Wind whipped through Harvard Square early Friday evening as electric candles, blinking in the fading light, were placed on the sliver of space in front of the bronze statue of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, across from the main gates to Harvard Yard. Each candle was a sober representation of a tortured body exhumed at a mass gravesite outside Izyum, Ukraine, earlier this month.
Two dozen Ukrainian students and researchers from HKS, Harvard, and MIT stood in quiet vigil behind the candles that spelled out “447” and “Izyum.” Some had the Ukrainian flag knotted around their shoulders. Others held signs that read “Genocide,” “Russia is a terrorist state,” and “Izium, another horrible page of genocide of Ukrainians by the Russians,” using the alternate English spelling of Izyum. One had hair dyed blue and yellow.
Among them were some of the vigil’s organizers, including Julia Lemesh, a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration candidate, and her classmate Ilya Timtchenko, a Master in Public Policy candidate. They teamed up with 2023 Nieman Fellow at Harvard Tanya Kozyreva to pay tribute to those tortured and killed most recently in Izyum and to help sustain public awareness as the war continues.
For Lemesh, who grew up in Odesa, Ukraine, on the Black Sea, the war is personal.
“I managed to move my close relatives to the United States and Europe, but my extended family and friends are in Ukraine,” she said. “My life—as the life of millions of Ukrainians—is now divided ‘before’ and ‘after’ the start of this brutal, unprovoked war.”
While studying at HKS, Lemesh is also the president and board member of Ukraine Global Scholars, a nonprofit that supports talented Ukrainian students from modest backgrounds to attend top boarding schools and colleges around the world in exchange for their commitment to return and rebuild Ukraine.
The courses she’s taking this year are preparing her for this goal, including Exercising Leadership with Lecturer in Public Policy Timothy O'Brien and Power and Influence for Positive Impact with Alan L. Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation Julie Battilana.
“I’ve chosen to learn how to lead effectively in a challenging environment and how to serve more patriotic students from Ukraine,” Lemesh said of her time at HKS. “I am also learning how the world reacted to the war and what can be improved. Global Governance with Kathryn Sikkink structures my knowledge and answers burning questions.”
For Timtchenko, a former editor and reporter for the Kyiv Post, “Ukraine is always on my mind.” He believes Ukrainians at Harvard have an obligation to highlight the war atrocities committed by Russia.
“It has become an international norm that Russia is committing war crimes against Ukrainians on a daily basis,” he said. “It is crucial to remind the international community this does not reduce the pain Ukrainians are experiencing. What happened in Izyum is the tip of the iceberg of Russia’s committed crimes. It does not mean we should ignore those crimes or minimize the pain caused by them. What happened in Izyum was horrendously pernicious. It was pure evil.”
A Belfer Young Leaders Student Fellow, Timtchenko also leads the Ukraine Caucus at HKS, a role that allows him to bring the topic of Ukraine into discussions with classmates, faculty, and staff and talk through possible answers to challenges ranging from human rights violations, economic recovery, and poverty, to military strategy, mental health, and human trafficking.
“Current and future leaders need to understand the global significance of what is going on in Ukraine and find lasting solutions that will rebuild the country and make it democratically prosper,” he said.
For Tanya Kozyreva, it is important to her the world knows the war in Ukraine continues to rage.
“Since I arrived in the United States a month ago, people often ask me if the war is over. Are things better?” Kozyreva said. “They assume so because the American media does not cover it much these days. … Every day innocent Ukrainians are dying, and the world is ignorant to intervene.”
A Ukrainian investigative journalist once based in Kyiv, Kozyreva covered Russia’s full-scale invasion from day one. She witnessed atrocities firsthand, interviewing families with loved ones kidnapped from villages and cities under Russian occupation and parents of children trapped under wreckage or who went missing. A number of her friends, colleagues, and classmates were tortured and killed. Kozyreva is active in the Negotiation Professional Interest Council at HKS this year, organizing events that reflect “future challenges for the peace deal negotiations of the war in Ukraine.”
There was a palpable shift as the wind swirling around the protestors began to pick up speed and the vigil’s silence gave way to a certain fierceness. The protestors began to sing the State Anthem of Ukraine, first low then more fervently: “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”
They sang in the cold, as evening turned to night, under Charles Sumner’s watchful stare, a statesman who was eulogized in March 1874 as “… an honest, earnest defender in the darkest hour, as well as mid-day of freedom, justice and right.”
Photos by Bethany Versoy