On Feb. 23, a day before Russia began invading Ukraine, a former Duke student prepared for an early morning flight from Italy to Ukraine to meet her elderly mother in the capital, Kyiv. .
This meeting never took place.
Inna Dergunova, a 2002 graduate of Duke’s Master of International Development Policy Program, has lived in Italy for 13 years where she worked with an international development agency of the European Union. Every year, she travels frequently to her hometown of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine.
“I used to go there four times a year to visit my mother,” Dergunova said. “The last time I was there was in January 2022. Although I live in Italy, I have always had very strong ties with Ukraine. When the situation started to get tense, I wanted to go and bring my mother back with me, but she didn’t have her biometric passport.
Dergunova decided to take matters into her own hands. She bought a plane ticket to kyiv and arranged to meet her mother there, so she could apply for a passport.
“I was supposed to fly there on the morning of February 24, and of course I couldn’t fly because the war started and all the flights were cancelled,” she said.
Many of Dergunova’s family members have been stranded in Mariupol ever since, including her mother. “It was already too dangerous to travel to Ukraine on the first day, and people were advised to stay at home. My sister-in-law informed me that she was going to a nearby relative with a basement. I asked her if she could pick up my mother, but it was too dangerous.
Finding herself at an impasse, Dergunova contacted a family friend who went to live with her mother. Dergunova’s sister-in-law and her family stayed with their cousin’s family.
Life in the besieged city of Mariupol
According to Dergunova, living conditions in Mariupol have deteriorated significantly since the city was besieged by Russian troops. “During the initial period, I could still call my family and talk to them, but on March 2, I learned that there was no electricity in the city, because Russian troops had bombed a power station. “
“Since that time, they have had no electricity, water, heating or internet connection and they have no mobile phone network,” she added. “Since March 6, they also have no petrol. And besides, it’s 0 degrees. People come out, set fires and cook outside on the fire. They also collect snow, melt it and boil it to collect water.
“People can’t get out because the city is surrounded by Russian troops,” Dergunova said. “For several days there were talks to open humanitarian corridors, but it never worked out because Russian troops started bombing where buses were waiting to take people. They bombed civilian infrastructure such as the Children’s Hospital and the State University as well as the theater, open market and residential buildings throughout the city.
According to Dergunova, “My mother said, I survived World War II, so I will also survive this war. She is diabetic and has other health problems. It is very painful for me to think about this how she feels now. For someone to stay in an unheated apartment, I can’t even imagine how much she is in physical pain.” Messages from his mother have become more sporadic in recent days. “I cannot contact my family. I got a short text message from a parent that just said okay.
Located on the Sea of Azov, not far from the Russian border, Mariupol was one of the first cities hit by Russian forces when Russia began invading the country. The city had already been a place of periodic fighting between Ukrainians and Russians since 2014.
“Nobody believed that this full-scale war would start,” she said. “Despite the information provided by the US government, it is unbelievable that Russia is starting a full-scale war against Ukraine. Many of my friends had thought Putin’s actions were just a game…they didn’t believe he would actually start a war.
Caught in diplomatic turmoil
“The Ukrainian people are heroically defending the country. Many people are desperate because Ukraine is left alone to fight the dictator and Putin’s militaristic regime.
She is pessimistic about the possibility of a diplomatic resolution. “The international community should have foreseen that Putin would become even more aggressive. They should have adopted tougher sanctions in 2014, after the occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They passed sanctions, but they were not enough.
“Furthermore, the Russian government has been spreading propaganda for years. They have been financing for years certain right-wing parties in a number of EU countries, those which undermine the integrity of the European Union. NATO, the US government and the EU were not careful enough to prevent the development and strengthening of the fascist regime in Russia. Now we have the consequences. I am sorry that my country is the main victim.
Ethnic origin, cultural identity and values
“I went to high school and university when it was still in the Soviet Union. Ukraine became independent in 1991. My identity, as it formed, was in the Soviet Union. I was already witnessing the degradation of the Soviet Union before it happened. I had a Soviet identity, which means having a Russian identity culturally. Ukrainian identity and Ukrainian culture have been suppressed. It took me years to develop my Ukrainian identity. It crossed my life and my work in Ukraine.
She pointed out that many Ukrainians, including herself, have an identity that is not unique to Ukraine. “Ethnically, I am half Russian because my father is Russian and I am a native Russian speaker. In the sixties he left Russia for Ukraine, as many Russians did.
“When Putin says he must liberate ethnic Russian minorities in Ukraine, it doesn’t matter if you are ethnically Russian, partially or totally. I was born and raised in Ukraine. It’s my country. There are a number of Ukrainians who are partly Russian, who are also native speakers of Russian, but they consider themselves Ukrainian citizens.
However, “the most important thing is not your ethnic origin, it is your values. I realize that I am Ukrainian, and I want to be Ukrainian. I don’t want to live in a police and paternalistic society, where the central government with all the police, the army, the Ministry of the Interior has an important role. I have democratic values.
She added: “It is also important to know the culture and the history. Many years ago I started reading more about Ukrainian history, and I started reading more about the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. I can tell you that in college and university, I didn’t study this story well because it was a story that the Communist Party wanted to be taught.
From Ukraine to Duke: A Fellowship Program
Dergunova graduated from Kyiv National University. In 2001-2002, she was awarded the Edmund S. Muskie Professional Fellowship, a professional development program funded by the U.S. government to give mid-career professionals in post-Soviet countries the opportunity to earn a master’s degree at universities. Americans.
She was placed in the Duke program and earned her master’s degree in what was then called the International Development Policy Program.
After completing an internship at the World Bank in 2002, she returned to Ukraine and began working for the European Union’s Technical Assistance Program for Newly Independent States. Subsequently, she worked for the British Council for five years where she helped acquire and manage international development projects. She then moved to Italy to start her current position with the European Union agency.
Despite her situation, Dergunova wanted to share fond memories of her studies at Duke. “Since I left Duke, I haven’t had the opportunity to come back, but it was a very important experience for me. I have great memories – the beautiful nature, the pines, the classmates and students from other departments – just a great experience.
She also noted several Duke professors who played central roles in her studies, including Professor Emeritus Francis Lethem, Professor Fernando Fernholz, Professor Natalia Mirovitskaya, and Professor and Associate Dean Corinne (Cory) Krupp, all Duke Center for International Development (DCID) to Sanford School of Public Policy.
Installed at the DCID, the Master in International Development Policy (MIDP) is a rigorous, interdisciplinary program for mid- and senior-level professionals who plan to dedicate their careers to policymaking and public service in and for developing, post-conflict and transition countries. .