In the week preceding the two-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion, Sofia Johanson tried to get a sense of how Oxford was marking the occasion, and how the war was being experienced by those connected to it. 

She spoke to the Presidents of Ukrainian Society and the New Russian Society; attended events including a film screening of the Oscar-winning film ‘20 Days in Mariupol’, a talk by Ukrainian war correspondent, Yuriy Lukanov, and the Oxford Union’s debate on whether Ukraine should negotiate; and met volunteers and refugees at a weekly ‘Friendship Centre’ meeting held at St Michael and All Souls Church in Summertown. 

This is what she learned about the state of solidarity in 2024. 

“We will be here for as long as they need us”, explains Michael, a member of the organising committee at the Ukrainian Friendship Centre. We are sitting in St Michael’s and All Souls Church in Summertown and as the clock strikes eleven, the hall becomes a hive of activity; a beginners’ English lesson is taking place, people are receiving visa and benefit guidance from Citizens’ Advice Bureau-trained staff, pensioners are chatting over coffee and cake, and one little boy is careering across the floor in a mini-car. 

The Centre usually hosts around 50 Ukrainians every Wednesday, and they are never short of volunteers, who come from both within and outside of the church community. But when I ask people here about a decline in interest nationally, the picture is less optimistic. Mimi, an ex-Russian teacher who helps deliver English lessons, impresses on me that although her personal circle of friends ask for updates about the Centre, it is clear that ‘it’s fallen off the news’. Kate, one of the advisors, says that the early enthusiasm once exhibited by the British public has “worn right off”. 

As a result of our chronically short attention spans, events in the Middle East, and the hurtling pace of the 24-hour news cycle, Ukraine does not occupy our feeds and newspapers in the way that it did in early 2022. Neither does it dominate the government’s agenda, who – only days before the anniversary – made changes to the settlement schemes without any warning, suddenly making it almost impossible for Ukrainians to bring family members to the UK without a British sponsor. 

How, then, would the two-year anniversary be marked, understood, and experienced by students and residents in Oxford, if at all? 

The evening before going to St Michael’s, I went to a screening of 20 Days in Mariupol, a documentary made by three Associated Press journalists who remained in the city as it underwent the first three weeks of Russia’s siege. So intense was the footage that within ten minutes, several people had already left the auditorium, and audience members continued to trickle out the door throughout, their faces grey and eyes red. Images of the aftermath of a maternity hospital bombing, civilians throwing body bags into mass graves, and a father wailing over the body of his son who was killed whilst playing football forced those who remained in the lecture theatre to bear second-hand witness to the chaos and injustice of the siege. When it ended, the lights stayed off as the credits ran, and no one spoke or moved until they were completely finished. 

After the screening, the President of Ukrainian Society, Yaroslava Bukhta, told me that she has her own videos from life under occupation in Kyiv Oblast’, but she has never watched them. It was Ukrainian Society that organised the screening, and Yaroslava said that it was their responsibility to publicise what is going on: “that’s the mission I see behind Ukrainian Society here, and behind us as Ukrainian students”. 

It strikes me that her convictions about her personal responsibility reflect those of Mstyslav Chernov, the director of 20 Days of Mariupol. Chernov, along with Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko who also worked on the film, was one of the last three international journalists to remain in the besieged city. There, they fought a constant battle to find patches of ground where there was enough signal or internet to send their footage to their editors, and thus reveal the terror that was unfolding.

I asked Yaroslava whether she feels as if her sense of responsibility has increased as media attention and national interest in Ukraine has gone down. She said that the “nature of our efforts have changed”, and explains that whilst at the beginning organisations used to approach Ukrainian Society with event ideas and collaboration propositions, now they have taken on the permanent role of initiators and advocates. 

Moreover, she thinks the Society has moved from a ‘bandage’ approach – where they focussed on short-term endeavours like organising humanitarian aid – to a longer-term strategy, in which they will seek to educate people about Ukraine, its history, and the context of this war. She smiled as she told me how people often try to guess where she’s from when she first meets them, and how they suggest every single country that borders Ukraine, but never the country itself. People only know of it as a warzone, she explained to me, and have no idea what or who the nation is; so now, as well as practical tasks like fundraising for an ambulance, they engage in work based around “explanations, discussions and education”. 

She made an attempt to engage in a dialogue of this kind back in December, when Hilary Term’s Union President Hannah Edwards contacted her to ask whether someone in Ukrainian Society would like to participate in the planned debate ‘This House believes Ukraine should negotiate with Russia to end the war now”. Yaroslava responded in an email expressing her opposition to such a motion being debated, explaining that negotiations have been ongoing since 2014 and thus such a method has already been ‘tested’ on the ground, and suggested several other motions which she felt were equally provocative but had not yet been discussed. The Union President never responded to her concerns, and Yaroslava only learned that the Union had not changed the motion when the Term Card was released in January. 

When contacted for comment, the Union responded with the following statement: “The Oxford Union is proud of our productive relationship with the Ukrainian Society, having hosted two events in collaboration with them last term. This included the most recent Ambassador to Ukraine during the week of the 2-year anniversary of the invasion. We look forward to working again with them for further events in the future.

At the debate, I heard students express blind faith in the idea that Russia would respect terms laid out in postwar negotiations, supported by a belief that this war has nothing to do with Ukraine and is purely sustained by the US military-industrial complex lobby. The conclusion thus followed that – despite the evidence offered by the invasion of Ukraine – Russia doesn’t really pose a military threat to Europe. Later on, a Ukrainian student took the floor to ask “how dare you” debate such a motion, reminding the room that this was not just “some silly, little political debate”, but a question of survival for those still living in her home country. The divisions were clear, and although the opposition prevailed with 171 votes to 71, the arguments in favour were a reminder of the relative lack of knowledge of most people in the UK about the nature, origins and ‘purpose’ of this conflict. 


If we in the UK have been lazy in educating ourselves, the Ukrainian pensioners sitting around the round table at beginners’ English lesson at St Michael’s have not. Their session appeared to include cultural, as well as linguistic instruction, as they devoted a good portion of their hour to the very British pursuit of discussing the weather. As they moved on to food and drink, one gentleman was not quite sure how to say, ‘I would like a coffee’, but he did know the words for ‘black americano’, which made everyone laugh. 

But language learning was a more pressing task for the younger people in the room, and I spoke to several twenty-somethings trying to find work and struggling as a result of their limited English abilities. Anna, a trained speech therapist, is looking for a job in a nursery or school, having improved her English whilst working at Columbia Coffee Co. in the Covered Market, whilst Oleksii, a lawyer and psychologist from Odessa, is also between things at the moment. 

The repetitive mundanity of trawling through Indeed listings comes in painfully sharp contrast to the brutality of what many Ukrainians in the UK witnessed at home, and Yaroslava reflected on the duality of her “two lives” as she narrated her morning routine to me: she wakes up, checks that her friends (some of whom are fighting on the frontlines) and family are safe and well, and then goes to class and discusses who has signed up for the upcoming formal exchange dinner. She laughed as she described the jarring clash between these concurrent existences. 

Another person for whom this conflict is close to home is Nastia, the President of New Russian Society, whose mother’s family are Ukrainian, and whom she helped to leave at the onset of the full-scale invasion. For her and other Russian expats, the invasion also posed an existential challenge to their identity. She describes the impossibility of associating oneself with a state that has committed genocide; “how do you live with that?”, she asked me. It was from this schism that the New Russian Society was born, serving as a community for Russians and Russianists to come together under a banner of democracy and freedom of thought, whilst taking on an unflinchingly clear anti-war position. 

A large part of their efforts are dedicated to providing emotional support for Russian student-expats, who are experiencing a profound sense of dislocation, as well as some coming to terms with family members being imprisoned or taking their own lives as a result of the consequences of the war. She admitted that “almost everyone I know was on some sort of therapy at some point”, explaining that antidepressants are taken by practically all the Russian students she knows at Oxford. She emphasised that she does not seek to compare these issues with the trauma experienced by her Ukrainians and explained that the New Russian Society consciously avoids drawing attention towards itself and away from Ukrainian Society’s efforts, always advertising events and fundraisers which the latter runs.

It’s an uncomfortable topic, but we gradually begin to talk about the sense of responsibility that came up in my conversation with Yaroslava, Mstyslav Chernov’s narration, and indeed the explanations given by volunteers at the Ukrainian Friendship as to why they had chosen to help. I wanted to know whether she thought émigrés like her had a duty to do more to help Ukraine by convincing others to join her efforts. 

She drew on her medical training, saying that whilst she can give a patient options, she cannot force them to do anything, adding that doing so would make her behaviour indistinguishable from Putin’s regime of coercion. She hoped her own decision to actively oppose the war might provide someone with the inspiration to do the same, as she herself has been motivated by the scale of self-organisation amongst émigrés, citing civil society organisations ‘Democratic Russia’ in London, and Free Russia NL, based in the Netherlands. 

Responsibility was just as fraught a topic in my conversation with Yuriy Lukanov, a Ukrainian war correspondent who came to Oxford to talk about his work in Crimea, Georgia, and the current conflict. He asked whether Ukrainian journalists should just be reporters, or whether they have an obligation to narrate the war in a way that boosts the morale of their people. Initially concerned by what appeared like a proposed departure from truth, I was forced to reflect more deeply when he followed up with the question of what he should do if there have been two local battles, one won by Russia, and one by Ukraine; which should go in the headline, and which should come further down the page? 

It became increasingly clearer that rather than romantic abstract concepts, responsibility, duty and obligation are slippery, nebulous and yet highly consequential realities for all those connected to the war. 


Back at St Michael’s, it reached midday. Tealights were being lit and the Reverend had stood up to read a prayer he had written for Ukraine. Standing next to him was a blonde woman called Liuba who translated his words into Ukrainian simultaneously, whilst her three-year-old daughter wandered between the choir stalls. Bohdana was only ten months old when the war broke out, and has consequently lived most of her life in Oxford. 

Liuba tells me about her two other daughters, Ivanka, who has recently joined Debating Club despite not speaking English prior to arriving in Oxford, and Stefania, who is much more shy, but picked up the language quickly and now sees school as a “sanctuary”. 

But does she still feel supported, two years after leaving Kyiv? She admits that whilst she cannot speak for the whole country, her community is strong, and she has not felt a drop-off in interest. 

This is reassuring, and I am glad she has found a base where she feels as safe and secure as is possible during these uncertain times, but her tentative intimation that outside her circle things might be different, is probably correct. 

Optimists might suggest that perhaps the sheer number of events planned across Oxford that week should make the anniversary a reassuring moment for the Ukrainians who live here, perhaps renewing the sense of solidarity which emanated from the British public at the beginning of the conflict. But after Saturday the 24th, there is an ominous sense that we have returned to the mundanity of our everyday lives, forgetting about Yaroslava and the Ukrainians at the Friendship Centre who continue to operate in the liminal space of their ‘dual existence’, hanging between security and anxiety. 

Yaroslava, Nastia, Mstyslav Chernov, Yuriy Lukanov, and the volunteers at the Friendship Centre all have a clear idea of what they feel their duties to be. 

The British public, despite its conviction that Ukraine must be supported and Russia reckoned with in some way, is less certain about the definitions of its responsibility. 

After the nationally unified response of outrage and compassion in 2022, islands of absolute solidarity do remain, where individuals are unwaveringly dedicated to Ukraine, its people and its cause. 

But they are somewhat isolated within a sea of opinion, made up of those with a vague conviction that Russia must be contained, those who have forgotten the war is ongoing, and those who, although certain of their role in 2022, have now paused to ask – what are we even capable of doing two years down the line? What is our responsibility now?