Wednesday, 16 March 2022

The war in Ukraine: a letter from Maxim Chernodub

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western researchers have been wondering how to help our Ukrainian colleagues, and how to behave with our Russian colleagues. A letter by French-Russian-Ukrainian physicist Maxim Chernodub has been circulating, which offers valuable perspective and advice on these issues. (It was written on 27/02/2022.) Below is the text of the letter, reproduced with the author's permission. 

Dear Friends,

I am so happy to have so many current collaborators that I'm sorry to say that I cannot write to everybody personally. Sorry for my scientific inactivity in the recent weeks; I'll also be off science next week.

We all don't like lengthy messages, so I tried to be as brief as possible (but it did not work, in fact). I skip trivial but powerful statements such as "Science should unite people," etc. We all know them well. Instead, I would like to ask for some coherent near-scientific effort.

To understand the background, I need to tell a bit more about myself (my CV on my institute page is well-outdated):

I'm a French-Russian-Ukrainian scientist:

  • born/raised in Ukraine; my mother language is an Eastern dialect of Ukrainian;
  • graduated and worked in Moscow (particle physics); I have two Russian degrees in science; now I'm a Leading researcher (at a distance) in a Russian University; I co-lead a group of young people (quantum field theory).
  • I'm permanently working at French CNRS (Directeur de recherche = senior scientist in the French system); head of a modest Field theory group at the Institut Denis Poisson, Tours-OrlĂ©ans.

My parents of mixed Ukrainian/Russian origin refused to leave Kyiv for safe France weeks ago, although it was very easy (I would make the same decision if I were at their side). Now Kyiv is encircled; my parents help make final preparations in a bomb shelter in Kyiv. We expect an assault soon, in a matter of hours or days.

My brother, an IT specialist and an assistant Professor at a University in Lviv (in the western part of Ukraine), was not enlisted in the army due to health issues. From the beginning of this week, he stays in nearby Poland with his family and continues to work at a distance. It was a reasonable solution: yesterday, a building in his block in Kyiv was heavily damaged by a shell or rocket.

I was born and spent my childhood in the Kharkiv region located in the eastern part of Ukraine. Kharkiv is the city of Landau, Lifshitz, Pomeranchuk (Pomeranchuk instability), Shubnikov (SdH oscillations), Podolsky (EPR paradox), and many other prominent scientists. Now, the city of Kharkiv is encircled and being stormed; many nearby cities and towns -- with the names so familiar to me from childhood -- are in flames.

I have friends and friends of friends all over Ukraine. They share what they see with their eyes. Some places are easy to localize ("this burning armored vehicle is on the street near my friend's apartment in a city in the Kharkiv region"; "these lifeless bodies of soldiers lie close to a roundabout on my usual way to a subway station in Kyiv, etc"). It's not fake news over social networks.

I read news in Ukrainian, Russian, English, and French.

So, I feel that I have a generic vision of what happened the last few days and what is going on right now (and I have no idea what awaits us in the future, unfortunately).

Now, here is the main message (I try to keep it short):

1) As a Ukrainian scientist, I would like to ask you: please don't enforce or support the calls to boycott Russian collaborators. These calls sound typically as follows (I cite certain current discussions in the high-energy-physics community): "no single paper in collaboration with Russians"; "freeze all our common projects with Russians"; "ask Russian colleagues to fill a questionnaire whether they approve what is happening or not, and then we decide on our collaboration", etc).

I must say that most (if not all) of our Russian colleagues share our values and principles. They are as horrified as we are by seeing what is happening in Ukraine. Please don't allow the narrow-minded administration-motivated colleagues to punish the Russian scientists twice: both from their Russian government and from their colleagues from abroad. We know that they are suffering a lot already.

A peaceful protest in Russia is not easy (I do not cite any examples here because this email is not a political message). Therefore, we should praise our brave Russian colleagues who wrote and signed this strongly-worded document against the War:

The Russian version contains now, as of 27/02/2022, more than 4000 signatures (according to the organizers, this list is far from complete, so in reality it is bigger):

Please notice that I'm talking only about person-to-person or group-to-group collaborations with Russian colleagues and Russian groups. (It is up to governments and administrations to decide the fate of the inter-governmental and/or EU-supported programs.)

→ this should be done now.

2) As a Russian scientist, I would like to ask you to help launch new programs with Ukrainian colleagues: emergent recovery programs, mobility grants, mutual bi-lateral Ph.D. doctorships, organization of joint conferences, and all that machinery we know well.

You don't know who is working in Ukraine on your topic? Just look at a publication tree, check around, ask colleagues. Be, please, active. There are many talented young people in Ukrainian Universities. The EU/US governments, of course, will try to support the recovery of Ukrainian science. But the scale and overall success of this program will depend on us, who will provide the person-to-person and group-to-group basis.

Of course, No.2 depends on the outcome of the War in Ukraine and the postwar details. Let's hope for a peaceful future.

→ now, no active collaboration is possible but we should be prepared for the future.

3) As a French scientist, I will do my best to fulfil the both points sketched above.

Please, feel free to share these thoughts (or circulate the letter itself) around you.

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