Interview with Valentyna Ushchyna
Valentyna Ushchyna is a professor of English philology at Lesya Ukrainka Eastern European National University in Lutsk, Ukraine. She studies the links between language, discourse and society, with a focus on the communication of risk. She is now a guest lecturer at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1966 in the small town of Shumsk in the Ternopil region of western Ukraine, into a family of the “Soviet intelligentsia”: my father was an abdominal surgeon, and my mother was a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature in a local secondary school.
How has this shaped who you are?
Both my parents were eager readers; I have always seen them with books, be it in the evening in front of the silent TV, at the seaside or in bed. My family was always Ukrainian speaking. My mother sang her lullabies to me in Ukrainian, and my father told his nightly fairy tales in Ukrainian.
How did the invasion of Ukraine affect you?
Since 24 February, my life and the lives of many Ukrainians changed drastically. Thankfully, my elder daughter and her family managed to flee from Kyiv. But even in Lutsk we had several air raid alerts a day, and several more at night. To do at least something we went to a little basement in the garden for storing potatoes. After several weeks of fear and sleepless nights another missile attack struck the airport near my house. My husband and I made the spontaneous decision that I should take my children away. It was a very tough decision, as I also had my elderly mother living with us and nothing was planned.
You found a place to stay while in a 10-hour queue at the border. How did that happen?
In early March I found myself in a car on the border with Poland. My mind was deafeningly silent, my emotions were shushed, I was calm and focused. There were three children and one granddaughter with me in the car. I had to take them somewhere safe. There was a long wait at the border because there were people with no documents at all. They were fleeing from the east where Russian troops entered, and people were running literally in their T-shirts with no passports or money. I was checking my email on my phone and found a letter from some international rescue organisation offering help to Ukrainian scholars at risk. They asked where we were going and whether we had a place to stay. I received a response almost immediately from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. So, still being in Ukraine, I already knew where we were going. I can’t thank enough all the people I met in Kraków, Poland, and all the Poles.
Has the invasion of Ukraine changed the way you talk about risk?
Yes and no. When I talk about risk academically, I use my usual paradigm. But when I start talking about current risks my country and my people are facing every moment of our lives lately, I can’t but see that we moved down from the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Just a few months ago I was discussing with my husband the risks of drinking too much coffee in the morning. Now we are discussing the risks of losing our lives or our country.