It’s been roughly one month since Russia—spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin—launched its armed invasion of Ukraine and three weeks since Catarina Buchatskiy, 21, made a crucial decision to leave Stanford University for Ukraine.
Buchatskiy may not have been born in Ukraine, but calls it home; her father was born there and raised her in Kyiv from the age of six to 14. The two countries have some stark differences, as she points out, “I feel truly interconnected in this web of history when I’m in Ukraine that I don’t necessarily feel when I’m in the US, and part of that is because I’m not American.”
Buchatskiy’s plans to go back to her and her father’s home country predated the invasion, as she began to watch conflict inch closer through the frame of her television. She is currently located in Poland at the Ukrainian border, as the invasion has prevented her entrance into the country.
“We [Buchatskiy and her mother] saw the headlines every other day of them predicting a new date when the invasion was going to start around January or February,” Buchatskiy told Los Angeles magazine. “I wanted to see it one last time and I wanted to be able to visit Kyiv one last time before the worst possible thing could happen to it.”
A huge part of her presence on the border has been speaking to people that are coming in from Ukraine. Many are still dealing with the aftermath of the conflict, both psychologically and physically.
“Even when they got to Poland… they weren’t able to take their coat off for a very long time because they were just in the mindset of always being prepared to run,” she said.
A recent conversation with her brother, who she described as “someone that comes from a very loud family of Odesans that are known for their energy and liveliness,” placed an emphasis on how the invasion has changed people.
“He was very introspective, he was whispering. I could barely hear him over the dinner table because he was speaking so softly,” Buchatskiy remembered. “These people are never going to be the same.”
Buchatskiy and her friend, Agatha Gorski, are doing everything they can to make sure those fleeing Ukraine are cared for, and prevent further obstruction at the hands of the Russian government. The two worked together to form The Shadows Project, which focuses on the “preserving, protecting, and popularizing” of Ukrainian culture.
The prevalence of this is particularly highlighted recently, with Putin specifically targeting Ukrainian artifacts and monuments in an effort to wash away their history; to deny their very existence.
In Lviv, people scramble to tightly wrap statues in fireproof material, cover stained glass windows with plywood and aluminum, and place wire outside of cathedrals. In a city that survived Nazi and Soviet occupation, they are still fighting for the preservation of its history nearly a century later.
Just four days after the invasion began, two ceramic works by Ukrainian self-taught artist Maria Prymachenko were destroyed during a bombing of Ivankiv, a town just two hours outside of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Fortunately, one man managed to save 14 paintings from the fire before they erupted into flames, according to CNN.
“In this moment, when there’s real lives being put at risk, and cities being destroyed, and hospitals being bombed, it feels so small to worry about paintings,” Buchatskiy said. “But in the grand scheme of things, art is something that’s so important to the essence of Ukrainian identity… We want to be able to come out of this with the Ukrainian legacy intact, and a part of that is making sure that our art is there with us.”
In addition to the preservative work she has been doing with her organization, Buchatskiy has also made it a priority to make sure the Ukrainian people can protect themselves. There is quite a lot of logistical work she has been involved with, including freelancing, volunteering efforts, and finding suppliers for military equipment to be sent to Ukrainian soldiers.
Questions that Buchatskiy has continued to grapple with, however, revolve around what more she can do to aid her home country. A lot of it has to do with what she plans to do when she gets back to America and an overall reflection on the unnecessary conflict that has been forced upon the Ukrainians by Putin.
“Education in America, I think, can make a big change in the way that Ukraine can win this war because a lot of this is a war on history,” she said. “One of Putin’s biggest weapons has been historical revisionism… blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s not of history.”
During her own time in America’s educational system, she found a lot of the curriculum to be “taught from a Russian-centric perspective.” Buchatskiy mentions she once learned about Ukraine through a Russian history class, and that an association like that is “dangerous.”
One of her professors from Stanford recently took recognition of such an issue and petitioned the university that their department be renamed Russian, Ukrainian, and Eastern European Studies.
“That means a lot, it establishes Ukraine as an equal—it establishes Ukraine as a sovereign, equal, not as, like something under the umbrella of Russia,” she noted.
Buchatskiy’s entry into Ukraine was previously stalled, as Lviv was bombed. However, she entered on Mar. 30, 24 days after her initial arrival in Poland.
“Just being here on this land is an extreme relief. They haven’t taken it from us yet — I’m here and I’m standing on it and it’ll continue that way.”
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