Ukraine: Holding lectures while the bombs fall

With the Russian army marching on his home city, a Ukrainian scholar must decide how to respond.

As Russia invaded Ukraine, academics in Kyiv decided to organize online lectures by world-leading speakers. Against a backdrop of sirens and air raids, they hoped to provide students with a sense of normality, and to show the international community that Ukrainian academics were standing strong.

Sparks of Change talks to Tymofii Brik, an assistant professor at Kyiv School of Economics, about organizing the #GlobalMinds4Ukraine initiative, the role of academics in the war effort, and what he thinks will come next for the Ukrainian research community.

Tymofii Brik

How did #GlobalMinds4Ukraine come to be?

For us, it was very important to show that we are resilient. A lot of people underestimated us. They think that because we are at war, we are not capable of doing anything. We wanted to show that, actually, we are operational: our parliament is voting, our government is working, and the students and professors, we are also working.

With my colleagues (Kyiv School of Economics professors Tymofiy Mylovanov, Ivan Gomza and Oleg Nivievskiy), we thought, we are scholars, so we need to host a lecture. As academics, we wanted to produce knowledge, share knowledge, we wanted our students to be busy. But at that stage it was just an idea.

You’ve managed to not only get the lectures up and running, but also to feature world-leading academics, including a Nobel Prize winner. How did you make it happen?

Twitter is not very big in Ukraine. I only joined because my girlfriend is ‘cool’ and had an account, so I wanted one too. Three days after the invasion, I saw Nassim Taleb (the Lebanese-American essayist, mathematician and author) tweet that he had declined a paid lecture in Russia because it was against his values. I replied: “Thank you, can we invite you to a lecture in Kyiv?”, and he immediately said yes. That was a big revelation for me, that Twitter is a platform where we could directly invite people. We had all the online infrastructure and personnel ready because of the pandemic, so we arranged a date, created announcements, and voila. The lecture happened within a few days. It snowballed from there and, at some point, we had a lecture every day.

Chairing these lectures could have been done from anywhere. Why stay in Kyiv?

I’ve always fancied myself to be an international person: I studied abroad, I was a Fulbright scholar in the United States… But when the invasion started, I realised that I’m very stubborn, and somehow became the most traditionalist person on the planet. I was thinking, this is my home: no one will ever force me to move from my neighbourhood. I will stay here. There are people who needed us here, elderly people who relied on me and my girlfriend to deliver their medicine.

I'm not very courageous; I've never been in the army, I don't know how to fight, I don’t know how to shoot. But on the second day of the invasion, my girlfriend and I went to the Territorial Defence office to volunteer… We didn’t even know what to do: should you just show up there and say “Hello, my name is Tymofii, can I serve in the army?” And there was a huge line outside the office, so we waited and waited until it became awkward, and we went home. But I realised that others will stay here, in the army. So, on my side, I don’t want to be a free rider; I have to do what I know and help my students. And I should do it from Kyiv.

I have friends who escaped from Lugansk and Donetsk (two cities invaded in 2014), who witnessed war crimes. Now the world knows what happened in Bucha, but we knew that if the army is coming, that was going to happen in our neighbourhoods, to our families. We knew that, basically, there is no safe place anymore, and that bullies only stop when you fight back.

Did you ever waver?

Kyiv is well protected; we had the internet and electricity. During the first days, it was quite scary and weird, then I adjusted to it. I’ve learned that it's very, very difficult to make decisions in a crisis, but what really helps is to have your own individual plan, almost like a decision tree: what are you going to do if there is an attack, if the Russians are approaching, if your family is hurt. My girlfriend and I talked and came up with a clear idea of what it would take for us to leave.

But every day, people were telling us “You should go”, “I have a free spot in my car, come”, “I heard the rumour that tomorrow, the Russians will come and kill everyone.” All these people acted in good faith, but they added to our stress. It was so difficult, psychologically, to focus on our work; every morning to say to ourselves: “We have our plan, we will stick to it.”

How was the project received?

The first weeks of the war were so pressing and traumatising that some people did not appreciate the idea. They thought that instead of doing something serious, instead of helping the army, we are playing games and wasting our breath with Nassim Taleb. But for us it was about the signal we were sending. Chairing lectures from showers or subways (because it was the safest place to be during air raids) was a necessity, but it also helped us to build this image of resistance; it helped people to connect with us.

It’s also networking: these influential speakers, even if they don’t bring a lot of viewers, they bring in the support of their colleagues and their administration. And it helps us a lot in fundraising, because if donors know that we are talking with Nobel prize winners like Paul Krugman, it can be enough to convince them. Those were the goals, and now we’re working towards getting the views where we want them to be, both for an international audience and for our Ukrainian students.

Can you tell us what happened for universities in the early days of the invasion?

I can only speak about my own institution, and we are a bit privileged. We’re a small, private university, we’re in Kyiv, and because of our jobs we were following the news and debates about the invasion very closely, very seriously. The university developed its own safety protocols, and our management advised us to get ready, pack our suitcases and think about our individual plans, what we will do when the invasion starts.

Then when the invasion started, immediately, they triggered this chain reaction where everybody had to call those they were responsible for, and students were told to initiate their individual plans. We had these online documents with lists of students’ names, and we tried to check on them, monitor if they needed something. Everyone is fine now but I remember when someone did not respond to our calls for more than a week, and we were freaked out. Most of the students and professors are now scattered all over Ukraine, and a few went abroad.

What happened next?

Everyone wanted to be doing something useful. Some of my co-authors did volunteer to be in the Territorial Defence, protecting their cities with Kalashnikovs. Most students, I think, engaged in procurement, sourcing helmets, bulletproof vests and medical kits from abroad and then delivering them. Our university also worked towards this, and we fundraised $18 million, in particular to purchase medical kits designed to stop blood loss and save lives.

Also, sharing information – at some point, I was in 15-20 different group chats on various apps, helping people to find resources, to find safe roads. Information warfare as well. I'll give you an example… Anonymous, I think, hacked the Russian military and shared the names of soldiers present in Ukraine. What Ukrainians did, including my students, was to search name by name, one by one, all these people on Facebook or Russian social media, to identify their families. Then they called the mothers to ask why their sons are in the army. So students were doing a lot of things in the beginning, and they were not interested in lectures. But now things have become more structured and a few NGOs coordinate everything.

Do students want to return to classes now?

About a week ago, we actually restarted online classes for bachelor students; master students will return in the summer. But it’s really case-by-case. There are universities that were literally destroyed, campuses, laboratories and libraries that were bombed. These students need to be enrolled in other universities here or abroad, and we are trying to help them.

Is that what you are trying to achieve with the Ukrainian Global University project?

From the first days of this invasion, it became very clear that the whole world was watching and trying to help. I would wake up every day to 300 emails from scholars and students all over the world, all wanting to help. I didn’t even have time to open them. So, Kyiv School of Economics decided to create a platform to coordinate support, and to connect those who need help with those who provide it. Now we have a wide range of partners, educational NGOs and universities that have joined our effort.

What do you need from the scientific community during this invasion?

Flexibility — that’s what I’ve learned since the invasion started. Science is one of the most adjustable things in the world, but scientific bureaucracy... that’s a very different animal. Implementing flexibility into the basic rules of scientific bureaucracy is necessary, because what is excellent to help certain types of displaced or ‘at-risk’ scholars does not work for everybody.

During one of the lectures you mention that this war is “not only against civilians and military but also against science and knowledge”. Do you feel that there is a desire from Russia to erase Ukrainian science?

I think it's more collateral damage; if you attack Ukrainian cities, Ukrainian culture, eventually you're going to attack Ukrainian science. But I'm very surprised as well. Because Russia is very proud of its scientific heritage from the Soviet times, and Ukraine has been a big part of that. Kharkiv, for example, was a huge intellectual centre, and well-connected to Russian academics. To see the Russian army destroy Kharkiv’s universities, nuclear laboratories that are very rare and very valuable... That was a big shock to me initially.

But when tyranny attacks, of course it will attack intellectuals. Ukrainian intellectuals are committed to the idea of a sovereign Ukrainian nation. Our fight for intellectual sovereignty is very important for us; we are fighting for our own narratives, our own heritage.

How difficult is it for the Ukrainian academic community to make its voice heard?

A lot of people in the West perceive this conflict from the lens of Russia, but not necessarily the lens of Ukraine. We wanted to be able to enter panels, research seminars, to talk to the audience and reshape the narrative. And it was also very important for us to be perceived as equal participants. Ukrainian academics are often invited to give an emotional opening statement, and after that, the ‘real experts’ spend 40 minutes talking about the economy, sanctions, diplomacy. We did not want that. We wanted equal presence on these panels, and this is why we created a “No Ukrainian panels without Ukrainian voices” effort.

You’ve mentioned quite a few initiatives where Ukrainian academics contribute to the war effort by sending a signal to the rest of the world; how do you see their role at home?

There are a lot of open questions for our country. Should Ukrainian universities sanction Russian science? What kind of support do we need now? How are we going to rebuild Ukraine — can we implement a new type of economy, that’s ready for climate change, for reducing inequalities?

Platforms that allow dialogue, competition of ideas are essential for our survival, so the government doesn’t secretly decide what to do on its own. Who else but scientists and scholars can do that? We know how to collect data, how to analyse data, how to talk about data and concepts. Scientific dialogue, debate, open publication, they aren’t empty values; they are one of the most efficient working models to achieve practical policy results, it's very pragmatic.

Hearing you, you seem to keep your eyes on the future; even on the Global University website, it is clearly mentioned that students should return to Ukraine and rebuild it. How do you reconcile this with the fact that Ukraine is still at war?

For us, the war started in 2014, when Crimea and the Donbas were occupied; this invasion is more like a second stage. We don’t know how long this is going to last, so we are preparing ourselves for different possible scenarios. But what I have learned after Crimea, is that whenever there is a crisis, you need to build functional institutions, so that these institutions will protect you.

For example, we were losing the information war in 2014, Russian fake news and propaganda were everywhere. Ukrainians started independent media or fact-checking organisations – they were like mushrooms, in all the big cities. Now we have institutions that can quickly identify fake news and debunk it, and our culture changed too. Today when a message pops up in a group chat, almost immediately someone will say, “can you verify the source?” I think Ukraine is doing well now in the information war because of the institutions that were created five years ago. If we want to survive, if we want to win, we need to invest in institutions now.

What does “winning” look like for you?

I think many Ukrainians have this ambition to change the region. We came out of the post-Soviet transformation, and unfortunately, many see that it's not a very successful transformation. Russia has ended up with a dictatorship, Belarus has ended up with a dictatorship, post-Soviet Asian countries, they are on the edge. And it's very dangerous for the world. Because now Russia basically uses gas and oil to dictate to Europe, and they use logistics and food security to dictate to the Global South.

Historically, Ukraine became more or less democratic, and I feel that we, as a nation, are ready to fight for it. It's not an empty word for us. We don't want to end up with dictators. We want to drink coffee, watch Netflix, write publications in English speaking journals, respect other cultures. We want to build democracy, become a role model, and help other countries.

If we really want to be this agent of change, to match this challenge, we need to grow ourselves, to be educated. We need to be smart. We need to know about the world. And for all these reasons, we need better science. Right now, Ukrainian Global University is just a website, it's a very little thing. But in our mind, we want to achieve this big ambition of building a big, strong country with big, strong universities.


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This article is part of the Sparks of Change collection, where people around the world share moments that illustrate how research culture is or should be changing. Have an interesting story to tell? See what we’re looking for and the best ways to get in touch here.

Tymofii Brik was interviewed by Elsa Loissel, Associate Features Editor, eLife.