Ukrainian historian finds safe harbour at U of A

Oleksandr Melnyk’s scholarly voice was at risk of being silenced amid war; now he hopes to make a lasting contribution to knowledge that is more important than ever.


U of A graduate and historian Oleksandr (Alex) Melnyk escaped the war in Ukraine to continue his research at his alma mater, thanks to support from the Disrupted Ukrainian Students and Scholars initiative. (Photo: Danyliew Research Seminar)

On what seemed like a normal day in February 2022, Oleksandr (Alex) Melnyk’s mother woke him up at seven in the morning with terrifying news — the war had begun.

Melnyk turned on his computer and saw the images and news stories of cities in Ukraine under attack. Outside, on the streets of his hometown, people looked confused, unsure how to react.

“Things were moving very rapidly in our part of the country. By noon, we had no internet connection,” he says. Three days later, Russian troops arrived in his hometown.

Melnyk was born in a small town in southern Ukraine, where he lived until he was 17. After beginning his studies at Kherson State University, he eventually came to Canada to continue his scholarly pursuits. He obtained his MA at the University of Alberta and his PhD at the University of Toronto before eventually returning to his hometown in 2019. That’s where he was when the war started.

In the first few weeks of the invasion, Melnyk explains, “There was a very high level of solidarity. People would gather at the centre of the town with Ukrainian flags and protest the occupation.”

The tumultuous months that followed saw shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies, and many Ukrainians were afraid to travel on the roads despite supply issues, lest they risk meeting Russian troops.

Though the level of Russian presence varied as the months went on, Melnyk and his neighbours lived with a constant awareness of the conflict happening all around them.

“The experience of occupation is almost a sense of physical oppression,” he says. “You feel it. You feel a burden on your shoulders and you don’t feel free, even if they (Russian troops) are not around.”

Throughout those months, Melnyk notes, there was a “huge outflow of civilians” from the Kherson region. As of June 1, internet and cellphone connections were severed, leaving Melnyk and others in his area largely disconnected from the world. He eventually became one of those fleeing civilians, leaving on June 19. A few days later, Russian forces returned to his hometown, where they remained for several weeks.

Since Melnyk had a Canadian passport, it was easier for him to travel, although the journey was still a huge challenge with multiple checkpoints. He kept in touch throughout his time in Ukraine with David Marples, his former master’s supervisor and a professor in the Faculty of Arts whose research focuses on 20th- and 21st-century Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Marples contacted Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, where Melnyk also worked for two years, and they reached out to Melnyk after he’d arrived in Canada as part of the Disrupted Ukrainian Scholars and Students (DUSS) initiative.

Melnyk’s research is on Ukrainian and Russian history, with a particular focus on the Second World War and issues related to security, memory, politics and political violence. In recent years, he has shifted his research focus to a more contemporary period, looking at warfare in Eastern Ukraine from 2014 onwards — something he now has first-hand experience with.

“I’m gathering information about the developments in Ukraine of a military and political nature, and also developments in the cultural sphere.”

His scholarly voice is one that could have been silenced were it not for programs like the DUSS initiative. Six institutes and departments at the U of A — the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Kule Institute for Advanced Study, Kule Folklore Centre, Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, Department of History, Classics and Religion and Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies — joined together for the initiative, which has raised about $600,000 to support 32 people thus far, including Melnyk.

The various institutes, departments and individuals involved in the DUSS initiative used their existing networks to reach out to the multitude of Ukrainian students and scholars needing support — and the effects of the war were evident throughout their interactions.

“Imagine you’re sitting in your room, talking with your colleagues, and they’re connecting with you from the bathroom because the sirens are on, the shelling is on, the only safe place they’re told they had is the bathrooms. This was the immediate shock for us working with our colleagues in Ukraine,” says Khanenko-Friesen. “Though some time later the course of war has changed, the drama and the pain of it and the trauma of it has only increased.”

Black-and-white image of CIUS director Natalia Khanenko-Friesen
Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, says helping Ukrainian scholars is “fundamentally important as a critical effort in supporting the rebuilding of Ukraine once the war is over.” (Photo: Supplied)

As Khanenko-Friesen explains, supporting scholars and students is a critical step in helping rebuild Ukraine. While some, like Melnyk, have been able to come to Canada, others who must remain in Ukraine have received support through grants and collaborative opportunities. According to Khanenko-Friesen, more than 200 educational institutions in Ukraine have been physically destroyed, forcing students and scholars to move their operations to other areas — and making support for them and their work all the more important.

“We live in the 21st century — for any nation to be able to move forward and successfully build its economy, statehood, civil society, it relies on educated individuals,” says Khanenko-Friesen. “We see our work as being fundamentally important as a critical effort in supporting the rebuilding of Ukraine once the war is over.”

As for Melnyk, his safer surroundings in Canada are allowing him to focus on his research, which is more significant than ever — and he’s hopeful it will have a lasting impact.

“I’m a scholar. I never considered myself a public intellectual in any sense of the term. So I'm thinking more about contributing to the knowledge by writing or producing a work that would be of more enduring value that exceeds the news cycle and relevance in this moment,” he says. “Something that scholars could revisit 10 to 15 years from now.”

The war has displaced more than 12 million people in Ukraine, and the need for support continues. Khanenko-Friesen urges Canadians to remain digitally savvy when interacting with any messaging about the war, and expresses gratitude for all the support the DUSS initiative has received.

“We are committed to continuing this work,” she says. “We're very appreciative of any support, financial or otherwise, that we can receive when it comes down to our very important work directed at rebuilding Ukraine by investing our funding and our efforts into students and scholars coming from Ukraine.”

U of A support for Ukrainian students

As of Sept. 6, a total of 79 students from Ukraine are registered at the U of A on student permits for the 2022-23 school year — 63 undergraduate students and 16 graduate students — up from 20 students in 2021-22. Along with establishing the DUSS initiative, the university has supported these students by expediting undergraduate admission applications, waiving tuition and providing funding for living costs for many Ukrainian study permit holders this year, and evaluating graduate applications to prioritize and simplify them where possible. 

Additional support and campus resources are also available for students, scholars and employees with ties to Ukraine.