Ukrainian scientists challenge
“I survived this already eight years ago,” says economist Illya Khadzhynov. “I am from Donetsk.”
As the world learned on February 24 that Russia had invaded Ukraine, including its capital Kiev, the Ukrainian people were forced to make impossible decisions about whether to stay and take shelter, attempt to flee or fight for his country.
As the conflict draws closer to a week, Ukrainian researchers have described Nature how they responded. Some scientists say their colleagues and students took up arms to defend their country. Others remained in the cities, caring for their families and watching the devastation wrought by Russian bombardments on apartment and university buildings. “We don’t think about research,” says Khadzhynov.
Air Raid Alerts
Khadzhynov is vice-rector for scientific work at Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University. In 2014, the 85-year-old university moved to Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, displaced by conflict in the Donbass region, parts of which are claimed by separatists. “He moved to Vinnytsia without resources, without buildings. It had a renaissance,” says Khadzhynov.
For Khadzhynov, the events of the past week remind him of that time, when he was forced to leave his 35-year-old hometown. “This is the second time in my life that this has happened. I thought I had forgotten all that horror. Unfortunately, it repeats itself.
When the attack took place on February 24, Khadzhynov was on the train to Kiev. He got a text from his brother telling him the invasion had started, got off at the next stop, and drove back to Vinnytsia. Classes at the university were immediately put online. Alongside his colleagues, Khadzhynov’s priority was the welfare of his students.
“We think of our students and our staff first – what should we do and what should we tell them,” he says. “The main thing for us is to give students psychological help and mental health assistance.” Khadzhynov had not seen Russian forces in Vinnytsia when he spoke with Nature March 2. But he said air raid alerts were on the way. “Atmospheric alarms help us. In Donetsk there were no air alarms, they just started bombing.
Many students at Khadzhynov University have joined the Territorial Defense Forces, which distribute weapons to any adult willing to defend the country; approximately 18,000 weapons were distributed. Ukraine has announced the conscription of all men between the ages of 18 and 60, but students and those who teach at universities or hold scientific posts are exempt, Khadzhynov says.
Photo of Kyiv
“It will probably happen with the next Russian bombardment,” Maksym Strikha, a physicist at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, said from his central Kyiv apartment on March 1. “We hear shelling every day.”
The front line is about 30 kilometers away, he said, and small groups of Russian soldiers are continually trying to enter the city, but have so far been stopped by Ukrainian soldiers. Many younger students at his institute also took up arms. “They are either on the battlefield or supporting the army,” he said. (Colleagues his age and older — Strikha is 60 — are too old to fight, he says.)
“I can’t make plans,” says Strikha. “Yesterday I sent my colleagues a draft of my solid-state physics textbook in Ukraine. If the situation is not good for me, maybe someone can edit this manual and publish it.
East of Kiev, 30 kilometers from Russia’s northeast border, is the Sumy National Agrarian University. Yuriy Danko, an economist and vice-rector for scientific work at the institute, says the shelling damaged dormitories and university buildings. “All the windows were smashed, all the doors were smashed, all the floors were destroyed.”
“There are victims,” Danko said. “Many of them among the civilian population.”
Danko says some students left but most stayed. The city has formed a territorial defense unit that accepts all types of people. “Students and scientists took up arms today.”
On March 1, Danko was at the university to help students who hadn’t had time to leave and who were still in dormitories – about 400. Among them, 170 students from other countries, including China, l India and Nigeria. “It is currently impossible to evacuate them and they are in bomb shelters. We are in bomb shelters during the shelling and at night.
Help with coordination
From Riga, Sanita Reinsone, a digital humanities researcher at the University of Latvia, is coordinating efforts to help Ukrainian scientists. On February 26, she created a Twitter account dedicated to the hashtag #ScienceforUkrainewhich has amassed nearly 3,000 subscribers.
In the beginning, institutes, universities and research organizations around the world offered moral support. But within days, many provided detailed information about scholarships, fellowships, and even offered to pay the salaries of Ukrainian researchers. “I didn’t expect the calls for support to be so wide,” Reinsone said. “So far I’ve compiled 50 organizations, but there could be more than 100 worldwide.” Offers have arrived from Chile to Japan.
Reinsone took on the task of organizing the opportunities after feeling she could not sit back and watch a neighboring country struggle under Russian aggression. “It was personal to me,” she says. An information technology specialist in her department has helped create a website featuring a map of universities around the world and the support they offer. “Ukrainian scholars don’t have time to research these offers individually, so we want to put all the details in one place,” she says.
A continent away, in Lexington, Massachusetts, the situation in Ukraine reminds physicist George Gamota of his childhood. He fled Ukraine with his family in 1944, aged 5, and arrived in the United States in 1949. After a career at Bell Labs, the Pentagon, and as an institute director at the University of Michigan, he spent many years helping Ukraine develop. its scientific system after its independence, including as part of a nine-person international committee appointed by the Ukrainian government.
“Six months ago, I was thrilled to see young people working in labs and leading departments, which was very unusual,” says Gamota. “What will happen now is anyone’s guess,” he said. In one scenario, Russia could impose regime change and install a pro-Kremlin government. “It would be a tragedy, because more young people would flee and Ukraine’s chances of real development would be destroyed.”
For Khadzhynov, the suggestion of regime change calls for a quick response: “In that case, I will go abroad.