believes Putin has similar aspirations today.
“[Putin's] main goal is not Ukraine — he wants to restore the Soviet Union," Zhuk said. "So, probably after Ukraine, he will go to the other Soviet republics."
Nevertheless, he's surviving.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s my home. Can you imagine if somebody were to intrude [your country]? To invade your house, would you feel the same?” he said.
Zhuk is friends with Jack Greene — a professor at John Hopkins University in Baltimore — and Greene invited him to John Hopkins for school. He said his friends, such as Mike Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, paid and arranged for his family’s immigration to the U.S. in 1997.
From there, he became a graduate student until 2002 and worked on a dissertation on Imperial Russia and how it mistreated evangelical Ukrainian military peasants and provinces.
Zhuk focuses on social and cultural history and is most interested in Ukraine, Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is writing a book about the KGB — the Soviet secret police — and how it tried to suppress Ukrainian patriotism. The KGB was dissolved in 1991, but replaced by the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia (SVR) in December that year.
“It’s strange enough and it’s tragic enough for me because I’m Ukrainian American,” Zhuk said. “And now that I see that all my models of KGB operation that I described in this book are efficiently used by President [Vladimir] Putin … I’m afraid we’re witnessing the last days of Ukraine’s independent republic.”
Zhuk and his wife have been talking to their relatives via Skype. He said, as of now, the Russian government has not shut down Ukrainian media, but it has been replaced with the government’s own. Since late November, Zhuk and his wife have been calling their family in Ukraine, asking them if they are ready for war and trying to persuade them to do something to prepare.
Although the conflict in Ukraine has been difficult for Zhuk and his family, he said it’s been a “good introduction to international affairs” for his students because he doesn’t know how much they know.
While he’s been teaching his students, he said the response from them and his fellow faculty members “has been great.” Some of them have asked questions about how they can help Ukraine, and Zhuk has been showing them a way to donate money to the Ukrainian Embassy.
Even more than that, Zhuk said he is happy members of all political parties are coming together in support of Ukraine.
“All Americans must unite,” Zhuk said. “Both Republicans and Democrats must forget about their differences. If we unite, we will win … And Putin will be afraid.”
Ed Krzemienski, associate teaching professor of history, is one of Zhuk’s colleagues in the history department. Although Krzemienski has not spoken with Zhuk about the Ukraine conflict yet, he said he has been able to empathize with Zhuk and his thoughts.
“This is an existential crisis for him and everybody in Ukraine, who have done absolutely nothing wrong and are offensive in no way whatsoever,” Krzemienski said.
Krzemienski also said he had relatives in Poland before he was born, but his grandparents lost touch with them in the 1950s after his family sent them money and the Soviet Union had taken over. From what he knows about that and what he thinks Zhuk is going through, he said there’s “a real sense of frustration and feeling that you can’t really do anything.”
Krzemienski believes the conflict was inevitable because of “the way Putin has behaved throughout his entire time in office.” He said Putin has a nostalgia for the Cold War era, specifically because Putin was in the KGB.
“He was at the top of the heap and has a strange kind of combination of megalomania and nostalgia that makes him want to recapture the old glory of the Soviet Union,” Krzemienski said.
With everything going on, Krzemienski has been extremely concerned, he said, because the invasion was an unprovoked attack by the Russian military. He believes Putin will take over Ukraine, topple the government and put a government in place that is loyal to him.
“It makes me frustrated, number one, but it also makes me fearful that this is simply the first domino in a line of former Soviet republics within the Soviet Union that will be targeted,” Krzemienski said. “Perhaps this will only be the one, but it’s one too many — Ukraine is not a small nation, Ukraine is not an insignificant portion of Eastern Europe.”
Outside of the Ball State community, the conflict in Ukraine is affecting others in the surrounding areas, including Greg Rittenhouse, whose family is hosting a foreign exchange student, Stacy, from Ukraine. Stacy is one of two Ukrainian foreign exchange students at Jay County High School in Portland, Indiana, but the only one hosted by the Rittenhouse family.
Rittenhouse said this is his family’s third year hosting a foreign exchange student, but this is the first year they’ve hosted a student from Ukraine.
“Hosting a daughter from Ukraine really hasn’t changed our view of [the conflict] because we see it as an atrocity against human rights, inhumane, immoral conflict anyway,” Rittenhouse said. “It just personalizes it for us and makes our hearts break even more.”
Stacy has been able to keep in contact with her family because they are in a “relatively safe area” in southern Ukraine and not near any military targets, Rittenhouse said. She came to Indiana Aug. 3, 2021, and is scheduled to return to Ukraine May 24. As of now, Rittenhouse said that date hasn’t changed, and he doesn’t think the State Department will make those decisions until April or early May.
Stacy can typically videochat with her family in Ukraine once a week, but she’s usually texting them all week long. However, now she is able to speak to them via video chat whenever she wants.
Rittenhouse said the community at large is “not particularly aware” Ukrainian students are here but those from the school have been.
“The high school students are aware, and they flooded both of the girls with too much love,” Rittenhouse said. “It’s all innocent on their part — they just don’t know how much the girls are hurting. It’s just hard for them to talk about [it] … every time they get approached.”
Rittenhouse also said Jeremy Gulley, Jay School Corporation superintendent, has reached out to both the girls and their host parents directly and the teachers have as well. Rittenhouse and his wife have been reminding Stacy to rest and take care of herself because “that’s the only way she can get through it.”
“There’s not a whole lot we can do other than support her and love her and make sure she’s able to keep in contact with her family back home,” he said. “And if that changes, I mean, that’ll bring a whole different dynamic to the war and the situation.”
Contact Maya Wilkins with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @mayawilkinss.
Supporting the Ukrainian Army:
The National Bank of Ukraine has opened a special account to raise funds for the Ukrainian Army. The account is multi-currency, and it is opened for transfers from international partners and donors.
For donations in U.S. dollars:
SWIFT Code NBU: NBUA UA UX
JP MORGAN CHASE BANK, New York
SWIFT Code: CHASUS33
383 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10179, USA
Bank account: UA843000010000000047330992708
Supporting Ukrainian journalism:
The Kyiv Independent is Ukraine’s English-language media outlet created three months ago after The Kyiv Post temporarily shuttered. It has been providing moment-to-moment updates of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on kyivindependent.com and on Twitter @KyivIndependent.
The Kyiv Independent’s website is not paywalled, but it does have a Patreon and GoFundMe.