Ukrainian researchers: ‘We don’t want to abandon our students’

Despite the war, many Ukrainian researchers continue to work on next year’s enrolments, graduation theses and research. “One of my students is now fighting on the front line.”

A badly damaged residential building in Kyiv after a rocket attack in February. (Photo: Julia Rekamie/Unsplash)

  • Vox-editor Alex van der Hulst spoke via Skype with three Ukrainian scientists who continue their work in Ukraine. This is their story.

In Kyiv, they make jokes about COVID-19. “When someone finds an old face mask in their pocket, they say: Oh, if only we could go back to the pandemic, when all you needed to go out was a face mask, not a bullet-proof vest.” Maksym Yakovlyev grins a little as he shares the joke. The political science expert and Head of the School for Policy Analysis at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) is a refugee in his own city. As the city centre is under fire, he is staying on the safe side of the river, with three relatives in a one-room apartment.

Enormous damage
Now that things have quietened down in Kyiv, he plans to go and look at his apartment this week. This is the Monday after news of the Bucha massacre first came in. Yakovlyev is angry and ready to fight. He hopes for a Ukrainian victory, growing fierce as he talks about the inadequate support from abroad, and even fiercer still when talking about the Russians. When he hears that a Dutch politician who received money from Russia refuses to condemn the invasion, Yakovlyev loudly exclaims: “May he burn in hell!”

Maksym Yakovlyev. (Photo: private collection)

Many universities in Ukraine have remained active. As far as we know, the University of Mariupol has been destroyed, and the universities in Kharkov have also suffered severe damage. The famous Karazin University in Kharkov, where Nobel Prize winners Ilya Mechnikov, Lev Landau, and Simon Kuznets studied and worked, has been damaged. Ukrainian students and lecturers have fled, most of them within Ukraine, some to Europe. And yet, they are trying to pick up academic life again.


Entrance examination
Anna Osypchuk is trying as best she can to work on next year’s enrolments. “Every year, we organise an entrance examination for new students. We still have to see how we’ll do it this year. It’s important that everyone gets a fair chance, irrespective of their situation. And we also have people who are graduating, so that has to be organised too.”

Osypchuk is a colleague of Yakovlyev, and Head of the Master’s programme in Sociology at NaUKMA. Unlike Yakovlyev, she decided to remain in her house in the centre of Kyiv. “I feel safe here; my house is surrounded by large apartment blocks. I think they’re more likely to be a target than my little house. Also I haven’t spent a single night in an underground shelter yet.”

‘We abolished compulsory attendance for online lectures’

Osypchuk outlines the various problems facing students and researchers. “Some students ran away with only one bag, leaving all the materials for their thesis behind. Some work with interviews, and can’t collect data any more. We’re now trying to decide which rules to adjust. We abolished compulsory attendance for online lectures, because some students didn’t have access to a stable internet connection. We also abolished deadlines for assignments. Everyone is in a different situation. Most of all, we don’t want to abandon our students.”

You can find the original tweet with the video here

In quieter areas of Ukraine, in-person teaching continues to take place, say the researchers. But something that is far less the focus of Western news is the internal refugee flow within Ukraine. Millions of people are moving west, many of them finding shelter in schools or universities, which often gets in the way of in-person teaching.

Anna Osypchuk (Photo: private collection)
Students on the front line

Some students are fighting at the front. Osypchuk knows five of them, all with previous experience of military training. “Some students who are fighting plan to resume their studies when the war ends. They are now asking for extensions. Many students are actively involved in protecting the cities.”


Yakovlyev is in contact with students fighting on the front line. “One of them was among the troops that first entered Irpin and Bucha after the Russians had been evicted. We now know what happens under Russian occupation. The fear is stronger, but so is the resistance.”

Volodymyr Dubovyk fled from his hometown of Odessa and is currently in the west of Ukraine. Like all men aged between 18 and 60, the Professor of International Relations of the  Odessa Mechnikov National University is not allowed to leave the country, while at the same time, his status as professor exempts him from active service. Many researchers are in a similar situation, he explains via Skype. Including researchers who were hoping to accept an offer for a research position at a European university.

‘I don’t even ask my students anymore where they are’

Dubovyk looks relaxed. He is talking a lot to the media, as he says: ‘from Thailand to Chile’. “We’re still getting paid by the University, and I continue to teach online. I think many of our students are now abroad. I don’t even ask them anymore where they are. In the long-term, this is going to be a problem for universities. We have paying students and students on a grant. If paying students all leave for a foreign university or their parents lose their jobs, the university will also lose much of its income, which will end up costing jobs.”

Destroyed university
The European universities could try and set up partnerships with Ukrainian universities to support them, says Dubovyk. But simply sending money to Ukraine is complicated. Dubovyk outlines some alternatives. “One option is to organise an online round table. I used to join such events as a participant, but now, in my position as support staff and organiser, I sometimes get a substantial allowance, which helps me to get by for a while. These are the kinds of things you can do for researchers. As for what’s going to happen to my colleagues from the universities of Kharkov and Mariupol, no one knows. The cities have been destroyed, as have the universities. They’ll have to find shelter elsewhere. The future looks grim.”

Maksym Yakovlyev is happy with the European support, and offers some suggestions. “The EU Horizon Programme is still active. Doing research is unfortunately impossible in my situation. I’m happy if I manage to read or write a short piece. Normally, publication is a very lengthy process, but academic journals could perhaps launch special theme editions, inviting Ukrainian researchers to publish short pieces and share their experiences. And let the European researchers be our ambassadors. Lobby for Ukraine to be allowed to join the EU. Please, speak up and let the story of Ukraine be heard!” Anna Osypchuk is also grateful for ongoing financial support for various projects: “The Friedrich Naumann Foundation is supporting us, and the Konrad Adenauer Association continues to award grants. Plus, the Erasmus programmes for Ukrainian students abroad have been extended.”

Volodymyr Dubovyk. (Photo: private collection)
Support for Russians

The researchers are less happy with the support given to Russian refugees. “I understand that you are supporting Ukrainians and Russians”, says Volodymyr Dubovyk. “I would like to emphasise that these two groups run completely different risks. The situation here in Ukraine is far more dangerous than in Russia. If there’s enough left over, it’s fine to help a Russian, but please put Ukrainians first.”


 Yakovlyev is vehement. He pleads for stricter screening, and mentions examples of Russians who flee the country to avoid the sanctions, but still continue to support Putin. “Please don’t pay our refugees from the same pocket as the Russians. Surely, there must be other refugee funds that can pay for them?”

The three are dealing with the war in their own way. Dubovyk talks and writes a lot, Yakovlyev closely follows the news and recounts in detail the murders and rapes committed by Russians, voicing his despair. Osypchuk has on the contrary decided not to follow all the news. ‘It would paralyse me. I need to remain emotionally stable. As a researcher working on populism, I’m obsessed with finding out whether there is something in Russian culture that can explain all this. In November, I was still in Brussels for our Horizon research project on the common foreign affairs policy of the EU. At the time, there hardly seemed to be such a thing; it’s crazy to think how fast that has changed. I have colleagues who were already interviewing Ukrainians before this invasion, asking them what they thought of Russians, Russian soldiers, and the Russian elite. It’s interesting to see how their position has changed since.’

Mines in the Black Sea
Due to Odessa’s location, Dubovyk is focused on the developments in the Black Sea and the role of Turkey in the negotiations. “The Russians want to occupy southern Ukraine, but this wouldn’t affect our imports. Import through the southern ports is already impossible, because the Russians are blocking those ports. In fact, there are currently 94 foreign ships that have been stuck in port for quite some time. There is now talk of a kind of convoy to allow these ships to leave. The Russians also laid a lot of mines in the Black Sea, which ended up drifting in all directions because of a storm, some people say all the way to the Bosporus.”

‘Turkey is really profiting from this war’

Turkey acts as a mediator in the war. Dubovyk is sceptical about their motives: “It’s in their interest that the conflict remains limited. But they’re really profiting from this war. For example, they’re selling Ukraine drones, and helping us build a factory. But they’re also trading with Russia and inviting Russian oligarchs and tourists to Turkey.”

Nazi terms
As part of their research, the three have followed Russian activities and rhetoric in relation to Ukraine for some time. And yet, they are still surprised by the tone that is creeping in now. Yakovlyev quotes a recent opinion piece by the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti, containing advice for ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine. The text repeatedly refers to education as the source of ‘Ukrainian Nazism’. Yakovlyev: “They even use Nazi terms, calling us ‘Untermenschen’. They’re paving the way for a war of extermination.” Osypchuk listened with interest to intercepted conversations between Russian soldiers and their mothers or wives. “It’s all so cold-blooded. They’re mostly talking about what they’ll bring home from Ukraine.”

You can find the original tweet here.

The researchers are unsure about the future of their universities. Osypchuk: “First of all, the physical damage to the buildings must be repaired. Then we’ll need some kind of Marshall Plan for the universities. But I also understand that in the reconstruction of our country, universities may not be the top priority.”

Dubovyk hopes for a long-term ceasefire, even though like his colleagues, he has little faith in the negotiations. “It will take a really long time for the sanctions to have effect. More things will come to light that were and still are happening in secret. Bucha will not be the last place from where such images come. This is going to impact Ukrainians for many generations to come.”

The researchers dream of the day when they can travel once again. Before the pandemic, all three had planned multiple international conferences and trips. They look forward to catching their breath abroad. Yakovlyev spent a long time in Maastricht, and speaks a few words of Dutch. “What would be nice, once we are victorious, which is my hope, is if I could come to the Netherlands for a while, and visit the universities there.” Dubovyk has already received quite a few invitations to speak. With understated humour, he says: “I’ll be going on tour soon.”

This article was originally published in Vox, the independent magazine of the Radboud University.

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