First year student Ruslan Peredelskyi enjoys the warm sunshine Friday afternoon in the Ladd Library Terrace of Bates College in Lewiston. He said he lost schoolmates and family friends when Ukraine was invaded eight years ago when he was 11. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — In eastern Ukraine eight years ago, 11-year-old Ruslan Peredelskyi looked out the window of his art class to see planes dropping bombs.

“I remember everything vividly,” Peredelskyi said Friday. “It was the most horrifying experience of my life.”

The first-year student at Bates College, the only Ukrainian attending the school, said there were tanks and Russian forces entering the city of Donetsk where he lived, but nobody thought war would follow until, one day in May, it came.

“My parents just ran to school and picked me up,” he said, and hustled him to their nearby apartment on the seventh floor of a big building downtown.

Since there were no shelters, nowhere safe to go, “we just sat in our kitchen, drank some tea, and saw from our window” the jets outside dropping bombs that gave off a colorful mist as they tumbled toward the ground before exploding, one after another.

“Probably we will die,” Peredelskyi said he told his mother, who responded that “’everything will be all right,’” though she could not know.


In just three days, he said, his once-safe city, the place where he had cheerfully grown up, “became like the war capital of the 21st century. It was really hard to imagine, hard to perceive, but it happened.”

Schoolmates and family friends died in the barrage, he said, and the happy childhood he’d known soon gave way to a flight for safety as they became just one more family on the run from Russia’s limited invasion in 2014 that seized control of Crimea and parts of two provinces that included Donetsk.

So Peredelskyi knows what war can do. What it looks like. What it sounds like. The way it can rip away the security that people count on to create families, build careers and grab hold of what joy they can find in their day-to-day lives.

Now he sees from a distance that Russia is bringing the same death and destruction not just to a single city or a small region, but to his entire country of 44 million people, a place he loves.

When the Russian invasion began last month, Peredelskyi said, “at first I couldn’t believe it” but then he started getting videos from friends across the land showing explosions as air raid sirens wailed.

“I felt a thousand times more horrified” than he had in Donetsk, “because it was everywhere. My entire nation is in torture.”


Peredelskyi in Ukraine

As a refugee inside his country, Peredelskyi said he felt “a huge terror” inside that stuck with him as he and his parents sought somewhere to put down new roots.

He got lucky.

As a child in Donetsk, he remembered seeing operas and ballet, watching glowing performances that astonished him. Infatuated with the artistic skills on display, he tried to get into the local ballet school because he wanted so much to be a part of it. But he fell short.

To give him another chance, he said, his mother helped him regularly on his splits. She helped stretch his muscles, sitting on his legs at times.

The Kyiv State Ballet College saw potential in him as a result and admitted him to its program, the top training ground for Ukraine’s masterful dancers.


“It was an amazing opportunity,” he said.

At first, Peredelskyi loved it, but over time he came to question the constant striving for perfection, recognizing that no matter how well he performed, he could always do better. It left him feeling “constantly dissatisfied,” he said.

He also found the standard ballets they focused on stifling. “Swan Lake” may have been “super cool” in the 19th century, Peredelskyi said, but today it’s necessary to come up with “more complex styles of expression,” performances that offer “something new and socially active.”

In short, he wanted to stretch his creativity, which led to him winning a national competition for new novels. His writing featured a serial killer in a small Ukrainian city that he thought of as a stand-in for Russia.

Coming to Bates

One of Peredelskyi’s professors told him in high school about the summertime Bates Dance Festival and showed him videos from it. The young Ukrainian could see the little liberal arts college was “a super elite place” a world away from his existence in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, where he and his parents lived in another big apartment building.


Bates seemed costly and far away, he said, but “I could just see it in my dreams.”

When a friend got accepted to Harvard University in Massachusetts and told him about the financial aid many students receive, he listened to her advice and decided to give Bates a shot. He did everything he could for years to polish his application so he would stand out.

And he got in.

He spent his first semester in bliss, he said, making many friends and finding a college community that provided everything he hoped for. He felt like the luckiest man anywhere.

Rumblings in Ukraine

Everything seemed fine back home in Ukraine during the fall, Peredelskyi said, but starting in January he noticed the growing number of news stories warning of troop movements by Russia.


Yet the Ukrainian government expressed little concern so he tried to ignore the tales, remembering that in 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin had put tens of thousands of Russian troops on the border and then pulled them away again without an attack.

His parents in Kyiv were also skeptical of the warnings from President Joe Biden and others. They thought there would be no invasion.

But Peredelskyi, who is 19, said he had “a bad feeling” as he read the articles, a growing worry that something might be in the offing.

War, again

A friend called late one night last month, tearfully telling him, “It started. It started. They are everywhere.”

“At first, I didn’t believe her,” he said, but then he watched videos posted by friends across Ukraine on the social media service Telegram, which is popular in Ukraine and Russia.


The Ukrainian student said he couldn’t believe “the huge scale” of the invasion underway.

Peredelskyi called his parents in Kyiv. They told him they could see the orange glow of distant explosions in the night sky.

He said he still cannot believe that Putin launched the attack, dismissing as lies the Russian president’s claim that his forces need to oust Nazis and contain nationalist furor in Ukraine. There’s no truth to any of it, said Peredelskyi, who speaks both Russian and Ukrainian.

Peredelskyi said his mother, who tutors and teaches, escaped the country by driving to Budapest, Hungary, where she is staying in the home of a Bates student whose parents opened their doors to her.

But his father, a government worker, is stuck in Kyiv, unable to leave because Ukraine requires any potential male soldier to stay. He remains in the family’s apartment in the country’s capital, which is partly surrounded by Russian forces and often bombarded with bombs and missiles.

Peredelskyi is understandably worried about him.


Both his parents told him they are thrilled he is far away, safe in a place Peredelskyi described as the best spot in the world for any Ukrainian today.

Rallying to help

Peredelskyi said he has received nothing but support from his fellow students, professors, the college administration and many others, including a boss who has helped raise more than $7,000 to help his family.

But it’s hard to see what’s happening to his homeland.

“Every time I talk about Ukraine, I want to cry,” Peredelskyi said. “I don’t know how this could happen to such a great country.”

He said Ukraine posed no threat to anyone, that it has embraced democracy and human rights, and that it has become an example of what’s possible for Russia itself someday.

He said he’s not surprised that Ukrainians are putting up such stiff, heroic resistance. He said he’s also not surprised that the world has rallied to its side.

“Ukraine pretty much decides the history of the entire planet right now,” Peredelskyi said. And, he added, it will never give up.

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