A plea from CORE to Russian and Belarusian academic community to help stop the war in Ukraine

This blog post has been authored by Dr. Petr Knoth, CORE Head & Founder…

… with the kind support of everyone from the Ukrainian-based team: Kateryna, Viktoriia, Mariia, Valerii, Andrii, Iva, Konstantin and Anton, and

… with the support and proof-reading of the UK-based CORE team: Matteo, Nancy, David, Sam.

This post is our personal story of how members of the CORE team have been affected and caught up in the armed conflict in Ukraine. It is one of the many testaments to the implications of war and a plea to the Russian and Belarusian academic community to help stop this violence. 

About half of the CORE team is based in Ukraine, the other half in the UK. We started working together nearly five years ago, when the CORE service faced an existential financial crisis caused by prolonged budget uncertainty and crippling real-terms financial cuts that prevented us from keeping the required number of people in the UK. We had to keep CORE running and further developing to prevail. After selecting Kyiv as the most favourable destination, we initially hired two developers. Today, we have seven people in Ukraine, about half of the team, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with each and every one of them. 

We last met in Kyiv at the beginning of February, only a few weeks ago. The war was already in the air, but my Ukrainian colleagues were adamant Putin was just negotiating with the west and that nothing would happen in the end. We worked together, walked the wide Kreschatik street in the evening, went for dinner, … all was quiet, peaceful and seemed normal. At that point, we could not imagine how quickly this was to change.  

The week after, the US, the UK and other countries started evacuating their embassy staff from Kyiv. Even the Russian embassy started preparations to close down – a clear signal of what was to come. While this appeared worrying, there was a glimpse of hope in our team and good spirits on Feb 16th, the date of the invasion date as announced by western media which didn’t materialise. This feeling of irrational safety was further fuelled by the Russian side showing deceptive images and making statements about Russian troops leaving. Since when can one trust Putin? And indeed, events were about to take a different direction. 

Petr’s message at the Russian embassy.

On the eve of the invasion, I had a tense feeling. I went to the Russian embassy and left a message there that read: “Russian occupants, Russian murderers!”. I was surprised there was no one there, no police, just quiet. This was about to change in just a few hours.

When the invasion started in the early hours of Thursday 24th Feb, Viktoriia, CORE’s UI/UX designer, already had her bag packed. She, expecting a baby, got into a car with her husband at 5 am in the morning trying to leave Kyiv. It was too late. The roads were packed, the shelling could be heard around them. They couldn’t leave. Instead, they spent the night hiding in a basement from the air raids. They were hoping they could leave Ukraine the following day.

Anton, CORE backend developer, our youngest member and still a student, had a similar story as Viktoriia. He too didn’t make it out of Kyiv on that day. For him, the plan was clear: join his parents, who are both German citizens, in Germany. Instead, he ended up in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, in a place where fierce fights are now being held.

My wife woke me up early that morning saying the invasion had started. I immediately tried to get in touch with the head of our Ukrainian staff Iva, who was in Kyiv. It was only yesterday when we rehearsed a “just in case” plan to evacuate our people. The plan was to move everyone to Lviv, which we had anticipated to be a safe place. But after the night raids hit even the west of Ukraine, Lviv was out of the question. We would need to move people to another country. At the end of the call with Iva, I asked her where she was going herself. She appeared defiant, stating that she would stay in Kyiv, confident that the Ukrainian army would hold its ground.

I then made a couple of calls at the Open University to double check we can support and pay people if they move abroad from Ukraine. The previous day, our Ukraine-based staff were, in principle, ready to move to another country in case there was fighting. But this plan was doomed to fail. 

I then contacted people from across the team. Konstantin, CORE front-end developer, just moved with his girlfriend from Poltava to Cherkasy, in the centre of Ukraine. He stated it was difficult to move anywhere due to bombs and no petrol. The idea was to wait, for now.

Kesha, Valerii’s parrot.

Valerii, CORE full-stack developer, was in his apartment in Kyiv. He has been defiant and strong since the beginning. He said he couldn’t leave now, because of owning a parrot (see figure) and a cat and not having a car. Since the start of the invasion, he has been connecting to our daily standups from his apartment as if nothing much happened.

Andrii, our new CORE system administrator, was in Uzhgorod, right at the border with Slovakia. We considered this to be a safe place and thought he would be able to leave to the EU if necessary. That assumption proved to be wrong the very next day.

I was then pleased to realise that Mariia, our backend developer, happened to be with her partner on holiday at the seaside. They recently bought an apartment in Kyiv that was still being constructed and last time I visited, she showed me the building where she was going to live once it is completed from the new Kyiv glass bridge. With just a suitcase, she now knew she was not coming back home as planned …

Kateryna, a mother of a one-year-old child, woke up in Lutsk, in the west of Ukraine, where her family lives. This place was always expected to be safe and Kateryna had offered the house of her parents to be used as a sanctuary for colleagues in Kyiv “just in case something happened” the previous day. But as Lutsk was also attacked by shelling, she would instead find herself packing and leaving home at 11pm that very evening, hoping to cross with her daughter to Poland. It was just 116 km.

The next day, the plan to evacuate CORE people in Ukraine was off the table. In the night, the newly announced conscription rules meant that men aged 18-60 were prevented from leaving Ukrainian territory. We could now only get the women out.

I texted Konstantin saying I was sorry. He replied: “Everything is ok, we will destroy all occupants. Ukrainian people are very aggressive and are going to defend the country. We will win!”. I texted Valerii who said he was fine and that I should focus on helping Kateryna who has a young child. He then told me that anyone living in Kyiv was invited to pick up a gun to defend their lovely city.

Later that day, I spoke with Iva making sure that we can continue paying our staff even if Ukrainian banks stop working. She was angry that the sanctions from the west were too mild. She felt they were alone in this fight, but defiant and expecting the Ukrainians to defeat Russia in a few days. In the evening, she texted me that they will be finished with the Russians in 1-2 days and that their army is strong. She also said that no one from the people she knows would want to stay in Ukraine should the Russians install a puppet government like in Belarus.

Kateryna was still 8 km from the Polish border the next morning. The sheer volume of people trying to cross into neighbouring Poland was just too high.

After spending the night in a basement, Viktoriia used a short window of opportunity and left Kyiv with her partner on Friday at 11 am. They were no longer going to the EU as she had decided that she couldn’t leave her husband. Instead, they planned to go to the Carpathian mountains in the very west of the country. A journey that would normally take just a few hours turned into a dramatic adventure with a flat tyre. Finally, they made it completely exhausted in the early hours of Saturday.

Anton, helped by his parents in Germany, also tried to move west and finally made it closer to the border. It is not clear whether he might be allowed to leave Ukraine as he is a student (not subject to the conscription rules). But for now, he is staying in Ukraine, separated from his parents in Germany who would like to retrieve him.

Finally, on Saturday morning, I got a message from Kateryna, she just managed to cross the border to Poland, exhausted, hungry and cold. Her 116 km journey took two nights and a day. But with her child, she was now safe. She later told me that if it wasn’t for her daughter, she would have turned back, or never left. Her father and brother are trying to help with the resistance, sleeping in a basement (see picture), and she wanted to do what was necessary to help her country too.

Shelter used by our colleague’s relatives.

That night, Valerii found himself sealing the windows of his apartment in Kyiv and staying further away from them. There was a curfew and shelling so he would sleep in the corridor, in the middle of the building.

Another shelter used by one of our colleagues.

On Saturday, Iva finally tried to leave Kyiv to protect her parents. They didn’t manage and had to return. It was too late, the route out was now shut. Later that day, she found herself mobilising support from people she knows. She wrote to people in many countries that “We are not ok, we are at war, at full-scale war with Russia is trying to occupy my beautiful Ukraine with bombs and troops and tanks. They are bombing our kids, they are trying to kill us. They hate us for our freedom and democracy … Right now I am hearing bombs in a few km near my home. War is here, and we are a wall between Europe and a crazy dictator.”

On Sunday, the bravery and heroism of the Ukrainian people was already well known internationally. It was amazing to see that not a single major Ukrainian city had been overrun so far. We were seeing pictures of confused Russian soldiers not knowing where they were going and why they were there, contrasting with the bravery of the Ukrainian people fighting a much stronger enemy.

On Sunday, Mariia and her partner were on a flight, but not a flight home as intended. They bought a flight to Vienna instead. From there, they continued in the early hours of Monday to Brno, Czech Republic where I offered to host them in my apartment, while staying with my family in the UK. Although she was safe herself, she was concerned too, noting that Russian tanks were 300m from the place where her parents were staying.

Up to this point, out of seven people in the CORE team, only two have made it out of Ukraine. One crossed the border, the other one was lucky to be outside of Ukraine when it all started. This is not the end, the fighting continues and we don’t know how long this will take.

While the stories of our team are a testament to the determination, defiance, bravery and heroism of the Ukrainian people, they are also a kind and urgent plea to our partner universities, researchers and friends in Russia and Belarus.

We at CORE reject this unprovoked, brutal and unjust Russian government aggression (with Belarus complicit) against Ukraine and its innocent citizens. Why do our people need to hide in shelters, hide from bombs in their lovely city, or even flee their country, …? What have they done wrong? They were free, independent, sovereign. How can tanks from a foreign nation liberate them and from whom? The bravery and defiance of the Ukrainian people is an inspiration to all of us

We are sorry for your young soldiers whose lives will be wasted for Putin’s ruthless ambition to have his own chapter in Russia’s history books next to Lenin and Stalin. We are sorry they will be dying for no higher cause than inflicting death and misery on an innocent population. We are sorry that ordinary Russians are waking today to a poor and isolated country.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. This is an opportunity for you, great Russian and Belarusian nations to stop this cruel regime and this senseless war.

We, the entire CORE team, call on your academic community. You have a voice that can be heard where others cannot.

Russian and Belarusian repositories and libraries:

  • You are the guardians of knowledge aware of the power of misinformation. But you also understand that the truth about who started the aggression and who was complicit in it won’t be erased from history books. We ask you to place a statement on the website of your repository or library rejecting the actions of your government.

Russian and Belarusian researchers and students:

You are the hope of the Russian and Belarusian nations, the representatives of intelligence. You are those who can understand and assess information critically. You have a voice and that voice needs to be heard now and loud:

  • Write to the heads of your Universities and research institutes. Demand that your universities reject this war (yes war, this is not a special operation not a peace-keeping mission) by issuing a public statement on their official website.
  • Go out and protest, show signs of public disobedience. Demand that the leadership of your institution supports you on this journey.

Russian and Belarusian funders

You are those who make research possible by oiling the wheels of progress. You are the intermediaries between the Russian state and research:

  • Stay strong and firm in protecting those who protest from being sanctioned.
  • Use your power to raise the issue up the funding chain. Be clear that the Russian and Belarusian research communities are immune to misinformation and that they know what is truly happening.

We are brutally aware of the courage that is needed to show public disobedience in today’s Russia and Belarus. But you must understand that compared to the inspirational heroism of Ukrainians fighting for their homeland, we are not asking for too much. This is a true opportunity for Russia to change its course and get back on the side of hope, truth and love. We are thinking of you and already miss you from the international community. Please rejoin soon. You are courageous people, you can do it and make a change!

The CORE Team

«Let it be the last war in the world”, Kateryna