Harvard Scholars Without Borders Supports Displaced Ukrainian, Russian Scholars Amid War

Through Scholars Without Borders, Harvard has worked to support academics from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to continue their scholarship despite the threats of war and state repression.
By Elizabeth R. Huang and Connor J. Yu

The Davis Center is located in the CGIS South building. The center launched the Scholars Without Borders program to support displaced academics from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
The Davis Center is located in the CGIS South building. The center launched the Scholars Without Borders program to support displaced academics from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. By Josie W. Chen

A few months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Harvard Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies launched Scholars Without Borders, a program with a mission to provide resources for displaced scholars from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Since its launch, the Scholars Without Borders program has worked to facilitate the continued academic pursuits of displaced scholars by providing information on grants, work permits, and other opportunities.

According to their website, the program has sought to connect displaced scholars with one another through both local in-person and broader virtual networks, providing assistance even amid the U.S. public’s waning attention to the war.

Alexandra Vacroux, the executive director of the Davis Center, said the program seeks to help scholars in their current locations rather than to bring them to the U.S.

“It’s expensive to bring people over — you need some kind of vetting process, and then after they’ve been here for a year or two, then they need to find something else,” Vacroux said. “So the thing we were trying to think of is how can we help people in the place where they’ve ended up.”

Destroying Knowledge Production

In the wake of bombed universities and Russian occupation, many scholars in Ukraine have faced a range of academic obstacles, including finding and obtaining jobs.

For Hanna Melehanych, a professor at the Uzhhorod National University in Ukraine who is part of Scholars Without Borders, the war has put a complete halt to her academic work.

“In this time, I don’t think about my scientific research or some scientific activities because we must do all we want and can to help the army,” Melehanych said.

Some Ukrainian scholars have also faced financial and personal barriers to furthering their academic work.

Antonina Bulyna, a fellow professor at Uzhhorod National University who is also part of Scholars Without Borders, said she was forced to turn down an academic scholarship she had won in France due to the difficulties of traveling with her children.

Melehanych, who had won a scholarship in the Czech Republic for her academic work, was also forced to decline the opportunity due to financial challenges.

“It’s not always something that is available for, at least, a Ukrainian scholar — just having that financial fuel to be able to go abroad,” Bulyna said.

Harvard put up a Ukrainian flag on University Hall on March 1, 2022 to show its support for Ukraine. The flag remained flying for several weeks.
Harvard put up a Ukrainian flag on University Hall on March 1, 2022 to show its support for Ukraine. The flag remained flying for several weeks. By Cory K. Gorczycki

The Scholars Without Borders program acts as a coordination mechanism, providing information on grants, publications, and other local academic opportunities for scholars.

Emily S. Channell-Justice, director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at the Ukrainian Research Institute, highlighted the broader repercussions of hindered academic work.

“There’s an idea of destroying not only people’s day-to-day lives and infrastructures and everything, but also destroying any idea of producing knowledge in Ukraine,” Channell-Justice said.

‘It Is Essential’

In Russia, scholars faced a somewhat different set of obstacles.

Anna Ivanova — who obtained her Ph.D. in History from Harvard in 2022 before serving as a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg — made the difficult decision to leave her home in Russia after her opposition to the war led to the need to self-censor in the classroom.

Though she is now in Berlin, Ivanova said that for scholars who have remained in Russia, “censorship is getting worse.”

Still, for many Russian scholars, leaving is not an option.

“One has to have connections, to have experience, to have even financial possibilities to afford that,” Ivanova said.

For displaced Russian academics, the Scholars Without Borders program provides information on and connections to academic resources, including identifying local universities willing to provide work permits.

Early last year, Scholars Without Borders also engaged Telegram, an encrypted instant messaging platform, to provide a space where people can share resources and connect virtually. The Telegram channel has since amassed more than 1,000 members.

According to Vacroux, the channel is “an opportunity for people to share either resources that they know about or grant competitions.”

One Russian scholar participating in Scholars Without Borders pointed to the psychological effects of the war and censorship on their fellow academics.

“The basic feeling is fear of prosecution, is fear of being harassed in the far-right media in Russia,” they said. “Some of my colleagues have received direct mail with threats of violence — and, of course, the police are doing nothing.”

To the scholar, dissidents are left with no option but to stay quiet: “Don’t share your opinion with the public — just speak with two or three close friends who are also against war,” they said.

“The majority of academia is now in this situation,” they added.

The scholar said that the “oppressions in Russia will go more harsh.”

“The regime will be more strict with all people who deal with public speech or education.”

Māris Andžāns, a participant in Scholars Without Borders and Director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies in Riga, Latvia, praised the program for helping scholars continue their academic pursuits despite the war.

“It is essential,” Andžāns said, adding that as scholars come back, “they will bring back knowledge, new skills, and publications, and also a network of other scholars.”

Building Bridges

As Scholars Without Borders continues to expand, program leaders have also visited affected countries to hear about the needs of local faculty and students.

Last December, Daniel J. Epstein, assistant director of the Scholars Without Borders program, visited Uzhhorod National University — where Melehanych and Bulyna teach — to introduce Scholars Without Borders to the university and ask about the obstacles they face.

“This is like two different corners of the globe, and so he was determined to come,” Bulyna said about Epstein. “We do appreciate that, because it’s a bit different than when you communicate online.”

Hundreds of demonstrators march through Harvard Yard in a February 2022 rally denouncing Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Hundreds of demonstrators march through Harvard Yard in a February 2022 rally denouncing Russia's invasion of Ukraine. By Julian J. Giordano

While Bulyna said her university’s work with Scholars Without Borders is only in its “initial stage,” they have already “discussed about the possibility of having a conference” at the school.

The Russian scholar participating in Scholars Without Borders also expressed their gratitude for the program’s efforts.

“It’s really helpful for me and my colleagues, because it’s a good step towards integration in the world academia,” citing the “different academic standards” in Russia.

According to Vacroux, Scholars Without Borders is now looking to fundraise to host more workshops for displaced scholars, some of which would offer English language courses.

“One of the big problems is that we find that these scholars, their academic English isn’t good enough for them to do presentations or be competitive in publications,” Vacroux said. “So the more we can get funding to offer English language workshops, the better.”

Vacroux said the program also plans to fundraise to implement measures that would increase scholars’ access to grants and publications. Some of the money would go towards developing “mini grants that would allow people to apply for a collaborative grant that would involve some of the local scholars wherever they are.”

“The idea is to build bridges into the local institutions, which are the most likely organizations that would hire these scholars,” Vacroux said.

Epstein said he hopes more U.S. academics will contribute to the program’s efforts to get displaced scholars the resources they need.

“We have a great need for a network of scholars in the United States and other international countries to help just on a small scale, even if it means just attending some of our events to make contact with Ukrainian scholars or displaced Russian scholars,” Epstein said.

“With the war in Ukraine, it’s pretty clear how to contribute, what side to contribute for,” he said. “I just hope that people will remember that alongside other tragic events around the world.”

—Staff writer Elizabeth R. Huang can be reached at lizzy.huang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @lizzyrhuang.

—Staff writer Connor J. Yu can be reached at connor.yu@thecrimson.com.

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