Out in the cold

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Science  08 Apr 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6282, pp. 140-141
DOI: 10.1126/science.352.6282.140

In 2009, the Marine Hydrophysical Institute (MHI) here scored a coup: It became the only organization outside the European Union picked as a forecasting center in Europe's MyOcean program. Perched on a bluff in this picturesque port, MHI collected data on everything from currents and salinity to wind speeds and chlorophyll levels in the Black Sea. Then on 1 October 2014, as singularly as MHI was welcomed into MyOcean, it was booted out again. “European financing for us stopped,” says MHI Deputy Director Alexander Kubryakov. “Now, we work on pure enthusiasm.”

The reason for MHI's ouster: Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014. Just six countries, including North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela, now recognize Crimea as part of Russia. Most of the world still considers it part of Ukraine. As the European Union and the United States imposed escalating sanctions on Russia, science collaborations with institutions in Crimea foundered. Researchers here holding Russian passports now face huge hurdles when seeking visas to the West. “Crimea became a kind of black hole on the Earth,” says Pavel Gol'din, a zoologist who in 2014 decamped to Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, from Taurida National V.I. Vernadsky University (TNU) in Simferopol.

Shunned by the West, Kubryakov and others who stayed put have received a warm embrace from Russia. Five Crimean institutes are now part of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). Scientists at MHI and the A.O. Kovalevsky Institute of Marine Biological Research (IMBR), also in Sevastopol, are joining RAS-led marine expeditions. The Crimean Astrophysical Observatory in Nauchny, meanwhile, got Russian funding this year to purchase a pair of 70-centimeter telescopes that will search for dangerous near-Earth asteroids. Crimean scientists with an affinity for Russia profess that they are content. “We came back home,” says Elena Nevrova, a phytoplankton specialist at IMBR.

Ukraine may have lost control of Crimea, but it won't relinquish it. The government has made it illegal for Ukrainians and foreigners alike to travel to the peninsula via Russia. In October 2015, the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences told its scientists to suspend all cooperation with colleagues in “temporarily occupied” Crimea. And last month, displaced professors from TNU opened a campus in Kyiv that will offer online courses for students in Crimea. TNU-in-exile, says rector Volodymyr Kazarin, who headed the Russian literature department in Simferopol, will develop “real tools for the deoccupation of Crimea” by training the next generation of Crimean leaders.

FAMED FOR ITS vineyards and Black Sea resorts, Crimea for millennia was a crossroads of East and West. The peninsula—the size of Maryland—was a hub for trade between Asia's steppes and the Mediterranean Sea. But the ancient crossroads has often been a focus of conflict. In the 1850s the Crimean War pitched Russia against the Ottomans, the United Kingdom, and France, while in 1944 Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of all 240,000 Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority, to Central Asia.

Following the Soviet collapse in 1991, Russia kept its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, leasing the port from Ukraine. But after protests in Kyiv that began in November 2013 drove out Ukraine's pro-Russian president a few months later, Russia seized the strategic peninsula. “Everyone expected the Ukrainian army would defend Crimea and there would be a lot of bloodshed,” Gol'din says. Pro-Russian men in Crimea, including many young scientists, mobilized into regiments. “It was scary. We didn't have any weapons,” says one IMBR scientist who requested anonymity because he says “Ukrainian fascists” are targeting him.

Scientists who remain at the Institute of Marine Biological Research in Sevastopol celebrated annexation, but many others left Crimea.


Now, billboards across the peninsula show the smiling visage of Russian President Vladimir Putin and three words in Cyrillic declaring: “Crimea. Russia. Forever.” “Some institutes adopted the Russian system quickly, others tried to resist,” says Gol'din, who's now at the Institute of Zoology in Kyiv. The Crimean Astrophysical Observatory was in the former camp. When European colleagues emailed the observatory's Konstantin Grankin, saying they were sorry about what happened, “I didn't know how to answer them,” Grankin says. “I just sent them photos of us enjoying Maslenitsa,” a pagan celebration in March to welcome spring featuring burning scarecrows and Russian blini pancakes.

But the takeover rent Crimea's scientific community, sparking an exodus. TNU, Crimea's premier university, was decimated; Russia has merged it with several others to form a new Crimean Federal University in Simferopol. At the Institute of Archaeology, in Simferopol, all eight researchers in the Stone Age division, including the institute's former director, left for Kyiv. “We won't be excavating sites from that period now,” says Valentina Mordvintseva, a staff scientist. She herself had German funding to excavate a site on Crimea's Kerch Peninsula—until the E.U. sanctions. “I lost the expedition,” she says. “It was disastrous.”

Valerij Eremeev, the former director of the Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas—IMBR's name before annexation—is now in Kyiv, spearheading an effort to reconstitute Ukraine's marine science after the loss of the two Sevastopol institutes. The Ukrainian government evacuated to Odessa an elite research team from the University of Nuclear Power Stations in Sevastopol, says Maksym Strikha, Ukraine's deputy science minister in Kyiv. All told, he says, as many as 700 scholars “are working in mainland Ukraine now.”


A handful of scientists fled the other way. Igor Dovgal had spent 35 years at the Institute of Zoology in Kyiv, and had risen to deputy director. A protist specialist, he moved to IMBR at the end of 2014. “It was a difficult decision. Even now I'm surprised at myself that I took it,” he says. His wife and daughter stayed in Kyiv. But he says he could not stand the anti-Russian feeling in the Ukrainian capital during the 2013–14 protests. “It made my presence in Kyiv impossible.”

Russia is making a concerted effort to reward loyal Crimeans. In April 2014, RAS President Vladimir Fortov in Moscow visited Crimea in support, he says, of the “unification” of its top institutes with the Russian academy. IMBR says funds for marine expeditions increased threefold last year, and RAS is showering it with new instruments. Longtime collaborations between Moscow's Institute of Oceanology and MHI diminished when MHI became more involved in European programs. Now, “our doors are open” to colleagues in Crimea, says Mikhail Flint of the Institute of Oceanology. “We are trying to do our best to help them.” Some years ago, MHI had to scrap its four Soviet-era research ships, and had been tagging along on IMBR's ship. “Moscow has promised us a new ship,” says MHI's Vladimir Belokopytov.

Although official contacts are barred, scientists in Crimea say they share data with colleagues in Ukraine and Europe, and continue to write joint papers. To Ukraine's consternation, a few papers in Western journals—including ones published by Elsevier and Taylor & Francis—recently appeared listing affiliations as Sevastopol, Russia.

Many scientists here believe that Crimea's pariah status will fade. “We expect the geopolitical situation will change and full scientific relations will resume,” says IMBR radiochemist Victor Egorov. Even with Ukraine, he says: “We are one and the same tribe.” Kubryakov, a mathematical modeler, is not so sure. He is proud that of MHI's 416 staff members, only one researcher, a native of western Ukraine, departed after March 2014. It may be a long time before Kubryakov sees Ukrainian colleagues as family once again—and before his institute is welcomed back into the European fold.

  • * in Sevastopol

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