Constable: Good news for Benedictine alum's family in Ukraine as they flee 'personal' war

  • A Benedictine University alum, far right, pleaded with her family members in Ukraine to leave the country before Russia invaded. On Monday, she sent Benedictine professor Joel Ostrow this picture of her relatives in Poland, where they were approved for visas.

    A Benedictine University alum, far right, pleaded with her family members in Ukraine to leave the country before Russia invaded. On Monday, she sent Benedictine professor Joel Ostrow this picture of her relatives in Poland, where they were approved for visas. Courtesy of Joel Ostrow

  • An expert and author of books on Russia, Benedictine University professor Joel Ostrow says Russian President Vladimir Putin has been cracking down on journalists and the free press for his entire career.

    An expert and author of books on Russia, Benedictine University professor Joel Ostrow says Russian President Vladimir Putin has been cracking down on journalists and the free press for his entire career. Courtesy of Benedictine University

 
 
Updated 3/8/2022 6:21 AM

An expert on Russia and the horrors of the war in Ukraine, Benedictine University professor Joel Ostrow got some unexpected good news on Monday morning.

"I got a text message that my old student's family got approved for their visas," Ostrow says. "She's very happy."

 

Until the visas are in hand and the former student's family is settled in Poland, Ostrow would prefer we refer to her by only her first initial, O. "She was a remarkable student, incredibly hardworking, intelligent," Ostrow says of the woman who left the rest of her family in Kyiv as she came to the United States to study. She went to Harper College in Palatine before becoming a student at Benedictine in Lisle.

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine was gearing up in February, she was worried about her family in Kyiv. "She had sleepless nights trying to convince her father to leave," says Ostrow. Her sister and kids wanted to leave Ukraine, but her brother-in-law was committed to staying and fighting. The dad loaded up the family in the car but turned around when traffic was backed up for 20 miles, Ostrow says.

The professor reached out to another former student, who spent two years with the Peace Corps in Ukraine, to see if she had any connections that could help.

Eventually, O found "a team to extract people to Slovakia," Ostrow says, and her family made it safely to that nation that borders Ukraine and Poland.

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"When she found out all her family got out, she got on a plane to Warsaw," Ostrow says.

Fearing a monthslong wait for her family's visa interviews, she was thrilled when those interviews happened at 9 a.m. Monday and the visas were approved, Ostrow says.

Except for those months when he was working on his doctoral degree at the University of California at Berkeley, Ostrow lived in Russia from 1989 until 1995.

"I went to Moscow to watch communism collapse," he says, noting that he wrote articles on the situation for several media outlets based in the United States and made friends with many Russian journalists.

The idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly is cracking down on the free press is ludicrous to Ostrow, who says that has been a constant throughout the former KGB officer's career.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I've lost 13 friends to bullets in the back of the head," Ostrow says. "The problem is not that Putin has changed. The problem is Putin hasn't changed."

In their 2007 book, "The Consolidation of Dictatorship in Russia: An Inside View of the Demise of Democracy," Ostrow and co-authors Georgiy Satarov and Irina Khakamada tell of nearly 100 journalists murdered with no arrests under Putin's dictatorship.

"There is no free press in Russia," Ostrow says. That's why he says you can't blame the Russian people for thinking Putin is leading a "special operation" to free Ukraine.

There is opposition to the war from Russians in the academic world, according to Marina Mogilner, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has been communicating with colleagues in Russia and Ukraine.

"I would be happy if more people will realize how close and personal this war is for many of us," Mogilner emails at the start of a message that includes an optimistic letter dated Feb. 26 from a colleague who teaches at a Catholic university similar to Benedictine.

"There is a strong feeling of resilience," the Ukranian professor wrote.

"Now his university accommodates hundreds of refugees from other regions of Ukraine, coordinates volunteer work and helps hospitals," Mogilner notes. Another friend who teaches in St. Petersburg, Russia, "goes on protests, and spends evenings delivering food and water to his arrested students in different police stations throughout the city," she says.

"It is personal," Ostrow says. While no one can be certain how and when this war will end, Ostrow says, "it's looking like it's going to get a lot bloodier."

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