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On Friday 10 June 2022, UCL Ukrainian Society hosted a special event with guest speaker Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Organised by the Ukrainian Students’ Union, nine university Ukrainian Societies had the chance to meet, and put a question to, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy via Zoom.

In his opening address, President Zelenskyy shared a historical fact from each university and university city, “can we be humorous… there’s no other way”. The audience learnt that the 10th of June was the anniversary of the first Cambridge and Oxford boat race. The 10th of June also marked the 107th day Ukraine had been fighting invasion from, as the President put it, “the person who should not be mentioned”. Zelenskyy used his opening address to draw historical links between Ukraine and the UK, referencing the Ukrainian universities twinned with UK universities and the Welsh businessman, John Hughes, who founded the city of Donetsk.

History matters. President Zelenskyy asked, “what do you know about Ukraine?” before praising students at Edinburgh for calling out a professor who was repeating a Russian narrative about the war. “The truth is known, it is important”, he said. “This describes the mission of the war fought against us, the mission is to delete our history, our state, our identity.” President Zelenskyy has used technology to shed light on the war facing his country, appearing via Zoom to address parliaments, the UN, and now university students. Communication of this kind has been part of Zelenskyy’s efforts to build a coalition of support around the world, and reject any alternative narrative other than the truth. When the inevitable Zoom mic issues occurred towards the end of the session, President Zelenskyy joked it was a “cyber-attack of Russia”, prompting rapturous laughter from the nine lecture theatres across the UK.

The final question of the night came from UCL Ukrainian Society President, Anton Korchagin, on behalf of UCL’s Ukrainian community. Anton was introduced by UCL President and Provost, Dr Michael Spence, who spoke of the pride felt across UCL of the work in SEESS, teaching Ukrainian language, culture, and history.

Anton asked, “Many young Ukrainians are currently studying or working abroad, receiving high academic qualifications and experience. This generation of Ukrainians wants to move their country forward, it worries about the future of their homeland, and it wants to contribute to the rebuilding and development of a new Ukraine. In addressing those young Ukrainians who are currently abroad, what main message would you like to convey to them and what are your personal plans and programmes in motivating them to come back home to avoid brain drain”

“I think that's a great question”, said President Zelenskyy. “There's a lot of painful aspects in our history, and because of which we've lost the most precious [thing] we have, the smart people, the ‘brains’.” He continues, “I can't build a comfortable state for you, without you…building a future without [the] young generation is something that is impossible”.

President Zelenskyy’s remarks in response to Anton sum up the theme of Ukrainian Renaissance covered in the hour-long session. “Every generation is much better than the previous one, every generation is more modern than the previous one, so I cannot offer you something, but I can help you to implement your dreams to have them come to reality, to have your vision for the future come to action, that's what I can do”

"I can't build a comfortable state for you, without you"

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

It was an emotional end to an extraordinary exchange between Ukrainian students studying in the UK, and the Ukrainian President. Earlier this month, Ukrainian Society won our Cultural Society Impact Award at our Societies Awards ceremony. Friday’s event proves just how important finding a space to learn about and celebrate our different international cultures can be. We’re proud that so many different cultures are represented in our student-led clubs and societies, and we’d encourage everyone to browse our societies directory and see what’s on offer.

You can watch the whole video here: