Olga told me that she’s sure that her friends in Moscow are worse off. “At least I can breathe freely. I’m not afraid. If I live to see the future, I know that this will have been interesting, and that I will make it the way I want it. But as for the guys [back in Russia] – their situation is very different, and I feel how much they need support. They often want to just chat with me to stave off severe depression,” she says.
The sea, whales, science – this was what gave meaning to Olga Shpak’s life. But now she says she isn’t sure she’ll continue to work in research. You would expect this to be a sad thought, but she says it serenely: Olga is sure that Ukraine will win and that after the victory she’ll take part in rebuilding what has been destroyed, serving her country. She expects her colleagues from all over the world to come to Kharkiv and help plant new trees. In fact, the loss of ancient trees because of the bombardment she grieves equally as the loss of city infrastructure.
Severe depression is a good way to describe it. I received a long, desperate voice message from a Russian biochemist, Anna Dobrozhanskaya. She lives in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, and she has made a career trying to figure out how clams spend such little energy on shutting their shells. Anna belongs to one of the leading groups in her field globally and has published prolifically, but she decided to resign soon after the war began. Supplies for her lab were cut due to both sanctions and budget problems, though this isn’t the main reason she quit – Anna doesn’t want to collaborate with the regime. “I don’t want to serve a state that doesn’t strive to invest in progress, but instead lives by empty slogans. I don’t want to support the normalization of this, that hypocritical façade,” she said in a deeply dolorous tone.
As a Russian, I myself had a most striking opportunity to compare my own emotions with those of my Ukrainian counterparts.
I was interviewing Vasylyna Borysiuk, a friend and colleague of a recently deceased young Ukrainian mathematician named Yulia Zdanovskaya, also from Kharkiv. Yulia graduated with a BS in mathematics, but was very active in teaching and took a job at a rural school. At the graduation ceremony in June 2021, they joked that she would soon become a Harvard professor – rather seriously she replied that she didn’t want that but she might consider the post of education minister. Right after the war started, Yulia volunteered for the city militia and soon after died in a missile attack. MIT has started a memorial research program in her name.