Many master’s applicants wait with bated breath to receive their acceptance letter. For Denys Karlovskyi, a former newsfeed journalist for Ukrayinska Pravda, when Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022 his application for further study was pushed out of his mind entirely.
“I awoke to my window panes shaking from the blasts of missile strikes. Prior to this, NATO intel sources had been reporting for several weeks that Ukrainian journalists would be at the top of the Russian forces’ hit lists if they launched an invasion. Ukrayinska Pravda has a large audience both in Ukraine and across former Soviet countries, including Russia, as there is a Russian language version of the website. Our Editor-in-Chief received intel then that we would be a target. A week prior to the invasion, we had a secret meeting at the newsroom when we were given detailed contingency plans what we should do in case Russian military invade Ukraine”
Though normally based in Kyiv, Denys was in his hometown Vinnytsia on the day Russia began the invasion. After two years of COVID-19 restrictions, he had travelled home for a family birthday celebration. Denys fled with his family to a house in the countryside and, as internet connection and phone lines in Kyiv were hacked by Russian cyber warfare, as throngs of citizens attempted to flee the city, it was up to staff based outside of the capital to continue reporting on the early days of the invasion.
For Denys, this meant working 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week from a cellar for the next few weeks, covering the developing situation across Ukraine whilst Russians conducted a series of cyber-attacks on the Ukrayinska Pravda website. Amidst this chaos, towards the end of March, Denys received an offer to study the Master of Public Policy (MPP) at the Blavatnik School of Government.
“I completely forgot I had made an application to Oxford because it was not on my list of priorities at the time. My mind would go totally blank after finishing work for the day. When you’re working extremely long hours, writing about the horrific realities of war – civilians being blown apart by explosives, the streets you walked through with friends just months before left in ruins – it is incredibly emotionally challenging. The last thing on my mind was Oxford. I wasn’t even checking my emails.”
Denys had submitted his application for the course in December 2021. After completing a BA in philosophy, Denys initially considered further study in philosophy to craft a career in academia. At the same time, he was passionate about politics and felt that Ukraine was facing myriad complex social problems and many young Ukrainians were leaving the country to start career abroad. Denys felt an urge to stay and contribute to efforts of changing the country with systematic corruption issues and weak democracy. He therefore chose to take a year off from studying to work as a journalist for an organisation with a track record in investigative journalism.
Through his work as a journalist, Denys came to see that real changemakers in the world need to know how to work with governments. When he had studied abroad previously at the University of Groningen, many of his professors were Oxford graduates who instilled an ambition in him to try and apply to the world’s first university. The MPP also offered a unique opportunity for Denys to engage with passionate and thriving policy-makers from all over the world.
Back when he submitted the application, although tensions between Russia and Ukraine were rising, the chances of a full-scale Russian invasion still seemed as an outside chance for Denys. By March 2022 Denys was living in a completely different reality. The Ukrainian government had imposed martial law meaning that all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 were barred from leaving the country and could be conscripted if units depleted. Though there was an exemption for Ukrainians enrolled in universities abroad, without financial support Denys knew he would not have the resources to fund all by himself. Within two weeks, however, The Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust offered him a generous scholarship covering his tuition fees and living expenses. Denys could then begin to plan his journey to Oxford.
“Being accepted felt like a fateful deliverance from danger. But leaving was tough. As a male citizen, once I come back to Ukraine I won’t be able to leave again until the law changes. I have no idea when I’ll see my family again. It was very testing to leave my home country in the midst of all this. I feel powerless being so far from home. I still think all the time about the young people who didn’t have the chance to get out like I did.”
Now well into his second term at the School, meeting people from all walks of life – from his classmates and faculty to career mentors and friends of the School – has been invaluable.
“I am really enjoying the programme. Being with people from completely different backgrounds has helped me build new connections I would never be exposed to otherwise. My supervisor, Jonathan Wolff, is considered a living legend in philosophy. His books were foundational texts for several courses in my undergraduate degree. We get to hear from Ciaran Martin who has managed huge security crises as the founding head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre. Dapo Akande is involved in the efforts to create a tribunal for the war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. It is a truly lifechanging opportunity to learn from these people, but the dynamics at the Blavatnik School make these interactions feel comfortable and natural.”
Between a packed schedule of classes, formal dinners at his college and exploring Oxford’s areas of natural beauty, Denys has begun to think about his future. In the long term, he hopes to be play a part in strategic policymaking at home to rebuild social trust and institutional resilience in Ukraine after the war. Until then, Denys plans to use his time in the UK to gain experience in foreign and defence policy analysis and strategy.
One year on from the start of the Russian invasion, Denys warns against the war fatigue. With the cost of living crisis sweeping the UK, people are distracted and deflated by the coverage of the war. Turning a blind eye, however, will not make the problem disappear.
“The UK must remain engaged with coverage of the war. At the same time, many Ukrainian refugees who have been housed in the UK are reaching the end of the grace period in their housing, and face imminent homelessness. Speak to your local MP, put pressure on your local councillors and help the Ukrainian people in your local area.”