Horrified by what he was watching on the night of Feb. 24, Arthur Small just wanted to help.
A lecturer at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, Small had never forgotten the hospitality he received from Ukrainians during a trip to the eastern European country in summer 1993. They were warm and accommodating, he said, to an aspiring doctoral student seeking information on the agriculture scene in a post-Soviet world.
What Small saw then was a beautiful place with beautiful people, bursting with potential. That’s what made what he saw on the night of Russia’s invasion so hard to stomach.
“I was following the news and tearing my hair out,” Small said. “I began to think about what I could do.”
The war in Ukraine, filled with mass casualties and destroyed cities, is now into its fourth month. For much of this time, Small has tried to be an ally from more than 5,000 miles away.
He first got involved with Economists for Ukraine, a group of scholars working to rebuild Ukraine through several avenues. He then was connected to the Kyiv School of Economics, an English-speaking institution with bachelor’s and graduate programs in Ukraine’s capital city.
Since the war began, the school has hosted short talks with professors from the United States and elsewhere, but all of the sessions were virtual. Small was willing to put boots on ground and teach an intensive course on data science in the same room with the students.
Yes, he’d travel to a country in wartime for a non-paying job. Not only that, he’d cut short his vacation to Spain to do it – all in the name of solidarity with the Ukrainians.
Small arrived in Kyiv on May 29. His class begins Friday.
“It really matters to them that they see that the people are coming here to be with them in person,” Small said. “They know that the war with Russia is not quite as prominent an international story as it was three months ago. They can feel it.
“I thought it meant something to come here in person. The feedback I’m getting is that’s correct. It really matters to see me as an American international instructor. Because it’s something of a hassle to get here, it signals the importance that I ascribe to supporting them in this tough time.”
Small spoke to UVA Today by Zoom on Thursday from an Airbnb apartment in downtown Kyiv. It was 4 p.m. local time and Small was finally feeling rested after some extreme travel. Because there are currently no commercial flights going into Ukraine, he flew from Spain to Warsaw, Poland, and then caught a bus to Kyiv, a 14-hour haul that featured several eye-opening moments.
Small said he was one of just two adult male passengers on the bus. The rest were women and children returning from evacuation. The bus also didn’t have a toilet on board, an obvious issue for such a long ride. And although stops were made every few hours, using a roadside restroom came at a cost.
“They only took first Polish, and then Ukrainian currency in coins, which I didn’t have because I just arrived,” Small said. “So I ended up begging the bus driver to please give me some Polish coins.”
But it was as the bus neared Kyiv that reality set in for Small as he looked out the windows.
“You pass through some areas where there is one building after another after another that had been seriously damaged or completely destroyed,” he said. “It was a very somber half-hour doing that part, including a couple places where we’re going over temporary bridges that replaced bridges that were blown out. You pass by checkpoints with sandbags and soldiers, and you start to feel that, yes, we are in a country of war now.”
Though an air raid siren woke Small up on his first night in Ukraine, Small said he’s not scared.
“And that just may be a lack of wisdom,” he said, “but I think it’s just a rational calculation. At this moment, Kyiv is not a focus [of Russian forces].”
Small is paying $23 a night for his rental, located near a central city hub.
“In Kyiv itself, the coffee shops are full of good coffee and good pizza,” he said. “It’s a little strange, because you’re in a not just functional, but a hip, happening city that also has people walking around in uniform and camouflage trucks now and again.
“It’s very interesting, but, basically, the city is safe and working pretty much normally. We’re at this point quite far from any active conflict.”
(Illustrating how fast things can change, Russia shelled parts of Kyiv this week after the U.S. and the U.K. announced they would provide new weapons systems to Ukraine.)
As of Tuesday, Small said 19 students had signed up to take his one-week class. While the arrangements haven’t been ideal – everything is on his dime – he’s thrilled for the opportunity.
It’s been nearly 30 years in the making.
“They were really good to me in 1993,” he said, “and I was a little embarrassed that I never really followed up in my professional work or personal relationships to answer the hospitality and the warmth that had been extended to me. So I kind of felt a debt,” he said.
“Now I see this as a possibility where I can now start to repay some of that debt. If anything, I hope to be worthy of their time.”