Researchers from Ukraine reflect on 12 months of conflict and their hopes for the future
It has been one year since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As the death toll mounted and the devastation reached appalling levels, researchers joined their fellow citizens in fleeing to other parts of Europe and across the world to try to continue their work. Others stayed behind to work in Ukraine or join the fighting.
The international research community has scrambled to support those who stayed in the country with grants, equipment and access to academic resources.
Researchers who left have been offered placements at universities and help with resettling.
There is no sign that the need for support will end any time soon.
Here four researchers from Ukraine reflect on the past 12 months, how their lives have changed and their hopes for the future.
Opportunity for change
Sergey Kolotilov is acting deputy director at the LV Pisarzhevsky Institute of Physical Chemistry in Kyiv
I was in Kyiv when the war began. Many people, including myself, were shocked. They couldn’t believe it was true. On that day, I woke up at about 5am. A student called me and said: “It’s begun.”
I was lying in bed and was listening for the sound of explosions—I think there was an attack on the Ukrainian military air base about 20 kilometres away from Kyiv to the south. Then, there were several hours of silence.
Despite this, at about 10am I went to the institute because it was a working day. Many people came to the institute that day. After the first day of the invasion, I lived in the institute for two and a half months, day and night.
There were about 10 people living in the institute. We observed the territory and looked for mines or bright colour indicators—we read that Russian agents put markings on the roofs or on the ground in bright paint to mark out buildings for attack. We repaired the windows, which were broken by explosions, and checked the passports of people who went down to our shelters.
My wife and children went to Budapest, Hungary, at the beginning of March. In the first weeks of the invasion we expected that there could be military action directly on the streets of Kyiv, but then we understood that the city escaped this danger. My family returned in the middle of June, and since then I have lived at home and I go to the institute every working day. Almost as usual.
It is my impression that the international scientific community has supported everybody who wanted to find a position outside Ukraine after 24 February. I don’t know anybody who looked for a position abroad and could not find one in a short period of time. Scientists who stayed in Ukraine, like myself, have also been supported. I got a lot of letters from researchers I know from France, Germany and the US. All these scientists asked what they could do for me.
After a year of war, it is very important to finish the conflict, but the changes needed in Ukraine are of no less importance. It would be one of the worst things to win in the war but leave the country as it was some years ago. We need to tackle our country’s efficiency of administration and its corruption, and get a feeling of freedom similar to the most advanced countries in the world.
I hope that the pressure of the EU and the US in the fight against corruption and in the implementation of reforms will give good results, after long years of hoping and waiting. It is important for us to join the EU, but it is even more important to get European laws working in Ukraine.
The hardest journey
Alona Klochko is professor of international relations and law faculty chair at Sumy National Agrarian University in Ukraine. She is now a research professor in the faculty of law at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland
In Ukraine, I built a fairly successful academic career over more than 15 years. I teach legal disciplines in English and supervise the scientific work of graduate students, and I have more than 120 works published in Ukrainian and English, including in highly rated publications. Before 24 February 2022, everything was good.
Our city, Sumy, was one of the first to feel the impact of the invasion as we are located about 30km from the border with Russia. The following weeks were more terrible than a nightmare.
When the ‘green corridor’ for evacuation opened in the Sumy region in March 2022, I made the decision to leave Ukraine and go to another country. After quickly gathering our documents, a laptop and some basic things, my nine-year-old daughter and I set off to nowhere. There was no plan at all.
I thought we could stay with friends and within two or three weeks, everything would be finished and we could return to normal life in Ukraine. First, we stayed for a few days with a colleague from Chernivtsi National University in a different part of Ukraine, then we stayed for a week in Romania. During that week, we agreed with distant relatives from Switzerland that we would stay with them.
It was probably one of the most difficult journeys of my life—to travel about 3,000km from Sumy, across the border into Romania and on to Switzerland, alone except for my daughter.
When we arrived in Switzerland, I decided to look for the nearest universities, out of curiosity. The nearest, at a distance of 40km, from our small Swiss village turned out to be the University of Neuchâtel. I found out that the university was helping students and scientists from Ukraine through the international Scholars at Risk programme, which supports at-risk academics.
After receiving my S status—which gives temporary protection in Switzerland—I was contracted to work for a year in the faculty of law of the University of Neuchâtel. I also continue to work with my students from Ukraine online.
I feel sincerely grateful to all of my colleagues at the University of Neuchâtel who helped me and other Ukrainian academics, which has contributed to the fact that Ukrainian researchers will be able to bring their experiences back to the Ukrainian educational and scientific environment in the future.
Evgen Dykyi is director of the National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine, and Olena Marushevska is the centre’s press secretary
Ukraine has a strong scientific interest in the polar regions, and we currently chair the international Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. Through the National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine, we have a research station in western Antarctica called the Vernadsky Research Base, which operates all year round.
Even there, the war has had an impact. Last February, our polar scientists in Ukraine had plane tickets booked to go out to the station and take over from the existing research team, who would then fly back home to Ukraine. But when the war broke out, Ukrainian air space was closed and they were unable to fly there. The centre had to quickly find ways to make sure the research continued and that the yearly staff rotation took place.
By early March, it had managed to gather some members of the team who had fled Ukraine to Poland, where the Polish Antarctic programme hosted them before they left for the Vernadsky Research Base. Our research vessel, an icebreaker called Noosfera, was also able to reach the station and bring supplies and help with the rotation.
For those who were returning to Ukraine, there was a hard choice: become a soldier or emigrate to continue their research. Some already knew that their research institutions’ buildings were ruined and they had nowhere to continue their scientific studies. Some joined the armed forces of Ukraine, exchanging a microscope for a rifle.
In this time of war, the National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine lives in two parallel worlds. In one world, we need to think about climate change, the conservation of vulnerable Antarctic nature and our international obligations; in the other, we need to deal with the harsh realities of war. In October, a Russian ballistic rocket hit our office, which was partly destroyed. Luckily, nobody was hurt as the shelling happened in the early morning. Now all our staff have to work online, through the blackouts and sirens.
We are grateful to the international community for both its scientific and its military support. Together we are working towards a time where there can be peaceful science instead of war.
Developing Ukrainian science
Larysa Zasiekina is professor of clinical psychology at Lesya Ukrainka Volyn National University and director of the Ukrainian Psychotrauma Center. She won a Researchers at Risk Fellowship through the British Academy and is currently a visiting scholar in the department of psychology at the University of Cambridge in the UK
My research field covers post-traumatic stress disorder, moral injury, continuous traumatic stress and cultural aspects of the memory of trauma. My focus is on the psychological intergenerational impact of genocide in Ukraine and eastern Europe, including studies of survivors of the Holocaust and the Holodomor (the artificial famine in the Soviet Union targeting ethnic Ukrainians) and their children.
This experience has been central to my current project—Exposure to Continuous Traumatic Stress and Its Consequences Among At-Risk Adolescents and Young Adults in Ukraine—which is being carried out at the University of Cambridge.
Since the war began, as a country we have strengthened our Ukrainian identity and our preparedness to fight for our independence and the freedom of Ukraine. Now, Ukrainians intentionally avoid everything aligned with Russia: language, history, culture and literature.
In the past 12 months, there has been excellent support for Ukrainian scholars in the international academic world, and many research centres have announced calls to support Ukrainian scholars. I came to the University of Cambridge through the Researchers at Risk Fellowship programme, which is run by the British Academy and the Council for At-Risk Academics.
Through this international support, Ukrainian scholars now have an unprecedented opportunity to be integrated into the global research arena and to develop the best international academic practices for Ukraine.
The war has definitely shaped my own research. In January 2022, I started coordinating my research on moral trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in army veterans, which was funded by the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine. But after the invasion, we shifted our focus to active-duty soldiers, their families and displaced people within Ukraine who required immediate psychological support. Our research data indicate a high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, depression and anxiety in civilians, who need urgent support through evidence-based interventions.
Russia aims to exhaust the Ukrainian people physically and morally; therefore, we are developing community resilience and trying to resist continuous traumatic stress. The Ukrainians are demonstrating incredible courage and strength. I believe that Ukraine will win the war in the next 12 months, and we will start rebuilding our country.
On the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen offered the country’s president Volodymyr Zelensky more support.
In a speech on 9 February, von der Leyen said that Ukraine, which wants to join the EU, was “advancing on its European path in an impressive manner”.
She stressed that accession to the union was “a merits-based process”, but she praised Ukraine’s ability to “deliver fast and with high quality—even as you fight an aggressor, even as you are at war”.
“I hear Ukrainian people so often speak about their hopes. They want their children to grow up in the EU,” she said. “Let us turn their Ukrainian dreams into reality, into the European way of life.”
This article also appeared in Research Europe and Research Fortnight