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17 October, 2013  ▪  Valeria Burlakova

Defending Ukrainian at Odesa’s Universities

College students in Odesa campaign against Ukrainophobia in local high schools

“When you first enter the university, you have a lot of questions about corruption, studies, and sports. Some are answered immediately; others last through your school years. One issue bothers most students at the Social Studies Institute: why does the teaching staff of a state university that educates future elite political analysts, sociologists and diplomats include a person who barely recognizes Ukrainians as a people, let alone Ukraine as a state?” This question was posted to an online social network by Andriy Bondarenko, a student at Mechnikov National University (Odesa National University), one of the city’s most popular universities.


Andriy has long accepted the pluralism of opinions at the university as an excuse for this situation. “Even after I met PhD students supervised by this professor who focus entirely on topics related to our northern neighbour, even after I read his books full of hatred about all things Ukrainian, I kept telling myself, ‘this is democracy, a person has the right to think what he wants and express his thoughts’”, Andriy states.

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The last straw, however, was when Hennadiy Hrebennyk, a Professor of History and World Politics in the Social Studies Department, participated in a Ukrainophobic event arranged by the scandalous Natalia Vitrenko’s Progressive Socialist Party at an Odesa hotel. The professor who educates future Ukrainian intellectuals was spotted together with a bunch of notorious promoters of the Russian World including Aleksandr Dugin, Volodymyr Kornilov and others.  

“Hrebennyk is an ethnic Russian who moved to Ukraine and allows himself to speak against its integrity and disgrace the Ukrainian people. I don’t mind labour migration, especially highly qualified people coming to Ukraine, but I do mind people who try to ruin something that took many years to build while working here,” Andriy says.

Other students at his university have noted the problem too. However, most are afraid to protest openly against Ukrainophobia for fear of being expelled.

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Kateryna, a second-year student, was too afraid to even ‘like’ Andriy’s post on the social network, citing a fact of which all students at Mechnikov University are aware: the administration monitors the network. After someone posted a comment saying, “Not one subject, not one, is taught in Ukrainian” in a university group on the social network, the deputy dean entered the room after class and told the student group president to “tame the students”.


Hennadiy Hrebennyk has long had a reputation as a Ukrainophobe at the university but only now have the students begun to protest against it. “He wrote an article entitled ‘Professor – is it good?’ 22 years ago. It was against the Ukrainization of education,” Kateryna adds. The article goes on to state, “We are leaving behind the ‘Odessa’ (Russian spelling of Odesa – Ed.) title of this university and the language all Odesites speak. We are removing ourselves from the glorious traditions of this brilliant centre of Russian science, losing our particular pride, losing our faces”. The professor of History and World Politics never switched from speaking Russian. “Nobody will make him speak Ukrainian,” Kateryna sighs. “And they would never fire him…”  

This professor is not alone among the university staff. “Unfortunately, Hrebennyk is not the only one like that here,” the students complain. “There are quite a few old professors here who are still living in the Soviet Union. They end every class with a minute of nostalgia about the past, criticism of the terrible bourgeoisie and interpretation of yet another of Marx’s ideas. Almost every professor has expressed Ukrainophobic sentiments at least once. Hennadiy Hrebennyk is particularly notorious. He speaks with contempt about Ukraine during his lectures on the history of foreign political doctrines. He talks about the unity of the Slavs and says things like ‘our Russian language’”.

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In this environment, few dare to ask for education in Ukrainian at Mechnikov University. “We only had business Ukrainian and world history in Ukrainian in our first year,” a student says. “The professor who taught us history of Ukraine allowed us to vote which language to use just once. We chose Ukrainian”. However, he still began his course in Russian. When the university administration found out about the “protest sentiments” it told the student president to “deal with them”. “The student president told us that it was an instruction from above. Even after she chose Ukrainian as well”, the students said. After that, the protest abated. Overall, the students believe that even anonymous discussions can have negative consequences: the administration and professors know which students are concerned with the language issue.  


The policy of Odesa’s Mechnikov National University has repercussions beyond campus, as professors often moonlight elsewhere. A student at the Odesa National Polytechnic University stated off-record that Mechnikov professors teach all of the humanities courses at his college.

“Virtually every PhD student at Mechnikov University believes and hammers into the heads of students that Ukraine’s independence is a paradox and shouldn’t have happened”, says the student of the moonlighting lecturers. His university also has Ukrainophobes on staff. “When will you learn to speak normally? I’m fed up with this language”, he quotes Oleksiy Stopakevych, a Polytechnic University lecturer.

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He claims that his request for the lecturer to speak Ukrainian earned him an F for a lab course in nuclear physics and the advice to “learn Russian”. “Students haven’t been expelled for similar pro-Ukrainian campaigns but some have quit on their own and transferred to Kyiv universities to avoid language discrimination”, the student notes.

Many of those campaigning for Ukrainian-language education at Odesa universities were born and raised in Odesa. “Some hardly know Ukrainian and speak surzhyk[1], but they want to learn it,” the student of the Polytechnic University says. “When the question of the language of education arises – although the students’ opinion is rarely invited – Odesites say, ‘We are Ukrainians, too, and we understand everything, let’s study in Ukrainian’”. There are many Bulgarians in Odesa, and they often try to speak Ukrainian, he claims, but students from neighbouring Transnistria are the most proactive proponents of Russian.

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Once the debate on the language of education at Odesa Polytechnic University led to a fight during a lecture. “It was Religious Studies”, states a student involved in the conflict. “I asked the lecturer to speak Ukrainian. ‘Odesa is a Russian city’, she replied”. The student said that Odesa is a Ukrainian city with Ukrainians constituting 75% of the population. “Odesa is Russia so shut up!”, a Transnistria-born classmate said. That was the last straw. “The lecturer went to a university in St. Petersburg and comes from Russia. So, people from Russia and Moldova want to tell me, a native of Ukraine, that Odesa is not only a Russian-speaking city, but a Russian city? I punched him…” The university administration did not go public about the conflict: the student was not expelled but classes in Religious Studies are still conducted exclusively in Russian.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This law is not yet in full swing at Odesa universities. However, Odesa students disrupted the opening of the Russian World Foundation Centre at the openly Ukrainophobic Mechnikov University. They raised red and black flags at the presentation of Vasyl Shkliar’s book Zalyzhenets (The One Who Stayed), a historical novel about one of the episodes in the struggle of Ukrainian insurgents against the Soviet authorities in the 1920s. Most deal with these absurd and tragic situations with typical Odesa nonchalance. “I don’t care about Ukrainophobic teachers. I’ll just speak Ukrainian as a matter of principle”, says Yana, a philology student at Mechnikov University. 

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[1] A mix of Ukrainian and Russian mostly spoken in rural regions

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