The Flying University for Ukrainian Students

by Andrzej W. Tymowski 

Anyone who has recently visited a college or university campus in the United States knows the humanities are on the defensive.  Underfunded and often under fire ideologically, majors in the liberal arts are losing ground to more practical and professional studies that seem to give better return on investment for students’ future careers.  

It may come as a surprise, then, that in war-torn Ukraine students turned to liberal-arts teaching by U.S. professors to help endure the war and to prepare themselves for rebuilding the country.

Andrzej W. Tymowski, formerly Director of International Programs at the American Council of Learned Societies, is a member of the Editorial Committee of the journal East European Politics and Societies.



Soon after Russia’s multi-pronged attack on Ukraine in February 2022, in the scramble to find ways to assist victims and support resistance, an unusual call went out for U.S. professors to “Donate Your Own Course” to Ukrainian students.  The basic idea was to deliver intensive, online classes to students whose lives and academic careers had been disrupted by the war.  The students could gain valuable knowledge, develop international academic contacts, and find comfort in new networks.

The name chosen for the initiative, the Flying University for Ukrainian Students (FUUS), referred to clandestine courses taught by professors in Poland at historical moments when the country was occupied by foreign powers.  Their classes “flew” from one private apartment to another to avoid surveillance by hostile authorities.  Lectures continued independent traditions of learning in order to educate the next generation of leadership for Polish society.  One of the most famous flying university graduates was Marie Skłodowska Curie, who later won two Nobel Prizes, in chemistry and in physics, and became the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne University in Paris.  In today’s Ukraine, classes were to fly over the internet, dodging blackouts, and alighting on tenuous spaces of time available to students dislocated by war. 

In April 2022 a FUUS organizing committee, led by Izabela Kalinowska Blackwood of SUNY Stony Brook and Andrzej W. Tymowski of the American Council of Learned Societies (retired), secured funding from the Kosciuszko Foundation of New York for a pilot program of twelve one-week courses.  

The classes were scheduled for mid-June, a time when most universities in the United States are not in session and professors can consider independent projects.  To provide a broad liberal arts curriculum, organizers approached accomplished scholars in many disciplines who were experienced in, and dedicated to, teaching undergraduates.  Professors responded enthusiastically, wanting to assist in a desperate situation and to learn firsthand about the way the war has affected undergraduates in Ukraine.  Despite best intentions, however, not everyone could free up the three weeks of time necessary for designing an intensive course, teaching it, advising students, and evaluating their papers.  

In May an open call for applications was circulated to Ukrainian BA and MA students in the humanities and related social sciences.  Because FUUS would accept anyone who had been studying in Ukraine at the time of the Russian invasion, without regard for current location, it seemed likely that applications would come not only from within Ukraine but also from neighboring countries that were welcoming Ukrainian refugees.  It turned out, however, that a great majority of applications came from students in Ukraine, who were either studying at their home universities (as best they could) or forced into internal exile within the country.  

Another surprise: the non-humanities profiles of many applicants.  By a large majority, applicants were pursuing practical-professional studies, such as law, international relations, business, and computer science.  When one of the organizers expressed dismay at the mismatch with the humanistic topics proposed by liberal arts faculty, the professors ruefully noted that they are very familiar in the United States with students who say they would rather study literature or history, but who feel pressured by their parents and the job market to choose something more marketable.  One Ukrainian student expressed this sentiment in just so many words,  “I’d wanted to study literature, but my parents asked me to choose a more practical subject.”

Preparations began in earnest to recruit U.S. faculty (and their course descriptions and syllabi), to circulate publicity calling students to apply for the limited number of places, and to assign students to courses. Because time was short, the deadlines for all these activities fell due almost simultaneously.  That courses began as scheduled June 6 was an achievement testifying to the ingenuity and intelligence of the faculty, to the commitment of the students, and to the self-discipline and hard work of all.

From the roster of twelve courses available in June, applicants identified first and second choices.  Their preferences could not always be honored, because of the time urgency and the great number of non-humanities majors.  This resulted in uneven course enrollments, with an average of twelve students per course.  Further adjustments within courses were made necessary by the fact that a few students were taking final exams at their home universities.  Each FUUS course met four times in one week, with an extra day devoted to individual consultations.  Students were assigned readings and videos and discussed them in class.  Each student wrote a short paper and received the professor’s written comments.  Certificates of completion were awarded to FUUS students at a formal, online, graduation ceremony.  Professors as well as students spoke at the ceremony, along with invited guests and Marek Skulimowski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation.

The energy and curiosity of the students deeply impressed FUUS organizers and faculty.  [See Deirdre Lynch, “Teaching Frankenstein in Ukraine,” Los Angeles Review of Books]  The Flying University was, after all, a unknown enterprise.  Moreover, some students had taken courses outside their own interests.  Choosing from an array of topics and approaches, although standard practice at American liberal arts colleges, is not typical in East European universities.  Undergraduates in Ukraine do not expect to start their university careers with general education courses.  They enroll from the start in departments for training in a specific discipline, with very few options for electives or courses outside the department.

However, the chance to study with professors from leading U.S. colleges and universities proved a potent draw, as did the prospect of improving academic English for access to international scholarship and learning.  It is also true that the short, intensive character of “flying” courses, even without university credit, is more accessible to students in a war zone, because they find it difficult to commit to semester-long courses.

The FUUS roster covered contemporary as well as historical topics.  [See the attached list of professors, course titles, and brief descriptions.]  Courses in “Democracy and Law,” “Nationalism,” “Gender,” and “Sound, Music, and Political Change” had immediate relevance for future leaders of a fast-transforming society.  Others examined topics with wider horizons: “Frankenstein and the Rights of Monsters,” “History, Justice, and Democracy in Aeschylus’s Oresteia,” “Joyce’s Ulysses,” “Poetry for Life in the World,” and “The Trial of Joan of Arc.”  Each course immersed students in the pertinacious intellectual and social conflicts of other times and other places.  Liberal arts curricula have for centuries presented students with such challenges, encouraging self-examination through deeper understanding of the lives of others.  In this way studies of the liberal arts have responded to critics who dismissed them as little more than idle musings. 

Yet the Ukrainian students found such musings welcome for a number of reasons.  It was obviously beguiling to be distracted from the daily reality of bombing, hunger, and cold.  Beyond what might be called education as escape, FUUS courses promoted education as engagement.  Humane ways of seeing the past and the present, and empathetic investigation of human truth, contradicted the tendentious flood of propaganda and recrimination overspreading Ukraine.  

Finally, the Flying University’s liberal arts experience helped overcome the dispiriting isolation keenly felt by students whose formative years were being misshapen by the war.

The long-term benefits of the Flying University resulted not only from the content of the courses and the intellectually open approaches to the big questions they posed, but above all from the formation of communities of inquiry in the online classrooms.  Arising from personal cooperation in intensive, weeklong courses, these communities will fortify students’ spirit in the current dark times and in what we fervently hope will be a flourishing future for Ukraine.

Considered in the longue durée of studies of the liberal arts, the Flying University’s was not so much a unique demonstration of the relevance of the humanities, as it was a dramatic instance of self-examination for life and for fully engaged citizenship.  FUUS courses showed poignantly the value of the humanities in a war zone.  Students gained strength to keep on, despite everything, and, once an independent Ukraine is secure, to rebuild and flourish. 


Central European University Press (CEU Press) is a leading academic source for information, texts, and resources for topics on Ukraine and related topics. As the war in Ukraine continues to be an inflection point of misinformation, politicized accounts of history, and propaganda for those of use reading about the conflict from a distance, this list originally published by CEU Press can help guide your understanding of the conflict’s history and context. 


What was the Russian Empire’s response to the Ukrainian question throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

In the long list of CEU Press titles dedicated to the history and culture of Ukraine, from the ancient past to the present, the historical monograph, The Ukrainian Question by Alexei Miller is strikingly relevant to the horrendous and tragic events in Ukraine today.

In line with other national awakenings, the Ukrainian nation-building started in the mid-nineteenth century. Many “Great Russians” like Herzen and Chernyshevskii acknowledged a separate Ukrainian identity, but the government reacted with restrictive measures. Publishing in Ukrainian was suspended, including textbooks and religious texts, and no schooling was provided in the language until 1905.

Alexei Miller demonstrates that the idea of “Little Russia (Ukraine) and White Russia (Belarus) as ‘age-old Russian lands,’ and of the Little Russians and White Russians as parts of the Russian people, came through clearly in the government documents of the day.” Linguistic assimilation of the Little Russianshad advanced rapidly and changed the Great Russian:Little Russian ratio, estimated to have been 2.5:1 at the time. Yet, the All-Russian nation project, the alternative to the Ukrainian nation-building project, had failed. The author explains this fact through the analysis of historical, political, economic, and cultural factors.

“The Ukrainian question” has been the focus of several more outstanding publications of the CEU Press:

Following the curves and flows of the Dnipro River, Along Ukraine’s River by Roman Adrian Cybriwsky provides a cultural geographic tour, beginning with a praise for the exquisite beauty of Scythian gold and the achievements of Kyivan Rus. The author describes the Mongol destruction of Kyiv, the Cossack dominion, the colonization of Ukraine, the epic battles for the river’s bridges in the Second World War, the building of dams and huge reservoirs by the Soviet Union, and the crisis of Chornobyl (Chernobyl).

A Laboratory of Transnational History, edited by Georgiy Kasianov and Philipp Ther, provides a multidimensional history of the cultures, religious denominations, languages, ethical norms, and historical experiences that lead to today’s Ukraine. The editors of this collection demonstrate that “Ukraine’s history lends itself particularly well to the transnational approach since it was not a strong nation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The accidental outcome of this book is the provision of an alternative reader of Ukrainian history, a welcome development for a new nation with a troubled and complex past.”—Slavic Review.

In Heroes and Villains, David Marples engages with the heated debate concerning the role of the armed groups fighting on the Ukrainian fronts during the Second World War. Who were the heroes, and who were the villains? “Nation-building in Ukraine is far from complete, and it seems unlikely that the population from the southern and eastern regions of the country will ever fully internalise the Ukrainian national idea, as it is ingrained in Western Ukraine. An interesting case study of what happens to the discipline of history when it is suddenly set the formidable task of rewriting history and becomes inseparable from political intrigue.”—Europe-Asia Studies.

The Moulding of Ukraine by Katarzyna Wolczuk discusses the politics of formation of the new-born state in the 1990s and offers “two highly convincing points on the national question and on state building. First, the national question was the most important obstacle in adopting the constitution. Second, the process of adopting the constitution was very different from the process in established postcommunist and western states. Constitutionalism was a central element of state building in post-Soviet Ukraine.”—Slavic Review.

The state-building process in Ukraine is compared to that in Lithuania, Belarus, and Russia in another study, State-Building by Verena Fritz. “The timely creation of solid political institutions without the interference of mafia and oligarchic groups leads to better and more effective state-building policies is compelling and persuasive.”—Comparative Political Studies.

An international team of scholars address the complexities of Ukraine’s historical development through the detailed Regionalism without Regions, edited by Oksana Myshlovska and Ulrich Schmid. “The main findings of the research project (probably one of the last ones that include Crimea and Donbas) sheds light on Ukrainian society on the eve of the Euromaidan and thus helps to relativize the deterministic discourse of Ukraine as a regionally-divided country deemed to be disintegrating.”—Slavic Review.

The vibrant bilingual literature of Kharkiv, a historical home of modern Ukrainian culture, has been persistently overlooked as a subject of study, often in Ukraine itself. ‘Shimmering’ Kharkiv is moved from the margins to its rightful place at the center of our attention in Where Currents Meet by Tanya Zaharchenko that explores the ways in which younger writers in this border city in east Ukraine come to grips with a traumatized post-Soviet cultural landscape.         

Few countries match the weight with which historical legacy impacts on here and now. “Cultural and historical diversity, which could have been advantageous for the country, became toxic because of the irresponsible uses and abuses of the past. Ukraine demonstrates how an overabundance of the past blocks future advancement. Moreover, the country’s preoccupation with memory complicates its perception of the world, and conflicts about the past become conflicts in the present.”—from the preface of Memory Crash by Georgiy Kasianov, available in open access.

By going beyond simplistic media interpretations, The War in Ukraine’s Donbas, edited by David Marples, not only identifies the roots of this conflict, but also discusses the impact of Euromaidan and consequent domestic and international developments on the war.  While every chapter discusses a different issue, together they provide a coherent picture of Ukraine and Eastern Europe in the period 2013–2020. The volume gives a voice to different social groups, scholarly communities, and agencies relevant to Ukraine’s recent history.

In addition to these publications, Ukrainian themes abound across a variety of CEU Press titles — see here to browse their listing.

Feature Photo Credit: UP9

This article is by Naomi Schalit, from The Conversation.

Damaged radar arrays and other equipment is seen at a Ukrainian military facility outside Mariupol, Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2022. AP Photo/Sergei Grits

This is a frightening moment. Russia has invaded Ukraine, and certainly those most frightened right now are the people of Ukraine. But violent aggression – a war mounted by a country with vast military resources against a smaller, weaker country – strikes fear in all of us. As a Washington Post headline writer recently wrote: The Ukraine crisis is “5,000 miles away but hitting home.”

The Conversation U.S. has spent the past couple of months digging into the history and politics of Ukraine and Russia. We’ve looked at their cultures, their religions, their military and technological capacities. We’ve provided you with stories about NATO, about cyberwarfare, the Cold War and the efficacy of sanctions.

Below, you’ll find a selection of stories from our coverage. We hope they will help you understand that today may feel both inevitable – yet inexplicable.

1. The US promised to protect Ukraine

In 1994, Ukraine got a signed commitment from Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. in which the three countries promised to protect the newly independent state’s sovereignty.

“Ukraine as an independent state was born from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union,” write scholars Lee Feinstein of Indiana University and Mariana Budjeryn of Harvard. “Its independence came with a complicated Cold War inheritance: the world’s third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. Ukraine was one of the three non-Russian former Soviet states, including Belarus and Kazakhstan, that emerged from the Soviet collapse with nuclear weapons on its territory.”

A soldier wearing a helmet peeks out of a tank.
A Ukrainian serviceman rides atop a military vehicle past Independence Square in central Kyiv on Feb. 24, 2022. Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images


The 1994 agreement was signed in return for Ukraine giving up the nuclear weapons within its borders, sending them to Russia for dismantling. But the agreement, not legally binding, was broken by Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. And today’s invasion is yet another example of the weakness of that agreement.

2. Clues to how Russia will wage war

During the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Russia invaded Georgia, a country on the Black Sea. In 2014, Putin ordered troops to seize Crimea, a peninsula that juts into the Black Sea and housed a Russian naval base.

West Point scholar and career U.S. special forces officer Liam Collins conducted field research on the 2008 and 2014 wars in Georgia and Ukraine.

“From what I have learned, I expect a possible Russian invasion would start with cyberattacks and electronic warfare to sever communications between Ukraine’s capital and the troops. Shortly thereafter, tanks and mechanized infantry formations supported by the Russian air force would cross at multiple points along the nearly 1,200-mile border, assisted by Russian special forces. Russia would seek to bypass large urban areas.”

3. Spies replaced by smartphones

If you love spy movies, you’ve got an image of how intelligence is gathered: agents on the ground and satellites in the sky.

But you’re way out of date. These days, writes Craig Nazareth, a scholar of intelligence and information operations at the University of Arizona, “massive amounts of valuable information are publicly available, and not all of it is collected by governments. Satellites and drones are much cheaper than they were even a decade ago, allowing private companies to operate them, and nearly everyone has a smartphone with advanced photo and video capabilities.”

This means people around the world may see this invasion unfold in real time. “Commercial imaging companies are posting up-to-the-minute, geographically precise images of Russia’s military forces. Several news agencies are regularly monitoring and reporting on the situation. TikTok users are posting video of Russian military equipment on rail cars allegedly on their way to augment forces already in position around Ukraine. And internet sleuths are tracking this flow of information.”

A rocket is stuck coming through the ceiling of a damaged apartment with rubble around it.
The body of a rocket stuck in a flat after recent shelling on the northern outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

4. Targeting the US with cyberattacks

As Russia edged closer to war with Ukraine, cybersecurity scholar Justin Pelletier at Rochester Institute of Technology wrote of the growing likelihood of destructive Russian cyberattacks against the U.S.

Pelletier quoted a Department of Homeland Security bulletin from late January that said, “We assess that Russia would consider initiating a cyberattack against the Homeland if it perceived a U.S. or NATO response to a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine threatened its long-term national security.”

And that’s not all. “Americans can probably expect to see Russian-sponsored cyber-activities working in tandem with propaganda campaigns,” writes Pelletier. The aim of such campaigns: to use “social and other online media like a military-grade fog machine that confuses the U.S. population and encourages mistrust in the strength and validity of the U.S. government.”

5. Will war sink Putin’s stock with Russians?

“War ultimately requires an enormous amount of public goodwill and support for a political leader,” writes Arik Burakovsky, a scholar of Russia and public opinion at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

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Putin’s support among Russians has been rising as the country massed troops along the Ukrainian border – the public believes that its leaders are defending Russia by standing up to the West. But Burakovsky writes that “the rally ‘round the flag effect of supporting political leadership during an international crisis will likely be short-lived.”

Most Russians, it turns out, don’t want war. The return of body bags from the front could well prove damaging to Putin domestically.

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.