"Just Escaping" the War at Home: Ukrainian Athletes at American Universities
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"Just Escaping" the War at Home: Ukrainian Athletes at American Universities

With eastern Ukraine still mired in the conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists, some young men are counting on their athletic abilities to keep them out of Ukraine—and out of war.
September 17, 2015, 1:25pm

Back at his grandmother's house in Ukraine, at least three letters addressed to Yevgeniy Karyuchenko sit unanswered. The St. John's University fencer hasn't been home in over a year and hasn't seen exactly what is written in each, but he knows what the letters are for: they are telling him that he is required to fight in the war.

He won't.

"There's just no point," Karyuchenko said in a recent phone interview with VICE Sports. "Unless you just want to die. I don't feel like that, so that's why I'm not going to go."

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While fighting in Ukraine has raged for more than a year against Russian separatists in the east, the country has resurrected its military draft—with mixed results. Karyuchenko is not alone in his reluctance to fight: according to government estimates, only 60 percent of those served draft summons in the most recent mobilization effort reported for duty. Karychenko's fencing abilities—he is the 2014 NCAA national champion in epee—provide an opportunity most Ukrainians do not have: to avoid the country altogether while pursuing education and athletic achievement.

"Yeah, I'm escaping," Karyuchenko said. "I'm escaping. Just escaping."

Read More: Ukraine's Refugee Soccer Club

Since Ukraine gained independence from Soviet rule in 1991, it has been divided between European-leaning citizens based primarily in the west and central areas of the country, and pro-Russian Ukrainians who are predominant in the east. Last year, these tensions came to a head. Russian-aligned President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by protesters after he refused to sign an economic agreement with the European Union; he fled to Moscow and was replaced by pro-European President Petro Poroshenko. Meanwhile, Russia annexed oil-rich Crimea in the East, and supported the separatist rebellion that broke out in eastern regions and cities such as Donetsk. The fighting has left a large chunk of the country in dispute and more than 7,900 people dead so far.

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Soon after the conflict erupted, Ukraine reinstated the draft, with men ages 20 to 60 eligible for conscription. In many areas of the country, the response has been less than enthusiastic. Latest government estimates say that 16,000 of the planned 40,000 draft orders in the most recent mobilization did not report for duty. That's in addition to the 39,000 who did not respond to summons in the first two months of 2015, according to USA Today, and another 4,500 who didn't report in this year's second wave of mobilization—in all, nearly 60,000 of the planned 103,500 drafted to fight.

According to Vitaly Chernetsky, a University of Kansas professor and president of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies, feelings toward the war are mixed. "There is broad support of defending Ukraine; however, there is skepticism towards the Army as an institution," Chernetsky wrote in an email.

Corruption is rampant, equipment is subpar (often still from the Soviet era), and most damaging for the cause, perhaps, is that many who have been called to fight do not believe in the war.

St. John's fencer Yevgeniy Karyuchenko. --Photos courtesy of St. John's University

"People don't really understand what they are fighting for," Karyuschenko said. "It's like an artificial war between two countries where yesterday we're friends and it was fine. But now they're using media and propaganda to say two nations hate each other.

"I don't know if people are realizing that people who die, they die for nothing," he continued. "Nothing has changed, pretty much."

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Karyuchenko believes that he is safe from punishment for avoiding the draft summons: according to Ukrainian laws, you must be served the order in person. While this technicality has spared him from fighting, it also means that he has been unable to visit his family in Ukraine for more than a year; he is afraid of what might happen if he goes home and is found by government authorities. Neither arrest for dodging the summons nor being forced to fight in the war are appealing options.

Chernetsky said prosecution of draft-dodgers has been relatively rare, with recent violators receiving between 18 months to three years probation. Horror stories circulate, however, of the draft-dodger who received a two-year prison sentence last year. And then there are the scandals of those who were mistakenly served draft papers: a double amputee and a decorated soldier who had recently died on the front.

"Fortunately, Ukrainian media have been freely reporting these and other violations, and the Army officials have been apologizing for those," Chernetsky said. That does little to assuage the fears of those like Karyuchenko who are at risk of being served draft orders in person, and don't want to take any chances.

Rostyslav Fedyna, a swimmer at Queens University in Charlotte who specializes in the breaststroke, said his mother has received at least two draft summons at her house in Lviv, in the far western part of the country. That's why the 22-year-old Fedyna transferred to Queens, the NCAA Division II national champions in both men's and women's swimming, last year, having exhausted his Division I eligibility at University of the Incarnate Word, in San Antonio.

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That's why his family repeats the same message again and again: "Don't come. Don't visit. It's better if we come to visit you. But you cannot just come to Ukraine."

Pro-Russian militants training about 75 kilometers from Donetsk, Ukraine. --Photo by EPA/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO

Not that Fedyna is itching to return. After more than two years in the United States, he likes his life in his new country, and wants to bring his parents and brother from Ukraine to him. He's seen life without the violence or inflation that have become standard in his home country, and he likes it.

"People are asking me, even if they're not interested about war, they're asking me, 'What are you going to do after graduation?'" Fedyna said. "And I'm saying the same thing that I always say: that I'm going to stay out of the Ukraine and Russia. I'm not sure about North Carolina, or even United States, this continent, or this half of the planet. Just out of that part of the world."

Incarnate Word swimming coach Philip Davis now has eight Ukrainians on his team, five of whom, he said, are afraid to return to their home country while war is taking place.

"With the turmoil they have going on, you just don't have as many kids saying, 'Yeah, I want to stay here [in Ukraine]. I'm going to stay and train for the Ukrainian Olympic team,'" Davis said. "You have a high number of even the best swimmers coming to the U.S."

Andrii Nikishenko, for example, is one of the top 200-meter backstroke swimmers in Ukraine. After his father was nearly pulled into the Army recently, Nikishenko believes that he would be next if he were to live and train at home. So he's staying at Incarnate Word as a graduate assistant and continuing his training in Texas.

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St. John's fencer Roman Sydorenko, who has yet to receive a draft summons. --Photos courtesy of St. John's University

Karyuchenko is also content to stay in the U.S. He doesn't see any sense in paying thousands of dollars for plane flights home to compete for the Ukrainian national fencing team, particularly when he would risk arrest for ignoring the draft summons that sit in his grandmother's home.

Karyuchenko's fencing teammate at St. John's, Roman Sydorenko, does plan on returning to the country when he graduates.

"I will go back to Ukraine because all my friends and family are living there," Sydorenko, who is a senior, said, "but I will fight in this nonsense war only in the case of our lovely politicians' kids will go there to fight with me."

Sydorenko has been fortunate enough to not receive a draft summons yet, but he's not optimistic about the future.

"Sooner or later, my parents will receive something like that for me," he said. "My father told me that they [the Army] will not take me anywhere while he is alive."

Queens University swimmer Rostyslav Fedyna says his Ukranian parents have told him not to come home. --Photo courtesy of Queens University.

Sydorenko, with his strong opinions about the war ("It's not a war of the people. It's a war of the politicians who just send young guys to die for nothing."), is torn. "Please don't think that I don't love my Ukraine," he said. "I do love my country. But I hate the people who rule my country, people who don't do anything for their people."

As a member of the national fencing team, Sydorenko still hopes to represent Ukraine in the Olympics next summer.

He's just not sure, exactly, how.

As Rio 2016 draws closer and with the eastern regions still unstable, Ukraine will have to decide how to handle its top athletes who are eligible for the draft.

"It's kind of a gray area," said Davis, the Incarnate Word coach. "They have a lot of great athletes who aren't Olympians. How do you distinguish which ones are worth waiving their military requirements for and which ones aren't when they're trying to hold onto a country?"