Photo courtesy of Valerya Petrova 

First-year art history grad student Ekaterina “Katya” Kulinicheva planned to return home to Russia after earning her doctorate from Northwestern, but she wasn’t prepared for the “destructive” effect the Russia-Ukraine war would have on her future.

“I don’t think my prior plan is relevant anymore because of the political situation,” Kulinicheva said after a deep breath, leaning back in a plush lounge chair in Kresge Hall. “Now it just doesn’t feel safe.”

Kulinicheva said Russia’s current climate is one of a witch hunt for anti-war citizens.

Fiddling with her chunky, colorful earrings, Kulinicheva referenced the imprisonment of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition activist. Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison for criticizing Russian attacks in Ukraine, according to NPR.

“You never know who will be next,” Kulinicheva said.

Kulinicheva said advocating against the Russian government’s violence is crucial to her.

“My mission is to continue to say to people that what the government does isn’t Russia,” Kulinicheva said. “They don’t have a right to monopolize what Russia is.”

She said it’s painful to watch the war and hopes the Russian government can learn from past conflicts.

She has a lot of worries, but she said she hesitates to voice them because they’re complicated when compared with Ukrainians’ struggles.

“It’s not a competition,” Kulinicheva said. “I never try to say, ‘Oh, I’m struggling too.’ It’s incomparable.”

She misses her family more than anything. She grew up in Cayuga, Russia, where her parents still live, but her yearly summer trip back home might not be possible.

“They miss me, too,” Kulinicheva said with a tremor in her voice. “They would prefer to have me home.”

Kulinicheva said she puts questions of the future and her return to Russia “on pause.” She said she often finds it too difficult to dwell on.

Kulinicheva appears optimistic despite her future’s uncertainty, according to Art History Program Assistant Elizabeth Upeniek. Upeniek said she guides graduate students like Kulinicheva during their transition to art history at Northwestern.

“She went through a lot coming from Russia to the U.S., but she always had a great attitude,” Upenieks said. “She is just so strong.”

Kulinicheva’s positive mindset makes her a classroom leader, said French professor Lam-Thao Nguyen. He has taught Kulinicheva as a student in his introductory French class since January 2023.

“When things get tough, it looks like she takes it as, ‘Well, I guess that’s how it is, and that’s that,’” Nguyen said. “It doesn’t look like something that is jarring or throwing her off.”

Nguyen said Kulinicheva has “great interpersonal skills.” He added that she is approachable and clearly wants to learn from others.

Kulinicheva arrives early to class eager to interact with her peers, Nguyen said. She walks into the room with a Yoda-themed water bottle full of juice and confidently takes a seat next to someone new.

Kulinicheva can’t resist cracking frequent jokes, Nguyen said. He noted the juxtaposition of her unassuming black attire and vibrant laughter. Kulinicheva opens up the room and makes him laugh, he added.

“It makes everyone feel at ease,” Nguyen said. “She talks freely with me and her peers, regardless of age or academic status.”

First-year Weinberg student Mia Perkins has taken French with Kulinicheva for two quarters at Northwestern.

Perkins said 36-year-old Kulinicheva has always treated her warmly despite their 16-year age difference.

“I took a DNA test and found out I’m 48 percent Russian,” Perkins said. “I told Katya and she gave me a big hug. It’s like having another friend in class who’s my age.”

Perkins came to Northwestern from Whanganui, New Zealand, and said she has solidarity with Kulinicheva as an international student despite coming from very different countries.

She said she sees Kulinicheva as just another student but with additional experience and wisdom.

Kulinicheva easily makes others feel at home, said 28-year-old David Jones. Jones is in Kulinicheva’s art history program cohort. He said they’ve grown closer through Introductory French, which they took to fill their program’s language requirement.

Jones said she is a grounding presence amid stressful expectations at the University.

“In a place like this where there’s a certain expected output, it’s so nice to be with someone who acknowledges all of your sensibilities that you might not even see yourself,” Jones said.

Nguyen said Kulinicheva challenges herself to bond with her classmates.

“It’s telling of her personality as some sort of leadership skill – there are some personalities that act as a sort of cement,” Nguyen said. “I think she’s that type of individual.”

Jones said he thinks Kulinicheva has all the characteristics necessary for success despite current unpredictability. He added that wherever she imagines herself, she’ll be fine.

Accordig to Jones, while Kulinicheva could find success in many realms, she would be a particularly great teacher. He said her ability to communicate and relate to people is an important skill for a teacher to have.

Kulinicheva shares Jones’ vision for her future. She said she wants to share art history, her first academic love, with others. She grew up surrounded by art, noting that her mom even considered becoming an art historian herself.

“We always had a lot of books about art history within our house, and my maternal grandparents also had a lot of books about art,” Kulinicheva said.

She said her greatest interest in art is the intersection between art and the outer world. She used to create art, but she explained that while she enjoyed artistic expression, she never really had “the spark.”

Where does Kulinicheva find her spark? She said it’s present when she’s researching art history. She hopes to work in academia and said she knows she has the skills to get there, regardless of current obstacles.

“I’m pretty determined. I think I might even be stubborn,” Kulinicheva said with a laugh. “It helps not to give up when it’s tough.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story summarized a quote from David Jones that highlighted Kulinicheva as a "grounding presence amid stressful expectations in the program." After speaking with Jones, it seems he meant to convey the stress of the University itself. The language has been modified accordingly. NBN regrets the error.