Ukrainian invasion is personal for DCCC professor

By Jennifer Warner

A Ukrainian man fights back tears as displaced people fleeing desperately brutal conditions of the Russian invasion of Mariupol evacuate with children through Zaporizhia on March 28.
Photo credit: © Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press Wire

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a military invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine on February 24. Half a world away, the war hits close to home for a Delaware County Community College professor.

Elena Hopkins, a full-time ESL faculty member, was born and raised in the small town of Melitopol. It is about 200 km from Mariupol, on Ukraine’s eastern edge Russians have heavily bombed.

In a Zoom interview, Hopkins talked about living under Soviet rule before the Iron Curtain fell, studying in America and relatives coping to survive daily amid land and air attacks.

 Q: Please describe your journey from Ukraine to DCCC.

My dad was a military person, and my mom was a chemistry teacher. After graduating high school at 17, I was lucky enough to get into one of the most prestigious universities in the former Soviet Union, in Minsk, Belarus.

I studied English and German as foreign languages. After graduation, I was given a position to teach at the university. I got my Ph.D. in Belarus, studied a bit in Moscow, and continued teaching at Minsk Linguistics University.

I received two full-ride scholarships: one to Princeton University and another to the University of Pennsylvania. I went to Princeton in 2000 for a two-year program, got married, and have lived in the US ever since. 

Q: So, were you in Ukraine prior to 1991 when it became independent? What was that like?

I was in Belarus [when Ukraine gained independence], but my parents were still in Ukraine. They lived their whole lives there until my dad died in 2015.

I brought my mom here in 2017, a couple of years after Russia took Crimea because I knew then Putin would not stop there.

I thought he would continue moving west, and it would be harder for me to get her out of there later. So, I guess I moved her in time.

Q: How much of your family is still in Ukraine?

My cousin is there with his daughter and his son. They have two children, a 10-year-old and a four-year-old. When this war started, they lived in Kharkiv, the second-largest city that was bombed.

They were hiding in a cellar they dug in the backyard because they were afraid to stay in the basement of their house. My cousin thought they would be buried in debris if the house was bombed.

They hid there for 11 days until the bombing became so heavy that the 10-year-old became inconsolable. Their daughter cried the whole night. Her parents were afraid something would happen to her psychologically and she would stop speaking.

They left the next day. They were lucky to leave then. It’s impossible to leave because Russians have encircled the city.

Q: What are the biggest struggles your family is currently facing?

Their internet access is spotty. But, after they fled, my niece found a university friend who offered the family a small house with no running water and an outhouse.

They moved into this house in central Ukraine and are extremely happy no planes are flying above their heads dropping bombs. 

I have spent a lot of time trying to get the right information to get them here to the US. No luck. 

I also contacted my congresswoman’s office several times. They sent general information each time. Eventually, I was redirected to the Polish embassy, and learned they don’t deal with refugee visas. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provides them.

The online process is convoluted. I have not gotten much help, but I’m still working on it.

If my family goes to the border, they would be standing in a line for at least two days, hungry, thirsty and dirty.

From the border, I will have to take them to the U.S. Embassy in central Poland, which is another day of travel, at least. And what will we achieve there? What’s the time frame? Another day? A week? A month just to fill out all those papers and get out? Nobody knows. According to my research, the process can take months. People can’t do this for months.

Something needs to be sped up.

My family is also afraid that they will be stuck on the border because so many people are fleeing the country. They’re worried that they won’t be able to handle the trip with two small children. So, I’m ready to go there, pick them up, or do whatever I need to with the embassy. 

My aunt said Russians check people coming in and out of the cities. One of her acquaintances passed a checkpoint on his bicycle, heading to his second home eight miles away. The Russians made him strip down to his underwear. They wanted to humiliate him because it was clear he didn’t have any weapons. At the same time, other Russians sitting in trenches shot bullets above his head. Maybe they were warning him that he shouldn’t run? It’s sick. He made it alive. But not without psychological torture.

Q: How have you been coping with this news? Do you have support here?

My husband is supporting me. My daughter is devastated, too. She shows her support for Ukraine by making blue cookies with yellow sunflowers at a bakery she works at part-time Proceeds will be sent to Ukraine.

I have trouble sleeping because I don’t think this will end well. After one sleepless night, I wrote a poem. I held many heavy feelings inside that I had to pour onto paper. Although there is ‘I’ in the poem, it’s not about me.

My niece was sending the most heartbreaking messages during the first week especially. It’s a helpless feeling. I’m a problem solver by nature, and when you are completely powerless, it’s the worst feeling that a person can have.

Q: In talking with your family, what are stories you’ve learned the Ukrainian people are standing up for each other, their country and their freedom?

My niece said humanitarian aid lines are incredibly long in Kharkiv. The older women in her family, her mother and her mother-in-law stand in those lines for hours to feed the family. On the way back home, they see Ukrainian soldiers who were also hungry and share their food with them. Sometimes they would even cook for the soldiers.

People wear jackets because bombing could knock out electricity or fall on their house at any moment. Still, my family cooks and shares food with Ukrainian soldiers. 

My mother’s side of the family is in Melitopol, where I was born. The situation is also dire there. They can’t leave because the liberators have mined all the exits. The town is full of Russian checkpoints. There is a lot of looting, banks are closed and stores are empty. My relatives live on their previous supplies and don’t know how long they will last. 

Still, they have a sense of humor. My aunt told me about unarmed Ukrainian villagers fighting with just their wit.

Four Russian tanks were heading to the heavily bombarded city of Sumy. There wasn’t enough gasoline for all four tanks. So, the Russian soldiers poured all the gas into two tanks so they could search for more gas. They left the empty tanks on the side of the road.

While the soldiers were away, residents put Ukrainian flags on the empty tanks. When the Russians returned and saw this sight, they decided to destroy those tanks. Soldiers in the two remaining tanks then attempted to invade the city. One tried to cross a bridge over water with a sign: “Two Tons Only.” What do you think happened? The tank fell into the water and sank.

Russians in the last tank, scared and alone, decided to go around the bridge. Their tank went full-speed downhill and tumbled to its destruction. 

The Ukrainian residents came out with posters proclaiming they destroyed four tanks in one day with no weapons.

My 66-year-old aunt told me she demonstrates in Melitopol daily against the Russians after they abducted the mayor. She said Russians surround residents with weapons and shoot into the air, warning them that if they don’t stop, they will start shooting people.

The people continue to demonstrate every single day. 

Q: How do you feel about President Zelenskyy’s decision-making throughout all this, as he firmly stands his ground in the capital? 

I don’t know much about President Zelenskyy’s past. He was completely inexperienced when he was elected, but I hoped he might grow into his role. Judging by what I see on our TV news, I think he’s perfect for this time. He is with people and encourages them when he goes to hospitals. He also talks directly to mothers who have lost a child.

In the world arena, parliaments accept him. The United Nations gave him standing ovations. 

President Zelenskyy refused to leave Kyiv, despite Putin’s aim to get there and basically behead Ukraine. He’s still there, and I’m very proud of him. His strength and choice to stay in Kyiv is a plus for Ukrainians.

Q: Do you have Russian friends caught in the middle of this conflict?

I had direct contact with Russians, but people have stopped communicating. I don’t know if they’re afraid to reach out. I don’t bother them because I understand they can face repercussions, especially with new laws Putin issued.

My family also has communicated with people in Russia who think Putin is saving Ukraine. The Russians tell my family members, ‘Just be patient. Just wait a little bit longer. Putin will liberate Ukraine.’

People who listen to Russian mass media are brainwashed. Older generations don’t use or have access to the internet and watch only Russian television. But younger generations who have internet access and travel a lot know Putin is lying. These younger people are against him.

What’s scary is that Putin’s trying to tighten the frame of his dictatorship with new laws. For example, a woman carried a blank poster out on the street. She was arrested for a blank piece of paper.

Q: In your opinion, how does all this end?

It all happened because of one person. It’s been characteristic of Russia for centuries when one person is in charge, from the monarchy to the Soviet Union to this authoritarian gangster club.

I don’t think that Putin will stop anytime soon. He’s backed in the corner and doesn’t have anything to lose. He’s trying to save face in front of his people. I’m not a doctor, but I also think he might not be mentally healthy.

What is happening now is reminiscent of Stalin’s time. Under his dictatorship, people disappeared at night. Others were abducted and placed in camps. More than 20 million people were killed in Russian concentration camps, which is greater than the number of people the Soviet Union lost during WWII. I think Putin is his 21st-century brother. He uses the same methods. Like Stalin, he will tell you what to watch and think. 

Putin is desperate at this point. He has asked China for military help because he’s running out of resources. There is also talk Putin will use chemical weapons. It’s scary.

So, I think people inside Russia need to rise. They must understand Putin is harming not only Ukraine, not only Russia but the whole world. Different governments have been trying for decades to get him out of power, and nothing has happened. It needs to happen from within.

Q: What is the most meaningful way to help the people of Ukraine?

Look for organizations that specifically describe what they do for Ukraine. For example, when I looked to donate to an organization, their website stated they deliver humanitarian aid: food, medical supplies, and more to Ukraine.

Donating is important because the banks are closed. I can’t send money to my relatives. Donating to the organizations that risk their lives to bring physical aid would be a great help.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

I blame only one person for all this: Putin. Although some are brainwashed, I blame no Russians. It’s not their fault. I don’t blame the Ukrainians who leave. I only blame Putin.

I feel very proud of men who get their children and wives to the border and stay in the country to fight.

I feel proud of the elderly people standing in front of the tanks and trying to prevent their movement.

I’m proud of everybody for helping in the ways that they can.

All the people from Ukraine with whom I have been talking are very grateful for all the effort, support, and aid from the United States and the European Union.

It matters to them a lot that millions of people are on their side. 

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