Since March 2022, the “Solidarity for mathematicians” programme has helped provide refuge to mathematical researchers displaced by conflict or political persecution. During that time we have published podcast interviews with two separate Ukrainian mathematicians: both of whom were forced to leave their home country following Russia’s invasion of 24 February 2022, both of whom have found support in the Solidarity programme, both of whom are now living and working within the UK.
In the below written interview, published anonymously due to personal safety concerns, we present the thoughts and experiences of a Russian academic who elected to leave their home, work, friends and family during the same period. Thanks to the Solidarity programme, they, too, are now living and working in Britain.
Tell me a little bit about your journey to become part of the Solidarity programme. What prompted you to leave Russia?
In the beginning, on 24 February 2022, it was immediately clear to me that I had to leave the country. From the start there were those in the community that were either in direct support of the war, or in support of “negotiating” with the behaviour of our government and our university administration’s actions with respect to the invasion. I realised quickly that I was not able to do that. A lot of my colleagues also realised that they weren’t able to negotiate with people who were trying to justify the killing of our friends. People who were justifying killing parts of our families. It was not a matter of questions or negotiation. I just left and decided to figure out the next steps afterwards. Those next steps took time. The amount of information that was spread over the news was enormous, but eventually I found out about the Solidarity programme. I thought it was a wonderful idea, partially because my area of maths is very well developed in the UK. So, somehow, it felt very logical. Also, the Solidarity programme doesn’t require you to teach – so you could actually put all your effort into research and into finding a permanent job. It was easy to find a host institution, because I had ongoing collaboration with UK colleagues. I just asked what they thought about me joining their department, and many were very happy about it.
So you left very early on after the conflict began? What do you think would have happened for you if you had remained in Russia?
I’ve thought about this question so many times. I can answer it pretty directly, because some of my colleagues with similar views stayed. One of my colleagues went to prison for 15 days. Then he got released, and then he managed to leave the country. Another of my colleagues who was more politically active was beaten by the police. He then had further police “interruptions” with the searching of his house and so on. And finally, he left the country with his family. A lot of my students and our departmental students went to the streets to protest, and they got arrested. And there is a very interesting and unexpected consequence of that. In Russia, if as a student or a professor you are arrested for whatever reasons, they usually detain you for 10-15 days, claiming you have violated the COVID regulations. Then, because of being arrested for disorder, you are supposed to be expelled from the university. If you are expelled from the university and you are under 27, say, you are faced with military service, which is obligatory in Russia. This makes for a huge problem. To get around it, what you do is that you go to the police station as the students are released – usually it’s between 3am and 5am – you pick them up as the representative of the university, and then you don’t report to the university that they got arrested. This may help them from getting expelled. Which saves them from being sent to the military. This is something that I didn’t do enough of because I left pretty early. I regret it. Everything else I don’t, because I had my ideas of how the situation was going to continue and they all came true. I wish I had been wrong, but I wasn’t.
Protesting against the war results in being given military service, which presumably means being sent to Ukraine.
Yes, that’s right.
How do you feel about this kind of treatment from the police and government?
We all know how the police operate in Russia, and they have just became worse. A lot of us participated in the 2012 protests [against Vladimir Putin’s third term as President] in Bolotnaya square and remember that very well. We remember the trials, we remember all the consequences. It’s not surprising for people who have lived in this kind of society.
How close is your contact with your colleagues who’ve remained in Russia?
It is actually hard to say. At the very beginning on 24 February it quickly became obvious to all of us that it’s would be very hard to keep communications clear. There are only a few colleagues, fewer than five, with whom I still keep contact. They’re now in different institutions, so I know a little bit of what has gone on. But I feel like I know a lot less about the country than I used to.
Most of the participants in the Solidarity programme who have been helped to find positions in the UK are from Ukraine. You’ve both been forced to leave your homes, but for different reasons. Do you feel as though you are part of the same group, essentially, as the Ukrainian academics?
Well, yes and no. I mean, they had no choice, right? I actually had a choice. I could have stayed and waited and hoped that things resolved. Some people did and they failed. Or I could have just pretended that “we are doing mathematics, it’s not politics and we should just continue to live our lives”. So, I had this choice. They didn’t have any choice. If you wake up and there are rockets flying towards your house and the house of your parents, you don’t have a choice. I keep in contact with lots of Ukrainian people who are not only in maths or physics, but also outside of academia. I spent some time in Ukraine and I know the country very, very well. And for them it’s a complete disaster. My conditions were very mild in comparison. Even in terms of how we left our countries. They had to take crazily crowded trains and buses with a huge sense of danger to cross to Poland, say. I could take a flight. It’s not really a fair comparison in this sense.
Would you be able to put a figure on the proportion of people who were either neutral or pro-conflict compared to those who like yourself were immediately active against it?
All of us who have left have some colleagues or friends or relatives who think that we “betrayed the country”. It’s particularly painful in the case of relatives. We tried to communicate our reasons for leaving to them, but generally they just wouldn’t listen. If they don’t listen to us then who will they listen to? But the truth is that Russian people who are really “pro-war” and Russian people who are really “anti-war” are both in the minority. The majority of people are more like: “you know, oh, we need to think. It’s not so obvious. What can we do? Yes, something is happening but what can be done about it? We are just small people”. These kinds of “conformal” views are the biggest disaster. When you hear that 80% of the population support the war… it’s not really true. They don’t support the war. It is much worse. They don’t care about anything. They don’t even care about their lives and the lives of their kids and so on.
How did you find yourself to be in Britain and how has it affected your work and your research?
The effect on research is comparable to COVID in a way. In the beginning, not only could I not do research, but I actually couldn’t focus or sleep properly. I lost it. In three weeks I managed to lose about 15% of my bodyweight. I was very stressed and also I had to communicate with all my friends who could die at any moment. Some of them, the Ukrainians in particular, did die. It was very stressful, and of course you cannot do any kind of research when you are stressed. I eventually stopped having terrible nightmares around 8 to 10 months after the beginning of the invasion. But your collaborators with whom you work, they really help. The community, the mathematical community around the world, has been of great support. I’ve received lots of emails. As for the journey, it might be a little bit similar to what Ukrainian people experienced, because over the first six months I switched between maybe 20 different places of living. You never know how long you are in each place because you’re always waiting for some kind of visa or some other kind of permissions. Eventually what happened is that I didn’t have the psychological concept of home anymore. I felt like I always lived in a hotel because when you switch your location so frequently for unclear reasons, then you stop feeling that there is a home. I think that it will go away eventually, but for now it feels like I will never have a home. It’s not a sad thought anymore.
What would you say to anyone who is considering applying for the help supplied by this programme?
Try to find the colleagues who you can relate to mathematically, who are based at a suitable institution, and just try to apply. I am relatively young, but even if you’re thinking: “I am old, I will not be able to find a job, my kids will have problems with getting a school…”, try to realise that this war is not going away. It’s likely here for the long-term, let alone its consequences. So, think about your kids and ask for help from your colleagues. People are a lot friendlier than we think.
What is your situation like now?
I do my research and I’m busy applying for other jobs. Life became a lot easier when my official paperwork was done, meaning that I had residence and had a place to stay. Then I could actually think about future steps. For example, I could go to research conferences. I’m now fairly stable. Sometimes, of course, I get pretty angry. There are always new events, and they are usually not good news. I cannot allow myself to follow much of the news. I used to follow the news so carefully, but now I have to limit its time in my life. What I keep saying to colleagues is that you should always think about what kind of troubles your government could still cause for you and those you care about. Think about these things in advance so that they don’t come as a bad surprise. But other than that, you adapt and you feel like you are trying to do what you can to support what you believe in. And at the same time, you try to find stability in your life.
What would you do to improve the situation in Russia?
This is something that I think about frequently. The problem is that it’s not only about the political situation. I don’t think that you can quickly change the views of a population. You can read the history of Germany, or Argentina, or Cambodia – there are many examples – to see how a population used to believe that certain measures were acceptable. Their views didn’t change quickly, right? After the regime fails, people don’t just wake up one day and open their eyes and say, “oh god, we were so wrong”. This is not how it works. So I think that changing the Russian outlook requires very, very long and careful work. And what they are doing now, which is another complicated topic, is ensuring that the educational policies in Russia are making the situation even worse. So, the more time we wait, the more work needs to be done in order to return to anything like to some kind of level of “safety”. I don’t think that just changing head of the Ministry of Education would help. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t. Even if you changed, say, 20 figures in the top government positions, it would not be enough.
I see now why you believe this is a conflict that’s here to stay. Is there anything else you would like to say?
Maybe the best thing advice I can give is for students and academics who are still inside Russia. If anyone living in Russia reads this: don’t be so afraid. The world is not so evil. Just think whom you can trust and whom you can ask for help. People can often help. People sometimes don’t feel comfortable offering help without being asked… but very often they’re willing to help, and they have resources to help, and they can do something for you. So, if you feel like you’re in danger, then seek help. Even though it was blocked shortly afterwards, we all know, for example, that there was an open letter signed by many Russian researchers; many of whom are now living in different countries across the world. You can still find ways to look at this letter, to see who signed it, and you can figure out who is out there, and in a position to help you. It’s not so hard. Yes, it takes time, but it’s not so hard. And we all understand that we are in very difficult situation now.