US College Roommates From Ukraine and Russia Support the Resistance and Each Other as Horrors Unfold at Home
University of Delaware roommates Greg Tarnavskyi and Vlad Krylov are each other's solace as they watch devastation ravage Tarnavskyi's homeland Ukraine and protests in Krylov's native Russia are met with violence.
While Greg Tarnavskyi is studying and attending college classes in the United States, his father, older siblings, and grandparents are seeking safety in their basement that also acts as a bomb shelter in his native Ukraine.
“They are running to the basement four to five times during the night because of the aerial bombing,” Tarnavskyi, 21, said. “It’s not a typical American basement where you have a couch and heat. It’s a basement with stone walls. It’s not warm, especially in the winter. And, they have to sleep there.”
Tarnavskyi’s family, who are based in the central city of Dnipro, are some of the thousands fighting to survive since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly four weeks ago, turning the country known for historic churches, lush landscapes and cobblestone streets into a war zone.
If anyone understands the despair of being away from family as they live through unimaginable horrors, it's Tarnavskyi's roommate, Vlad Krylov.
Like Tarnavskyi, Krylov, who grew up in Moscow, is also thousands of miles away from his country. The 21-year-old is the age of many of the Russian soldiers who are being told to fight the Ukrainian people.
“Everyone is devastated," Krylov said. "My grandpa was born in Ukraine, and he has family there, which I don’t really talk to but I used to visit them a lot when I was a kid. He is heartbroken."
Guilt and Fear Take Root in Those With Direct Ties to the Ukraine Crisis
Tarnavskyi and Krylov were going about their days as students at the University of Delaware when the invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24.
"I was watching Vladimir Putin's speech. It was 10 p.m. I stormed into Vlad’s room. He was doing a project with his classmates," Tarnavskyi said.
Krylov said he and those close to him found the news shocking. So many people who live in Russia have family members, friends or colleagues from Ukraine, he explained.
“Nobody fully believed, I think neither in Ukraine and Russia, nobody believed that it would actually happen because historically, its brother nations,” Krylov said. “We had such strong ties between the countries, so everybody was shocked.”
Tarnavskyi was tasked with informing not only Krylov with the news that their lives were about to be forever changed, but also his family at home.
“I had to call my parents and my friends and just notify everyone that the war started," he said. “I woke them [my parents] up and told them the war started. At first, they couldn’t understand. ‘What war? What are you talking about?’ they said. Until they heard the explosions outside.”
Three days into the invasion, Tarnavskyi's mother and his younger sister fled to Bulgaria, leaving his father, older siblings and the rest of his family behind.
“My grandparents are very old. I only have two left," he said. "My grandfather is turning 86 this year and my father could not leave,” he said.
How the Ukraine Crisis Is Affecting Ukrainians and Russians Far From Home
It hasn't been lost on Tarnavskyi that if he were back home, he would be fighting for his country, and it's hard for the college junior to grapple with being so far away. “I have that guilt that I'm in a safe place when my people are being bombed,” he said. “When I hear from my friends that they’re throwing bombs all over the place, it’s just draining for me emotionally, but I need to stay strong.”
Russians have begun bombing his city with rockets, he said. Though classes have not been canceled and all of his obligations as a student remain the same as they were before Feb. 24, Tarnavskyi's mind is with those at home. But all he can do is pray and wait for the next time he's able to reach his loved ones, he said.
Krylov has also tried to keep up with his studies and remain on track to graduate in the Spring, but said he is distracted by thoughts of what outcome the war will have on his parents, two younger brothers and his uncle and aunt, who are back in Russia.
“My family had plans to visit me for graduation in May. Now, it is unthinkable; That can never happen now,” he said. "The ruble dropped down, imports are halted, many businesses have left Russia."
Krylov, who is the oldest of three boys, was the first to go to university in America. He planned to bring his entire family to the U.S. and was in the process of trying to get the documentation necessary to do so. Now, he's refocused his efforts on asylum.
“I have to do some thinking about how to save them, because they’re all trapped there and they all want to escape but they don’t have the means to push on,” Krylov said. ”My younger brothers were dreaming about how to escape. Their dreams are put on hold right now, hopefully, not broken yet.
“My brothers didn't witness the Soviet Union era," he continued. "They would never imagine [living in the] Iron Curtain Version 2," he said.
A Bond Forged as Citizens of Brother Nations Is Strengthened Through Tragedy
Tarnavskyi and Krylov did not know each other before they enrolled at the University of Delaware, but the pair quickly realized they had much in common.
To hear them tell it, Krylov, an economics major, and Tarnavskyi, a political science major are very similar and also both speak Russian. But as the crisis in Ukraine continues, their friendship has grown into a brotherhood.
“It is definitely bringing us closer because we need each other’s support,” Krylov said.
In between attending classes, both young men are on the phone, their laptops and watching the news for updates, organizing antiwar rallies that have taken place on and off-campus and raising money for the Ukrainian army.
Both expressed their gratitude for all the support they have been getting from their peers and professors, adding that University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis and his wife Eleni attended one of the protests they organized.
“Everyone’s been very supportive and it means the world to us,” Krylov said. “I was grateful that American people feel like that. And, they actually understand quite a bit, especially how this personally affects us.”
Organizing protests and demonstrations would have a much different outcome at home, Krylov said, noting that was one of the reasons he decided to go to school in the U.S.: to be able to have a voice.
“If you protest in Russia you are putting yourself at a major risk,” he said. “The dictatorship is very strong right now. The judicial system is highly corrupt. The police can beat people up with rubber bats, shoot rubber bullets, shoot into a crowd."
Krylov was familiar with people who faced consequences for protesting treatment of Russian opposition leader and Putin critic Alexei Navalny, who on Tuesday was convicted of fraud charges and sentenced to nine years in a maximum-security jail. Navalny, who was also fined 1.2 million rubles (roughly $11,500), will appeal the guilty verdict, according to his lawyer, the Russian state-owned news agency RIA reported.
Navalny is already serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence after being arrested in February 2021 for violating probation terms. Navalny said that verdict was politically motivated. It was that arrest that people Krylov knew were protesting when they themselves were arrested and jailed for days.
"This is why I came to America in the first place. The opportunity to speak out, and freedom of speech.”
Fighting for Democracy in Russia Has Its Risks, Even From Thousands of Miles Away
Disinformation is rampant in Russia, Krylov said. There, there is only the official narrative, and all dissenting views are quashed, he said. As a result, so many refuse to believe anything but what government authorities say, he said. "Propaganda in Russia works brilliantly, because so many people are brainwashed," Krylov said. "Eastern parts [of Russia] are consumed by propaganda than more urban and Western parts."
Krylov's friends at home also believe the war in Ukraine is unjust, but he understands the hesitancy of some to voice their feelings. ”They are protesting internally, and mentally in their head, just between each other," he said.
Krylov's admiration for those who do speak out against the invasion knows no bounds. “They’re willing to risk their lives and be in jail for God knows how long. It's a major risk, and they are still protesting against the government,” Krylov said. “I feel like they are heroes.”
It's not lost on Krylov that he himself or those he loves may be in danger because he is speaking out, even though he's doing so from nearly 5,000 miles away from his home in Moscow.
"People cannot speak out or they go to jail. I already put myself at risk because there are two recent laws that are already in power. The first one is that if you support Ukraine in any way, speaking or promoting something, spreading awareness, you’re helping Ukraine," he told Inside Edition Digital. "You can go to prison for up to 20 years. It's a real thing. And, if you spread 'fake news' about the war," which the Kremlin considers is anything other than their official narrative, "then you can get up to 15 years.
“So, I would definitely be [breaking] both of them, so, yeah,” he said.
Like Other Ukrainians Far From Home, Tarnavskyi Clings to Hope and Prayers While Bracing for the Worst
"I think things are going to get worse because of the humanitarian crisis,” Tarnavskyi said. “It is just so hard to believe that such things would happen in the 21st century when we have access to everything. But I guess it happened, and I think people should prepare for the worst before it gets better.”
Approximately half a million refugees who have fled Ukraine to Poland need mental health support, and about 30,000 have severe mental health problems, Paloma Cuchi, the World Health Organization’s representative in Poland, told CNN Tuesday. The WHO's assessment is based on estimates for mental health conditions following armed conflicts, the agency said.
Refugees from Ukraine are also facing medical issues including fever, diarrhea, hypothermia, upper-respiratory tract infections and cardiac arrest, according to the WHO.
In Ukraine, some areas are reporting having nearly run out of medical supplies and food. Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Oleg Nikolenko said in a Tweet Tuesday that “Kherson’s 300k citizens face a humanitarian catastrophe owing to the Russian army’s blockade.”
Kherson has been occupied by Russia for about two weeks, and Russia refuses to allow for the evacuation of civilians, according to Nikolenko.
"Food and medical supplies have almost run out, yet Russia refuses to open humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians. Russia’s barbaric tactics must be stopped before it is too late!" he wrote.
It's estimated that some areas in Ukraine that are seeing the heaviest fighting have no more than three or four days' worth of food, Mercy Corps’ Ukraine humanitarian response adviser Steve Gordon told CNN. He said the humanitarian system in the country “is entirely broken down,” and that at least 70% of the population of Kharkiv and Sumy depends on aid.
As of Monday, not much has changed for Tarnavskyi's family. He said they are continuing to survive and try to hold out for the war to end. Their focus is the present and getting through each night alive.
“My father doesn't have much time to think about the future," Tarnavskyi said. "Right now, he is running to the basement because of the aerial raids.”
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