Fifteen months ago, Dr Olha Kushniruk lived in a flat in central Kyiv with her husband and two teenage sons. She was employed by the National Academy of Sciences, where she worked as a Senior Research Fellow with a particular interest in Ukrainian music, at the Academy’s Rylsky Institute for Art Studies, Folklore and Ethnology. After graduating from the Mykola Lysenko Lviv National Music Academy, she juggled her academic focus on musicology with her career as a pianist, while her husband worked as a scientist at the Institute for Problems of Materials Science.
This peaceful, rewarding life came to an end in February 2022 with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While families across the country wrestled with whether to stay or go, for Olha the decision had a critical urgency. A month after the invasion, and within a week of their departure, her elder son turned 18. Had they stayed, he would have been called up to fight for his country.
“On 5th March we left Ukraine, and on the 11th he was 18. I had no time, I was hysterical. When we crossed the border the official, a Ukrainian lady, saw his documents and his date of birth and said ‘you are ok, you are ok’.”
Although maternal instinct meant Olha felt she had no choice but to get her children out of the country, it was not an easy decision to leave.
“It was the main reason for me to leave my motherland. Because in Ukraine a passion for our motherland is passed from early childhood from parents to children. It goes deep into the soul. So that’s why it’s not easy to move.”
The family initially fled to France, where Olha had relatives. But, while they were well looked after, the language barrier meant that Olha’s employment prospects were severely limited.
“My niece organised for us to stay near Nantes, but I don’t speak French. We were there for six months, and I studied French with volunteers, but it was not possible for me to realise my professional skills.”
Instead, Olha recalled a visit to the UK ten years previously, when her university had participated in a hospitality scheme with the University of Cambridge. She had got on well with her supervisor, Professor Marina Frolova-Walker of the Faculty of Music, and got in touch to outline her situation.
“She answered at once suggesting we speak online, face to face, and told me that the British Academy had put together a programme of Researchers at Risk Fellowships, which I would be eligible to apply for.”
Through the programme, Olha came to Cambridge for a two-year Fellowship at the Faculty of Music, where she is researching the choral arrangements and symphonies of the Ukrainian composer Alexander Jacobchuk. Darwin has been able to provide her and her sons with accommodation, in the Hills Road house left to the College last year by biochemist and immunologist Celia Milstein. Celia and her husband, the Nobel prize winning biochemist César Milstein, a Fellow of Darwin, had a lifelong affiliation with the College after moving to Cambridge from Argentina in the 1960s, following a military coup. In a strange point of connection with their home’s current inhabitants, their parents were Jewish immigrants to Argentina from Ukraine.
“It’s a beautiful, large space, with a wonderful garden. In Ukraine we lived in a two-room flat in the centre of the city, so it’s strange for us to all have individual rooms! It’s a great pleasure to be a member of Darwin College, to be a participant in different events in these walls connected with Charles Darwin.”
In addition to the house, Celia Milstein left her Steinway piano to the College, where it was installed in the Old Library last September. Olha has played the instrument frequently, including before each session in a series of events for women in academia, arranged by Professor Fiona Karet and Dr Chloe Kattar earlier this term.
“It was an opportunity to set the mood for the ideas being discussed. The Steinway has an extraordinary character of sound.”
Olha’s husband has remained at home in Kyiv, though his health does not permit him to fight. He is currently managing a student hall of residence, in addition to his academic activity, and keeps in touch with the family via online calls.
Her older son is completing his degree remotely at the Pavlo Chubynskui Academy of Arts (Kyiv), while attending English lessons and pursuing his own musical interests. His younger brother has settled in happily at Coleridge Community College, where he recently played the guitar in a concert organised by the school’s “extraordinary music teacher”.
In addition to her research, Olha has thrown herself into new experiences since her arrival in England.
“At first I just wanted to rest,” she admits, “but now I’m trying to improve myself in different ways. I’ve had the great opportunity to study English for free at the Bell School, which is wonderful for me and my son. I’m trying to cook new things, to get involved with the Ukrainian community in Cambridge, and I recently sang in a concert of Ukrainian songs at Great St Mary’s.”
Having had to take the unthinkable decision to flee her country for her own and her children’s lives, Olha is determined to enjoy the freedoms now granted to them.
“It was such a stressful situation, to leave home with just one bag on your bag, just our documents. We travelled through Poland to Berlin, to Cologne, to Paris, to Nantes. To see that situation all around us, the railway station full of refugees…I can’t imagine now that it was me. But our time must be for us, not for Putin. He wanted to take away our time of life, but we need to understand that we need to live for ourselves.”