Universities

Russians in British universities ‘alone and guilty’ as they fear for the future | The universities

Since her country invaded Ukraine, Lydia, a 21-year-old Russian student at a university in London, has tried not to talk too much on campus. She fears that if her comrades hear her accent, they will blame her for a war she vehemently opposes.

Like many Russian students who have left the country to study here, she does not support Putin or his regime. His friends in Russia risk prison for protesting his war. But she worries that her classmates won’t understand. When her teacher talked about the invasion last week, she “felt ashamed and wanted to disappear”.

“I don’t have anyone to talk to who shares my experience. I feel isolated,” Lydia told the Observer. She surrounded herself only with English-speaking friends when she moved to the UK in order to learn the language faster, but now she feels they wouldn’t understand her feelings.

“I don’t want to burden my parents because they are already anxious enough not to be able to send me money because of the sanctions,” she said.

Universities say that while their priority should be to support their Ukrainian students, they are also reaching out to Russian students, like Lydia, who may feel lonely but unable to ask for help.

Vivienne Stern, head of the international arm of the Universities UK vice-chancellors’ group, said universities were offering emotional support to “extremely distressed” Ukrainian students, as well as help with money issues, visas and advice on trying to get parents to the UK.

But she said many were also “proactively reaching out” to all students in Russia and Belarus to understand their situation and offer support.

She added: “Rumors have been circulating suggesting that universities expelled Russian students. But all I’ve heard is that universities are doing the opposite and reaching out to understand how they may be able to help.

Professor Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, said his university was offering its Ukrainian students “as much support as possible”, but was also calling all Russian and Belarusian students to check they were okay. Some relied on rubles they no longer had access to, he said.

“We have a duty to all of our students, no matter where they come from, and you can’t hold students accountable for the actions of their president,” he said.

Cambridge researcher Olga Petri says Russia is “going through darkness”. Photography: Antonio Olmos / The Observer

Dr Olga Petri, a Russian geography researcher based at the University of Cambridge, said: “There is no equivalence between the suffering of Ukrainians and what Russian students experience in the UK. But it’s important to remember that these students are likely cut off from their families and may feel very lonely.

She was delighted that the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge sent a message to all staff and students last week, offering help to Ukrainians, but also acknowledging that Russian students and staff would also be affected.

She added: “I feel alone and guilty. My family is safe and not under the bombs, but I feel like my country is going through darkness. I expect a new iron curtain to fall over Russia.

Tatiana, a Russian PhD student at Cambridge, said that although her friends and supervisor have been supportive, she is dealing with “the horror of war and all the uncertainty of what is happening in Russia”.

She fears for her parents, who are currently debating whether to stay in Russia. If they don’t leave, she fears the borders will close and she won’t be able to see them for a long time.

She said: “My parents feel morally responsible for protesting against the war, but it is very dangerous. I’m protesting in Cambridge but I’m safe. I don’t go out into the streets wondering if I will be tortured or put in prison for 15 years for opposing the government.

Some Tory MPs called last week for the children of Russian oligarchs to be banned from studying in private schools in the UK. Similar calls have been made on social media for all Russian students to be expelled from universities in the UK and the US.

Paul Nightingale, professor of strategy at the University of Sussex’s science policy research unit, and former head of special projects at the government’s Economic and Social Research Council, said all universities should “certainly expel children of the oligarchs and their extended families”.

But, he said, “It’s stupid to say that we should expel all Russian students. Those in the UK are mostly anti-Putin. We must support the people who will transform Russia in the future.

Professor Steve West, chairman of Universities UK, said: “We will support all of our students, wherever they come from. Education brings us together and creates better understanding. Leaders have focused on the destruction that must be stopped.

Thousands join rallies around the world in solidarity with Ukraine – video
Thousands join rallies around the world in solidarity with Ukraine – video