"Please don't worry. But the war has started", recalls Ukranian doctoral student

On February 24, 2024, the Russian Federation launched an invasion of Ukraine. In the Czech Republic, we will commemorate this event with a rally on Saturday 24 February on Old Town Square in Prague. In addition to the rally, the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies supports the petition 'European Appeal for Ukraine', in which European citizens demand that Western countries do not stop supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia. You can sign the petition here.


Serhij Kiš: This week, we mark the second year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine (if you don’t count the annexation of Crimea in 2014). Where were you at that time?

Olena Kushyna: Two years ago, I was here [at the Centre for Ethics, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Pardubice] doing my PhD. But I would like to address what you said about Crimea.

Ten years ago, there was the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, in which I participated. That's where I was 10 years ago. I was there from the beginning, and when it started to get dangerous, I became a volunteer. You could say I worked in a “back office”. We collected medicine and other necessities for the people still on Maidan. We were also connecting people. There was also a team for informational support, where we checked fake news and spread essential updates. So, I was a part of that.

Today – as in the day we are recording this interview [20th February] – marks 10 years since 107 people died at Maidan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square] in Kyiv, Ukraine. It was 20th February 2014. Back then, I was finishing my bachelor’s studies in philosophy at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv.

Two years ago, when the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started, I was here doing my PhD in philosophy. I remember that day. My parents called me and told me that it had started. And I remember they said something like: ‘Please don't worry. But the war has started.’

You were in it from the very beginning?

Yes, I was engaged in the revolution from 2013, from the very first days of it.

Do you remember your feelings when your parents told you about the war?

I have to say that since 2014, when the annexation of Crimea happened and when the war in Donbas began, there was fear that it would happen in Kyiv. The war has been ongoing for 10 years now. What changed in the last two years is the scale.

In January 2022, the last time I visited Kyiv to see my family, it was already pretty clear that the invasion would happen. We just didn't know when.

When it happened, I remember not wanting to talk about it with my friends here in Pardubice. I didn’t want to talk about it because it was hard. When it happened, I felt like something hit me in my stomach. And I couldn't function for maybe two months afterwards because I was on my phone for 20 hours daily. I was doing many things online, connecting people, collecting donations, and talking to my family and friends who were still in Ukraine. Sitting here in safety, I could connect people. For example, somebody needed shelter in a particular town, so I contacted my friends and support groups there. So, I used the time I had to help out with logistics.

Many people, especially with small children, were fleeing the country. It was not easy in the first months. It was highly complicated because, first of all, everything was unpredictable. We didn't know what would happen. The roads were unexpectedly blocked, and the trains could get cancelled. Secondly, everything was overcrowded because so many people wanted to leave in the first few days. A friend of mine came to Poland from Ukraine on a train with ten people in a compartment meant for four people.

What we did here in Pardubice was collect humanitarian aid. We also had a checkpoint to sort out the humanitarian aid. I remember I would go there, and I could work with my hands sorting stuff. Those were the days when I was not on my phone. Those were the good days because I would work for 6-8 hours without checking my phone and reading the news.

You said ‘we’ – whom do you mean by that?

I and other Ukrainians who lived here at that time.

You mentioned that you were already in Czechia doing your PhD when it all broke out. When did you arrive?

I arrived here in 2021 from Estonia, where I immigrated from Ukraine in 2018.

How have Czechia and Pardubice been treating you?

Very nice. They have a lot of dogs here (laughs). [OK’s dog hops to her lap.] My dog is also originally from Ukraine, by the way.

Did you adopt her?

Yes. She doesn't know that, though (laughs).

Regarding humans, I have to say that Czechia was one of the most welcoming places in the world [to Ukrainian refugees]. There was a lot of social help. The process of how you receive your visa was so simplified that people didn't even have to think about it. They just had to show up to a certain address provided at the train stations everywhere. There were a lot of volunteers helping at every stage of the way – both Ukrainian and Czech. Many people here in Pardubice and the whole of Czechia opened the doors of their houses to Ukrainian refugees. Many people welcomed Ukrainian refugees to live for free as guests in their homes for a while.

For example, my parents spent more than a year in one such place of a local, whom we found through our colleagues at the university.

Let's talk about something else now. What is your dissertation thesis about?

My thesis is about birth. Put simply, it is about how philosophical reflection on birth gives us hope for the future and how the resulting action can pave the way out of the crisis of humanity and the environment.

Do you think that events you had to endure since 2022 affected your work?

Ah, yes, tremendously so.

One of the main authors I work with is Hannah Arendt and her concept of natality. When the full-scale invasion started, I was not physically able to work on my thesis for some time. But when I returned to it, I realised I had a lot in common with her. There was a genocide of her people [Hannah Arendt was a Jewish thinker] happening, and she was a volunteer helping Jewish refugees. She was trying to help her people while also being actively involved in public political discussions. That's where I sensed a certain commonality between us. I was also trying to work on my philosophy, and I, too, volunteered and experienced the same situation where there was an ongoing genocide of my people.

Just like in Arendt's case, I am in a very interesting position to reflect on politics. When you, your family, and your people are safe, and you are theorising about what politics is, that is one thing. But when there is an ongoing genocide of your people, and you see and talk to them – it's a very different type of situation in which to do political philosophy.

That was the moment when I realised how vital subjectivity and the personal are in any political discussion. And I have to say that it changed my whole worldview. A lot of things that Arendt says made much more sense to me when I felt like her – like an experience closer to hers.

Can you talk briefly about Arendt’s distinction between vita activa and vita contemplativa? I think the distinction is relevant to your experience.

That’s true. Arendt criticises the philosophical tradition for only concentrating on one part of the equation – the theory. When the invasion happened, that was when I strongly felt – literally in my body – that sitting at a desk and just being in the classroom was not enough to be a philosopher. You have to go out there and live a life. Be around people. It's one thing to see a number of refugees of your people leaving your country. It's a different thing when they cry on your shoulder each Saturday [each Saturday during the first months after the full-scale invasion, the Centre for Ethics organised a potluck for Ukrainian refugees] and tell you that their husband died in the war and that they don't have a home anymore. Then you look into their eyes, and you listen to their stories.

You cannot receive that from reading texts, but it is crucial for being a philosopher. That is what Arendt meant by vita activa. To live a life, to take care of others, and to step outside your campus. To talk about your views not only in your books but also on the streets. It is to meet people and engage with the world's problems, put yourself into dangerous and vulnerable positions, and be a part of the situation that you're philosophising about.

This resonates strongly with me. What we need in philosophy is people who can feel, think, and participate in world events.

Last question. What would you – as a philosopher – have to say to the victims of wars, be it war in Ukraine or elsewhere?

(long pause)

I don't have much to say but I am ready to listen. They are the ones who have things to say. What I can maybe offer as a philosopher is a space where they will be listened to and where others will hear their stories.

Thank you for sharing yours.


Olena Kushyna is a doctoral student at Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value since 2021. She is originally from Ukraine.