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‘I thought I had forgotten this horror’: Ukrainian scientists stand in defiance

People clear debris from a damaged military base in Okhtyrka in the Sumy region, Ukraine

People clear debris from a damaged military base in Okhtyrka in the Sumy region of Ukraine.Credit: Irina Rybakova/Handout/Reuters

“I survived this already eight years ago,” says economist Illya Khadzhynov. “I am from Donetsk.”

As the world awoke to news on 24 February that Russia had invaded Ukraine, including its capital Kyiv, Ukraine’s people were being forced to make impossible decisions about whether to stay and shelter, attempt to flee or fight for their country.

As the conflict approaches the one-week mark, Ukrainian researchers have described to Nature how they have responded. Some scientists say that their colleagues and students have taken up arms to defend their country. Others have remained in cities, looking after their families and watching the devastation wrought by Russian shelling on apartment and university buildings. “We are not thinking 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 relocated to Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, displaced by the conflict in the Donbas region, parts of which are claimed by separatists. “It moved to Vinnytsia with no resources, no buildings. It had a rebirth,” says Khadzhynov.

For Khadzhynov, the events of the past week remind him of that time, when he was forced to leave his hometown of 35 years. “It’s the second time in my life this is happening. I thought I had forgotten all this horror. Unfortunately, it is repeated.”

When the attack came on 24 February, Khadzhynov was on the train to Kyiv. He received a text from his brother telling him the invasion had started, got off at the next stop and went back to Vinnytsia. Lectures at the university immediately moved online. Alongside his colleagues, Khadzhynov’s priority was his students’ well-being.

“We are thinking first of our students and personnel — what should we do and what should we say to them,” he says. “The main point for us is to give students psychological help and assistance for mental health.” Khadzhynov had not seen Russian forces in Vinnytsia when he spoke to Nature on 2 March, and had been going to his university to work every day. But he said air-raid alerts were ongoing. “The air alarms help us. In Donetsk, there were no air alarms, they simply started shelling.”

Many students at Khadzhynov’s university have entered the territorial defence forces, which are handing out weapons to any adult willing to defend the country; about 18,000 arms have been given out. Ukraine has announced conscription of all men aged 18–60, but students and those teaching in universities or in scientific positions are exempt, says Khadzhynov.

Picture from Kyiv

“It is probably coming to the next Russian bombardment,” says Maksym Strikha, a physicist at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, from his apartment in central Kyiv on 1 March. “We hear shelling every day.”

The front line is about 30 kilometres away, he says, and small groups of Russian soldiers are continually trying to penetrate the city, but have so far been stopped by Ukrainian soldiers. Many younger students at his institute have also taken up arms. “They are either on the battlefield or supporting the army,” he says. (Colleagues his age and older — Strikha is 60 — are too old to fight, he says.)

“I can make no plans,” says Strikha. “Yesterday, I sent my colleagues a draft of my manual in Ukraine of solid-state physics. If the situation will not be good for me, maybe someone can edit this manual and publish it.”

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at the Kharkiv National University building

The Kharkiv National University building in Ukraine’s second city has been badly damaged by Russian bombardments.Credit: Oleksandr Lapshyn/Reuters

Due east of Kyiv, 30 kilometres from the northeastern Russian border, is Sumy National Agrarian University. Yuriy Danko, an economist and vice-rector for scientific work at the institute, says that shelling has damaged dormitory and university buildings. “All windows were broken, all doors were broken, all floors were destroyed.”

“There are victims,” says Danko. “Including many among the civilian population.”

Danko says that some students left but most remained. The city has formed a territorial defence unit that accepts all types of people. “Students and scientists took up arms today.”

On 1 March, Danko was at the university helping students who hadn’t had time to leave and were still in dormitories — about 400. These include 170 students from other countries, including China, India and Nigeria. “It is currently impossible to evacuate them and they are in bomb shelters. We are in bomb shelters during bombings and at night.”

Coordinating help

From Riga, Sanita Reinsone, a digital-humanities researcher at the University of Latvia, is coordinating efforts to help Ukrainian scientists. On 26 February, she made a dedicated Twitter account for the hashtag #ScienceforUkraine, which has garnered more than 4,000 followers.

At first, institutes, universities and research organizations worldwide were offering moral support. But within days, many were providing detailed information about scholarships, fellowships and even offering to pay salaries for Ukrainian researchers. “I didn’t expect the calls of support to be so wide,” said Reinsone. “So far, I’ve compiled 50 organizations, but there could be more than 100 worldwide.” Offers have come in from Chile to Japan.

Reinsone took on the task of organizing the opportunities after feeling that she couldn’t sit and watch as a neighbouring country struggled under Russian aggression. “It was personal for me,” she says. An information-technology specialist from her department helped to create a website that shows a map of universities around the world and support they’re offering. “Ukrainian scholars don’t have the time to search these offers individually, so we want to aggregate 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 working at Bell Labs, the Pentagon and as a institute director at the University of Michigan, he spent many years helping Ukraine to develop its scientific system after it gained independence, including as part of a nine-person international committee appointed by the Ukrainian government.

“Six months ago, I was excited to see young people working in labs and heading departments, which was very unusual,” says Gamota. “What will happen now is anybody’s guess,” he says. In one scenario, Russia could impose regime change and install a Kremlin-friendly government. “That would be a tragedy, because more young people would flee, and the chances of Ukraine really developing would be stymied.”

For Khadzhynov, the suggestion of regime change prompts a swift answer: “In this case, I will move abroad.”

Nature 603, 210-211 (2022)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00621-6

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