special report
cracked and jagged Russian flag
special report
cracked and jagged Russian flag

Russian Scientists Grapple with an Uncertain Future

The now month-long invasion of Ukraine has resulted in changes in policies and severances of international scientific collaborations with Russian universities and researchers. The war has also precipitated a moral reckoning for many scientists in Russia.

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Anna Azvolinsky

Anna Azvolinsky is a freelance science writer based in New York City.

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Mar 25, 2022

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Within a few days of the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine late last month, about 30 faculty and students from a university in Saint Petersburg, Russia, began to pen an open letter. They described their antiwar sentiments, stated support for colleagues who are openly protesting and opposing Russian’s attack on Ukraine, and denounced the new “Iron Curtain” being erected by the Russian government to block sources of information and news within the country. 

“We argued about wording and grammar details,” Alexandra* (not her real name), a mathematician and one of the letter’s authors, tells The Scientist in Russian. She and her colleagues were far from alone: other groups of academics within Russia had already begun releasing public letters condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

Alexandra and her colleagues mulled over their letter for a few more days. Then, on March 4, one week after the start of the invasion, the Russian Parliament passed a law that could jail a citizen for up to 15 years for stating anything other than the government’s false narrative of the conflict in Ukraine—namely, that it is a “special military operation” to free the country. Anyone in Russia who calls the invasion a “war” or participates in antiwar protests is a target. “I realized that if we publish the letter, with the names of the signees, some of our students would likely be kicked out of the university, [and no longer exempt, as students, from service], some would be forced to join the Russian army. I decided I couldn’t be responsible for the peril of my students,” she says, noting that the letter still lives as a private Google document shared among the signees. 

As the war carries on, The Scientist spoke to Alexandra and more than a dozen other academic researchers—in biology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and linguistics—at Russian universities and institutes about the effects of new restrictions and their country’s rapidly increasing international isolation. The interviews were conducted in Russian peppered with some English and translated by The Scientist. Their stories, mostly told on the condition of anonymity, paint a picture of scientists who had hoped that they could be part of an effort to make their country more open, boost public health, and create opportunities for the next generation of researchers. Most express shock and disgust about the war, as well as sadness that the scientific future they were building is likely ruined. 

Increasing censorship  

Alexandra has gone to public antiwar protests in February and March and was detained earlier this month after finding herself, in a bright yellow puffer jacket, in close proximity to another protester in a bright blue jacket. A total of 40 people were taken to the police station, according to Alexandra. Before her court hearing, she spent the night detained with five other female protesters in a room at a police station intended for just two people and infested with bugs. She was released the next day after paying a fine. The other women with her were held for as long as 14 days. 

“I can’t stand to sit with my hands folded in my lap,” she says. It is likely that the university where she is employed could receive a history of her detentions—she had also been detained for other protests in the last few years, prior to the start of the new conflict in Ukraine—and that she could be fired, she says. “There are Russian scientists, citizens, opposed to the war who are not coming out publicly because they face the risk of getting fired from their job, [or] they have children or parents to take care of,” Alexandra notes. 

While Alexandra opted not to make her and her colleagues’ letter public, many professors, lecturers, alumni, postdocs, and students in Russia, as well as Russian researchers living abroad, have defied the law and published open letters denouncing the war in Ukraine. The atmosphere of openness and ability to voice antiwar sentiments varies among universities and even departments but is getting increasingly narrow for both faculty and students, according to academics who spoke with The Scientist. “I think that the cameras around the university are likely watching us,” said Tatyana*, a researcher and lecturer in one of the science departments at Moscow State University. 

I feel like the mouse trap has snapped on me and my family and we are mostly helpless to change our situation as a result of our government’s actions.

Thomas*, a molecular biologist at an institute in Moscow, says that the administrators of his center have fostered an open culture and that he has not felt any pressure from the Russian government. Despite this, he, like most other researchers who spoke with The Scientist, requested that both he and his institution remain unnamed in this article. He and his colleagues are now wary of speaking openly about their antiwar stance, he says, due to the risk of repercussions against them and their families. 

Tatyana says she’s taken part in or overheard only a few antiwar conversations in hallways and lecture halls. “Colleagues around me are being quiet. They are nervous. I am in horror and still in shock,” she tells The Scientist. “I feel like the mouse trap has snapped on me and my family and we are mostly helpless to change our situation as a result of our government’s actions.” 

For Ilya*, head of the mathematics department at a university in St. Petersburg, “this is the most horrific thing that I could imagine for my country, attacking a brother nation where so many of us have relatives, friends, and colleagues. I feel ashamed about my country. . . . There is no democracy left here, free speech is gone, and Russia is quickly becoming a news vacuum. We are in a complete dictatorship.” 

Ilya says he’s gone to antiwar public protests and has spoken to like-minded undergraduate and graduate students about the war. “My students are mostly liberal and antiwar, and that makes me happy.” However, he adds that two letters of complaint about him have been filed with his university by pro-Putin parents of antiwar undergraduate students, stating that he has had antiwar exchanges with students who oppose the Kremlin’s claims about the conflict in Ukraine. 

Students, including 13 from St. Petersburg University, have reportedly been expelled after being detained at antiwar protests. A total of 1,048 students, postdocs, and faculty members at the university have signed a letter stating their solidarity with the expelled students. 

The sentiments of the 14 scientists The Scientist spoke with by no means represent the views of all academics in Russia. Some of their colleagues, the interviewees say, support the Russian government, either out of patriotism—out of an us-against-them “old timer, Soviet mentality,” as one source described it—or, some speculated, because they believe state propaganda.   

Scientific collaborations and international funding wither  

As governments around the world have imposed escalating economic and social sanctions on Russia, many scientific and medical organizations have issued public statements denouncing the war in Ukraine and shutting out Russian scientists. The European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities has suspended the membership of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus—the country is Russia’s major ally and has a pro-Putin authoritarian government—until at least May 11. CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) has suspended Russia’s ability to observe the laboratory and has put any new collaborations with the country on hold, although it is continuing ongoing projects that involve Russian scientists. The European Society of Cardiology has suspended Russian and Belarussian members and barred professionals working in those countries from its events. And after hundreds of university rectors in Russia published a letter on March 3 stating their solidarity with the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin, the European University Association and the European Research Council suspended the memberships of participating Russian universities. 

One of the largest gatherings of mathematicians in the world, the International Congress of Mathematicians, held every four years, was to take place in Saint Petersburg in July, but the organization’s executive committee cited Russia’s actions in Ukraine in a February 26 announcement that the congress will take place virtually instead.   

The message from these organizations is consistent: the aggression of the Russian government on Ukraine has resulted in an inability of Russian universities, institutes, and medical and scientific societies to act independently, without control from the Russian government. But scientists and doctors in Russia, as individuals, are not to be blamed for the war and the actions of their government. For New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan, these decisions are appropriate, as the organizations that have distanced themselves from Russia function under a global ethics code. “The reason to break the ties is that that is the way to bring pressure upon Putin and his kleptocratic, oligarchic advisers to stop the attack [on Ukraine], to try and bring down their economy,” Caplan states in a video published by Medscape on March 21.   

Some activists have advocated for more steps in this direction, pressuring scientific journals to reject papers with authors working in Russia. Accordingly, the editors of Elsevier’s Journal of Molecular Structure decided to temporarily not consider manuscripts authored by scientists working at Russian institutions, but other publications have yet to take this step. Clarivate, which maintains the Web of Science database, has suspended all new journal submission evaluations from Russia and Belarus for the database, ceased all commercial activity in Russia, and closed its offices there. 

I know that you are not responsible for the Ukraine tragedy, but you have to undergo the consequences of your government’s decision.

—letter sent to virologist Andrey Komissarov announcing suspension of his grant payments

Andrey Komissarov, a virologist who studies the genetics and evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory viruses at the Smorodintsev Research Institute of Influenza in Saint Petersburg, says he is feeling the effects of the sanctions firsthand. He received an email from the coordinator of the European Virus Archive Global (EVA-GLOBAL), with whom he collaborates, stating that that the organization has been instructed to suspend grant payments to Komissarov’s institute. “I know that you are not responsible for the Ukraine tragedy, but you have to undergo the consequences of your government’s decision,” read the letter, which Komissarov shared with The Scientist. Komissarov’s funding through the EU’s Horizon 2020 program was also halted prematurely as of March 4. 

Komissarov, who has taken part in antiwar demonstrations, responded to his colleague that the war “brings enormous suffering to the people of Ukraine” and that he strongly condemns it. He understands why the sanctions were imposed, he tells The Scientist, and is saddened that the Russian government’s actions are dismantling the ability of scientific laboratories and institutes to conduct their research, as well as international collaborations that took years to build. The war is also jeopardizing the careers of his lab members, students, and colleagues as the opportunities to conduct experiments in the lab narrow due to the loss of collaborations and difficulties with obtaining supplies. His laboratory relies on next generation reagents and parts for their sequencers, and most of the companies that supply them, including Illumina and Oxford Nanopore Technologies, have put their operations in Russia on hold, according to Komissarov. His laboratory has only enough reagents left for a few weeks’ worth of experiments, he says. 

Similarly, Thomas says his new project, which involves sequencing human microbiota samples, is now in jeopardy because of the sanctions and the unavailability of reagents from the US and Europe. All the researchers with wet labs who spoke with The Scientist say that they anticipate increasing supply problems in the coming months if the sanctions continue—both with obtaining reagents and maintaining microscopes and other equipment. They expect prices to increase, and some say colleagues are looking to switch to reagents and other supplies from China-based companies. 

Russia’s government issued a letter on March 19 stating that the career advancement of Russian scientists will not suffer for publishing fewer papers, for not presenting at international conferences, and for losing international research funding sources, effective through the end of this year. The director of Russia’s space program, called Roscosmos, stated yesterday that due to European sanctions against his agency, cooperation with Europe on space programs was now not possible. And Science reports that a wildlife tracking project predicated on this cooperation that uses data obtained from a satellite on the International Space Station has come to halt. 

All but one of the Russian scientists who spoke with The Scientist say they understand why the sanctions on their country are being imposed. One Moscow-based biologist, Evgeny*, says that in his view, science must remain apolitical, and that the sanctions on Russia and barring of Russian scientists from international organizations and meetings is discriminatory. Despite such actions, he describes a web conference he had with Italian colleagues this month about a joint research project, and says he is continuing to serve as a reviewer of submitted scientific papers for an international biology journal. “Some person-to-person collaborations are continuing, only hindered by administrative barriers that have been put in place,” such as new institutional restrictions on collaborations, he tells The Scientist. 

Yuri*, a physicist at a university in Saint Petersburg, says he is still informally exchanging data with European colleagues, but is not hopeful that he could receive international funding for a formal collaboration. One international project his lab was part of was recently cancelled. “No one directly told me that they don’t want to collaborate with my lab anymore, but these restrictions will make it more difficult.” Still, he is optimistic that personal connections will keep most collaborations going. “I think our situation in Russia will not affect good scientific relationships between Russian scientists and European and US researchers who already collaborate and know each other well.” 

A mass departure of scientists?

On March 7, Anna*, an infectious disease researcher and clinician in Saint Petersburg, along with her husband and their small children, packed some bags and left. “After what started on February 24, we decided that staying in Russia would be hopeless. I could no longer understand a path for me and my family in Russia,” she says. 

Anna and her husband had both been detained previously for attending antiwar protests. From their current residence in Armenia, Anna is remotely consulting with her institution on infectious disease cases that have been released from the hospital and on medical cases of Ukrainian refugees through a virtual clinic. She is also looking for work opportunities in Europe and Israel. “We are not returning to Russia in the near future. I would only contemplate it if there is a regime change,” she says. While she thought of emigrating previously, she says that she had remained in Russia to help create a better culture of public health and to help patients—including acute and long COVID patients she cared for during the pandemic. 

According to Yuri, the funding situation for Russian scientists has improved in the last few years and new institutes were built. “I think this stopped many young scientists in Russia from seeking career opportunities abroad. Of course, now, things will change. This is a turning point. Many want to leave, are trying to leave,” he tells The Scientist in a text conversation. “We have faced unbelievable actions by our government, and I think that many intelligent people with good skills will be moving out of Russia in the next few years, once the situation settles. Most of us cannot live with the actions of those in power in Russia.” 

Thomas agrees. “I am no longer hopeful that I can do quality scientific research in Russia, and I do not want to have my fate tied to the Russian government. I want to help move biology research forward, and I will be more useful elsewhere.” 

Fleeing is not so simple, however. Like others who have at least temporarily left Russia for nearby countries, Anna’s access to credit cards and bank accounts is limited due to the international sanctions on Russia. Most who have left were able to withdraw large sums of US dollars or Euros before the stricter sanctions kicked in, and go to countries that use Mir, the same electronic fund transfer system used in Russia. Some are staying with family or friends, and some are able to continue working remotely from abroad. If they don’t find work outside of Russia, eventually, they will be forced to go back to their country, Ilya and others tell The Scientist. Dmitri*, a mathematician in Saint Petersburg who has similarly left the country with his family, says he has colleagues in Prague, Czech Republic, who would like to offer him a job, he says, but at the moment, most countries are not giving out new visas to Russian citizens. 

I could no longer understand a path for me and my family in Russia.

“Students are looking to transfer to a new university abroad and professors are looking for international opportunities,” said Ilya. “But we, as Russians, do not have any refugee status, and even colleagues and friends that want to help us find work, they don’t know how to do that because there are no work visas for us right now. We can only come as tourists, taking a few suitcases and some maximal amount of Euros [allowed by customs] to live on for a few weeks.” 

Alexandra says she had thought about leaving Russia even before the new war began, and now is actively searching for opportunities, tapping into her network of former colleagues, mentors, and collaborators in Europe. She posted photos on social media of herself standing at antiwar “meetings” as they are referred to in Russia, with the caption “Looking for a job.” She says that European colleagues have reached out to her, heartened by her open opposition of the Russian government’s brutality. Like many scientists, family ties make leaving complicated for her, however—she has family members she would not want to leave behind. 

Indeed, some researchers who spoke with The Scientist say they are staying put for now. “I am keeping options open for myself and my family, but I would like to stay if I can,” says Sasha*, a biologist at an institute in Moscow. “I have invested a lot in my lab here over the last 15 years, trying to raise the level of science in Russia. I would hate to see that effort destroyed, and it is being destroyed right now.” The war in Ukraine has hastened the plans of scientist colleagues who were planning to leave anyway, and some who had never before thought about leaving now don’t see a way to continue doing research in Russia, according to Sasha. “This war has devastated the morale of myself and my friends and colleagues. No one can see a hopeful future of investing in science in Russia right now.” 

Irina*, a professor of linguistics in Moscow, is also hesitant to leave Russia, citing what she feels is her duty to help rebuild the country. “People think that if they abandon ship, that ship will sink. But it will not sink alone, but pull some of the world with it,” she says. “If all of the liberals leave, what will be left of the country? I see my role as an educated and open-minded, progressive person, as being to stay and help change the culture in my country.” 

A little help

Researchers who spoke with The Scientist say they understand that for now, the urgent humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is rightly the first priority. “The international goodwill is on Ukraine. But there are those of us who are fleeing Russia, particularly those who have a record of voicing their anti–Russian government stance, and there is no help right now. We are in a state of limbo,” Ilya said. 

Alexander Shneider, the founder and CEO of Boston-based CureLab Oncology, advocates for providing Russian scientists with a path out of the country if that’s what they want. The company has been collaborating with Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian scientists and clinicians for 20 years, Shneider says, and he’s witnessed the current crisis unfold through the personal stories of those on both sides of the war’s borders. “There are no simple conclusions here or remedies to solve this complex problem” of the predicaments these scientists find themselves in, he says. 

For the past four weeks, Shneider says, he begins his day with calls and text messages checking in on the safety of his Ukrainian colleagues and on Russian researchers he used to collaborate with through CureLab. For those Ukrainian scientists who are relatively out of harm’s way, the best way to help them is to give them remote contract work as soon as possible so they can support themselves and their families, he says. Some excellent Russian scientists who have left the country for Armenia, Georgia, or other countries “deserve as much help as Ukrainian scientists,” Shneider says. “Most have no means for an income, and Western countries need to provide them with jobs as soon as possible before they fall into wrong hands. . . . A scientist anywhere in the world should feel that if he disagrees with a regime, he would be welcome elsewhere based on his professional skills.” 

Himself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union with Russian and Ukrainian roots, Shneider says he also understands those like Irina who have decided to stay and resist their government via the education of their children, closed-door conversations, and other means. “If all honorable Russian people leave, who would be our future allies there?” says Shneider. 

Similarly, on March 24, researchers from the US and Canada published a letter in Science urging that policymakers and scientists “avoid shunning all Russian scientists for the actions of the Russian government.” 

Arthur Caplan agrees. “I hope an organized effort can be undertaken to help” Russian scientists and doctors who want to seek asylum, he writes in an email to The Scientist. “I think we have a duty to assist any Russian doctor or scientist who wants to seek asylum in the West. Moreover, any Russian student or scholar in the West who wishes to seek asylum ought to be allowed and encouraged to do so.” 

*Name has been changed 

Correction (April 8): This article originally cited a published story that stated that Russia had barred its researchers from participating in international conferences. After following up with the sources of that story, The Scientist has revised the relevant sentence, as there has not been a direct statement by Russian authorities that Russian researchers are prohibited from attending international conferences.