Freedom Under Siege

A visiting professor from Ukraine witnesses ‘wickedness’ threaten his native country.

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

Dobko at Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute. Photo by Margaret Fosmoe

Taras Dobko has been getting only four or five hours of sleep a night since February 24, the day Russian troops invaded his native Ukraine.

He checks news headlines constantly, and keeps in frequent contact with friends, relatives and colleagues in Ukraine from his temporary home in South Bend. The past week has seemed surreal.

“I could not even imagine this could happen in our time,” says Dobko, who arrived at Notre Dame in January to spend the semester as a visiting scholar at the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, which has set up a newsfeed with information about the situation in Ukraine. “I was thinking that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin would intimidate to the last point, but I didn’t think he would cross the line and go into real war.

“This assault is premeditated, it’s unprovoked, it’s unjust. These are all signs of wickedness.”

Dobko is an associate professor of philosophy and senior vice-rector (comparable to a vice president) at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine. Formally established in 2002 and affiliated with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, it was the first Catholic university to open within the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Dobko was born and raised in Lviv, a city of nearly 1 million residents in the far west part of the country, near the border with Poland. Lviv — about 335 miles west of Kyiv, the capital — is being called Ukraine’s “haven of the west” in some news reports. That’s because Russia so far is concentrating its attacks on areas in Ukraine’s central and east portions.

Thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the war are flooding into Lviv. It has become a major refuge for the displaced, with many being provided temporary food and shelter there before boarding crowded trains that are carrying refugees to Poland and other neighboring countries.

When the Russian invasion began, Ukrainian Catholic University — with an enrollment of about 2,200 — suspended its regular classes. Some students and faculty have left to help their families, traveled east to join the fight against Russian troops, or are volunteering with aid efforts for refugees, Dobko said on March 2, the seventh day of the war.

On that same day, Russian troops escalated their attacks on urban areas, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called a blatant campaign of terror, according to news reports. There was bloodshed in the central square of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, and a deadly bombing of a TV tower in Kyiv. Hundreds of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians have been killed.

Dobko, his wife and one daughter are in South Bend. Their older daughter, age 23, who has a chronic health condition, was able to leave Lviv after the war started and is in Warsaw, Poland. His elderly parents and other relatives, friends and colleagues remain in Lviv.

Russia late last year began building up a large troop presence on the border with Ukraine. Dobko says he was shocked but not surprised when Putin followed through on his threats and launched a large-scale invasion.

“When we were leaving Ukraine, we were already anxious,” he says. He thought the strong and resolute response from western nations might prevent Putin from taking the step into war.

Dobko compares Putin’s actions to those of leaders in organized crime. In those circles, what is most important to the leader is to appear tough. To display weakness is to risk removal by others in that group, he says.

Ukraine is about the size of Texas and has a population of 44 million. In comparison, Russia has about 144 million people.

The Russian president’s speeches indicate he has an image of Ukraine as not a real nation, but rather an artificial construct created during the Lenin era.

“Putin completely misunderstands Ukraine,” Dobko says. The Russian president should fire all his analysts if they told him Ukrainians would bow to his desire to conquer their country and install a puppet government without a fierce fight, he said.

Dobko, 50, remembers what life was like during his childhood, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. He was 19 when the Soviet empire collapsed and he witnessed the rebirth of Ukraine as an independent nation. “There was this feeling that we were finally free,” he says.

Historically, Russia has tried to thwart Ukraine by playing up antagonisms between different groups within the country, he says, focusing on cultural or regional differences. Since the start of the war, Ukrainians are united as never before, Dobko says.

From 1932 to 1945, 17 million people were killed in the area of today’s Ukraine — some from famine, and many Jews and others were murdered when Germany’s Nazi government controlled the region. Memories of that era are searing for Ukrainians. “The lesson is simple: If you don’t have a state, you could be exterminated,” Dobko says. “A state exists for the people.”

Although Dobko is hopeful that Ukraine will win the war, he is clear-eyed about what the future holds: his country will be devastated. Large parts of the country will be left in ruins and will take years to rebuild.

Russians tend to the cling to the language of World War II, referring to enemies as “Nazis” — even in the case of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, who is Jewish and had relatives who were killed in the Holocaust.

“If they don’t like somebody, they call them a Nazi,” Dobko says. And by extension, anyone who supports Ukraine is considered a Nazi — even if they are Jewish. “This is the logic, which is illogical,” he says.

Since the start of the war, Zelenskyy — a former comedian with a law degree — has been hailed globally as a fearless leader and a hero, staying put in Kyiv to lead his citizens against the invading Russians.

Dobko says he didn’t vote for Zelenskyy, but he seems just the leader Ukraine needs at this crisis point in its history.

Dobko appreciates the economic sanctions against Russia and military aid the United States and other western nations are providing to Ukraine. He is hopeful that western nations might enforce a no-fly zone, even if it’s limited to the western part of Ukraine for humanitarian reasons because that’s where many refugees are heading on their way to leave the country.

Dobko also is thankful for the support and prayers the Notre Dame community has offered for Ukraine, including a February 28 prayer service in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

“When you face almost pure wickedness,” Dobko says, “you understand prayer is your weapon.”

Notre Dame has a close relationship with Ukraine and the university in Lviv. In 2019, Notre Dame presented the Notre Dame Award to Archbishop Borys Gudziak, president of Ukrainian Catholic University, for his work in support of religious and academic freedom and for his leadership of that university.

Dobko says he’s started thinking about how he can help prepare for Ukraine’s future. “It's important to think about the next steps, because at some point the war will be over,” he says. “Ukraine will be devastated. So what will be the plan for that?”

This is a moment for Americans and Europeans to engage in self-reflection, to look at the situation not only from the perspective of their own security, according to Dobko.

“Let’s look at it from the perspective of moral security,” he says. “What went wrong, morally speaking? What should be changed in our world and in our relationship as people in this situation?”

Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine. Contact her at or via Twitter: @mfosmoe.