The war in Ukraine: what it means to a science teacher


Emma Steinburg

Science teacher Yarek Rivers helping his fifth period students with an experiment.

Andrew Hoffman and Sebastian Launey, staff reporters

Vladimir Putin’s invasion has impacted Yarek Rivers who has family in Ukraine

“I was born in Poland as a result of ethnic cleansing.”

That’s how science teacher Yarek Rivers began the description of his backstory.

“When my father was four, [his family was] forcefully relocated to Poland,” Rivers said. “So I was actually born on the German border.”

Despite being born in Poland, Rivers and his family maintained a close connection to their Ukrainian heritage.

“I grew up speaking Ukrainian with my family and I went to Ukrainian school and Ukrainian church,” Rivers said. “We always identified as Ukrainian more so than Polish, which was a secondary language.”

Rivers has second cousins in Ukraine today, in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk. He also has friends in the Ukranian capital of Kyiv and in the city of Lviv.

  This fact made it even harder to watch Russia’s invasion that began on Feb. 24.

“It has been shocking,” Rivers said. “No one, not even in Ukraine, thought that they would full-on invade. It’s been 75 years since a major war on the European continent.”

Russia has historically controlled both Ukraine and much of eastern Europe for centuries. The present day territory of Ukraine has been controlled by Russia from 1793 up until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This reign has often been marked by severe atrocities, such as the “Holodomor,” a man-made famine in the 1930s that killed 3.5 million people.

This history is not lost on Rivers.

“There’s always been a sense of Russian domination,” Rivers said. “When I came here during the Cold War, I was lucky enough for my family to have a good reason to immigrate. Others had to climb barbed wire or swim through a river to get out.”

Rivers believes that now Vladimir Putin is trying to return Ukraine to that former subjugation, and is willing to go any length to achieve that.

“It’s not only openly genocidal, but it is genocidal in intent,” Rivers said. “Putin just desires to wipe Ukraine from the map, and should that happen, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the kind of ethnic cleansing we’ve seen in other regions, which for a country of 43 million people is unimaginable.”

Putin’s behavior is so extreme that Rivers hopes for drastic action to stop him.

“My hope is that saner people depose Putin and remove him from power,” Rivers said. “He’s the man driving [the war] with his insane desire to reconstitute the Soviet Union.”

  Rivers wants as many people as possible to do what they can to help Ukraine.

“I think the most important thing is pressuring our government to fully support and defend Ukraine from this invasion,” Rivers said. “Personally, it’s a human tragedy on a tremendous scale and we want to stop that loss of life. It also threatens to destabilize the entire region and bring Russia right up to the borders of NATO.”

Finally, he wants us students to not ignore what is going on.

“I saw a really good video from a British journalist who said we want to advert our eyes and to not see the uncomfortable, which shows you our privilege,” Rivers said. “There are people living through bombings and shellings and invasions and the very least we can do is to bear witness.”