Scientists at war in Ukraine and in Russia: Life versus freedom

May 17, 2022

by Ilya Kolmanovsky

Ilya Kolmanovsky on how Ukrainian and Russian scientists differ in their outlooks, the former optimistic and the latter pessimistic about the role they can play for their country in the future.
What would you choose: trying to survive missile attacks or working for a dictatorship; witnessing carnage firsthand or fearing repression; giving up your life’s work to join the city militia or giving it up for lack of lab supplies due to sanctions?

Being a scientist in a country under attack is a difficult ordeal, but living in the country doing the attacking presents its own challenges. I spent many hours interviewing both sides this spring, and to my surprise found that for Russians, their relative safety is far outweighed by the lack of hope to decide their own future.

Olga Shpak is a marine zoologist. Born and raised in Ukraine, she spent her entire career living and working in Russia for 25 years, in particular studying whales in the Russian Far East. She left her Moscow-based home and work for Ukraine days before the beginning of the war. She did not know whether she would ever be able to return to Russia, but she couldn’t stay: she felt that if Russia attacked Ukraine and she wasn’t with her family, she would either end up in jail or lose her mind. Right after her hometown Kharkiv became one of the main targets of Russian missile attacks, Olga joined the ranks of the city volunteers.

Olga’s life now consists of fundraising, delivering and distributing humanitarian aid and helping to clear the rubble after buildings collapse. She describes how she was mortified to hear that a missile had hit right next to the headquarters where all her fellow volunteers were situated. How she has seen motionless people being carried on stretchers from under ruins. How she hasn’t taken her elderly mother to a bomb shelter because she’s too frail to get there in time from the fifth floor of their apartment building.
A sports center at Kharkiv University, 2022.
But when night comes, Olga sits at her laptop in her kitchen and her long-distance job begins – she spends hours consoling her Russian colleagues. Here is an excerpt from a message:

“I recently found out that you’re in Kharkiv, and since then I’ve been trying to come up with some words of support. Nothing comes to mind – I don’t have the right words. What I have is pain, shame and hatred for those who started this war. You are truly tough, and I’m glad that I know you. I hope that you and your loved ones are safe and sound. I realize I’m not of much use: I can’t kill Putin or even wire any money to you (IK: this is now a serious crime under Russian law).
But if there is anything I can do, please let me know.”
Olga told me that she’s sure that her friends in Moscow are worse off. “At least I can breathe freely. I’m not afraid. If I live to see the future, I know that this will have been interesting, and that I will make it the way I want it. But as for the guys [back in Russia] – their situation is very different, and I feel how much they need support. They often want to just chat with me to stave off severe depression,” she says.

The sea, whales, science – this was what gave meaning to Olga Shpak’s life. But now she says she isn’t sure she’ll continue to work in research. You would expect this to be a sad thought, but she says it serenely: Olga is sure that Ukraine will win and that after the victory she’ll take part in rebuilding what has been destroyed, serving her country. She expects her colleagues from all over the world to come to Kharkiv and help plant new trees. In fact, the loss of ancient trees because of the bombardment she grieves equally as the loss of city infrastructure.

Severe depression is a good way to describe it. I received a long, desperate voice message from a Russian biochemist, Anna Dobrozhanskaya. She lives in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, and she has made a career trying to figure out how clams spend such little energy on shutting their shells. Anna belongs to one of the leading groups in her field globally and has published prolifically, but she decided to resign soon after the war began. Supplies for her lab were cut due to both sanctions and budget problems, though this isn’t the main reason she quit – Anna doesn’t want to collaborate with the regime. “I don’t want to serve a state that doesn’t strive to invest in progress, but instead lives by empty slogans. I don’t want to support the normalization of this, that hypocritical façade,” she said in a deeply dolorous tone.

As a Russian, I myself had a most striking opportunity to compare my own emotions with those of my Ukrainian counterparts.

I was interviewing Vasylyna Borysiuk, a friend and colleague of a recently deceased young Ukrainian mathematician named Yulia Zdanovskaya, also from Kharkiv. Yulia graduated with a BS in mathematics, but was very active in teaching and took a job at a rural school. At the graduation ceremony in June 2021, they joked that she would soon become a Harvard professor – rather seriously she replied that she didn’t want that but she might consider the post of education minister. Right after the war started, Yulia volunteered for the city militia and soon after died in a missile attack. MIT has started a memorial research program in her name.

A school building in Kharkiv, 2022.
Looking at the experiences of other postcolonial countries would also be very valuable to the discussion. France appears as an obvious case because of its colonial past in the Maghreb, as well as the still very painful memory wars regularly disrupting French-Algerian relations. Even in a democratic setting such as in France, society needs decades to move away from acceptance of the colonial past and the civilizing destiny of the nation. The painful debate about the Third Republic – the flagship of the French republican idea of the nation, offering democracy for all (men) and secular public education for all – and its virulent colonialism still haunts political debates both inside the left and right.

Modern Turkey’s trajectory offers obvious parallels with Russia and its quest for a new greatpowerness restauration. The Kemalist revolution – focused on modernizing and breaking with the imperial Ottoman past – has now been replaced by a restorationist ideology centered on nostalgia for past grandeur, religion and conservative values, and authoritarianism.

Closer to Russia, the case of Serbia suggests other obvious similarities: the difficulty of letting the Yugoslav past go (for Russia, the Soviet past), of accepting that key historic places and events have to be shared with other nations (the Battle of Kosovo and Kiev/Kyiv as the “mother of Russian cities”) and of showing repentance over committed state violence.
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