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Irwin Weil remains in close touch with his friends in Russia, and what he hears is gloomy.

“Of course they can’t say it in so many words,” says the longtime Evanston resident and Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University regarding the Russian war on Ukraine. “As you can imagine, phones may be tapped. But you can hear how upset and angry they are in their tone of voice and the way they talk.”

Irwin Weil (Photo by Nurbek Matzhani, CC BY-SA 4.0 Creative Commons license)

In the course of a 39-year teaching career at Northwestern, from 1966 to 2005, Weil made annual trips to the Soviet Union and, after the USSR dissolved, to Russia. He cultivated many friends in the academic and intellectual communities, primarily in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

“In the university in Moscow where I helped set up the American Studies Center, they never had a good word for Putin. They like him even less now,” Weil said. From talking with Russian émigrés outside Russia, Weil can gauge the full extent of their feelings against the war in Ukraine. “They don’t mince words; they say it’s a horrible, terrible business.”

Weil, who turns 94 on April 16, is no less angry. “It is awful that this country, Russia, which has produced some of the greatest writers and composers in history, is now responsible for creating millions of refugees and thousands of deaths,” he said.

However Weil also had sharp words for President Joe Biden’s statement, at the end of a March 26 speech in Warsaw, apparently ad libbing about Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!”

“It was a bad mistake,” Weil said. “How would we feel if a foreign power tried to bring about regime change in America? It’s not our business, it’s for the Russian people to decide.”

The problem, as Weil acknowledged, is that Putin has almost complete control of the Russian media, so the vast majority of Russians have no idea of the extent of casualties and damages. “It’s a crime even to use the words ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ in Russian media,” he said. “Censorship is very strict. The overwhelming majority of Russians don’t know what’s happening. The ones who do know are quite angry.”

Of course, as more body bags return to Russia, more families and friends of deceased soldiers are awakening to the carnage. But still, Weil said, that’s a small percentage of the country’s population.

As for the Russia’s military performance, while acknowledging that he is no military expert, Weil said “it’s clear” the invasion has foundered without achieving its goals.

Meanwhile Weil feels Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has conducted himself with almost Churchillian leadership. “[Zelenskyy] has made a tremendous impression. He has managed to touch the country’s national feelings in a very intense and deep way, as [Winston] Churchill did in 1939.”

Weil will continue his regular calls to his friends in Russia. “I want to reinforce to them that they have good friends in America. It means a great deal to them, especially now.”

More RoundTable coverage of how the war in Ukraine affects the Evanston area:

Ukrainians in Evanston watch from afar as destruction hits their homeland. Valeriia Rohoza, a sophomore studying computer science and physics at Northwestern, grew up in Chernihiv, Ukraine, just 60 miles from the Russian border.

‘It just tears my heart’: Ukrainians at Northwestern reflect on their home amid Russian invasion. Anastasia Simferovska grew up in Lviv in western Ukraine, and now lives in Evanston and is a Slavic studies doctoral student at Northwestern University. Her husband, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, a Northwestern professor, was born in Kyiv. Their family and friends, however, remain in Ukraine, facing a bloody Russian war.

A Rotary perspective on Ukraine. John Hewko, general secretary and CEO of Rotary International, talks about the growth of Rotary in Russia and Ukraine, the evolution of Ukraine as an independent nation in the post-Soviet period, and why he was not surprised by Russia’s invasion.

Niles North graduate living in Ukraine flees to Germany. Andrew Lyon grew up in Morton Grove and attended Niles North High School in the mid-1990s. After high school, he became an orchestra conductor, visited Ukraine for a conference and met his girlfriend, Oleksandra Yarova. A few months ago he moved to Kyiv.

Evanston clergy issue statement opposing violence in Ukraine. From the statement: “We, members of the Evanston clergy, stand with our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. From the very beginning, we have opposed Russian intervention in Ukraine, and we are unalterably opposed to the aggressive, violent onslaught of Russia’s military machine.”

Nine-year-old activist sells $1 pins to help Ukraine. At Secret Treasures Antiques & Collectibles, young Miranda Lyman has been selling blue and yellow buttons she made, raising money for a Ukraine relief fund.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...

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  1. When a Russian leader invades a harmless neighboring country, torches it and murders thousands of its inhabitants, it is no longer just the business of of Russians who runs their country. Wars of aggression has since the 1940s been defined as an international crime, making it the whole world’s business. If Joe Biden invaded Canada, it would indeed be the whole world’s business who runs the United States.