Sasha Prokhorov and Elena Prokhorova, professors of Russian studies at William & Mary, have felt the impact of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in very personal ways. The married couple, who came to the United States from Moscow in the early 1990s, recently spoke to W&M News about the war in Ukraine, its impact on them and their loved ones and the conversations they’ve had with their students about the conflict.
Some of those same students recently hosted a Solidarity Event for Ukraine, which took place in the Sadler Center Thursday night. The Russian studies program also recently posted a statement of support for the people of Ukraine, joining other efforts around campus to respond to the conflict.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: As the world watches Russia’s attack on Ukraine, I can only imagine how difficult it is for you. What is that like watching the news and experiencing this from afar?
Sasha: I want to watch the news because I want to find out what is happening, but once I start watching it, I start crying. And social media actually makes it even worse because you have friends over there, and you’re hearing about their struggles. The bottom line when I’m looking at this at a rational level, it’s a war crime. It’s a crime. It’s hard to add anything else. It’s completely unprovoked.
Q: Why is this happening?
Sasha: It’s because Ukraine is a country with a culture that is very close to Russia, and it’s a successful democracy. All democracies are imperfect, but it’s a democracy. I think the war is happening precisely because they’re building a democracy, and this is so irritating for somebody who runs an authoritarian regime next to them. It’s a fear of an example for Russians that, if it can be done successfully in Ukraine, then why cannot we in Russia do the same? And I think this is the major reason for the war.
Q: Is your family safe? Are your friends safe?
Sasha: I have a friend with whom I studied at Moscow University. She is an English teacher in Ukraine and lives near Kyiv at this point. She has a daughter who has three children. Her daughter went to the Polish border with three children and waited there for 24 hours at the checkpoint. It was cold, and they were running out of gas. Eventually I think they crossed the border, but the grandmother stayed behind in the war zone. It is simply heartbreaking.
Q: There was a Ukraine Solidarity Event on campus Thursday. How did that go?
Sasha: I think William & Mary students are amazing. They have skills as citizens to react with empathy to such a tragic situation, and they organized this important event. What I really like is that they talked about very personal issues. They brought in all kinds of communities and organizations. There were Jewish students speaking, Ukrainian students speaking, Russian students speaking. They brought in the (Russian) music ensemble, which performed Ukrainian songs, Russian songs, and they made it an inclusive event, which is very important right now.
They used music to bring people together. They used prayer to bring people together. I’m really impressed by the William & Mary students and the empathy they show. They try to include and unite instead of divide and conquer, which is the tactic of the aggressor, a perpetrator. I said this at the event that Ukrainians are fighting for pretty much everyone in the post-Soviet world.
Q: Elena, how are you doing? And how is the Russian community in the Williamsburg area doing?
Elena: Somebody said during the event that it’s very hard to feel the war when it is just on TV or on social media and you don’t really have a connection to that part of the world. We know when something happens elsewhere. We think, “I’m concerned. I want to jump into action.” But there is no devastation inside because it’s somewhere else. But for us we feel like we’re being bombed, and it’s a peculiar feeling because my family is not in Ukraine. My family is in Russia, and they are getting hit by sanctions, by censorship, but not by bombs. Basically you see a lot of Facebook messages, like overwhelmingly in the last few days, and then you see less of them, and then you see people disappear from Facebook because they’re afraid or they’ve been blocked. That’s it. As a matter of fact, the Facebook is gone in Russia. They somehow managed to block it. People are disappearing. Some of them still manage to connect but no pictures, no stories. They’re basically saying goodbye, and I don’t know for how long.
Q: What conversations have you had with your students in the last week about the war?
Sasha: I teach a freshman seminar on feminism and women’s culture in Russia, and yesterday we had a conversation about misogyny and the role of patriarchy as being part of this particular kind of aggression and its authoritarian language. We also talked about the fact that last week, for example, they shut down an independent television channel, TV Rain, in Russia, which tried to present something different from the government’s point of view on the war and actually opposed the war. Again, it’s a television channel, TV Rain, and it’s run by a woman entrepreneur and media personality Natalia Sindeeva. I told students, you might say it’s a coincidence, but she is one of the few opposing voices to the jingoistic messages on the state run television. Sindeeva is different from this kind of male-dominated government media, and it’s so symbolic that it’s a woman entrepreneur and a woman media celebrity who is shut down.
Q: What have the conversations been like in your classes, Elena?
Elena: One of my courses is an advanced Russian course, and students in that course are those who organized the (solidarity) event, but they’re also clearly affected by this war because they’re basically caught in a very difficult situation when, simply speaking, you want to hate Russia, but you’re studying the language and you love that culture. Talking to them is very productive for all of us and healing as well. Well, there’s nothing to heal yet. It’s an open wound.
Q: In addition to the Russian language, you teach courses on topics like Russian culture and film. What is the reputation of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was an actor before running for president?
Sasha: I really admire the president of Ukraine. He’s a decent human being who takes his responsibilities seriously. He could have left the country. I’ve seen on the news that the U.S. offered him to leave, and he said something like, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” He’s taking responsibility. As far as I’m concerned, the Nobel Peace Prize should go to him this year.
He is a media celebrity. He is a producer and an actor. Before he went into politics, he played a Ukrainian president in a sitcom (called “Servant of the People”), and the premise of the sitcom was he was a teacher, but he was so upset with the corruption in his country that he thought, “What the hell? I will run for president.” … So he played a president in this sitcom which was played in Ukraine, but I think in Russia as well. And then he decided to run for the (real) presidency, and he won with about 70% percent of the votes. Meanwhile Russian propaganda claims that his government is illegitimate. How so if 70% of citizens gave him their votes? In Russia, they say it’s all about his virulent nationalism in Ukraine. However, Ukrainians voted for somebody who is a Russian speaker from a Jewish family. How much more inclusive can you be?
This violence on behalf of Russian government is a sign of weakness. They cannot destroy Zelensky’s reputation with some kind of poisonous media campaign. The only thing they can use is violence, unprovoked. Criminal violence. That’s their only argument. It’s such a weak position. They already lost. I cannot imagine how you can support these lies and this violence. We would like to conclude with Ukrainian national salute: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist