In the past, there were caps and gowns and canapés, but Mariupol State University just held a formal ceremony Thursday for the class of 2023 at its exiled campus about 400 miles from their devastated hometown.
Of the 500 graduates, only about 60 arrived here in Kyiv to receive their diplomas in person at the newly commissioned university building. The rest participated online if they could, scattered by the war around Ukraine and abroad.
It was a painful time for the graduates of Mariupol, a city that became synonymous with the brutality and destruction of war before falling to the Russian invasion last year. Even in real terms, the university has given the idea of moving to something more than war, and a place of refuge from the cruel things that everyone has seen and heard, which was not really unusual.
Valeriya Tkachenko, 21, continued her studies in nature and education, even her husband, Vladislav, received treatment and rehabilitation after losing a leg in the battle of Azovstal, the sprawling metal where the defenders of Mariupol. they made their last stand before surrendering in May 2022.
“It was hard to watch, but our training was distracting us from the war, I would even say a kind of salvation,” he said.
Karolina Borovykova, 23, went to Italy four days before the attack and stayed there, but her husband, Nikita, remained in Mariupol and fought in the Battle of Azovstal. On Thursday, he received a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in Italian translation, but Nikita was not there. He is a prisoner of war in Russia, and has not been heard from since May.
“Every day I dream about the first day we will meet again, and I think about how I can help him solve the problem he is facing now,” he said, as tears fell. “I don’t know how to help him, and I don’t know how to get him out of there.”
The university resigned on Feb. 24, 2022, the day the main attack began, and the Russian army began to hit Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov in the southeast of Ukraine, with missiles, bullets and bombs.
Mykola Trofymenko, the head of the university, immediately moved his computer servers to the city of Dnipro in the northwest, which was out of reach of the Russians. He returned to Mariupol briefly, but, like almost everyone there, fled when Moscow’s army destroyed the once-populous city of 440,000.
Classes resumed online in April 2022, and despite the anxiety and despair, many students returned to their studies.
“The students are heroes for continuing to work after everything they’ve been through, and we celebrate them – but the real celebration will be when the war is over,” Mr. Trofymenko, 38, said in an interview.
Sofia Petrovna, who graduated Thursday with a degree in international relations, public relations and regional studies, said, “The university has become an important part of my life.”
“At some point, it became what each of us needed,” he added, “the reassurance that helped us to stop spreading fear-mongering stories and move on.”
The university, which was founded in 1991, had about 5,000 students before the war, and was known for its Hellenic education, partly because of the ethnic Greek minority living in Mariupol. Mr. Trofymenko said the number of students is now 3,200.
Eight students and eight colleagues are known to have been killed in the war, including two students who died while serving in the Ukrainian army, he said, and about a hundred fourth-year students are no longer believed to be active, their fate is unknown. .
“Maybe there is no life,” said Trofymenko.
The university was preserved digitally – the servers are now in Kyiv – but its physical building was largely destroyed and confiscated by the Russian authorities. About 10 workers remained in Mariupol and are accused of collaborating with the occupying authorities.
Reestablishing the university in Kyiv “plays an important role in preserving Mariupol,” he said. “These students lost everything, and what they saw in Mariupol is hard to forget. They need a corner and a place they can call home. “
The Ukrainian government gave the university a building in the Solomyansky district of Kyiv, which had been used as a military training center and had not been used for many years. Soviet-era posters of America’s military and nuclear weapons still hang on the walls. An employee arrived at his new workplace to find a copy of the Soviet newspaper Pravda from 1991 still on his desk.
The opening of the standing room, one of the few renovated areas of the new camp, did not reflect the courage of the Ukrainian people, but also the continuous fighting of the war. During the ceremony, some of the attendees looked at social media on their phones, showing pictures of the attacks on Odesa and other cities in the past few days.
The university building, which also houses a refugee center from Mariupol, is being renovated and is set to open in the fall in a hybrid online/in-person format. The smell of new paint hangs in the air, and the university has adopted a new symbol, a dove, a symbol of peace Ukraine longs for. One of the most important things was organizing a printing house so that the diplomas that the graduates lost in the war could be reprinted.
There are plans to build student dormitories, housing for teachers and their families, and a small part of the central Mariupol area that was next to the building. And, of course, because the war is going on, the university has generators and Starlink satellite networks, as well as a bomb shelter in the basement.
“We have to keep our students and our staff,” Mr. Trofymenko said. “We can liberate the city, we can rebuild it – but without the people, then who are we for?”
Applications for the coming year are now open.