On the far left is text that reads \"The Winter of Our Discontent: Political Contention in Independent Ukraine\" To the right of the text are three photos and then a row of students
A recent class session of this semester’s Ukrainian Politics and Society course, which has eight instructors from the Kyiv School of Economics. (Contributed photo)

Ukrainian instructors bring poignant lessons to VCU students from a country at war

Ukrainian Politics and Society – a class resulting from a collaboration between VCU and the Kyiv School of Economics – is providing VCU students with powerful insights into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Any number of Virginia Commonwealth University classes are timely and relevant, but this semester’s Ukrainian Politics and Society POLI 391 course carries particularly compelling significance, helping VCU students understand world events in real time from those who are experiencing them firsthand.

POLI 391 is taught on Monday mornings, which is dusk for many of the class’s eight Kyiv School of Economics professors still based in Kyiv. In that city, which is the capital of Ukraine, residents regularly experience power outages, as well as airstrikes from the Russian military.

“It has just been a very striking class so far,” said Philip Kamper, a senior at VCU. “There's been a couple of moments where one of the professors had a legitimate issue of [electrical] power. And so that led them to a really interesting discussion. It was a reminder that they're teaching us from an active war zone.”

A portrait of a man resting his head on his hand
Ivan Gomza, Ph.D., academic director of the Public Policy and Governance program at the Kyiv School of Economics. (Contributed photo)

The course is coordinated by Ivan Gomza, Ph.D., academic director of the Public Policy and Governance program at the Kyiv School of Economics, which is entering the second year of a three-year partnership with VCU.

While remote teaching conditions for Gomza may not be the best-lit — and even at times downright dangerous with Russian airstrikes raining down on his city — for students like Kamper, safe on the other side of the screen, the experience is a unique, eye-opening opportunity. When Gomza and his colleagues lecture — using a generator to power their lights and computer — it opens the eyes of the students to see their instructors’ day-to-day experiences and how it's affecting them in real time.

Between airstrikes, power outages and shortages, Gomza juggles coursework at KSE, lectures for VCU students and balances other demands of day-to-day life in a city in the midst of war. No power means no hot water to take showers, as well as limited time to shop and cook. To ensure class happens without a hitch, KSE supplies Gomza with a generator during his class time.

The course’s lectures and readings delve into Ukraine’s history, the Soviet period, revolution, famine, war, the Soviet legacy, party politics, institutions, reforms, anti-corruption policies, ethnolinguistic and civic conceptualizations of national identity, religious pluralism, looting of art, culture, European integration’s role in Ukrainian politics and the Russo-Ukrainian War’s origins and possible outcomes.

“Ukraine has become a very hot topic over the past year-and-a-half so we’re getting to dive deeper into interesting areas, especially with the evolving relations between the United States and Russia,” said Kamper, who is majoring in homeland security and emergency preparedness in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and political science in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “We compared and contrasted Ukraine, Russia and the former Soviet Union, which I found especially interesting.”

One class lecturer is Oksana Syroyid, a former member of the Ukrainian Parliament now teaching at KSE. Another class lecturer, Oleksandra Keudel, Ph.D., is currently a visiting scholar at George Washington University. Keudel will come to Richmond on Feb. 27 to teach the class in person. And on that day, she will give a public lecture titled: “What Makes Ukraine Resilient in an Asymmetric War? A Survey of Local Governments' Emergency Responses.”

‘Unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

The development of the Ukrainian Politics and Society class came about when Judyth Twigg, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Political Science at VCU who focuses on global health, reached out to KSE rector Tymofii Brik, Ph.D., who was looking for collaboration and assistance from colleagues around the world.

A headshot of a man wearing a dark blue shirt
Tymofii Brik, Ph.D., rector of the Kyiv School of Economics. (Contributed photo)

“He and I started emailing back and forth about the possibilities. And when we landed on the idea of a course that would be offered remotely to our students here at VCU, the folks at the Kyiv School of Economics were very enthusiastic about that,” Twigg said. “This is a truly unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students this semester to be learning about Ukrainian politics, culture, history, economics and all of the things that are covered in this course. To be learning about those things directly from a team of the very top faculty in Ukraine is just extraordinary.”

Twigg, Gomza and Brik, a sociologist who focuses on religion and is a lecturer in the course as well, designed the class with the understanding that, for most Americans, background knowledge about Ukraine is severely limited. Gomza said that is why they have framed the class around the tagline: “Understanding the unnoticed country in the heart of Europe.”

Gomza wants students to understand the sweeping regional issues and the particularities that make Ukraine unique, such as issues tied to Russia and Ukraine both coming from the heritage of the Soviet Union.

“They went in very different directions. Russia is an authoritarian regime, and Ukraine is a unique democracy in the post-Soviet space,” Gomza said. “That is what we are trying to elucidate, with questions to make the country more visible and understandable.

“There are, and there were many atrocities that Russia committed against Ukraine, using that notion of peace and war framework. I want to explain to the students why, for Ukrainians, it wasn't a surprise that Russians attacked us and are now living in our cities.”

He aims to show students that the history of Russia and Ukraine contain both problematic and highly collaborative episodes. Gomza makes parallels for the students to more familiar histories and U.S. trends and topics, such as comparing the Ukrainian famine with the Irish famine.

Gomza, who was a Fulbright scholar focusing on political violence at the College of William & Mary in 2016, will also bring attention to Ukraine’s past as a colonized country and efforts to determine the country’s own identity, complete with place name changes, similar to Virginia’s cities removing Confederate monuments.

‘Extensive but invaluable’

While the VCU semester-long Ukrainian Politics and Society course is unique, Gomza and his colleagues’ expertise is in demand. He has given guest lectures at numerous U.S. universities. Gomza, Brik and their other colleagues at the KSE all earned degrees abroad. Their international contacts are key in interchanges to help Ukrainian academics continue to work and students continue to study.

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Judyth Twigg, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Political Science at VCU. (File photo)

Twigg described her VCU colleagues’ effort to support Ukrainian academics as tremendously generous and enthusiastic.

“It's been energizing to see the enthusiasm of our students for the course and for learning about Ukraine and to think about — when the war is over and Ukraine is peaceful and victorious — how great it's going to be to do things like study abroad through programs in Kyiv, partnering with some of the people that we've met at the Kyiv School of Economics,” said Twigg, who thinks this timely partnership could lead to more interactions for VCU faculty and students.

Kamper said the class has led to lively discussions and conversations with the professors, and Fraser Trotter, a philosophy and political science major in the Ukraine class, said the instructors have been “fantastic.”

“They are giving a balanced and objective analysis of Ukrainian history (from medieval to contemporary),” Trotter wrote in an email. ‘The readings they have assigned are similarly balanced and mutually reinforcing, giving a coherent and digestible picture of Ukraine and its culture.

“The class is very thorough; the readings each week are extensive but invaluable. Overall, I have been absolutely loving the class, and I cannot stress how grateful I am that our professors – both the professors at the [Kyiv School of Economics] as well as our own Dr. Judy Twigg – have provided this course. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”