Essex welcomes Ukrainian researcher who fled Kharkiv

  • Date

    Wed 10 May 23

Dr Makysm Balaklytskyi looking relaxed and happy

A Ukrainian professor forced to flee the “apocalyptic” Russian invasion of his native Kharkiv has found a new home at Essex.

Dr Maksym Balaklytskyi, who has joined the Department of History, fled the city six days after the invasion started. He was reunited with his wife Iryna and ten-year-old son Nazar, in Colchester in January, almost a year after they were separated at the Ukrainian-Polish border.

He will study the evolution and impact of Russian news and propaganda at Essex and has said he’s “completely happy” in his new British home where he has even been able to meet King Charles III.

Dr Balaklytskyi, a professor of journalism at the University of Kharkiv, and his family witnessed the brutal bombardment of Kharkiv first-hand.

Describing the moment a missile exploded in a neighbouring block and seeing windows blown out all around, he said: “It was an apocalyptic picture, like from Hollywood. There was a sense of fear, but the most unpleasant thing was a sense of total uncertainty. You don’t know what to expect, or how to react, what the actual dangers are or how to prepare for anything.”

Despite being wary of where the frontline was and how safe it was to evacuate, Dr Balaklytskyi and his family headed for the border. Fearing for their son, his wife and child crossed into Poland, where Dr Balaklytskyi’s parents live, before travelling to the UK after accepting an offer from a sponsor family in Colchester.

Hopeful that the war would be ended swiftly, Dr Balaklytskyi stayed in Lviv where he coped with the stress of separation by running, cycling and swimming. Calling on the close-knit Protestant Ukrainian community that he was a part of, he also found work with a church-affiliated television station that was broadcasting daily reports about the humanitarian impact of the war.

Working “gave me a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and that I was contributing to something important,” he said.

With the help of colleagues from the University of Kharkiv, and an exemption from conscription because of his academic status, Dr Balaklytskyi eventually crossed the border and was finally reunited with his family in Colchester in January this year.

His mother-in-law and her mother remain in Ukraine.

Dr Balaklytskyi has accepted an Honorary Fellowship in the Department of History where he will work with Dr Felix Schnell, an expert in Ukrainian-Russian relations. As well as exploring Russian propaganda, he hopes to study what he sees as the formation of a more unified Ukrainian identity as a result of the war.

Reflecting on the future for Ukraine, he said: “The Ukrainian cause needs to be normalised and established on a daily basis, regardless of the situation at the front line. Academia, culture, social impact, diplomatic relations, diaspora NGOs are some of the aspects that should be revitalised. Ukraine is here to stay, and it needs able hands on all fronts, so to say.”

One of the highlights of his new life has been an invitation to meet King Charles III when he visited Colchester to celebrate its new city status. “He’s a well-mannered guy, a real gent. He speaks in a quiet voice and tries to establish a personal relationship with you. We don’t have those rich royal traditions in Ukraine so to see a representative of this old royal dynasty was a really revealing experience.”

Dr Andrew Priest, Head of the Department of History, said: “'We are delighted to welcome Dr Balaklytskyi. As an internationally diverse university and a university of sanctuary, with a long-standing commitment to human rights, support for and collaboration with colleagues from countries affected by conflict and other forms of crisis is at the heart of what we do, and who we are.

“Research on conflict and its multiple legacies is a topic explored by many members of the Department and working with Dr Felix Schnell Dr Balaklytskyi will investigate attitudes towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine among Russian-speaking Ukrainians.”