Meet the Latvian scholar rallying support for Ukrainian researchers

Latvian researcher Sanita Reinsone is leading an initiative to help Ukrainian researchers and students resettle. (Credit: Kristians Luhaers)

Scientists have launched an initiative to help fleeing Ukrainian researchers and students resettle and continue their studies. 

As the war in Ukraine enters its fifth day, and thousands of people flee their country in search of safety, the global science community is springing into action to help Ukraine in its own way. Since Saturday, a website and a Twitter account under the name of #ScienceForUkraine maps offers for Ukrainian students or researchers in need of jobs and accommodation abroad. Most of them from Europe, universities can send their offers to the initiative’s team, which will then verify and publish them.

Sanita Reinsone, specialist in digital humanities at the University of Latvia (Riga) and communications manager for Nep4Dissent, a group of scholars studying dissent in Soviet Europe, is behind the initiative. She hopes it will continue to grow in the coming days. Why did you launch #ScienceForUkraine?

Sanita Reinsone: Since the night Russia invaded Ukraine, it's been hard to concentrate on anything: can't sleep, can't work, you read the news and think about the people who are going through it. It came so unexpectedly and as a huge shock.  It's hard to just do nothing in a situation like that. I noticed on Twitter that some universities were starting to publish announcements about their support for Ukrainian students and researchers. More and more of them appeared. They were retweeted by several people and then disappeared into the Twitter ocean. I thought that the hashtag #ScienceForUkraine might be useful to somehow collect this information.

The day before we had circulated a call on Nep4Dissent for the European Commission, science agencies, governments and universities to offer concrete help to the Ukrainian research community.  #ScienceForUkraine came also as a response to this.

HN: Who is working on the project?

SR: I didn't expect so much response so I started it alone. Late in the night I asked a programmer of my institute to set up a website. Today more people are willing to join, so there will be a bigger team next week. The Polish Association of Young Researchers is joining us and will be verifying information coming from Poland's research institutions and universities. People from Germany have also expressed readiness to join. In general, I hope we can have at least one person from every nearby country since the information I am receiving is messy and incomplete. There is a lot of work to make it precise and as useful as possible.

HN: Have you heard how Ukrainian students and researchers in the country are doing?

SR: I am not entirely clear about what is happening in Ukrainian universities at the moment. I can only guess that everything has come to a standstill and that many are trying to get out of the country. I thought it was important to be ready when help is needed.

HN: How many offers have you received so far?

SR: The map was updated a few hours ago [Editor’s note: Sunday night] and there were around 50 offers which I had verified – adding correct information about department, university, email, website and address. But Twitter is unstoppable and I see that more and more are coming in. Besides, several parallel lists have been created, for example, for research lab help offers.

Eventually, this information will have to be merged together. But for me, it is very important to gather all the details, so that Ukrainian researchers in need do not have to run around university websites and ask general questions such as the email addresses. This is what I also urge the research community to work on. A general message that we also support and will help when necessary, is good, but it does not help much.

HN: It must be a lot of work. Do you have support from your institution?

SR: It is, indeed! I am sure that my institution will be supportive, and probably more colleagues will offer their help. We have already started to think of practical assistance we can offer in our teams and projects for Ukrainian colleagues.

We have been discussing that some students could be offered temporary work at our digital archives where there are manuscripts in Slavonic languages or information to be collected about Ukrainian culture in Latvia. Or just to try to find some money to support two or three research fellows to allow them to continue their work. I think all institutions can find a way to do this.

HN: Baltic states have a long history of Russian invasions. How does the population in Latvia see the situation in Ukraine?

SR: From 1945 to 1991, the Baltic states were occupied by the Soviet Union. This was violent and traumatic for the nations for many decades, right up to the present day. After independence, as soon as it was possible, the Baltic states immediately joined NATO and the European Union. This was seen as a way of getting as far away from Russian influence as possible. However, there was never really a sense of complete security.

If before it was a kind of quiet background noise that prevented the Baltic people from living in complete certainty, now the emotions that have been hidden for three decades are breaking out. People are mostly in shock as both Latvians and Russians live in Latvia. How is this possible? Then we think “we are the next!”. There is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, especially for those people who remember well the beginning of the occupation. But not only for them. It is very strange in the 21st century to hear a child asking “will Russia invade us too?”.

HN: Have your children asked you that?

SR: Yes, Ukraine is in everyone’s minds. The youngest one (8 years old) asks about the bombs. The eldest one (15 years old) has discussed with his friends: what if they have to fight in the war in a few years? Schools have provided information about how to speak with your children about war. What happens in Ukraine now is very close to us. We identify with it very much.

HN: There have been many discussions here in Switzerland about the level of support to this invasion within the Russian population. What do you think?

SR: I am not a great expert on Russia, but of course there is a growing part of the Russian people who are simply tired, ashamed and terrified of what the state authorities are doing. They are objecting, they are protesting, they are being put in prison, they are being physically and morally humiliated. However, a large part of the population of Russia lives in a complete Russian information space and the messages they believe are beyond common sense. Some part of Latvian population as well, because the Russian media have great influence here. However, more than ever, Latvian Russians have publicly expressed their condemnation of this war.

Putin himself gives glorious examples in his last speeches: Ukraine is not a nation, it is not a real state, everybody wants to attack Russia and therefore Russia has to defend itself. The Crimean referendum was a “democratic election” and so on. They are building a world that resembles a rear-view mirror. This has, of course, been a process of many years, and experts in Russian politics could tell us more about it.

HN: Any advice for European scholars that might want to help Ukrainians?

SR: Both practical support (e.g. accommodation) and financial support to survive – scholarships, research fellowships, opportunities to continue research and studies – are important. It is very relevant to provide detailed information on available support. I would recommend a coordinated approach, at least at university level, to collect and provide joint information for all departments, faculties and labs, to publish it on their institutional websites so those in need can easily find it.

Let us hope that this dark time in European history will soon come to an end. It is at times like these that we realise most that we are very closely connected. The solidarity of the research community is really strong – it is very encouraging and it means a lot to Ukrainians at this terrible moment.

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