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OPINION

«The war against Ukraine is unjust and senseless»: Russian scientists courageously condemn the invasion

Despite pressure from their superiors and threats from the Investigative Committee, Russian scientists and science journalists are vocal in their condemnation of the war. Initially signed by some 8,000 people, their address is quickly gaining momentum in the academic community. The list of the signatories features academicians and corresponding members of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), world-renowned, high-ranking researchers, and even Nobel laureates. Those who openly endorsed the war are a minority. One of the campaign masterminds, Boris Stern – Russian astrophysicist and editor-in-chief of the Troitsky Variant newspaper – sheds light on how the community responded to the war and how the government tried to imitate overwhelming support of the “military operation” among scientists.

When war broke out in the morning of February 24, my acquaintances and colleagues were in deep shock, which took some time to process. Older colleagues were doing all they could to keep their blood pressure in check. By noon, most had got a grip on themselves and started messaging their colleagues: something had to be done. We had to protest the war because it was the only thing we could do.

It was decided from the start that we needed a collective address on behalf of scientists and science journalists. Appeals launched by professional communities gain more exposure and traction than impersonal petitions, even if they may have fewer signatures. It’s especially important to garner support from renowned experts of the trade early on.

The text was soon ready, with the first signatures appearing in the afternoon. We found ourselves out of depth because the platform of Troitsky Variant: Nauka was not equipped for processing thousands of signatures a day. We were short-handed and made mistakes, but the list kept growing. Day one brought us about 2,000 signatures, including dozens of RAS academicians and corresponding members.

Here is the full text of the letter:

We, the undersigned Russian scientists and science journalists, declare our strong opposition to the Russian hostilities launched against the Ukrainian people. These hostilities are incurring huge human losses and undermine the foundations of the established system of international security. The responsibility for unleashing a new war in Europe lies entirely with Russia.
There is no rational justification for this war. Obviously, Ukraine poses no threat to the security of Russia. The attempts to use the situation in Donbass as a pretext for launching a military operation are totally contrived. The war against Ukraine is unjust and frankly nonsense.
Ukraine has been and remains a country close to us. Many of us have relatives, friends, and colleagues living in Ukraine. Our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers fought together against Nazism, and unleashing a war for the sake of the geopolitical ambitions of the leadership of the Russian Federation, driven by dubious historiosophical fantasies, is a cynical betrayal of their memory.
We respect the Ukrainian statehood, which rests on the ideals of a democratic institution. We are sympathetic to the orientation of Ukraine toward the European Union. We are convinced that all of the problems in the relationships between our countries could have been resolved peacefully.
Having unleashed the war, Russia has doomed itself to international isolation. It has devolved into a pariah country. This means that we, Russian scientists and journalists, will no longer be able to do our job in a normal way because conducting scientific research is unthinkable without cooperation and trust with colleagues from other countries. The isolation of Russia from the world means cultural and technological degradation of our country with a complete lack of positive prospects. The war with Ukraine is a step to nowhere.
It is bitter to realize that our country, which has made a decisive contribution to the victory over Nazism, has now instigated a new war on the European continent. We demand an immediate halt to all military operations directed against Ukraine. We demand respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state. We demand peace for our countries.
Let’s make science, not war!

One in thirty or forty signatures was a slur or a threat, not a name: “Traitors to the Motherland”, “The fifth column”, “Once we're done with Banderites, we’ll come after you”, “You belong in the Gulag”, and of course, the proverbial “Where were you eight years ago...” The verbal attacks lost their bite before long, but new signatures continued to appear.

We kept getting badmouthed: “Traitors to the Motherland”, “The fifth column”, “Once we're done with Banderites, we’ll come after you”, “You belong in the Gulag”, and of course, the proverbial “Where were you eight years ago...”

Admittedly, we couldn’t have spread the word across the entire scientific community. We mostly used social media and mass emails. Researchers who shared the appeal with their colleagues say that some refused to sign it, showing open hostility towards Ukraine (because of the presumed oppression of Russians by Ukrainian Nazi forces) or simply keeping silent. One way or another, we gathered over 8,000 signatures, even though our campaign had a limited reach and relied mostly on social media and word of mouth.

Thirty-two RAS academicians and 53 corresponding members have signed the letter. It's unlikely that any of them are heads of institutes (this assumption is hard to verify because few indicated their positions when signing). However, we do have support from the ‘cream of the crop’ – by academic results, if not by rank. We are proud to have Nobel laureate Konstantin Novoselov among us (his colleague Andre Geim signed another anti-war letter), as well as two founding fathers of the cosmic inflation theory, which provides a clue to the origins of the universe: Alexei Starobinsky and Andrei Linde. We also welcomed the signature of Eugene Koonin, the most frequently cited researcher of Russian descent (I never thought I’d see anyone with an H-index of over 200) and one of the inventors of CRISPR gene editing. Many of the RAS academicians and corresponding members are physicists (50% and 40%, respectively), which was to be expected: physicists have always been at the forefront of civil resistance, starting from their crusade against the delusional ideas of state-backed biologist Trofim Lysenko.

The list of signatories includes 32 RAS academicians and 53 corresponding members, a Nobel laureate, founders of scientific theories, and the most highly cited researcher

Over half of the signatories (60% by random sampling) are doctors or candidates of sciences, some holding a PhD degree. The overwhelming majority of those who indicated their professional or residential address are in Russia (80% by random sampling).

How did the signatories handle the risks? There have been two major risks. The first one had to do with the administration of research institutes. Many heads of institutes (far from all, though) issued warnings to researchers, from outright bans on signing anti-war appeals to moderate recommendations to avoid implicating the institute in any such initiative. As a result, five or seven scientists withdrew their signatures, fifteen or so asked us to remove the affiliation, and two asked us to add theirs.

The other threat was more serious: the recent law against “fake news” and “denigrating the image of Russian troops”. At this point, around 15 signatories withdrew their names, but many more dozens joined in.

Even though few heard about our letter in Russia, it received broad coverage and extensive commentary in Western media, including purely academic journals like Nature and Science. As a result, the letter started to play a meaningful role when Western research institutions began indiscriminately terminating contracts with their Russian counterparts. It turned out the letter was making a difference. It didn’t turn back the tide – not quite, as the cancellation was ubiquitous – but its thousands of signatures helped maintain our ties at least on a lower, peer-to-peer level.

Have there been any opposing declarations? Of course. I have seen two letters castigating those who signed ours. One of them was published in the Poisk academic journal with eight signatures (almost a 1:1000 ratio with ours). Another letter was signed by as many as six Crimean scientists, who accused us of self-interest, among other things, dismissing our appeal as a whitewashing attempt. Indeed, setting the record straight was one of our objectives – we wanted the world to see that not all Russians have gone insane.

Professions of servile patriotism by individual associations were more numerous. The most widely known is the Russian Rectors’ Union Letter, which reads, in particular: “At present, it is crucial to offer support to our country, to our army, which is keeping us safe, and to our President, who has made what was probably the hardest, the most painful decision in his life – but a necessary one.” It has about 200 signatures. What caught my eye was MIPT rector Dmitry Livanov's signature: it was included in the first version of the list, available in a rogue online archive, but not in its later version on the Union's website. MIPT’s former rector Nikolai Kudryavtsev is featured in both versions.

Such collective declarations of support are plenty, even though they lag far behind our 8,000-signature effort. They go along the same lines: “Our country is going through a period of hardship. President Vladimir Putin has offered an exhaustive explanation of his difficult decision to launch the special military operation.” The quote was borrowed from the letter of Moscow State University Academic Council, unsigned. Many council members are probably unaware of its existence. It was frustrating to see the letter of the Lebedev Physical Institute, signed by 15 associates and the director: “In these trying times, we, researchers of the LPI, unequivocally support our President and the government of the Russian Federation.” They launched a call for signatures but failed, apparently – they still only have 15. Meanwhile, over 50 LPI researchers have signed our anti-war letter. We’ve lost some friends to the other side, too – I have seen a handful of familiar names below pro-government letters. By contrast, it’s good to know some others didn’t join them.

Overall, the academic community’s morale is low. Those who support the war are few but can’t be dismissed. It's hardly possible to measure their share but the VTsIOM opinion research center is way off the mark with its assessment.

P.S. The Troitsky Variant website has been blocked in Russia (like that of The Insider, without an official decision by Roscomnadzor). A mirror site of the publication is available: trv-science.org. The latest newspaper issue can also be downloaded as a pdf. Furthermore, our compatriots outside Russia have launched a new online publication, T-Invariant (the similarity with our brand was intentional and approved). Besides, the editorial board composition warrants special attention: their website is hosting our blocked letter with the full list of signatures. Russian scientists and science journalists are still welcome to sign it here.

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