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Iryna Pyenska teaches class on Zoom from her daughter and son-in-law's kitchen in Philadelphia on April 11, 2022.

Iryna Pyenska teaches class on Zoom from her daughter and son-in-law's kitchen in Philadelphia on April 11, 2022. (Caroline Gutman/for The Washington Post)

PHILADELPHIA — The sprawling stone house is dark and quiet, the grandchildren fast asleep, when Iryna Pyenska opens her laptop at the kitchen table at 1:20 a.m.

In Ukraine, which is seven hours ahead, her students at Kharkiv National University of Karazin — scattered and sheltering as bombs fall — are greeting the morning.

Russia is preparing a massive offensive in eastern Ukraine, and, before the 44th day of this brutal invasion is over, Russian forces will have shelled crowds of civilians fleeing the region at a train station in Kramatorsk. Dozens will die, including children, all while the world still reels from the discovery of the massacre of civilians the previous week in Bucha, a suburb of the capital, Kyiv.

Pyenska, 61, puts on metal-frame glasses and stares directly at the Zoom screen on her computer. Her daughter, Kateryna Tulio, 39, sits at the wooden table to translate for a visitor. A small pendant lamp casts a dim glow.

Slowly, the squares begin to light up on Pyenska’s laptop — one, two; then a few minutes pass; and more squares light up.

Three students in the professor’s undergraduate economics course have disappeared, status unknown, since the Russian assault began Feb. 24 with the bombing of Kharkiv near the Russian border in eastern Ukraine. Just seven of the 15 who remain will have the internet connection and wherewithal to make it to today’s lesson on operations management, preparing themselves for a future that seems increasingly hard to fathom.

There is Serhii Korabelskyi, a young man with close-cropped brown hair in a gray hoodie, crouched on a balcony. The area around him in northeastern Ukraine has been struck by vacuum bombs, the thermobaric weapons known for causing vast destruction, and it is too dangerous to leave his home. “It is like a terrifying dream,” he says.

There is Ruslana Kholosha, who is living with her parents about two hours west of Kharkiv. Even as she rushes to the basement when she hears aircraft overhead, she says she feels hope that her nation will triumph.

“I absolutely trust in our victory,” Kholosha says. “We showed the whole world that we are Ukrainians, and nothing is impossible for us.”

There is Alexandra Kapshuk, trapped under Russian occupation in central Ukraine after her family missed the chance to evacuate. She has recently found a sliver of peace to help still her fears.

“We had a class yesterday and the professor shared that she believes in God,” Kapshuk says. She pauses. Her voice breaks.

“She shared, that if you stay home and if something happens to you ... if you die ... it might save someone else’s life.”

For about 15 seconds, no one speaks. Pyenska glances across the table at Tulio, who has just translated Kapshuk’s words, and sees her own distress reflected in her daughter’s blue eyes.

Pyenska, who has taught economics for three years at the university, said she never imagined teaching so far away from her students. As a professor, she describes herself as “demanding but fair,” and over a nearly three-decade academic career, her relationships with her students have extended far beyond the classroom.

If they needed a place to stay, Pyenska offered her couch. As she worked with them on projects and master’s theses, many became like kin, dropping by to share a meal or confide a problem. Once, Tulio said, a student who had been depressed called the family home at 3 a.m. to tell the professor that she was contemplating suicide. Pyenska brought the student to live with her until the young woman’s parents could come.

“She is that kind of professor,” Tulio says proudly.

Before the war, Pyenska was reveling in her teaching, enjoying a thrilling new stage of life with fewer distractions. She moved three years ago from her home in the suburbs to a flat in the vibrant heart of Kharkiv. By that time, Tulio had migrated to the United States to build her business career.

Her classroom in the economics building at the university — a more than 200-year-old institution with about 25,000 students - looked out over the vast green of the city’s gardens and zoo. Everywhere in cosmopolitan Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, there was something to do, something to see. She felt as young as her students, she says. “I couldn’t breathe enough of the air.”

As fears of a Russian invasion gathered steam in early February, Pyenska felt pulled between the present and the past. She had spent her life in Kharkiv, growing up before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, raised to speak Russian before Ukrainian was taught in schools as the official language. Pyenska’s father was from Kharkiv, and her mother was born in what is still Belgorod, Russia.

An undated photo of Kateryna Tulio, her grandmother Nina Kniazieva and her mother, Iryna Pyenska, in an album of photographs carried by Iryna Pyenska from Ukraine.

An undated photo of Kateryna Tulio, her grandmother Nina Kniazieva and her mother, Iryna Pyenska, in an album of photographs carried by Iryna Pyenska from Ukraine. (Caroline Gutman/for The Washington Post)

After Ukraine’s independence, the family’s ties to Russia remained strong. Brothers and cousins lived just over the border, and all would sometimes gather for special occasions.

Then, in 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine and sent forces into eastern Ukraine. In Kharkiv, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists clashed. After the conflict was over, fewer Kharkiv residents were still supportive of Russia, Pyenska says. An uneasy peace emerged, accompanied by a more profound patriotism.

“We always knew that it was not the end ... but we did not think it would become this massive war,” Pyenska said.

In February, she tried to ignore the drumbeat of ominous news.

“I thought it was a false alarm,” Pyenska said as she sat in her daughter’s peaceful kitchen in the leafy Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. “I thought, ‘Why is the U.S. media trying to draw attention to this?’ ”

She ignored Tulio’s pleas to leave. Finally, she relented when her daughter suggested that Pyenska and her 83-year-old mother visit for just two weeks while the university was on break so they could spend time with Pyenska’s toddler grandchildren.

Pyenska’s plane took off a half-hour after landing at the airport on Feb. 17, the passengers hurried aboard in a frantic scene that shattered the professor’s denial.

Exactly a week later, the Russians began bombing Kharkiv. In Philadelphia, Pyenska watched the news footage, alarmed, as the stately building that housed the economics department was hit by an airstrike on March 2, great chunks of it falling to the ground. She sent a photo of the destruction to her relatives in Russia, in a last effort to persuade them that the horror was real.

“They did not believe me. They said, ‘You are bombing yourself.’ “

On March 28, Pyenska’s classes, which already were online because of the coronavirus pandemic, finally resumed.

Her remaining students were now in other countries working to support their families or had been scattered throughout Ukraine, mostly in the east, often without dependable internet access or having to do all their work on smartphones. (The Washington Post is not sharing students’ locations out of a concern for their safety.)

Pyenska made clear to her two classes of undergraduate and master’s-level students that she would be available to them 24/7. She allowed them to access the course material on Google Classroom without attending lessons; her once-strict deadlines became flexible. She committed herself to teaching through the night.

“The university believes it’s important to continue the process,” she said. “We will need subject matter experts who will help rebuild the economy. ... There is more than one way to serve. Education is their path through this war.”

She believes, she says, that it is also a path to emotional survival.

A Ukrainian flag hangs from the front porch of the Philadelphia home of Kateryna and Michael Tulio.

A Ukrainian flag hangs from the front porch of the Philadelphia home of Kateryna and Michael Tulio. (Caroline Gutman/for The Washington Post)

Ruslana Kholosha, a third-year student in public administration, had left her flat in Kharkiv and returned to her parents’ home two hours away to run an errand when she was awakened on Feb. 24 at 5 a.m. by the sound of sirens and explosions.

“I’ll never forget this feeling, like the earth was slipping away underfoot,” she says in a text interview in English through WhatsApp. “I was broken down. I didn’t believe it. I tried to pinch myself to understand that I wasn’t sleeping.”

Her parents discussed whether to leave town, then tried to persuade Kholosha to move abroad to Poland or Turkey. She decided to stay with them.

“I knew that probably I don’t survive, I can be killed,” she says. “But I had the idea that for me, personally, it’s better to die here, than to live anywhere else, where I wouldn’t feel myself alive because there I will feel like I don’t belong. ... I will be burnt from the inside.”

With the roar of aircraft overhead, she and her parents flee to the basement of their small home, she says. She watches as refugees from surrounding towns roam the streets looking for shelter, food and water “with eyes full of pain, sadness and tears.”

Early on, she would read the news of children dying and, “in my hardest pain,” she says, wondered if it would be better to die herself.

On March 13, she found a way to anchor herself. “I picked up my cat, hugged him and I realized that he is my best friend,” she says. She holds Timon close and, at least for that moment, she feels better. She began posting photos of herself and Timon on Instagram and has been buoyed by the support she receives.

She tries every day to find out how friends and relatives are doing. Instead of “Hello,” they now greet each other with “I am alive,” she says.

She was grateful to start her classes again, to avoid obsessing over the news. Sometimes, she says, she can hear explosions in the background where her professors are logged on to teach. Her classes often start with her and her peers sharing updates about their living conditions and mental health.

“It helps to understand that you are important to others,” she says.

After seeing news photos from the Bucha massacre, she felt “broken down into little pieces” again. Her life before felt like a dream and the war the nightmarish reality.

Then on March 24, she turned 20. She was flooded with birthday messages from relatives and friends. A few even dared danger to visit, bearing flowers and balloons, she says. The reminder of the people who make her life precious changed her mood.

She blew out the candles on her cake and made a wish for Ukraine: “Victory.”

A week later, Kholosha is speaking of this bright future in Pyenska’s economics class on Zoom as though it were a certainty. She will use her degree in public administration to help rebuild the government, she says in a voice loud with confidence.

“My university lessons help me get all the skills we will need,” she says. “We will not just rebuild our building, we will rebuild our nation, we will rebuild our economy ... to make Ukraine one of the best countries in the world.”

Her classmate Korabelskyi recently lost a friend who was fighting in the war and has thought deeply about whether he should enlist instead of continuing the studies that exempt him from service. He would be a poor soldier, lacking training, he has concluded. “But what I can do now is work in parallel to help the Ukrainian economy and contribute this way,” he said.

Even Kapshuk, who has imagined that her life could be sacrificed to save another, is not ready to give up.

“I want to say I have goals,” she says, behind the blinking gray square. “I have five-, 10-year goals, and I want a family. Before, I wanted to leave Ukraine, and now, I want to stay here.” If young Ukrainians move elsewhere, who will create the future? she asks.

In two weeks from this day, Russia will have launched a massive assault in eastern Ukraine. In Kharkiv, about half of the city’s 1.4 million residents will have fled, and many of those still alive will seek shelter in the subways, with the rubble of nearly 2,000 bombed-out high-rises covering the ground above them. In the open courtyard of one destroyed building, a man will sit down at a piano and play a melancholy tune, “Tenderness,” written by a Ukrainian composer.

But at this moment in the shadowy kitchen, Pyenska closes her laptop and removes her glasses. It is 3 a.m. — time to breathe before the next class starts.


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