A Visit from Andrei Kirilenko, Ukrainian professor at the University of Cambridge
by Grant Calder, Director of College Counseling
Last spring, Andrei Kirilenko, a professor of finance at the University of Cambridge in the UK, visited my U.S. History class via Zoom. Professor Kirilenko grew up in Ukraine, and in recent years, he has served as a consulting economist to Ukraine’s ministry of finance and central bank.
On April 29, 2022, the BBC reported: “A Ukrainian professor at the University of Cambridge has told how his mother was found dead by a neighbour in the besieged city of Mariupol. Andrei Kirilenko said the neighbour could not bury his 85-year-old mother Svetlana due to the danger from Russian shelling. He had not been able to contact her since early March. He believes she died on 11 March. The last time the two spoke, he said, they had been ‘saying goodbye’.”
Professor Kirilenko met with my students on May 9, 2022 to talk about the first few months of the war. He told them that his mother always spoke Russian even after the second invasion began. Andrei decided to stop speaking Russian with his family at the time of the first Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Since then in conversation with his mother, he would only speak Ukrainian, and she continued to speak Russian.
The group considered the parallels between the Americans’ provision of military aid to the Soviets in World War II and the current program of support for Ukraine, talked about President Zelensky’s extremely effective use of media to deliver his unifying messages at home and abroad, and heard about the Ukrainian fighters then holding out in the tunnels under the steel plant in Mariupol.
Professor Kirilenko became a Quaker while he was working on his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and spoke about the challenges of being a pacifist in the midst of a war. The group considered the parallels between the Americans’ provision of military aid to the Soviets in World War II and the current program of support for Ukraine, talked about President Zelensky’s extremely effective use of media to deliver his unifying messages at home and abroad, and heard about the Ukrainian fighters then holding out in the tunnels under the steel plant in Mariupol, the same tunnels in which Professor Kirilenko had worked summers as a teenager. The older workers there, he recounted, had told him to study hard and go to university so that he could escape their fate.
He did, and at the recent one-year anniversary of the Russian Invasion, he published an article in VoxUkraine in which he revisited a story from Greek history about “a lame poet/pipe-player/schoolmaster named Tyrtaeus” (not a great warrior or general) who was allegedly responsible for turning the Spartans, then fractured and weak, into the highly effective fighting force of legend.
According to Professor Kirilenko, “The story of Tyrtaeus demonstrates that an unconventional personality can rise to the challenge and become a leader. Before the second invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian society was also divided. A handful of citizens displayed luxurious possessions. The dominant majority lived hand to mouth. Corruption eroded attempts at national unity. Both the old and the young were leaving for other countries.” And then a comedian and actor, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected president. “Although Ukraine had been at war for the previous five years, the voters overwhelmingly supported not an imposing diplomat, defense minister, or intelligence official, but a diminutive entertainer… And when the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, the president did what he knew how to do best – [he dressed down, he rolled up his sleeves,] he recorded poignant videos of Ukraine’s defiance in the face of overwhelming force. He asked allies for weapons and any other support they could give.” He reached out. He connected with people at home and abroad. And they responded. Today, Ukraine battles on for its sovereignty and independence. And Ukrainian and Quaker Andrei Kirilenko continues to work tirelessly and courageously to, as we might say, peacefully transform his world and by extension the rest of the world.
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