The world’s leading zoologist Ilya Mechnikov was not safe in the city of Odessa. Soldiers were dispersing the protest. A student was missing. And the local police chief had put Metchnikoff on a list of “politically unreliable” individuals. On May 22, 1882, Metchnikov submitted his letter of resignation to the Rector of the Imperial Novorossiya University (then Russian Empire, now Odessa State University in Ukraine) and left the country.1.

After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in March 1881, scientists in the Russian Empire faced increasing oppression. Anyone vaguely suspected of “disloyalty” to the Tsar was either arrested or forced to resign. Metchnikoff fled to Sicily, Italy, where he continued his studies in marine biology. In 1883, when the political situation in Russia calmed down, Metchnikov returned to Odessa and published a paper on what he called the phagocyte theory. This laid the foundation for modern immunology, and Metchnikoff later won the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, jointly with the German scientist Paul Ehrlich. However, the political threat did not disappear. Eventually, Metchnikoff resettled in Paris, where he worked until his death in 1916.

Since Russia’s war against Ukraine began in February, there has been much debate about how to rebuild science in the invaded country. There are questions about what to prioritize, whether the existing system needs reform and how the international community can help Ukrainian scientists.2A better understanding of the history of science will help us plan for the future.

Ukraine’s position on the border between the Russian and Soviet empires has created opportunities for scientists of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and religions. Yet those scientists often faced violent conflicts and political repression. The fact that Ukraine has been a crucible for defining what scientific freedom really means has inspired some incredibly creative and original science.It has also spawned a culture of resilience. I was.

civil war scientist

Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Russian Empire plunged into civil war. In Crimea, the devoted revolutionary quantum physicist Yakov Frenkel was captured and imprisoned by the counter-revolutionary White Army, which was fighting the Bolshevik Red Army. Trapped in prison, Frenkel began to think about what it really means for an electron to be “free.” Electrons were “not free in the truest sense of the word,” he argued. . This is now called a quasiparticle.The turmoil of war and revolution sparked ideas that changed our existing understanding of quantum mechanics3.

After the end of the civil war in 1923, science flourished again in Ukraine, especially in Kharkov, the capital of the Ukrainian SSR until 1934.FourSeveral important scientific institutions were established, including the Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Engineering in 1928. Although the Bolsheviks resisted Ukrainian independence, early revolutionary culture created a space to celebrate national identity in hopes that Ukrainian science would become a “national character.” form, content socialistFive.

High angle view of the computer assembly line at the Institute of Cybernetics of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in 1971

1971 computer assembly line at the Institute of Cybernetics in Kyiv. Researchers planned an automated network, sometimes called the Soviet Internet.Credit: M. Nachyinkin/akg-images/TT News Agency

Many Ukrainian scientists saw their research as part of wider nation-building. Among them was the pioneering psychologist and educator Ivan Sokolyanski. In the aftermath of the civil war, Sokoliansky founded a school for deafblind children at the Kharkov People’s Educational Institute, arguing that children with disabilities, including those in the conflict, need to be taught as part of a “shared activity.” did. country-made. Sokolyansky was adamant that these children should be taught to correctly perceive their native language, Ukrainian.6.

Stalinist purge

Throughout the 1930s, science became increasingly expected to follow Marxist-Leninist ideology, and the tolerance for alternative Ukrainian national identities declined.7The crackdown on the Ukrainian people included a famine known as the Holodomor instigated by the Soviet state that killed millions between 1932 and 1933.8.

Strengthening the leadership of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin initiated a series of arrests and executions from 1936 to 1938. Scientists in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) were often targeted. Sociologist Semen Semkovsky was executed in Kharkov in 1936 for supporting “bourgeois idealism” after arguing that Albert Einstein’s special and general relativity theories were compatible with Marxism.9Physicists Lev and Olga Shubnikov were arrested while working together at the Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Engineering. Before being executed, Lev was tortured and forced to sign a confession that he was a “member of a Trotskyist sabotage group.”Olga survived only because she recently gave birth to the couple’s first childTen.

But despite such a severe repression that the upheaval of World War II followed soon after, Ukrainian SSR scientists did their best to continue their work. Physicist Antonina Prikhodko received her doctorate in 1943 in Ufa, Russia’s Urals. In this Ufa, the Institute of Physical Engineering of Ukraine was evacuated. After the war, she joined the Institute of Physics in Kyiv, where she continued her work in cryogenic spectroscopy (see go.nature.com/3pu2nnx).

post-Stalin science

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (former Communist leader of the Ukrainian SSR) reduced ideological pressure on scientists.11Among those who made the most of this relatively free era was Viktor Grushkov, director of the Institute of Cybernetics in Kyiv. He was an early computer network pioneer.12Between 1962 and 1970, Glushkov and his team developed specifications for a national automation system, sometimes called the Soviet Internet. Grushkov believed that an automated computer network could realize the principles of a socialist command economy, but did not need an autocratic leader. He and his colleagues even dreamed of Cybertonia, a fictional country where the computer network replaced the socialist state. However, the Moscow Politburo did not like the idea of ​​being replaced by computers, so after 1970 it refused to fund Grushkov’s project.13.

Meanwhile, Soviet money was increasingly spent on weapons and nuclear power plants, much of which ended up in what is now Ukraine, including Chernobyl. Less and less towards basic scientific research. Traces of Soviet bureaucracy can still be felt, as Ukraine struggled to reform scientific funding and infrastructure after her 1991 independence.14.

In the face of the ongoing Russian aggression, Ukrainian scientists and their supporters have shown perseverance and creativity to continue their research at home and elsewhere. Often forced to log in remotely from a bunker or basement, students attend college courses. You can expect that attitude. Ukraine’s history has been punctuated intermittently by violent conflicts and political repression. It has inspired a culture of science defined by resilience and creativity. Investing in the Ukrainian people and capitalizing on this diverse culture is vital for the future of science in the country.

competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.



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