Ukrainian scientists see working amid war as act of defiance
Anton Vlaschenko often hears shelling outside his office in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, not far from the front lines of the war. He sometimes even sees smoke rising from Russian tanks hit by missiles.
But the 40-year-old zoologist continues his work, dissecting and labeling bat tissue, as he probes the disease ecology of the flying mammals. When news of the war overwhelms him, he says, it helps to have something familiar to do with his hands.
He also sees it as an act of defiance.
“Our staying in Ukraine, our continuing to work — it’s some kind of resistance of Russian invasion,” Vlaschenko said via Zoom, a barrage of shelling audible in the background. “The people together in Ukraine are ready to fight, not only with guns. We don’t want to lose our country.”
His resolve isn’t unique. Like other Ukrainians whose labors aren’t essential to the war effort, the scientists and academics want to continue their important work where they can.
A common refrain is that they want to stay connected to their scholarly community, which provides a shard of normalcy amid the chaos and violence, and “keep the light of Ukrainian science and humanities alive,” said Yevheniia Polishchuk, who teaches at Kyiv National Economic University.
As vice chair of the Young Scientists Council at Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science, Polishchuk organized an online survey of academics to assess their situation and needs after the Feb. 24 invasion. An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 scholars had left Ukraine by early April — mostly women with families — but about 100,000 stayed.
Most who went abroad wound up in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, getting temporary positions at European institutions. Some scientists have received grants from the Polish Academy of Sciences, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and other organizations. Polishchuk, now in Krakow with her children and husband, is a visiting professor at a university for May and June but says she hopes to return to Kyiv when fighting stops.
“We don’t want the war to result in a brain drain from Ukraine,” she said.
While Ukrainian scholars are appealing to international scientific bodies for assistance — including remote work opportunities and access to journals, datasets, archives and other materials — there is also a will to prevent the war from permanently sapping talent and momentum from the country’s academic and professional ranks, which will be needed to rebuild after fighting stops.
“Most of our scholars do not want to move abroad permanently; they want to stay in Ukraine,” Polishchuk said.
Shortly after the war began, Ivan Slyusarev, a 34-year-old astronomer, helped the director of Kharkiv National University’s observatory move computers, monitors and other materials into the basement, which had sheltered equipment and historical artifacts when Nazi forces occupied the city during World War II.
The observatory’s main telescope is located in a field in Russia-occupied territory, about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Kharkiv on the road to Donetsk. Slyusarev said he doesn’t know its condition, but thinks Ukrainian forces blew up a nearby bridge to stop the Russian advance.
He is relying on scientists outside Ukraine to continue his work. Astronomers in the Czech Republic have sent him observational data from their telescope so he can keep analyzing the properties of metallic asteroids. He also can see data from a small robotic telescope in Spain’s Canary Islands. He operates mostly from a home office on the outskirts of Kharkiv.
Slyusarev, who says he became an astronomer because of “romantic” ideas about the stars, finds refuge in scientific discovery. Astronomy “produces only positive news” and is a welcome respite from daily life, he said.
“It’s very important in wartime,” he added.
After the war started, theoretical physicist and astronomer Oleksiy Golubov left Kharkiv to join his parents in Batkiv, a village in western Ukraine.
Although the buildings of the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology were “bombed and shelled and virtually destroyed,” Golubov said, the school continues to offer some remote classes. He has been keeping in touch with students online — in Kharkiv, in western Ukraine and in Poland and Germany.
The 36-year-old scientist is also a coordinator and trainer for the Ukrainian students preparing to compete in the International Physicists Tournament, a competition for tackling unsolved physics problems that is being held in Colombia this month. The students, who had been training online, met this week in Lviv for the first time — following train journeys delayed by the war.
“We still want to take part and prove that even inconveniences like war can’t stop us from doing good science and having a good education,” he said.
Golubov, who was turned down from joining the military because of a paralyzed hand, submitted a paper in March to the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics and wrote in the acknowledgements, “We are grateful to Ukrainians who are fighting to stop the war so that we can safely finish the revision of this article.”
Some scholars, like Ivan Patrilyak, dean of the history department at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, have enlisted. Eighteen months ago, he was hosting a speaker series on the legacy of World War II and lecturing about the Holocaust. Now, he’s with a territorial defense unit in Kyiv.
Igor Lyman, a historian at the State Pedagogical University in Berdyansk, had to flee when Russian forces occupied the port city early in the war. Before leaving, he had seen the troops break into dormitories to interrogate students and order administrators to teach in Russian, rather than Ukrainian, and use a Moscow-approved curriculum. He said the directors “refused and resigned.”
He later settled in a camp for internally displaced persons at Chernivtsi National University, living in a dormitory with academics from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Kherson and other cities.
“Each of these families has its own terrible story of war,” he wrote in an email. “And everyone, like me, dreams of our victory and coming back home.”
He said the Russian forces “are doing everything they can to impose their propaganda.”
Vlaschenko, the Kharkiv zoologist, wanted to protect 20 bats in his care from the shelling, so he carried them to his home, a walk of about an hour. It also helped to preserve his valuable research, which couldn’t be easily replaced, even if buildings and labs can be rebuilt after the war.
“All the people who decided to stay in Kharkiv agreed to play this dangerous and potentially deadly lottery,” he said, “because you never know in what areas a new rocket or new shell would hit.”
As he scrambles to record data and safeguard his rare samples, he sees it as part of his mission — “not only for us, but also for science in general.”
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