Kharkiv was Ukraine’s science hotbed until Russia attacked. The crippled city refuses to give up

7 DEC 2022




Kharkiv, Ukraine—In an SUV pockmarked by shrapnel, Mykola Shulga wends his way along the Kharkiv highway, dodging concrete barriers and antitank obstacles scattered along the road like giant toy jacks. On the northern outskirts of his broken city, he reaches the ruins of Pyatykhatky, an academic enclave set amid oak and maple groves. “This was one of the most beautiful areas of Kharkiv,” he says, on a brisk October day. Before the war, it was home to many researchers at Ukraine’s largest science center, the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology (KIPT). But months of shelling left some of the district’s apartment blocks uninhabitable. Shulga, a theoretical physicist and KIPT’s director-general, gets quiet as the SUV passes a rubble pile where Pyatykhatky’s hospital once stood. “They also destroyed the primary school,” he says.

Russia’s bloody war on Ukraine, now in its 10th month, has killed or injured at least 17,000 civilians, including scientists and students. It has also displaced more than 14 million, according to the United Nations. More than 1300 Ukrainian scientists—primarily women and men older than 60—have fled, finding refuge in labs in other countries. Tens of thousands of students are studying abroad.

Nowhere in Ukraine has science suffered more than here in Kharkiv, an academic community that Gerson Sher, co-chair of a U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) working group on rebuilding science in Ukraine, calls “the crown jewel of Ukrainian science.” In addition to KIPT, the Kharkiv region hosts nine other institutes of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU) and 65 universities and colleges. Few were left unscathed. Major losses include the control building for a unique NASU radio telescope and thousands of samples from a bombed national seed bank. The war has claimed 11 lives from V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, one of Ukraine’s top academic centers, and a diminished student body has triggered mandatory layoffs of teaching staff.

Yet Kharkiv is resurgent. In a counteroffensive in September, Ukraine’s army recaptured nearly the entire Kharkiv region—putting the city outside the range of Russian artillery fire for the first time in months. As winter draws near, academic centers here are buzzing with activity as staff repair blown-out windows. Some lab work and online classes have resumed, even amid blackouts and scant heating caused by Russian bombardment of the country’s energy infrastructure. “Our enemy’s plans to ruin our academic life were not realized,” says Karazin rector Tetyana Kaganovska.

The resilience has energized efforts to staunch Ukraine’s brain drain. Over the summer, the European Union launched a €25 million program, led by the Alexander von Humboldt

Foundation, to place Ukrainian graduate students and postdocs in European labs with the expectation that they will return home when conditions allow. A host of smaller programs are helping scientists stay in Ukraine.

Alongside those emergency efforts, the European Union, the United States, and other allies have started discussions with Ukrainian counterparts on what a Marshall Plan for Ukrainian science might look like—if funding were to materialize. This month, the European Union is expected to approve a program in which DESY, Germany’s largest accelerator center, will spearhead an effort to map Ukraine’s science landscape, says DESY’s Martin Sandhop. The exercise would inform any future makeover of Ukraine’s many obsolete Soviet-era facilities and practices. “Ukraine needs to rebuild the system, not just the buildings,” says Yury Gogotsi, a Ukraineborn materials chemist at Drexel University.

First, though, Ukraine must win the war—and many look to Kharkiv for inspiration. A billboard on the Kharkiv highway captures that sentiment: Misto Heroi Kharkiv, or “Hero City Kharkiv.” That title recalls the honorific Soviet leaders bestowed on a dozen cities that withstood Nazi attacks during World War II, including four in Ukraine. Kharkiv did not make that list, but today it epitomizes Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression.

“Our colleagues in Kharkiv sincerely believe in victory, that their city will stand despite all the troubles. These are not fake emotions,” says NASU President Anatoly Zagorodny, who visited Kharkiv in August. But the city is down to half its prewar population of 1.4 million and is still in easy range of Russian missiles. Even Kharkiv’s most ardent admirers acknowledge it will be a challenge to lure researchers and students back to rebuild the city’s once vibrant science scene.

In the first days of the war, Russia unleashed a blitzkrieg on KIPT, perhaps because of suspicions that the institute harbored a secret nuclear weapons program.

In a former incarnation a half-century ago, KIPT was in fact a weapons lab; it played a leading role in developing the Soviet bomb. The storied institute was founded in 1928 as the Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Technology by Abram Ioffe, widely regarded as the father of Soviet physics. Renowned theoretical physicist Lev Landau came a few years later, and the duo assembled a physics dream team, including the likes of George Gamow, a polymath who discovered the quantum tunneling mechanism for radioactive alpha decay and developed the big bang theory of our universe’s origins. By 1946, Igor Kurchatov, architect of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, had anointed the institute “Laboratory No. 1” and closed its doors to the outside world.

Russian forces occupied Chornobyl and nearly seized Kharkiv soon after they invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Since then, the Ukrainian army has steadily clawed back territory. But Kharkiv, close to the border with Russia, remains vulnerable to missiles.

After Ukraine became independent in 1992, KIPT emerged from the nuclear shadows as Ukraine’s first National Research Center. It struggled to fund science amid the economic tumult and government corruption of the 1990s. But in a deal the U.S. government helped broker, from 2010 to 2012 KIPT and two other Ukrainian entities relinquished their weapons-grade, highly

enriched uranium, shipping 234 kilograms of it to Russia, which blended it down to low-enriched uranium (LEU). In exchange, the U.S. Department of Energy promised to provide Ukraine with LEU fuel for power reactors, a program that KIPT now oversees. The United States also provided KIPT with funds and expertise to build a $90 million experimental reactor.

This facility, called the Neutron Source, would generate medical isotopes and beams of neutrons for probing materials. It would also serve as a prototype for subcritical nuclear power reactors that, unlike existing plants, do not sustain a chain reaction in their core. In August 2021, KIPT completed the reactor itself and a 100-megaelectronvolt accelerator that fires neutrons into the reactor to maintain fission reactions.

KIPT had just finished loading LEU fuel into the core and was ramping it up to a feeble initial power level of 20 kilowatts when war broke out. On 24 February, KIPT hurriedly shut down the core as explosions reverberated outside. In March and again in June, missiles and artillery shells damaged the building housing it and laid waste to its power supply, Shulga says. But the reactor vessel and its uranium fuel rods were unscathed. “That was a miracle,” he says.

Elsewhere at KIPT, missiles blasted holes in buildings, blew out windows, gouged craters, and demolished the roof of its solid-state physics lab. After an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team visited last month, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi called the damage “dramatic and shocking, even worse than expected.”

The withering attacks hollowed out the institute: About half of its 2000 staff left Kharkiv, including dozens of elite scientists who found refuge in safer areas in Ukraine and 30 other countries. Seven are now at DESY. “Before the war, KIPT wasn’t even on our radar screen,” says DESY particle physicist Frank Lehner. DESY has since discovered KIPT’s “extremely strong” work in theoretical physics, he says. KIPT’s remaining staff are trying to sustain a minimal research program and repair salvageable buildings before winter.

Closer to the city center, another NASU stronghold took heavy fire. Established in 1955, the Institute for Single Crystals (ISC) may be best known outside Ukraine for producing the lead-tungstate crystals and plastic scintillators used in particle detectors at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland (which discovered the Higgs boson) and the cesium iodide crystal detectors used in the Belle experiment in Japan (which observed asymmetries between matter and antimatter known as charge-parity violations). “Our materials helped win two Nobel Prizes,” says ISC Director General Volodymyr Semynozhenko. ISC also exports industrial-grade sapphires and other specialty crystals, and it has diversified into chemical reagents and pharmaceuticals.

Until September, Valentin Chebanov, ISC’s deputy director, camped out in his office, believing it was safer than his apartment downtown. The institute also converted a vast subbasement in its main building into a shelter with cots and a cooking area. Some 200 staff and their families holed up there for months. Bracing for a rough winter, ISC is installing internet and making other improvements to the shelter.

Shelling damaged ISC, although not nearly as extensively as KIPT. ISC staff piled sandbags in front of windows in rooms with pricey instruments. But an electrical surge from the unstable grid

fried the circuit board of a nuclear magnetic resonance machine, used for determining crystal structures. “You can imagine, no one wants to come to Kharkiv to fix it,” Chebanov says. ISC researchers now must send samples to Kyiv—a 3- or 4-day turnaround. And they face chronic shortages of research-grade argon, helium, and other gases after a local supplier was bombed.

Some 60 kilometers southeast of Kharkiv, at the Semen Braude Radio Astronomy Observatory, a unique instrument is in shambles. The Ukrainian T-Shaped Radio Telescope, second modification (UTR-2) is the world’s largest radio telescope tuned to decameter wavelengths, low-frequency emissions that hold clues to pulsars, the composition of the interstellar medium, and other phenomena. “They are pioneers of the lowest radio frequencies,” says Philippe Zarka of the Paris Observatory.

Russian forces seized the Braude observatory on 25 February and used the 140-hectare grounds as a military base, says Vyacheslav Zakharenko, director of NASU’s Institute of Radio Astronomy (IRA) in Kharkiv, which runs the observatory. After Ukrainian troops liberated it in early September, IRA staff found no damage to UTR-2’s 2040 small dipole antennas, arranged in two arms extending 900 meters and 1.8 kilometers. But what they saw at the main building “was heartbreaking,” Zakharenko says. Russian troops had looted or smashed instruments and computers and its roof was caved in. They’d also laid mines, including some in the service tunnels connecting the antennas to the central building.

Zakharenko’s team has moved salvageable equipment into intact buildings before winter sets in. Replacing the electronics in UTR-2’s control room “would be fast and cheap,” says Michel Tagger, an astrophysicist at CNRS, the French national science agency, in Orleans. “That would make sense. It would keep the scientists there working,” Zarka adds. But UTR-2 is 50 years old and becoming “more and more obsolete,” he says.

IRA’s long-term prospects may hinge on completing a successor to UTR-2 called the Giant Ukrainian Radio Telescope (GURT). It could detect distant exoplanets in a new way, by looking for the low-frequency radio flares whipped up when planetary magnetic fields interact with those of their host stars. By 24 February, IRA had installed five of GURT’s 100 planned antenna arrays. When fully deployed, GURT would be 10 times more sensitive than UTR-2.

Tagger calls for a concerted European effort to help complete GURT and link it to the Low-Frequency Array (LOFAR), a radio telescope network in seven European countries that he and Zarka helped build. “You don’t want to see 50 years of experience in radio astronomy in Ukraine wiped out,” Zarka says. “Welcoming them into LOFAR would be a very good move.”

Founded in 1804, Karazin is one of the oldest universities in Eastern Europe. Before the war, it had 23,000 students, including 4500 from overseas primarily studying medicine. When Kharkiv came under fire, about one-quarter of Karazin’s facilities were destroyed, including schools for physics, business, economics, and public administration, as well as three dorms and a new sports complex. Nearly all the foreign students fled, as did many Ukrainian students. Scores of students and faculty joined the militia or volunteer units. Six teachers and five students are known to have perished on the battlefield or in shelling of civilian areas. “Every life lost is a profound grief for us,” Kaganovska says.

Others stayed to protect the university. After a missile attack in March fractured a pipe and began to flood Karazin’s archaeology museum, staff dodged artillery fire to come to campus and save collections from water damage. Faculty and students also rescued herbarium samples after the central heating system went down and salvaged instruments from the School of Physics and Technology in Pyatykhatky.

Karazin’s classes went fully online in March. It has also struck deals with universities in western Ukraine and in other European nations to host hundreds of its students as they earn Karazin degrees. That has helped Karazin hold onto about 85% of its Ukrainian students. “Preserving their education is the most important way we can help our country,” Kaganovska says.

But the university faces financial woes. Because the central government pegs university budgets to the number of enrolled Ukrainian students, it reduced Karazin’s funding for the current academic year by 15%. Karazin also lost tuition revenue from foreign students. Forced to make painful cuts, Kaganovska, a law professor, did not renew contracts for 48 faculty members in the School of Physics , including its chair. Other departments fared better, which “caused enormous outrage,” says Eugene Chudnovsky, a physicist at the City University of New York who grew up in Kharkiv and earned his Ph.D. from Karazin. The university, he says, “has always been a major supplier of scientists to Kharkiv’s research labs.”

Kaganovska says the student-teacher ratio has been unusually low in Karazin’s physical sciences departments, compelling the university to tap reserves to cover salaries—money the war has largely drained. She reinstated the laid-off physicists last month, after a U.S. donor stepped up to cover part of the shortfall. “We are looking for the rest now,” Kaganovska says. “Definitely our mission is preserving science.”

When peace arrives, Karazin is counting on far-flung faculty and students to return to campus. Several universities here, including the University of Biotechnology, have pulled up stakes and now operate in western Ukraine. Kharkiv can’t afford further losses, Chudnovsky says. “The future of Kharkiv will very much depend on education in Kharkiv.”

As the war grinds on, scientists across Ukraine are looking beyond a harsh winter of power cuts to an expected victory—and the prospect of rebuilding tattered institutes and universities.

An overriding priority is preventing a further loss of talent. A mad scramble in the spring to place refugee-scientists in labs outside Ukraine has now evolved into a widespread effort to help more than 50,000 scientists who have stayed. Many are men under the age of 60 who are forbidden from crossing the border without explicit permission, in case they are needed for the military. (For now, scientists and students are exempt from service.) Thousands of women scientists, too, have stayed to care for family members or serve in the military or as volunteers.

At least three dozen assistance programs in Europe and the United States are now throwing lifelines to scientists in Ukraine. Many are small efforts, targeted to specific disciplines. For instance, an initiative of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a large U.S. society, funded 22 Ukrainian proposals on magnetism to the tune of $180,000 this year and plans to spend another $100,000 on new projects in 2023.

But wartime conditions hamper research. “You can’t do science without money. Without electricity,” says Jerzy Duszyn´ski, president of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN). So NASEM and PAN are testing an innovative strategy. With $3 million from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, they launched a program in October that will allow up to 30 groups led by elite scientists in Ukraine to spend up to 3 months a year doing hands-on research in the labs of Polish collaborators—and pay their salaries for the remainder of the year in Ukraine. Such a lifeline, Duszyn´ski says, “will help keep Ukrainian science alive.” Over time, Duszyn´ski hopes the elite teams will nucleate Ukraine’s scientific revival, by strengthening their connections to top institutions all over the world.

For KIPT, German institutes are emerging as potential saviors. DESY aims to bring KIPT scientists into a new quantum electrodynamics experiment at the European X-ray Free-Electron Laser, a facility that has suspended collaborations with Russia. And the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany, is looking to involve KIPT in FAIR, a particle accelerator under construction that would use high-intensity beams to create matter that now only exists in the universe’s harshest environments, such as supernovae.

Embedding Ukrainian scientists in Europe’s premier science facilities makes sense as Ukraine grapples with what research infrastructure to rebuild—and where—after the war, says theoretical physicist Yulia Bezvershenko, a visiting scholar at Stanford University. “We should build something they don’t have” in Europe.

She and others hope peace will open the way to an overhaul of Ukraine’s R&D enterprise. The government’s own draft recovery plan for science and education calls for setting up a genomics research center and a Ukrainian version of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funds high-risk research. The plan also calls for rebuilding Ukraine’s small oceanographic research fleet.

Another objective is expanding meritbased funding. The main source of competitive grants is the nascent National Research Foundation of Ukraine (NRFU), which in 2020 allotted $9 million to 216 projects. NRFU’s $25 million budget for this year was sequestered for the military. But in 2023 it plans to spend $12 million on 57 projects related to security and sustainable development, says NRFU Executive Director Olga Polotska.

Gogotsi gives NRFU high marks for recruiting expats and other scientists outside Ukraine as reviewers. He’s less flattering about other parts of Ukraine’s research establishment—especially NASU, which he says is largely unchanged since the Soviet era. Any infusion of postwar funding for Ukrainian science, he argues, should be tied to integrating NASU’s many institutes into the university system and getting them to compete for funding. He also wants to see them become “greenhouses” for tech startups.

Although NASU’s Zagorodny recognizes the need for reform, he says he wants to “maintain our historical traditions.” He rejects the idea of subordinating NASU institutes to universities. As a better model, he points to Germany’s Max Planck Society’s world-class institutes, which thrive independently alongside the country’s university system.

Like many in Ukraine, Shulga is not waiting for peace before planning a revival. In October, at an IAEA conference in Washington, D.C., he met with Grossi, who he says supports KIPT’s aim to establish an International Center on Nuclear Physics and Medicine with the Neutron Source facility as its centerpiece.

Bezvershenko, however, says it’s risky to build major scientific infrastructure near the Russian border. Chudnovsky has even floated the idea of relocating KIPT, if only temporarily, to western Ukraine. That move would echo the Soviet response to the Nazi invasion of Ukraine during World War II, when it evacuated Kharkiv’s science establishment to eastern Russia.

But Shulga has no plans to move, not least because it would be impossible to uproot the Neutron Source and other large KIPT facilities. More importantly, such a retreat would undermine the ambitions of Ukrainian science leaders to restore the luster of Kharkiv, the nation’s hero city and its scientific jewel, Zagorodny says. “That’s how we will honor its courage and heroism.”

Olga Shpak made headlines around the world in 2017, when she captured the first footage of a pod of orcas using teamwork to hunt a young bowhead whale in the Sea of Okhotsk. The drone video was a sensational moment in her 2 decades of methodical fieldwork investigating bowheads, belugas, and other whale species—studies that had thrust the Ukrainian marine mammologist into the upper echelon of cetacean researchers and earned her a position at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow. “I loved my work. I could not imagine doing anything else,” she says. Then the Russians stormed her homeland.

In February, as the war drums grew louder, Shpak took an overnight train from Moscow to Belgorod, near the Ukraine border, where her brother picked her up on the morning of the 23rd and drove her to their native Kharkiv. The very next day, the city was under siege. Shpak joined a local volunteer group and threw herself into sourcing medicine for civilians, and clothing and other supplies for the army. Thanks to her fluent English, she also serves as a liaison between Kharkiv’s volunteers and international aid groups.

Several Russian colleagues emailed Shpak, expressing their shame over the war. “They cannot speak the truth in public,” she says. She misses whales but has no time to think about science. “I don’t know if I will ever work as a scientist again,” she says. “My priority now is people. My fellow Ukrainians. This was a great discovery for me.”

Yuliia Guglya says it was always a dream to live where she works. That dream has now come true—but as part of a nightmare. In her work as an entomologist, Guglya had spent countless hours in the collections of the Museum of Nature at V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University. But when Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, she became its resident curator. She, her husband, and their 21-year-old son moved into a warren of rooms in the museum’s basement, where she has stashed some of the 215-year-old collection’s prize holdings.

Guglya’s first love was butterflies, before her graduate adviser implored her to switch to leaf miner flies, which no one at the time was studying in Ukraine, she says. “I was so sad. I thought flies were disgusting.” Guglya came around to them and has discovered 25 species in the leaf miner family. Many more remain to be described among her 40,000 specimens, she says. “I

couldn’t evacuate my collection. And anyway, I didn’t want to escape.” For weeks, Guglya, museum director Rostyslav Luniachek, and a few colleagues worked to move the most coveted specimens to the basement. They then turned to boarding up the 200 or so windows blown out by bomb blasts. “We’re lucky,” she says. “My husband’s a carpenter.”

Guglya doesn’t know when she and her family—her parents-in-law joined them in April—will vacate the museum. Perhaps sensing her distress, a young black cat, named Javelin— after the U.S. shoulder-fired antitank rocket—ambles over to her makeshift desk and plops onto her lap. “He helps us to be here,” she says, stroking Javelin’s fur. But she does not regret her choice. “We are saving the museum. And the museum is protecting us.”

After the bombardment of Kharkiv, Ukraine, began in February, Andriy Utevsky, an ice-diving expert on Antarctic leeches and other marine fauna at V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, toughed it out with his family for several days in a subway station. Resurfacing in early March, they stayed briefly with Andriy’s twin brother, Serge Utevsky, a zoologist who specializes in arctic leeches. (“Between the two of us, we have the whole globe covered,” Serge Utevsky says.) The brothers decided to make a run for it with their families—and their most precious specimens. Together with Andriy Utevsky’s wife, Olga Utevska, they dashed over to the university to scoop up undescribed polar life forms. While they were there, a shock wave from a missile strike knocked them off their feet. They picked themselves up, grabbed the specimens, and fled Kharkiv.

Andriy Utevsky and his family ended up in Lviv, near the Polish border, where he is establishing a lab at the Museum of Natural History. His Karazin colleague, zoologist Oleksandr Zinenko, had hustled his wife, a journalist, and their two teenage daughters out of Kharkiv even faster. He now works for a biotech startup in Lviv while teaching online for Karazin. “War shows you what kind of person you really are. Your true character,” Zinenko says. “I was afraid for my life in Kharkiv. And I was even more afraid for my family.”


Reporting for this feature was supported by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.

About the author: Richard Stone is senior science editor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Tangled Bank Studios in Chevy Chase, Maryland.