“The world should realise our political power. The Ukrainian people, me, my colleagues and my family – we are not guilty. It’s not our fault that we want to be independent. We didn’t invite Russia on to our territories for them to rule over the absolutely independent Ukraine.” – Rector Roman Gryniuk
For a moment, I thought the change in the faces of Roman Gryniuk, rector of Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University (Vasyl’ Stus DonNU), and Professor Anna Osmolovska, acting director of the Education and Scientific Institute for Academic Potential Development and a senior lecturer in the department of political science and public administration, was another transitory freezing of our Zoom call and that I would have to ask again what identification Gryniuk used to get through the checkpoints thrown up in the Donbas when Russian forces seized Crimea in early 2014.
Then I realised from half a world away – in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada – I was seeing something I’d never witnessed: faces that had bespoke openness and warmth now registered something approaching terror; approaching, because it also seemed all too familiar.
In this, the 39th minute of our call, Osmolovska, who was translating, turned slightly to her right so that she could point up and behind her. She said in an unwavering voice: “Oh, there. That’s the alarm signal,” alerting them to incoming Russian cruise missiles, the same sort of missiles that just a few days earlier had devastated the universities in Mykolaiv.
Twenty seconds – during which the three of us spoke over each other, me telling them to run, Osmolovska saying, “We are really sorry [for having to end the interview]”, and her thanking me for being so understanding – followed. Her last 10 words before the screen went black were: “Thank you. Thank you. See you. I will text you.”
Interspersed with her words, I twice heard Gryniuk say in his deep voice, in clear English, “Thank you”, as I again said: “Go! Run!” – motioning with my hands as if that might make them move faster.
Based on what had been shared earlier in our interview, I knew that Gryniuk and Osmolovska would be rushing down five flights of steps because, as during a fire alarm, the elevator does not work during an air raid.
As I waited for my smartphone to begin transcribing the interview, I imagined them counting off each flight and I wondered if the internal fire escape was a concrete rectangular box, as they are in most North American buildings built since the 1960s.
Two minutes after the screen went black, I assumed they’d reached the fire escape door, and I imagined them running 500 metres across level ground to reach their goal: a bomb shelter built by a Soviet diamond mining company for 600 people and equipped with water, chairs and a bathroom.
“It takes six or eight minutes to get to the bomb shelter from our office. It’s enough time to protect ourselves from Russian missiles,” Osmolovska had said with remarkable sang froid, 14 minutes before the air raid siren cut short our interview on the second day of September 2022, the 190th day in a row that Ukraine had come under Russian missile and bombing attacks.
(Shortly after our second interview on 7 September, a Russian missile attack again forced Gryniuk and Osmolovska to run to the air raid shelter.)