Diversity is one of the main values of IE. Every class at the university has European, Arab, Asian, American, and Slavic students. Of course, being diverse also includes meeting someone of an opposing point of view or political values. But what could probably happen in the worst-case scenario are citizens of rival states being classmates. You would probably think that a Russian and a Ukrainian would not end up studying together. Still, this is what happened in the freshman class this year. The roster of the first-year Bachelor of International Relations in Madrid includes three Ukrainians and one Russian. What’s more surprising, one Ukrainian and the Russian are now best friends. Meet Natalie and Kseniia, the girls who come from rival states but found soulmates in each other.
Natalie, or Nat, was born and raised by a Ukrainian mother and a Russian-Ukrainian father in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Such a mix of nationalities is very common among Russians and Ukrainians, as they lived in one huge country for centuries – first, the Russian Empire, then, the USSR. In fact, approximately 30% of Russians have relatives who live in Ukraine. So, the military events from 2014 until now were traumatizing for many people in both countries. But, those who were against it the most were pure Ukrainians, like Natalie’s mother. Such people have been showing their separation from Russia for years, especially after the Kremlin started the war in eastern Ukraine. This led to many Ukrainians, such as Nat’s mother, stopping to speak Russian. Therefore, Natalie speaks both Ukrainian, with her mom, and Russian with her father and two sisters.
On the day Vladimir Putin, the president of the Russian Federation, started the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Nat was supposed to celebrate her 18th birthday. She happily got a present from her sister at 1 am before going to bed, and woke up from her sister insistently telling her to wake up and pack all her necessary stuff. Having non-panicking parents made the whole family stay in the Ukrainian capital for some time. “My parents are that kind of people who are not afraid of anything,” says Natalie, explaining why, unlike many others, her parents left for work while their daughters stayed at home and had online classes with all their stuff packed just in case. The phrase about her parents started to make even more sense when Natalie mentioned that her father decided to join the Ukrainian army on the evening of February 24. So, Natalie stayed with her mother and younger sister.
Throughout the first ten days of the invasion, she acquired a new habit: going to a bomb shelter. Nat and her sister had to carry all their packed belongings and go to the nearest bunker five or six times a day while their mother was at work. Sometimes, the air sirens would not stop sounding the alarm even at night, so the girls had to stay there for a sleepover, not knowing if the next bomb was going to be dropped on their house. “It was so-so freezing,” reminisces Natalie those nights with a trembling voice.
After such a terrifying experience, Nat’s older sister suggested coming to her place in France, to which their mom immediately said yes to. So, Nat and her 16-year-old sister went to Poland by train and then flew to France while their mother stayed in Kyiv to volunteer. “I wanted to stay with my mom and dad,” admits Natalie, but her parents put the daughters’ safety first.
Kseniia was born and raised in the cultural capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg, a city famous for its open-minded and creative inhabitants. She used to go to an ordinary Russian public school, where, to the probable surprise of many, she was not affected by propaganda. “We were never told in school that Russia is a democracy, we were never told that Ukraine is bad,” Kseniia shares her experience. So, when the war started, she appreciated the “comfortable environment” of anti-Putin friends, family, and teachers even more. I understand what Kseniia means. My school was also quite liberal in terms of political views: I could wear a “Russia will be free” t-shirt with teachers smiling at it or openly talk about Navalny, the main opposition politician, during Social Science classes. Such an experience like Kseniia’s and mine prove that there are still few non-propagandistic institutions in Russia.
Reminiscing about February 2022, Kseniia says, “I heard the ‘war, war, war, war,’ but the full realization came to me like a week after.” As for many of us, for her, it was really sudden. “I was just walking and bam in my head: there is a war. I live in a country that started a war!” She remembers vividly. Being surrounded by a liberal environment, she believed in the all-country confrontation to the military events, “my friends and I really thought that there would be a revolution in Russia, that all people would be against the war.” Of course, there was not such a massive rally, but many protests still took place during the first weeks of the invasion. Thousands were detained and later, with the new law, were fined and forced to flee Russia. Kseniia did not go to the protest due to her minor age and unsafe conditions. Indeed, Saint Petersburg is probably the most dangerous city to protest. For some reason, specifically in this city, the police and national guards treat demonstrators the worst: with the use of stun gun-baton and excessive physical force. Therefore, Kseniia did not risk her future with protests, especially when soon she was about to leave Russia for her studies.
Applying to IE
So, how did people with such different fates end up in one class and become best friends? For Natalie, it was obvious that she was going to study abroad. But the time for application coincided with the hardest period in her life. While being with her sisters in France, Nat was anxious about her mother staying in Kyiv and her father being in the Ukrainian army. “I am not the kind of person who cries all the time and watches some dramatic films. But during those three months [spring] I’ve cried all my tears,” utters Natalie with tears in her eyes and a trembling voice, while Kseniia puts a hand on her knee, trying to support her friend. So, although Nat had her top choice universities to apply to, the whole exciting process that many normal teenagers go through was complicated by constant mental breakdowns.
Although at first Natalie’s top choice was Bocconi University, later, she realized that the IE University diploma is more prestigious and qualified in the USA, where she then wants to continue her studies. Nat also wanted to study international business but ended up choosing international relations, which she likes so far.
Kseniia had a much different situation in terms of applying to IE. She had known for some time that she was going to study abroad, since “post-Soviet education” was not something she wanted. This is when IE’s efficient marketing came in. “I occasionally looked at IE’s Instagram advertisements. So, I researched it, and I really liked it,” tells Kseniia about her story of getting to know IE. Taking steps in advance and after passing the IELTS exam successfully, she was admitted to the university in the autumn of 2021. Despite having more security about her future whilst being in the last grade of high school, the war made everything questionable and doubtful. The risk of not getting a visa because of Kseniia’s Russian citizenship and the blocking of all Russian cards in Europe got her parents hesitant. But, her desire to study international relations was more powerful than any circumstances. Such passion for the subject was quite a surprise for me. I thought that many IR students got disappointed and regretted their choice of degree given the current terrible conditions of diplomacy in the world. However, Kseniia has a very positive mindset about it, “If such events happen, it does not mean that we don’t need people who will be able to analyze them. We have to have people who can deal with it.” Thus, with such different conditions, the girls started their studies at IE.
Coming to IE, Natalie did not expect Russians to be among the first-years. “I did not think that a lot of them would be able to enroll in universities abroad,” admits Nat. I agree with her, since the complicated circumstances such as blocked bank cards, more difficult conditions to take an English proficiency test, and financial struggles must have stopped many young Russians who wanted to apply to foreign universities this year. Still, if Nat happened to see some of them, she would not think negatively about them instantly just because of their nationalities. “In every country, there are good people and bad people. So, Kseniia is Russian, and she is amazing; I do not care about her citizenship,” Nat explains her point of view while her friend smiles.
Kseniia, in her turn, was ready to meet Ukrainians and was not afraid of them. “I had in mind that Ukrainians have all the right not to want to communicate, and I respect that,” talks she about her mindset before starting her studies, “I was not scared but I was not sure if we can be friends.” Little did she know that she was going to pal up with two Ukrainian girls at the very beginning of the academic year.
During their break on the first day of studies, Natalie and another girl from Kharkiv, a city in Eastern Ukraine, were talking to each other in Russian. Hearing this, Kseniia came to them and started getting acquainted. After a two-way question about each other’s roots, Kseniia asked if she could talk to them in Russian or if she should switch to English, in case they felt uncomfortable. This is normal practice nowadays. Many Ukrainians refuse to use the Russian language, referring to it as the mother tongue of enemies. But Natalie and another Ukrainian girl are from cities where speaking the language of the country that invaded their Motherland has nothing to do with ethics and morale. So, Kseniia was fully relieved when, after a small talk, the girls suggested grabbing a coffee together. “It was so natural,” she reminisces about her first meeting with Ukrainians at IE. So, during September, Kseniia, and one more Ukrainian girl, and Natalie became friends.
I have mentioned before that there is a third Ukrainian in the class of first-year International Relations. He is from Ternopil, a city in Western Ukraine. That part of the country is historically the most radical separate-from-Russia one, since they refuse to speak Russian and even judge those who do. “I have been to Lviv a couple of times, and when people heard me speaking Russian, they just turned around and went away, despite knowing that I am a Ukrainian from Kyiv,” remembers Natalie, “and it is not even because of the war, it is overall their mindset.” Therefore, knowing where he comes from and hearing that he talks to the girls in Ukrainian, Kseniia felt hesitant to talk to him. However, there was nothing to worry about. Now, after getting to know her as a person, he even switches to Russian if Kseniia is a part of a dialogue.
During the following weeks, Natalie and Kseniia started spending more time together, felt a match between themselves, and became closer than anyone in the friend group. Looking at their friendship is very entertaining. They are girls who laugh often. Nat makes jokes that make her friend crack up, while Kseniia takes care of their schedule and of being on time. Living in different places and areas might part some friends, but it is not the case for Natalie and Kseniia. As Nat lives in her own apartment and Kseniia stays in a student residence, they spend a lot of time at Nat’s place. She even has slippers for her Russian friend to wear at home. This is considered a big gesture in Eastern European culture, signifying the importance of the guest. For Natalie, the presence of Kseniia at her home is important, since she is used to living with her sister. “The thing is that I’m not the only child and I have a younger sister who is just two years younger than me, so we are best friends, we have been 24/7 together. It is a little bit difficult to be alone even for a couple of hours,” says Natalie with sadness in her voice. Then, Kseniia tries to cheer her up, “That is why I basically live in her apartment or hang out there all the time.” So, during the day they are together, slowly becoming each other’s family.
What the girls also highlight is the understanding they have of each other. The ongoing war cannot hide the fact that they grew up in similar cultural environments, observing resembling traditions. “We listened to the same music. We have the same sucking education system,” explains Kseniia while Nat is nodding and smiling. This lets girls understand each other more than if they talk to foreign students. The comprehension of the war and the situation around it also enhances their friendship. Talking to their classmates made them realize that non-Russian and non-Ukrainian students do not know what is really happening. “They don’t get the situation, they just have a little glimpse, like 10% of the picture,” Kseniia explains her classmate’s astonishment after her telling that she and Nat cannot just fly home in one flight. Thus, the girls find it easier to talk about the war to each other than to others.
As it may be for you, this friendship is a surprise for me too. I personally have encountered some awkward situations with Ukrainians with one of them telling me to my face that they hate all Russians. In such moments, I understand their feelings and try to remind myself that it is not my fault. But it only reassures me that I probably would not ever be able to have a Ukrainian best friend. The story of Nat’s and Kseniia’s friendship is an example of miracles of human communication. No matter their nationalities and their states’ rivalry, the two girls found support and understanding in each other. Growing up in similar cultural and mental environments and sharing the same ethics, they have enough in common not to care about their governments’ actions. “It is not about nationality, it’s about basic human values,” they say.
Featured cover image: Natalie and Kseniia photographed by Jasmine Sharapova. Graphics by Jasmine Sharapova.