This morning, hours after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mikhail Gelfand canceled his regular lecture on comparative genomics and instead had a heart-to-heart conversation with his students over Zoom. “I’m an old man,” says the bioinformatics specialist at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology near Moscow, rattling off a list of wrenching political events he’s witnessed: from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and attempted Communist putsch in 1993 to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The episodes of turmoil, he says, are “like a very old sore. It bothers you, it’s painful. But you know how to live with it.” For Gelfand’s “shocked” students, however the attack against their neighbor had left them with “a feeling of helplessness,” their teacher says.
After the Zoom call, some of the students took to the streets to join the many decrying Russia’s actions; according to news reports, police arrested hundreds of protesters. Meanwhile, Gelfand, whose wife is half Ukrainian, gathered signatories to a protest letter published on TrV-Nauka, an independent science news site that he helps edit. Signed so far by more than 370 Russian scientists and science journalists, the letter denounces a war it says will turn Russia into a pariah. “This means that we scientists will no longer be able to do our job normally: after all, conducting scientific research is unthinkable without cooperation with colleagues from other countries,” the letter states. “The war with Ukraine is a step to nowhere.”
As ScienceInsider was speaking with Gelfand, Russian troops were advancing deeper into Ukraine and had just seized control of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Russia’s scientific community is already experiencing collateral damage: The U.K., Canadian, French, Polish, and U.S. math societies all have announced they will not participate in the International Congress of Mathematicians, to be held in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July.
This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: When did you realize the invasion would be a certainty?
A: One of my students asked me this question last Friday. I said that there will be no war. I was stupid. I underestimated the level of craziness.
Q: Some of your students bravely joined protests today. Did you counsel them on the risks?
A: They’re grown-ups. It’s their decision. But they’re not morally obliged to do this. If they have parents that depend on them, I told them they shouldn’t go. Nobody needs to be a hero.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish with the open letter?
A: Three things. One, to demonstrate that the Russian scientific community is not the same as the Russian leadership. Second thing is to demonstrate to our Ukrainian colleagues that we object to what our government is doing, and we are doing what we can to stop it. And the third thing, to demonstrate the same to the international community in the hope that any actions to punish Russia are weighted in such a way as to not to punish the very people who object to what Russia is doing.
Q: After Crimea was annexed, Western sanctions on Russia threw up some barriers to collaboration. Do you expect a more profound isolation now?
A: I’m deeply concerned. It’s already difficult to purchase equipment. I know colleagues who couldn’t get sequencing machines because they’re considered dual use [for peaceful and military aims]. My fellow faculty members who are experimental biologists will be hit tremendously. I also worry about visa decisions. Actions that target individuals or individual projects should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Q: How about ties with Ukrainian scientists?
A: After the annexation of Crimea, I went to Ukraine a couple times for public lectures—Neanderthal genomics, molecular evolution. I felt it was my duty to nurture a link between Russian and Ukrainian scientists. Now, I’m afraid, that is no longer possible.