‘We still exist’: Ukrainian Culture Club reflects on war, fundraising efforts


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

More than 20 students and faculty protested in March 2022 at the Cathedral Lawn in a show of solidarity for the recently invaded Ukraine.

By Spencer Levering, For The Pitt News

Despite their physical distance from the ongoing war in Ukraine, Pitt students like Oleksii Kucherenko, a Ukrainian native, have not forgotten about the invasion.

“It’s important to understand that we still exist, that we are people, that we are alive, and that we want to flourish,” Kucherenko, a sophomore microbiology and Japanese major, said.

Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine more than one year ago, Business Manager Anna Libikh said the Ukrainian Culture Club has fundraised at Pitt’s East European Festival, partnered with Pitt’s Slavic and Russian clubs and worked with local businesses such as Panera Bread and Roots to donate a percentage of their profits to the effort. Libikh, a Ukrainian native, said they’ve raised more than $300 since February 2022. 

Anna Libikh, a sophomore pre-pharmacy major. (John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer)

“We’re trying to get as much support as we can through different activities,” said Libikh, a sophomore pre-pharmacy major.

Members talk about news and feelings related to their war at biweekly meetings, but the club — which existed before the war began — also teaches members about Ukraine’s history as well as celebrates Ukrainian holidays and traditions. 

“We try to give people a chance to put their toes in the waters and feel how it is to be Ukrainian,” Kucherenko said. 

The club also invites guest speakers such as professors from other universities to educate students about the war, what caused the conflict and the historical connections between Ukraine, Russia and the United States. 

“I feel like it is needed,” Libikh said. “You may think that it’s just a regional conflict in Ukraine at the moment, but really, it’s much bigger, much bigger than that.”

One of the club’s members, Victoria Piontkivska, said she was born and raised in Ukraine, but moved from Kyiv when she was 12 or 13. She eventually ended up in the U.S. Besides her parents, she said all of her family is currently in Ukraine. 

“They usually go every year, every summer, until last summer, to visit,” Piontkivska, a senior economics and business administration double major, said.

Victoria Piontkivska, a senior economics and business administration major. (John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer)

Piontkivska remembers studying abroad in Berlin, Germany when the war began. She volunteered at train stations to help incoming refugees who didn’t know English or German. She said at some points she heard more Ukrainian spoken on the streets than German. Even though her efforts helped many Ukrainian families, Piontkivska still feels “survivor’s guilt.” 

“As a Ukrainian, your fellow people are going through this, and for some lucky reason, I just wasn’t there at that time in that place,” Piontkivska said “I just happened to be outside.”

Piontkivska said she is unable to follow through with her original post-graduate plans to move to Ukraine.

“I was going to go [back to Ukraine] because I love Kyiv, it’s always felt like home to me,” Piontkivska said. “But my grandparents would never let me go back to Kyiv as the war is going on.”

As Russia’s invasion continued, Ukrainians adjusted to life under attack. A month into the war, Kucherenko remembers calling and checking up on a Ukrainian friend. 

“I called her up and I said ‘Yeah, so, how’s it going? Are we still alive? Is everything alright?’” Kucherenko said. “And I remember the moment when she says, ‘I’m sitting in the darkness. And weirdly enough, I’m used to it. She’s like ‘I already know how many steps it takes from my room to my kitchen to get there and to get a cup of water and drink it before I go to bed.”

Oleksii Kucherenko, a sophomore microbiology and Japanese major. (John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer)

Currently, Kucherenko is familiarizing multiple Ukrainian refugee families in the Pittsburgh area with American culture, including guiding immigrant families around Pittsburgh and assisting them with documents and paperwork.

“If you’re a refugee, you’ve been stripped out of your own home and then put in a different environment,” Kuchrenko said. “It’s kind of hard for you to adjust.” 

The club has plans in place to continue supporting Ukraine, including more educational events and packaging medications and sending them to hotspots of conflict.

“We would also like to collaborate with other clubs,” Libikh said. “If any other clubs are interested in partnering with us and organizing some events, … that would be awesome.”

Even though many members of the Ukrainian Culture Club are of Ukrainian descent, Libikh wants to remind students that everybody is invited to attend a meeting or join the organization. 

“Ukrainian people already know about Ukraine, and we just need to educate more people about this and invite people who are not of Ukrainian background to care about this issue,” Libikh said.