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War Is the Enemy of Education

War Is the Enemy of Education

By Ani Kokobobo

 All university activities have ceased in Ukraine. No classes, no research, no students, no staff, no faculty. Professors from the Kyiv School of Economics are joining the military and getting caught in the crossfire. Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University, in western Ukraine, has become a refugee camp; university leaders desperately plead for bedding, microwaves, pillows. Five hundred international students, mostly from Africa, have been stranded in the Ukrainian town of Sumy, surrounded by the Russian army on three sides and under constant shelling.

Ukraine’s rich academic tradition has been suspended. An unnamed scholar from Kharkiv, which was shelled extensively by the Russian army, wrote of becoming an instant refugee: “This is what happens in life. Just yesterday you were finishing an article and making plans for your vacation, and today you are standing with a bag at the station in Poltava (a good city, I’ve been trying to see a long time ago), with your scared children and a cat in a carrier.”

There are close academic ties between Russia and Ukraine, and some of the loudest voices against the Kremlin’s war have been Russian academics. Putin’s government commands a vast disinformation campaign intended to stifle resistance at home. Protesting is restricted to the point of being illegal, and last week the Russian State Duma advanced a new law carrying the possibility of a 15-year prison sentence for spreading “fake news” about the war. Professional groups, including many groups of academics, have also spoken out against the war through open letters and social media. Since the new law, a number of these letters have either been removed or the identities of the signatories have been hidden. These words, these truths, matter, now more than ever.

“There is no rational justification for this war,” reads a letter signed by over 7,000 Russian journalists and scholars, recently removed. “Attempts to use the situation in Donbass as a pretext for launching a military operation do not inspire any confidence. It is clear that Ukraine does not pose a threat to the security of our country. The war against it is unjust and openly senseless.” An open letter by Russian physicists, now also removed, urges bravery: “We ask you not to be afraid to speak out against a horrific war and do everything possible to stop it.”

There is no rational justification for this war. 

“We cannot imagine the depth of the wound that we, as the people of Russia, are inflicting on the people of Ukraine and ourselves right now,” write the students, alumni, and faculty of Moscow State University, Russia’s leading university. This sentence expresses the full weight of the sorrow, despair, and hopelessness that many Russians feel. It echoes the words of the Russian writer Liudmila Ulitskaya, who recently wrote: “Pain, fear, and shame — this is what I feel today.”

In another statement, 351 Russian mathematicians focus specifically on what the war is doing to their colleagues and collaborators in Ukraine, at times using Putin’s own words to denounce his violence. Noting that the Russian government had named the study and research of mathematics a strategic priority, Russian mathematicians observed that these goals “cannot be achieved in the current conditions, when the lives of our closest colleagues — scientists in Ukraine, with whom we have been connected by many years of successful joint work — are daily exposed to danger, the source of which is the Russian army, and when Russia has found itself in international isolation, without the possibility of intensive scientific exchange and cooperation with scientists from other countries.”

As the Moscow State University signatories note, the true value of education “lies in being able to critically evaluate what is happening around us, weigh arguments, hear each other & be faithful to the truth — scientific & humanistic. We know how to call a spade a spade, & we cannot stand aside.” In a number of these letters, scholars refer to the Russian Federation as a “rogue state,” and use words like “war” and “attack,” which the Kremlin forbids. A number of letters are careful to blame only the Russian Federation for what is happening in Ukraine. All of the letters demand an immediate end to hostilities and the withdrawal of Russian troops.

Scholars have been repressed, purged, and generally punished throughout Russia’s history. The Terror-Famine (Holodomor) perpetrated on Ukrainian peasantry by Stalin was accompanied by a purge of Ukrainian intellectuals. As the Kremlin replays its most violent historical chapters, it is hard not to worry that academics in both Russia and any parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia will be punished for their words and signatures. A scholar working in Russia told me recently that they were worried about losing their job as a result of signing a statement.

War may be the enemy of education, but education is how we train independent-minded thinkers to cultivate peace. I hope many Western universities, whose doors have not been closed, will follow the example of Chernivtsi National, in Ukraine, and use every resource available to provide new intellectual homes for scholars displaced by war. Many Ukrainian and Russian students may not be able to go back home at this point. To simply stand by and watch must not be an option.

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