Fighting for the future
Former activist and academic Maksym Sviezhentsev has long advocated for the democratic rights of Ukraine. Now he’s fighting for them, as a soldier and a father. Read about his efforts and Western’s response to this global crisis.
By Keri Ferguson
Two years ago, Maksym Sviezhentsev was defending his thesis at Western. Today, he’s defending his country in Russia’s war on Ukraine. It’s a sacrifice that separates him from his wife and two-year-old son. A high price to pay, but for Sviezhentsev, his only choice – and less costly than passing the war on to the next generation.
Sviezhentsev, PhD’20, was born in Sevastopol, Crimea, just months before the fall of the Soviet Union, joining the first era of children raised in a sovereign Ukraine.
“We finally got our own state 30 years ago,” he said. “It was a poorly structured, underdeveloped, corrupt post-Soviet state. But it was ours.”
Sviezhentsev volunteered for the Territorial Defence Forces of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, two days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Yet, he’s been fighting for his country’s freedom most of his adult life.
“Pro-democratic activism is part of the lifestyle here,” he said. “We want to change this society, this country. Fighting for democracy always had a lot to do with opposing pro-Russian authoritarian politicians. It also usually meant fighting for decolonization, Ukrainian culture, language and identity.”
From activist to academic
Sviezhentsev became a political activist in 2012, attending protests and demonstrations as he completed his bachelor’s degree in history at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. A year later, while earning his master’s degree, he was part of a student group active in Euromaidan, a revolution opposing then Russian-supported president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union.
The movement forced Yanukovych to resign and flee the country. In the immediate aftermath, as the pro-Western interim government struggled to address the country’s dire economic situation, armed pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings in Crimea, declaring independence from the central government in Kiev. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, in a move broadly criticized in the West as a gross violation of international law. Russia’s occupation and increasing militarization came with a campaign of repression against Crimean Tatars, the peninsula’s Indigenous inhabitants, as well as ethnic Ukrainians and members of other minority and religious groups in Crimea.
“Our nation has been fighting for its independence for a long time,” Sviezhentsev said. “It all started in Crimea, and as they say, it will finish in Crimea.’”
Crimea was also the focus of his PhD, which brought him to Western in 2015.
“When I saw the territory annexed in 2014, I realized that neither the Ukrainian community nor the international community understood what happened. In theory, everybody knew Russia’s annexation of Crimea was unlawful, but in practice they believed Russia had historical rights based on Russian imperial myths.”
Sviezhentsev’s dissertation, Phantom Limb: Russian Settler Colonialism in the Post-Soviet Crimea (1991-1997), argued that since the late 18th century, Crimea has been a settler colony of the Russian Empire, Soviet Union and now, the Russian Federation. “In other words,” he wrote, “the history of Crimea is similar to the history of other settler colonies of Western European empires.”
Marta Dyczok, professor of history and political science in the faculty of social science, was Sviezhentsev’s supervisor.
“Maksym was one of the best graduate students I have supervised in over 20 years of teaching,” Dyczok said. “He completed all his work with flying colours, outperforming his fellow students while working in his fourth language as an international student, without financial support from his parents and unable to travel to his native Crimea since it was annexed by Russia.”
Sviezhentsev earned the highest marks in his year on his comprehensive exams. He completed his dissertation in record time, successfully defending it before an external examiner from Harvard.
He worked as a teaching assistant throughout his time at Western until returning to his homeland in 2021. There, he worked for Crimea SOS, a non-government organization supporting peacebuilding efforts to improve the cultural and socio-economic conditions of Ukraine. He was also a journalist and continued to publish and present at academic conferences.
No time to be scared
But his work – and his life – were put on hold when he signed to serve his country. Now he’s keeping watch, digging trenches and sleeping in cellars underground.
Like most of his compatriots in his battalion, Sviezhentsev came to this new role with no military experience, and no time to train.
“Yes, it was scary,” he said. “But we didn’t feel like we had much choice. The Russian army was already fighting within the city (Kyiv) where our families were, and we had to first figure out how to evacuate our families.”
And time was of the essence. Within hours of sending his wife and son safely off to western Ukraine, a missile landed in front of Sviezhentsev’s apartment building. His current location “is by far not the hottest area, in terms of fighting,” he said, but in an area regularly shelled by artillery.
“A few days ago, when I wasn’t in the trench, a mortar mine hit the ground not too far away from me,” he said. “I heard pieces of the mine flying. I probably should have been scared, but I didn’t have time. When you hear things like that, you move on, using your instincts. I understand I’m in the most dangerous place I’ve ever been in my life, but I will probably have to reflect on it later, after the war.”
His hardest adjustment remains being away from his son. “I love him so much. He was very attached to me, and it was quite hard for him to experience me leaving. It is still very hard for me, too.”
As the war rages on and casualties continue, a fierce optimism for the future keeps him going.
“I love my country and believe in my people. I have experienced living abroad in the United States, Poland, Canada, even Russia for a bit, and I am certain Ukraine can do better. I know we can build a strong democracy with a developed economy that would not be any worse than any other Western democracy. I believe in a modern, democratic Ukraine, where people are not discriminated against for their nationality, gender, colour of skin, sexual orientation or any other characteristic. I truly believe we will win. It is just a question of time and price.”
As of press time, the ongoing war in Ukraine has killed more than 5,400 civilians and injured more than 7,400, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Western has mobilized to support those displaced or affected by the war in Ukraine.
Priority appointments – Mental health, support with immigration, financial questions, emergency needs.
Financial support – For current and incoming students fleeing global crises.
Temporary and full-time appointments – For displaced scholars coming to Western.
Ivey Ukrainian Scholarship Shelter Program – Opportunities for Ukrainian academics to come to Ivey Business School for a postdoctoral research position.
Special response fund for trainees – Special fund to initiate or maintain the employment or financial support of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers with current grants.
Six students from Ukraine arrived at Western in May as the first cohort to join Ivey Business School on an exchange program made possible through the Academic Shelter Program, extending support to students fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. Two more Ukrainian students arrived in June and, as of press time, three more from Lviv Business School are expected to join Ivey this fall.