Ukraine: The Professor on the Frontline

Giving lectures from the trenches, one sociologist combines military service with academia.

Ukraine: The Professor on the Frontline

Giving lectures from the trenches, one sociologist combines military service with academia.

(L) Fedir Sandor, head of the sociology faculty at Uzhhorod University, enlisted in the Ukrainian military and he still conducts virtual lectures from the trenches. (R) Fedir Shandor (centre) with his army friends.
(L) Fedir Sandor, head of the sociology faculty at Uzhhorod University, enlisted in the Ukrainian military and he still conducts virtual lectures from the trenches. (R) Fedir Shandor (centre) with his army friends. © (L) Uzhhorod University (R) photo courtesy of Fedir Shandor
Tuesday, 24 May, 2022

Fedir Shandor is head of the sociology faculty at Uzhhorod University and a Zakarpatska council member from the ruling Servant of People party. Now with the territorial defence in the Kharkiv region, he told IWPR’s Marina Mironenko how he was combining army duties with online classes from his dugout.

With friends the day before the invasion began, I argued that there would be no war. Everyone bet 100 hryvnias. I was sure that war was not an option because there was no logic to it. Only only one person predicted war would break out; he later passed his prize money to the armed forces.

Since I live in Uzhhorod in a safe zone in Western Ukraine, we were not affected. But on the first day of the war, I saw horrible photos of the fighting. I met with my comrades; we drank coffee, consulted, and went to the military enlistment office to join the territorial defence. We went home to change clothes and were in the barracks an hour later. I signed up for the territorial defence because I had only two moral options: to either flee the country in disgrace or defend it honourably.

"I have no military service experience, but I’ve watched a lot of American films."

The Russians had already come to our region as "liberators" in 1944. They imprisoned and shot many locals and destroyed our churches. They deprived my ancestors of their lands and houses and forcibly sent them to Donetsk to work in mines.

So I chose to defend my land, my country, and my family. I am a father of two daughters and two sons. At first, my family did not know that I had joined the defence. I said, “I will come [home] soon, I have a lot of work.” After two weeks, my wife and children found out where I really was.

My family is already used to my creative antics because I often travel the world. One day I went to a conference in Oman and called from there to say that I would be back in a month. The family also came to terms with the fact that I am now in eastern Ukraine. My wife said, “It's all clear. Do you have food? Okay!”

I still give lectures to students on Mondays and Tuesdays, three sessions a day. I teach narrowly specialised disciplines; the sociology of public opinion and deviant behaviour, manipulative technologies in psychology, the philosophy of religion, introduction to specialties of tourism studies. This is a problem because there are no teachers in such disciplines for these subjects - if it weren't for me, they would have to study just by reading books.

I have been giving lectures online because of Covid, so nothing changed for students during the war. Students did not see me on video. There was only my beautiful avatar and my voice.

Once a student asked, “What's that buzzing sound?” It was a cluster bombardment. I answered, “Do you want to see it?” and turned on the video. They saw me bearded in uniform. I came out of the dugout and they heard the sound of bombing much louder. After that, there were changes: more students began to attend my lectures, and even the laziest came.

My university colleagues did not know that I was at the front either. Only after my photo appeared on the internet did everyone find out.

I have no military experience, but I’ve watched a lot of American films. For example, the epic war film Saving Private Ryan is very realistic. My circumstances and the place where I am now are reminiscent of this film.

I am in the Izyum area in the Kharkiv region, six km from the soldiers. The task of our territorial defence unit is to protect the rear of the armed forces, to close gaps like, for example, some unnecessary forest roads. Our job is to be an alarm system. For instance, we see enemy troops and tell professionals who engage them. We take on night duty so that the soldiers can sleep. That is, we play a secondary, but important security role.

I've learned how to disassemble and clean a machine gun and understand what sorts of anti-tank rocket launchers there are - the so-called Mukha, Javelin, and others – as well as what air defence entails. I can already distinguish when our army shoot from when others shoot.

The army consists of discipline and self-discipline. You have to reinvent yourself, which is very difficult. During the war, I lack communication and coffee – I mean not instant, but espresso.

I give lectures in a dugout, there is a good mobile 4G internet connection there. Twice during lectures, students heard loud explosions. I then asked them to wait a bit. On a psychological level I feel that when students learned the truth about my role, their attitudes toward me changed. For example, they changed their ‘goodbye’ to ‘thank you". Most of them became volunteers. And when something is needed at the front, I turn to them also. It can be any things from tactical goggles to socks because soldiers do not always have time to wash socks.

Yesterday there was a conference. I put on my headphones, said hello, then listened to my colleagues. During the 90 days of the war, I’ve taken part in more than 30 seminars and conferences. Usually, I put on my headphones and dig a trench for myself. You need only in-ear headphones and good internet. Sometimes I am distracted by my army work, then I apologise to my colleagues, or I just end the call and go.

My wife and daughter send me messages, "I love you, kiss you." When something terrible comes to my mind in the trench, I look at their messages.

So far, we are able to be in contact every day when there is a connection. Social media is also full of supportive messages from students.

The war changed me, I became more disciplined, and I lost seven kilos. I only dream about a peaceful life. When I return from the war to my hometown, I will definitely do a few things before I even go home. I will sit in the city and drink coffee, call my friends, drink another coffee and eat the famous Uzhhorod cake. And then I'll go home and shave.

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