The Ukraine War Dashes a Grad’s Commencement Plans

May 9, 2022

By Bonnie Eissner

Anna Zhelnina, a Russian citizen working in Finland, was looking forward to getting hooded in person.

Anna Zhelnina, Sociology (2021) Alumna
Anna Zhelnina (Ph.D. '21, Sociology), a Russian citizen, can't get a visa to come to New York. (Photo courtesy of Zhelnina)

Graduate Center alumna Anna Zhelnina (Ph.D. ’21, Sociology) has been busy since completing her doctorate at the height of the COVID pandemic. A postdoctoral researcher in Finland, she also co-authored a book on social movements. She was looking forward to attending Commencement this June, but her plans were foiled by the diplomatic fallout from the Russia-Ukraine War. A Russian national, she is unable to obtain a visa.

She spoke to the Graduate Center about the setback, her latest research, and her advice for current Ph.D. students.

The Graduate Center: I understand that you were planning to come to Commencement in June. What happened and how are you feeling about it?

Zhelnina: I am a Russian citizen, and I need a visa to travel pretty much anywhere. I defended my dissertation in 2020. My defense was on Zoom, and the graduation in 2021 was also virtual. Although I appreciated that symbolic gesture, I was still looking forward to the in-person Commencement and made a visa appointment as soon as the U.S. Consulate in Finland reopened this opportunity after the COVID-related hiatus. It was scheduled in March. On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. New and tragic exceptional times began. My visa appointment was canceled, and I don’t know whether and when I would be able to visit the U.S. and the Graduate Center again. It looks like a minor damage compared to the horrors of the war, but I do feel gutted about it.

GC: What are you working on as a postdoctoral researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Studies?

Zhelnina: I am an urban and political sociologist, and in Helsinki I’m working on projects exploring civic participation in urban redevelopment processes. Specifically, I focus on the engagement of linguistic and ethnic minorities in urban governance and decision-making and try to identify the challenges and barriers in the political integration of minority groups at the local level. In this work, I examine how political arenas can become key spaces for cultural and political integration of people with immigration experiences, because meetings, discussions, informal conversations, and even situations of misunderstanding in these arenas offer mutual learning opportunities for the city officials and the “new” and “old” citizens.

GC: How did your experience at the Graduate Center prepare you for the work you’re doing now?

Zhelnina: My years at the GC were formative for me as a person and as an academic. My fellow students were diverse and interesting people, and I learned from them as much as I did from the professors. There were also so many opportunities available to learn beyond my immediate study field. Workshops, lectures by visiting researchers, and interdisciplinary centers at the Graduate Center allowed us to create connections and learn across disciplines. I also feel very fortunate to have taught at CUNY. CUNY undergrads are the best.

GC: You wrote a chapter on Alexei Navalny for the new book Gains and Losses: How Protestors Win and Lose, which you co-authored with your adviser, Professor James M. Jasper, and fellow Graduate Center scholars. What are the main takeaways from your chapter?

Zhelnina: This book foregrounds the daily work social movements and political players must do routinely to achieve their goals. It is about the constant effort that democracy requires: making difficult choices, finding creative solutions, and creating and maintaining relationships. One of the takeaways from the chapter on Alexei Navalny is that sometimes it requires more personal sacrifice, especially when a political player operates in a country with weak or nonexistent democratic institutions and in an atmosphere of distrust and despair.

GC: Looking back at your Graduate Center experience, what advice do you wish you could have given yourself at the start of your Ph.D.?

Zhelnina: Seek out and use the opportunities at the Graduate Center. Take classes outside of your program, attend the events and colloquia, use the workshop opportunities at the Teaching and Learning Center and the Writing Center. The Ph.D. experience doesn’t have to be narrow and solitary; there are many ways to broaden your horizons and socialize at the Graduate Center.

Hear from Anna Zhelnina on how Russians are reacting to the war in Ukraine and political repression at home, in this International Horizons podcast.

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