As It Happens·Q&A

As missiles rain down on Kyiv, a university prepares to double as a shelter

Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics, tells As It Happens host Nil Köksal that he’s doing everything he can to make life at the university as normal as possible as Russians rain missiles down on the city. He also plans to open up a floor of the school as a shelter for those with no heat and water.

Kyiv School of Economics plans to let the public in as Russian attacks cause power outages

Young people sit at tables sipping coffee and working on laptops. Many are wearing hoodies or winter jackets.
Students work and stay warm at the Kyiv School of Economics, where the administration has set up an independent gas heating system to get through the winter. (Tymofiy Mylovanov/Twitter)

Tymofiy Mylovanov is trying to stay strong for his students. 

The Ukrainian economist and government adviser is the president of the Kyiv School of Economics, and he's trying to make life at the university as normal as possible as Russians rain missiles down on the city.

The deadly attacks have been targeting key energy infrastructure in Ukraine, leaving many without power as the cold winter sets in. Because of that, Mylovanov says the school will soon double as an emergency shelter for those trying to stay warm. 

Mylovanov, who is Ukraine's former minister of economic development, spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal. Here is part of their conversation.

Can you give me an idea of what it is like in Kyiv tonight?

It's dark and cold. And the boiler is off, which is the worst of it, I think. Because that means basically the waste management system is not working.

How are you coping?

I had to go to a meeting, so I got in the car and I started driving. And there was a loud explosion and I, like, I felt that it's my car [that] exploded. But it really was a missile landing not too far from me. And I was like, oh man, how stupid I am that that I drove out for a meeting.

I came back to the university where I'm the president, and there was a lady outside…. She was so cold. I brought her into the building and gave her tea, and she powered up her phone to call her family.

So, you know, things are not nice here.

Firefighters spray water at a building surrounded by billowing black smoke. There's a large pile of rubble in front of the building, and a charred car in the street.
Firefighters spray a building that was hit by a missile in central Kyiv on on Wednesday. The city's mayor says multiple explosions rang out across the capital, which is also plagued by widespread power and water outages. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

There's so many things that you're dealing with and you're listing them off. It's unimaginable to most of us, and this has become a part of your daily life. You mentioned the explosion. How far away from you was it, and what was the target? 

I don't quite know because it's classified, but it appears they have targeted the electricity grid again.

The explosion … was probably a couple of miles from me, from what I read later in the news. But it felt really, really close.

It gets so normalized, and I'm like, I didn't care about it. I just drove on, because … we need to get heating in the building, electricity. Students continued to study in the shelter. And I think we're making the point that we're resilient, and in spite of everything, we're not going to give our students an excuse not to do a problem set.

It might sound crazy, but that's what it is. You have to keep going on. Otherwise, it's so easy to collapse.

I know we've talked about Ukrainian resilience many times on this program, with other guests as well. I know you knew that these days were going to come and it was going to be a difficult winter. This is just the beginning of that winter. How did you prepare for this?

That is correct. Right now it's slightly under 0 C … so, you know, there's snow and ice outside, so it really feels cold.

The Kyiv School of Economics, our university, [installed] an independent electricity generator. We have water. We have food. We have an independent heating system based on gas. We have satellite internet. We have built up shelters.

But what we didn't realize — and I think that's a revelation for us today — that there will be people outside of our building, just civilians, just humans, who would need to come in and get warm. And we were not planning for that.

So now we're going to buy more generators and probably import them. We'll send a couple of trucks to Europe so that we can … set up the first floor as a shelter for everyone outside of us … so they can come in, can sleep, can get warm. And we will run the education on other floors. 

So we'll be buying …  more diesel fuel and more sleeping bags, more food, more canned food. We're preparing a list, actually, now.

So the school is more than just a school in so many ways.

It's a symbol of resilience and leadership. But it's also going to be a shelter.

A woman in winter gear stands outside in the darkness with her small white dog on a leash. Behind her are several large buildings with black windows.
A woman with a dog waits for a bus in a Kyiv street without electricity after critical civil infrastructure was hit by Russian missile attacks on Monday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

What are those people outside saying to you about what they're going through?

This lady I brought in, she was just so cold and she was coming behind the students asking, you know, "Can I get in?" She didn't want to say she was cold. She felt embarrassed about it. There's nothing to feel embarrassed about. But she [said], "Well, can I power up my phone and I'll call my daughter?" 

We're [rationing] gas … so it wasn't warm. She was trying to get warm [from] the teacup. And she was telling the story of how her daughter, she is pregnant and they were planning to move her to western Ukraine where they have her house and then she can have a baby there. And now, you know, she has a feeling that they should have done it yesterday or the day before yesterday. And now it's not clear if the trains are operational. 

This is just a human life. You know, they're trying to have a baby. And there's missiles coming, and their problem is they can freeze.

I was almost crying. I was trying not to cry in front of her, because students are watching and people are watching, and I have to show strength and leadership as the administrator. But it was challenging for me to find that strength.

It's not easy. And when people don't see me, I cry.- Tymofiy Mylovanov, Kyiv School of Economics president

To carry that all on your shoulders while, you know, taking care of yourself as well, that's a lot. So how are you handling it?

I think we're all traumatized, you know, and ... we have to admit that. We focus. We run on adrenaline.

I've gone through the '90s. I graduated from high school when the Soviet Union collapsed and I remember still the psychological pain when I saw how poor our elderly people were that they had to find leftovers of food in trash bins.

I've worked all my life so that doesn't happen again…. I believe in education [and] giving people opportunities — so sort of solving this problem in a strategic way. But now I see Russia has pushed us back decades, you know, back to the caves.

But of course, we'll be OK. We'll cut our trees [in] downtown Kyiv and we will have fires. We're not going to leave, you know. We are staying here.

But it's not easy. And when people don't see me, I cry. But I can't show it to people when they see me.

Tymofiy, I'm so sorry.

Well, thank you for giving us voice.

A teacher presents a lesson to eight university students sitting in a small, windowless, cement room with a TV on the wall.
Kyiv School of Economics students continued their studies in bomb shelters as missiles rained down on the Ukrainian capital city on Wednesday. (Tymofiy Mylovanov/Twitter)

You lived through this, as you said, but your students, many of them … have not. So what are they telling you? How are they experiencing this?

We're trying to protect them from this…. They continue to study. We want to keep it as normal as possible so they don't have time to read the news. We're trying to isolate them. Maybe it's not right. Of course, they talk to each other. 

But today I was very happy when this attack started … we all came down to the shelter, and all the shelter rooms were busy. They were taken, because the kids were having … English classes and maths classes and this and that, and they were actually studying there. 

They continue to operate as normal as possible. And I think this is important for them because they have something to hold on to, because otherwise, a person unravels. 

Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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