Ukrainian Science in the Context of Decolonization: A personal perspective for the benefit of the international science community

by Alexey Ladokhin (Олексій Ладохін), Ph.D., D.Sc.
Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
The University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS 66160

1. Ukrainian Science in the Colonial Discourse.

Would a non-Ukrainian scientist know any Ukrainian scientists from the late 19th to early 20th centuries? Chances are they would, yet they probably would not know they were from Ukraine, were educated in Ukraine, and/or made their career in Ukraine (hint—think of the Voronoi or Jablonski diagrams, periodic table of elements, invention of helicopters, and design of the first man-carrying space rocket). This is not surprising, given that many imperial powers regularly took credit for Ukrainian achievements, and, in the case of Russia, denied the very existence of Ukrainian identity, banning the use of the Ukrainian language at all levels of education. The Soviet Union largely continued this tradition of tight colonial control in all spheres of cultural life using the tools of selective executions of Ukrainian intelligentsia (victims in tens of thousands), mass deportations of people from all classes to Siberia (several hundred thousand households moved from Ukraine), and genocide via man-created starvation known as Holodomor (four million victims died in Ukraine between 1932 and 1934). Another means of wiping out cultural identity was the Russification campaign which was particularly severe in Ukraine from a period after World War II through the early 1980s. While these are all well-established, historical facts, audiences in the West and Global South appear to be largely ignorant of them, buying into the Russian narrative stating that Ukraine “is not a real country.” This obliviousness is one of the reasons the democratic world failed to recognize the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which started in 2014 with the occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, for what it really was—a colonial war.

The two historical perspectives, written by prominent Ukrainian scientists for this Special Issue, present a clear view of the double jeopardy imposed upon the biological sciences in Ukraine under Soviet rule. First, all sciences that had no clear and immediate application to warfare had third-tier funding across the Soviet Union. Second, the situation in Ukraine was particularly dire, given its remoteness from the site of political power, Moscow, where policy and financial decisions were made. The resultant funding hurdles, combined with policies aimed at relocating the scientific potential from Ukraine to other parts of the USSR and undermining Ukrainian identity of young scientists, had devastating social and cultural impacts upon an independent Ukrainian scientific enterprise. This author’s experience as a graduate student in Kyiv in the 1980s provides a relatively benign yet telling illustration. I was simply forced to abandon the Ukrainian-based transliteration of my first name Oleksij for the Russian-based spelling to be used in English language publications (this story is typical for all scientists of my and previous generations in Ukraine). The alternative was to forgo English language (or any foreign language, for that matter) publications, as the submissions had to be approved by the by the KGB (Russian state police, also known as NKVD and now FSB) curators of science from the so-called “First Department” of our institution.

A stark illustration of the oppressive authority of these structures occurred during the two days after the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion, when the operatives of the First Department came to the labs in Kyiv and sealed all the scintillation counters. Thus, we could not use scientific tools to directly assess the danger we were in, while Moscow-originated propaganda claimed that: (a) nothing happened in Ukraine on April 26 of 1986 and (b) the situation is much better now. I’d like to remind the readers that this was happening under the leadership of the “great friend” of the West, Mr. Gorbachev. Only a few years later, President George Bush Sr. visited Ukraine to deliver his infamous “Chicken Kiev Speech,” written by certified Russia expert Condoleezza Rice, urging Ukraine to abandon its drive for independence. At approximately the same time, Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that opening a UK Embassy in Kyiv would be as ridiculous as opening one in San Francisco (she presumably meant California’s capital, Sacramento). These examples illustrate that the Kremlin’s propaganda claim of the West encouraging the breakup of the Soviet Union is a clear lie. The Soviet Empire died because Ukraine refused to be a part of it.

2. Ukrainian Science in the Western Discourse (still using colonial tropes).

The fall of the Iron Curtain meant that many scientists from the former Eastern Bloc countries, including Ukraine, were free to continue their careers in Western laboratories. Another contributing factor to the resulting brain drain was a precipitous collapse of economic ties within the Block, leading to the rapid impoverishment of many post-Soviet societies. Western academia appears to have greatly benefited from this influx of relatively cheap, yet well qualified scientific labor. Being a post-doctoral fellow in the early 1990s at a prominent private university in the US allowed the author of these lines to witness firsthand the transfer of anti-Ukrainian colonial discourse. For example, one of the first senior protein scientists from Russia to accept a full professorship in the US was known to entertain his US colleagues by musing on the non-existence of the Ukrainian language. These early seeds of Russian colonial bigotry fell on the blissfully ignorant soil of some Western academic circles, in a process not dissimilar to the subsequent “import of corruption” from Russia in the early 2000s. (The reader may be surprised to learn that the author experienced the fruits of such anti-Ukrainian bigotry in the West on several occasions over the past decades, including blatant racist remarks. Even as late as in the summer of 2022, months into the full invasion of Ukraine by Russian armies, a senior biophysicist from the same University found it acceptable to continue with “traditional” public taunts demeaning the author’s Ukrainian heritage).

Let me make it absolutely clear that the overwhelming majority of scientists I encountered in my 34-year academic career in the United States do not share even a hint of any prejudice. I was warmly welcomed by many members of the community, a number of which were fascinated by my heritage and wanted to know more about it.

3. A brief guide to failures of Western policies on Ukraine.

Below I provide some highlights on the role played by Western journalism at large, and scientific journalism in particular, in promoting Russian imperial narratives on Ukraine (a truncated version of this section can be found in: Ladokhin, Tragedy and Triumph of Ukraine, Biophysical Society Bulletin, May 2022.

3.1. The West abandoned Ukraine to Stalin. The genocide of Ukrainian people by Stalin’s enforcers, known as Holodomor, took the lives of 4-6 million people in 1932-1933. This was the time when the US recognized the USSR and, along with other Western powers, profited from collaboration with Stalin. That Western governments knew about the Famine has been demonstrated in numerous studies. Particularly egregious is the case of Walter Duranty, the Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times, who engaged in a cover-up, suppressing the eyewitness testimonies of the few honest journalists like Gareth Jones. Whereas Duranty was rewarded for his betrayal of journalistic integrity with a Pulitzer Prize, Gareth Jones “disappeared on assignment” to Inner Mongolia in 1935. Remarkably, even after Duranty’s actions were fully exposed in the 1990s, the Pulitzer Prize committee refused to withdraw the award. This certainly sent a strong message to journalists covering Ukraine (as described below) that catering to Kremlin narratives carries no real penalty.

3.2. Dissolution of the Soviet Union and the continued betrayal of Ukraine by the West. After the proclamation of Ukrainian independence in 1991, the attitude of the United States, and the West at large, is best characterized by continued efforts to force Ukraine to return to the Russian sphere of influence. This was well illustrated by the already mentioned “Chicken Kiev Speech” by Republican President George H. W. Bush and many statements of his Democratic successor, Bill Clinton, during his “saxophone sessions” in Eastern Europe. Specifically, President Clinton stated that while he was not advocating for new West-East borderlines in Europe, he didn’t want the new developments in “Poland, Czechia and Slovakia” to antagonize the interests of “Russia and Ukraine”. Here we go, I said to myself upon hearing this, the new border in Europe is set, and Ukraine is given to Russia! Even academic institutions in the US swiftly adopted this attitude. This attitude was formalized as policy with the ill-fated Budapest Memorandum of 1993, under which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal for guaranties of sovereignty and territorial integrity by the United States, United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation. The interpretation by Russia of Ukrainian “territorial integrity” has turned out to be the violent assimilation of Ukraine, piece by piece, into Russia.

3.3. The annexation of Crimea, invasion of Eastern Ukraine, and the (lack of) reaction in the West. The West offered tepid condemnation of the “special operation” by the Russian Federation in 2014 that resulted in over ten thousand dead and nearly two million displaced Ukrainian citizens by the end of 2021. The bite of the sanctions imposed at the time was miniscule. This partially can be explained by the impact of Russian propaganda in the West and the export of corruption by Putin’s regime. Sadly, many journalists and editors either willingly or unwittingly participated in this propaganda. The best-known example was an Orwellian misrepresentation by the scientific community of the Russian occupation of Ukrainian lands, illustrated by the news feature entitled “Out in the cold”, in the journal Science (2016 April 8, pp. 140–141). Not only did the editors of Science send a correspondent to enter Ukraine illegally via the Russian Federation, but they inexplicably decided to place the resulting news article on Crimea under their “Science in Russia” collection. We have presented our analysis of this article in the context of the Kremlin’s propaganda machinery in a Letter to the Editor, signed by nearly 150 scientists worldwide, “Crimea report leaves readers in the cold” (Science 13 May 2016 • Vol. 352, issue 6287, pp. 780–81). This had modest impact, successfully coaxing a single-line apology from the Editor of Science. As a corresponding author of this letter to Science, I communicated our concerns directly to the team of Editors and was stunned that they had no inkling that the placement of the news feature would be “…useful to Putin’s propaganda.” (To my colleagues and myself, this sounded almost like claiming that a screening of “Triumph of Will” would not be useful to Nazi propaganda). It is a point of fact that the “Out in the cold” feature published by Science basically repeated the main points of Kremlin propaganda used six years later to justify the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, the article made phantasmagorical implications to justify removing Western sanctions on Russia-occupied Crimea: it would allow scientists to monitor “dangerous near-Earth asteroids” threatening the world. Of course, the reality is that the Russian military threatens the world, and Crimea served as a military staging ground for attacking Ukraine in 2022. We have published our detailed analysis of the Putin’s policy of weaponization of science and culture in the E-letter, accompanying our 2016 publication: see A. S. Ladokhin, “‘Out in the cold’ and Kremlin’s weaponization of culture” (2016);

3.4. Failure to export democracy to Russia and the resulting import of corruption from Russia. The decade that followed the annexation of Crimea and continuous aggression in Eastern Ukraine by Russia was largely ignored by the West, following a strategy of appeasing a dictator’s whims, reminiscent of the strategy toward Hitler in the 1930s. The narrative of “resetting” the West’s relationship with Putin was coincident with sky-rocketing oil- and gas-generated revenues, which went to the pockets of political heavyweight lobbyists such as Gerhard Schröder; electoral funds provided for both extreme left-wing and extreme right-wing political parties; and creation of a network of “research” institutions that generated what is now referred to as “toxic Russian propaganda” (see, for example, Western scientific journalism helped provide credence to these “business as usual” policies with a series of publications presenting the objective difficulties of scientific development in war-drained Ukraine as a “failure” of democratically elected leaders that came to power after the 2013–2014 revolution. When interviewed on the subject by a German journalist from Nature, I pointed out that this narrative came from the Kremlin’s playbook. Needless to say, my comments were ignored, and the Nature piece was published in 2019 (doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00512-3) without mentioning my or similar opinions of other scientists scientists (e.g., Seumenicht, Garaschuk, Ladokhin White paper: ideas and recommendations “Way forward for science in Ukraine: perspective of the Ukrainian Research Diaspora,” Sci. Innov., 2019, 15 (5) pp. 106-119. Unfortunately, even after the 2022 invasion, Science and Nature continue to ignore the views of Ukrainian scientists and provide a platform to contributors without credibility or authority (e.g., representatives of non-academic Science Club) to speak on vital Ukrainian matters. Thankfully, the Editors of the journal BBA Advances provided an opportunity to fill some gaps in representing the views of Ukrainian academics in the latest Special Issue “Highlights of Ukrainian Molecular Biosciences” (see for example in an excellent commentary by El’skaya A few notes on science in Ukraine, BBA Advances 2023 (

3.5. Failure to recognize the colonial nature of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The heroic resistance of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the unification of Ukraine’s multiethnic society has galvanized the Western world and introduced a new reality for Russia. Severe economic sanctions will cause Russian society to be wounded. Thus, the next goal of Russian propaganda is to undermine the resolve of the West by seeking sympathy for the needs of ordinary members of society. This can be seen in the attempts to reframe the aggression as “Putin’s war” rather than a military assault carried out by hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers with most of Russian society showing either enthusiastic support or silent acquiescence. Unfortunately, Science has fallen again for this bait [] and has refused to publish the a letter signed by many scientists from Ukraine and Ukrainian Diaspora (, requesting the West to “reassess the role of Russian science in supporting the war and strengthen the resistance to Kremlin’s regime on the science front.” Fortunately, the group of Ukrainian scientists was able to convince Nature to publish their appeal, see Bazaliy et al, Ukraine: don’t relax scientific sanctions against Russia, Nature 2023 Mar; 615(7950):34.

Regrettably, the natural assumption in the West is to treat scientists in Russia as a default opposition to Kremlin regime. This is a mistake. Not only is a large part of Russia’s research community directly involved in the military effort, but the overwhelming majority of Russian society at large, including academia, shares the imperial delusions that led to the invasion of Ukraine. Future historians will be dissecting this phenomenon, which probably originates from a failure to provide a real de-Stalinization of Russian society in a manner similar to the de-Nazification of the German society after World War II. This goal is still obtainable but would require winning the war on the battlefields of Ukraine, the devastation of the aggressor’s economy, and holding war criminals and their enablers accountable in international criminal courts.

4. What can the scientists in the democracies of the West and the Global South do to help Ukraine?

To help Ukraine resist Russian imperial aggression, we call upon the academic and research institutions of the democratic world to join the economic and financial sanctions against the aggressors. No more business as usual, no more invitations to international conferences and programs for the aggressors. We call upon the scientific journals to enforce the compliance of all their Contributors, Reviewers and Editorial Board members with the stated ethical code of conduct common to all publishers. Obviously, we are not asking to ban all scientific publications by Russian scientists. Instead, we are requesting that their submissions are accompanied by a clear and explicit public statement condemning imperial aggression against Ukraine, and that failure to provide such a statement disqualifies the submission on the grounds of violating the publisher’s code of ethical conduct. We call upon every democratic institution and individual scientist to make a calculated decision to help Ukraine, engaged with their conscience and with the knowledge that the liberty of individuals and nations depends upon the choice they make.

Acknowledgments: The author would like to acknowledge all his past and current Ukrainian collaborators and colleagues for the inspiration for this article. I am grateful to my uncle Сергій Левицький for teaching me to be a Donetsk-born Ukrainian and to his sister Ганна for teaching me to be a scientist. I am grateful to Professor Shymansky of the Physics Department of the Taras Shevchenko National University for promoting Ukrainian identity in academia and always wearing vyshyvanka to work in 1980s; and to my Ph.D. advisor, Professor Demchenko of the Palladin Institute of Biochemistry, for teaching me how to survive in science the Spartan swimming-lesson way. I am grateful to my first postdoctoral supervisor, Professor Peter Holloway of the University of Virginia for his unwavering support of Ukraine, for bringing the sample of brominated lipids to Kyiv in late 1980s and for teaching me how to make pysanky in 1991; and to my last postdoctoral supervisor, Professor Stephen White of the University of California at Irvine, for his countless actions of support, including the editing my first letter of protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. And above all, the author is indebted to the Armed Forces and men and women of Ukraine for their heroic efforts in defending our country and democracy. Слава Україні!