I recently sat down over Zoom with Diana Chipak, a Ukrainian student at Bennington College who has been in Western Ukraine during the last two weeks of invasion from Russia. This interview covers how she has been managing and what her experiences have been like. The following is a transcript of the interview.
FINEGAR: This has been a painful and violent last two weeks, and longer, but there are stories every day of Ukrainians remaining strong. How are you, and those around you, remaining strong and how has that changed over the last two weeks?
CHIPAK: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Definitely, something unexpected to begin with. I think it’s been extremely mentally difficult for me. For the first week solidly, I developed a migraine at some point. The first thing I would do when waking up in the morning is to check my phone, to see if there’s, you know, something major that has happened like a major explosion. or like what are the casualties? What’s the situation? I think the odds of us standing strong and holding the Russian invasion until now were so slim that every day I was scared to wake up to the news that our president was killed or our army has surrendered and so on. Not very positive. I know. So that was something I felt for the time being but slowly it grew into groundedness and belief and faith and most importantly action. So, I started finding my role in spreading the word on the ground situation. It’s through my social media and then through an interview with Vermont Public Radio.
Then another interview was the North Eastern Radio and probably the loudest thing was the Nora O’Connell interview at CBS news. That was released just yesterday. So, I think for me, I’ve been trying to really open people’s eyes to the situation and that has kept me going. I understand that everybody has a role to play in this and that’s mine. If I, first of all, take care of myself and my own needs, both mental and physical, like getting normal sleep then I’ll be able to contribute in other ways. My loved ones have been amazing. You know, my little sister. I always bring her up as an example of strength and resilience and my other sister has been helping organize donations and different humanitarian aid. My mom has been cleaning in the house and you know, that might sound very routine and trivial in many ways but if you’re like, all of your family members are doing something somebody has to stay in. My brother keeps playing video games, you know, nothing has changed for him personally. I think that’s his way of coping with the situation.
FINEGAR: How have you felt supported by [Bennington] and what have they done to reach out to you? Conversely, how might you have not felt supported by the college?
CHIPAK: I’ve actually felt very supported by the college and this is not me, you know, saying something just for the record. I think Ukrainian people are known as straightforward and that’s one of my personal values is to say the truth, how it is, blunt as it is. Initially, there was some delay with communication of one to two days. After I basically told a few of my friends that it seems like the college hasn’t like reached out to me in any way, I immediately got a reply from the president and they were offering to support my family financially.
That contribution was really valuable for us to basically [buy] things like non-perishable groceries and different food supplies in the expectation of disrupted supply chains and higher cost of basic needs. So that was extremely valuable for us. This might seem silly, but I got a power bank because my phone had a low battery capacity and whenever I would go out my phone would die and in this time it’s the most terrifying thing when somebody doesn’t pick up and you were apart and even if it’s only a few hours, the worst ideas possible are starting to appear in your head while they’re not just responding to a phone. So the college has been very supportive. I have been supported as well through individual Venmo donations in case the situation gets really bad now because of all the support I have, the emergency funds needed for me and my younger siblings to leave available.
Additionally, Susan Sgorbati has been extremely proactive. So I would say unlike other universities and colleges in the United States who’ve been very unresponsive or non-exact, being very like UN right now: not naming things the way they are like saying it’s a conflict, not a direct war or invasion, or not stating that it’s Russia’s war on Ukraine, but saying something like wishy-washy, I think Bennington has been just incredible as an institution to support me through this time and all of the amazing reach-outs.
FINEGAR: That is really, really good. So what can the average student do to actively support Ukraine and you?
CHIPAK: Probably a week ago, two weeks ago, I would have three ways to help and three things to do like a million things. For example, there’s this tool launched by Anonymous where you can send a text message to any random Russians. I used to indulge in these things. I sent like 150 texts, got two responses, one they told me to go f*ck myself. And other ones said that they will go protest. Then basically stats were released about 70% of Russians do support Putin on Ukraine.
So I just gave up on the whole idea of trying to open their eyes and just thought that life in Russia will become unbearable enough that they will start thinking differently. What the average Bennington student can do: I think right now, there’s only one thing that would be extremely helpful and that is contacting your local officials to advocate for helping with closing down the sky. Since the possibility of closing down the sky using NATO forces to shoot down Russian planes had been rolled out because that is clear involvement of NATO troops in the conflict.
There is an alternative possibility of delivering jets to Ukraine and letting us use them. So there’s this funny comparison, a Russian air force with like 10 planes and a Ukrainian air force with one plane and the Ghost of Kyiv. That’s some former air force guy who was just shooting down Russian planes. Like, 31 so far. So this is basically the comparison between our air forces and their air forces. So that’s why it’s extremely critical. So far, I think we’ve had 700 plus rockets being thrown at us and some of them are like the size of [an arm span]. There was a lot of discussion on getting the planes to us. You’re told that Poland is going to deliver the jets to us, but just this morning they said that the European Union will not deliver anything. That was the Pentagon and this is really upsetting because we are not even asking for the newest planes that you have.
We’re asking for old Soviet planes that countries have at their disposal. The United States as one of the NATO members seems to be stopping and pausing all of these efforts of us trying to get this these just to protect ourselves. It’s clear to me at this point that Biden isn’t one of these leaders who is willing to risk much and he cares a lot about his electorate as opposed to ensuring peace in Ukraine so if he gets requests and proof from the people who put him in the driving seat, I think there might be more action being done towards supporting us. So right now I think the number one thing people can do really is to call their elected officials and write an email. And there’s this amazing platform page created by Srichchha Pradhan with all of the templates and so many languages so if people want to contact other governments, that’s also an option.
FINEGAR: I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but there is an action statement that’s being done on the campus at 5:00 PM and the plan basically is for a bunch of students to come out on the commons lawn and lay down on the lawn in silence for five minutes and then we’re going to film that and post it to social media. How impactful do you think that will be?
CHIPAK: I think like one of the things that keep us going internally is the realization that the whole world is behind us. There’s a lot of criticism about light exhibitions, you know, there’s this meme, Europe, ran out of places that they can light up as blue and yellow. What else can they can they do now? So maybe lighting Commons blue and yellow. But, even though that’s a very funny thing to say, I still think that it’s amazing. It’s a very good way to communicate some support. I’m not sure, you know how much it is supported by action or not, but we can see it on social media and feel that somebody outside of this country is thinking of us and supporting us fighting for our freedom. So, you know, it’s a, it’s a very kind of abstract thing to do in a sense but it shows solidarity and I think that’s really, really valuable for us. So in short, please go ahead and do that. We would love to see that.
SRICHCHHA PRADHAN’S PAGE for sending elected officials messages in support of closing Ukraine’s sky.