Will Ukraine’s brains return? And what if they don’t?

The sense of a national mission among students and academics living outside Ukraine – to use their intellectual skills to rebuild their country – appears to be strong, but there are many factors that could affect the decision to return, and many ways to rebuild.

In the question-and-answer period following his address to Canadian university students on 26 June last year, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was asked by a Ukrainian graduate student what she could do for Ukraine from the safe haven of the University of Toronto.

His answer was equal parts the high school history teacher who becomes president of Ukraine he played in the hit situation comedy Servant of the People, and the wartime president he had become: “Your job is to study hard and earn good grades, and then be ready to come back to Ukraine with new knowledge and help us rebuild the country.”

This sense of national mission is shared by the university and graduate students and professors I interviewed, and by administrators who oversee programmes that send Ukrainian students abroad.

The 100 students that Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), Lviv, sent abroad this semester are vetted, Vice-Rector Taras Dobko told University World News, to ensure that they have the right motivation for wanting to leave Ukraine at this critical time and that they understand they are more than simply international students.

“We make them aware that they are cultural ambassadors of Ukraine to the world,” said Dobko.

The students who attend Catholic universities in South America, Dobko said, bear a special burden.

“You can imagine how important it is because South America doesn’t in general support Ukraine as much as North America or Europe does. It is important for us to send those students so they are able to explain Ukraine to their peers in those universities. They organise different academic or cultural events to explain Ukraine,” said Dobko.

Linguistics Professor Yurii Kovbasko, who is presently on a two-year fellowship in Guarapuava, Paraná state, Brazil, also feels this sense of mission, a word used by several of the professors I interviewed.

In the first months of the war, while still at his home university, Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University (VSPNU) in Ivano-Frankivsk, which is in the western part of Ukraine, he felt a sense of a “divided consciousness” because as a university professor he could not enlist in the army, an avenue that was also precluded by a health problem.

Nevertheless, even though he knew that he was most useful to the country by continuing with his professional duties and volunteering in “the information field, explaining to people outside Ukraine what was really happening in Ukraine”, he was haunted by the feeling of “not doing enough”.

The opportunity to continue his linguistic research in Brazil might not seem to have an obvious link to Ukraine’s existential struggle, but, in fact, being in Brazil provides Kovbasko with two ways of supporting Ukraine.

“Here I have more opportunities to reach out to people and show them the grief and atrocities the Russian army [has] brought to Ukraine. Here, I have an information platform to communicate with Brazilian people, who want to know the truth, as [they do] not always … have … access to facts and first-hand evidence.

“The country is far away from Ukraine and the war does not always hit the headlines and, what is worse, people can often fall victim to disinformation and fakes, taking into account the geopolitical relations of the country and its place in the world.”

Kovbasko’s research in the yellowed and often crumbling 19th and early 20th century Ukrainian newspapers, and other materials in dusty church and public archives and libraries, is a nation-building project.

The forms of the Ukrainian language he is documenting are a snapshot of the language as it was before the First World War, when the first wave of more than 20,000 Ukrainians (chiefly farmers) came to Brazil and, therefore, before the Russification efforts implemented by the USSR after Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union in 1922.

The Diachronic Corpus of the Ukrainian Language of the Diaspora will allow linguists to see changes in words and usage in time. It’s also important, said Kovbasko, “because we’re fighting Russia. And, I’m sure you know, there is a large percentage of Russian words used in Ukrainian. We have a lot of pseudo Russian words when there are Ukrainian words but we just change the ending.

“During the Soviet times, the feminine forms of words disappeared but they persisted in [Ukrainian] communities in the United States, Canada and Brazil.

“As Ukrainian replaces Russian and pseudo Russian,” Kovbasko continued, “there are debates over which regional form of Ukrainian is the most correct. My research will provide the type of historical data we need to make the best decision.”

Professor Olena Strelnyk, a sociology professor, is presently finishing the first year of a two-year emergency fellowship at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) funded by the university and DFG, the German Research Foundation.

In addition her research for TUM – on the spatial and inequalities in knowledge production, which looks at science as a field of power and inequalities – Strelnyk works at the Bavarian state library collecting oral histories of the war in Ukraine and displacement.

Strelnyk immediately drew a distinction between herself and most Ukrainians displaced by the war. “I am more privileged, to be honest. I have an apartment. I have a salary.” Additionally, because of the financial support of TUM and DFG, she was able to bring with her to Germany her 22-year-old daughter who is studying communications at the University of Augsburg and journalism at the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA), and her 16-year-old son. Strelnyk’s husband remains in the central Ukrainian city of Poltava.

The oral history project is a vital part of Strelnyk’s personal and professional identity as a Ukrainian feminist scholar.

“It’s important for me to be employed on this project because this is some kind of connection to Ukraine. It’s extremely important for me to know I am doing something helpful for Ukraine [while] being in Germany … [that] I’m not only here as a mom who would like to support my kids [but also] that I have a unique mission being in Germany, at this time, as a Ukrainian scholar.”

Weakening ties

The total number of Ukrainian university students studying abroad and of professors now working outside Ukraine is unknown. Nor is it known how many of these expatriate scholars intend on returning.

(According to the Centre for Research and Analysis on Migration, which is housed in the Department of Economics at the University College London, as of 8 May 2023, there were 8.2 million Ukrainian refugees across Europe. Against that some 12.7 million Ukrainians have returned to the country in the past several months.)

An online poll conducted for the School for Policy Analysis at NaUKMA indicates the extent of the ‘brain drain’ Ukraine is facing.

Of the 12,019 people surveyed, 16.52% answered from outside Ukraine. Almost half of respondents believed that of those studying outside Ukraine, only about half will return to the country. Of the 313 students who are studying abroad, only 30.7% said they plan on returning to Ukraine, while 23.7% said they would try to find a job outside Ukraine. Another 5% said that when they finished with the programme they are currently in, they plan to enrol in another programme outside Ukraine.

The longer the full-scale war Russia launched at the end of February 2022 continues the higher the number of students who won’t return to Ukraine. For, as a number of my respondents noted, as time goes on, the link between these expatriate scholars and Ukraine weakens as individuals put down roots in other countries. These roots can include entering into a relationship and starting a family, which will make moving back to Ukraine a more difficult decision, or being offered a full-time teaching position.

When I asked Dr Yevhen Kudriavets, Ukrainian deputy minister for European integration in the Ministry of Education and Science, who is responsible for higher education, about this, he answered, “I completely agree … We have to face this reality. Every month, we’re losing people. We don’t know the percentage, but we know the probability of the average person to come back becomes less.”

The ‘brain drain’ also concerns scholars abroad like Uliana Tykha, a linguistics professor from VSPNU, who is now at Cardiff University (CU, Wales). In the first hours of the war (24 February 2022), she was woken by two massive explosions behind her apartment building caused by missiles hitting the airport 85 miles southwest of Lviv near the Polish border.

After attending a linguistics conference in Britain a few months later, she was offered a two-year fellowship in CU, where she is researching the incorporation of expressive writing for wellbeing, for positive mental health and resilience for Ukrainian students in English as a second language classes; Tykha’s research is being carried out in conjunction with professors at VSPNU.

After saying that the ‘brain drain’ is a topic discussed with other expatriate scholars in Britain, and that she believes it is acute, she focused on a category of students and professors not included in NaUKMA’s study.

“Everything depends on the personal story and personal situation. For instance, I’ve met lots of people who are from the east of Ukraine [where, for example, the badly damaged and occupied city of Mariupol is located]. Obviously, if their houses or apartments were destroyed, then that means that they have no place to go back to. If they manage to travel abroad with their families, of course, they are thinking of settling down wherever they are now.”

For her part, Nataliia Yatskiv, dean of the facility of foreign languages at VSPNU, told University World News she too believes the ‘brain drain’ will affect eastern Ukraine more severely.

“As a whole there are reasons to be concerned about the ‘brain drain’, especially in the eastern regions of Ukraine, where entire cities are being destroyed. We have to wait until the end of the war to rebuild life in these regions; meanwhile people seek shelter to be safe, especially families with small children. If they adapt abroad, they can stay there forever,” she answered in French by e-mail.

The ‘brain drain’ also alarms Vsevolod Mazurenko, a lawyer based in Kyiv, who himself went abroad to study at the University of Edinburgh in 2014, shortly after Putin’s forces ignited the insurgency in the Donetsk region of Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

“I don’t have the data. But obviously many people will not come back. Judging from the general picture, I know that by various estimates four or five million people have left Ukraine. The sheer number baffles me. I know that there will be a hit to the population and impacts can last for decades.

“This concerns me because I’m not used to thinking of us being smaller than Poland, for instance, by population. (According to the United Nations, the population of Poland is 39 million while Ukraine’s population is 43 million, counting Ukrainians abroad and in the occupied Donbas and Crimea.) Obviously, this will have an economic impact.”

Focusing on Ukrainians who have moved their families abroad, Mazurenko said: “It’s not easy for people to leave and adapt [to a foreign country]. It’s a trauma on its own. It’s difficult for kids. And, the more effort they spend to put down roots abroad, it could mean the less likely they are to come back.”

The search for meaning

The process by which Ukrainians who have gone abroad decide whether they will return differs from person to person. For Tykha and Strelnyk their decision is largely determined by the length of their fellowships. The same is true for their colleague, Kovbasko, in Brazil.

Others, like a female friend whom Mazurenko preferred not to name, intended to stay outside the country for a year but has decided not to return to Ukraine at present. “She just wants to kind of sit it out and wait until things settle down and then come back.” Another friend of Mazurenko’s, David, has also decided to remain outside Ukraine but has found the decision very difficult.

A decade before Mazurenko’s friends wrestled with the decision of whether or not to return to Ukraine, Artem Shaipov, then a law student at the University of Cambridge, went through his own dark night of the soul.

Shaipov spoke to me from Odesa (Odessa is the Russified spelling) but comes from the besieged and largely destroyed city of Bakhmut where, as I write, news has come that the Ukrainians have broken through Russian lines in the city’s east.

He is one of the co-founders of Ukraine Global University (UGU), which was formed shortly after the full-scale Russian invasion began, and has the mission of finding global education and research opportunities for displaced Ukrainians, a mission regarded as key to preserving and developing Ukraine's human capital and then building back a better Ukraine.

When deciding on whether to return to Ukraine after Russia seized Crimea and unleashed proxy fighters who took over much of the Donbas, in early 2014, Shaipov and his Ukrainian friends considered the pros and cons of staying in Western countries where the economic opportunities were greater.

In the end, Shaipov conducted a thought experiment he read about in one of Viktor Frankl’s books. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, was a psychiatrist and founder of logotherapy, a psychological theory that holds that an individual’s search for meaning is the central psychological drive.

According to Shaipov, Frankl asks you “to imagine yourself very old and then to look at your younger self or present self and see what fills your life with meaning. And for me, it was something that will be related to my country, to the people who I belong to. At the end of the day, I thought that this [returning to Ukraine and using his education to advance the country] is something I should do in order to fulfil my mission in life”.

Second-year student of international marketing, Anna Pushyk, whose home university is the National Technical University of Ukraine “Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute”, is presently being hosted by Hereford Sixth Form College. She admits to being worried about what will happen next.

Likewise, she admits to feeling strong emotions and the weight of her studies. She worries about her father and brother back in Ukraine and having to arrange things for her mother, who lives with her but does not speak English. Yet, when our conversation turned to her future plans, while recognising the contingent military reality, she sounded much like her president.

“I don’t know what will happen next. I’m worried not only about my family but about all of our [Ukrainian] society. But for me, I believe being in the UK is the best decision at this moment.

“My plans include learning and obtaining my education – and then bringing this knowledge back to Ukraine and integrating it into the development of the Ukrainian economy and business.”

After a moment’s pause, Pushyk made a point that shows her strong analytical skills. Noting that almost all Ukrainians studying abroad are female (18 to 60-year-old men are barred from leaving the country), she said that the war-time situation has given young Ukrainian women an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to Ukraine’s development.

“I believe that this chance to be educated and learn new skills abroad, and then bring these experiences and skills back to Ukraine to develop it and make it better is very important.”

Keeping loyalty alive

Efforts to mitigate the ‘brain drain’ and, indeed, to turn the fact that a large number of Ukrainian scholars are going to become part of the permanent diaspora into a useful human resource for Ukraine, include strengthening connections with the refugee scholars as well as government actions to remove obstacles to recognising foreign credentials and increasing employment opportunities.

Acutely aware that it has no power to force the students it has sent abroad to return to Ukraine, UCU has turned to the “soft power” of persuasion.

“Before the students go, we tell them it's important for them to stay connected to the university. We work very hard to keep them loyal to the university. We do this in different ways, including providing online academic advice and using personal connections between students and professors.

“We are a small university with only 2,200 students and our classes are small. This allows us to really care about what we call ‘integral human development’. So the students are not anonymous, they are known. I think this contributes to their fidelity, to their loyalty to come back to the university,” said Dobko.

Strelnyk’s volunteer work and the fact that her partner and other family remain in Ukraine give her obvious ways of staying connected. Yet, even in her case, she feels it necessary to mentally step out of the safe refuge that Germany has granted her and her children. Unlike many displaced persons around the world who, for their mental health, choose not to watch news reports of violence in their homelands, Strelnyk does the opposite.

As she sees her son and daughter adapting to life in Germany and acquiring the German language, she fears that she might become too relaxed. At that point, she does something she says is unproductive for her as an individual but that is very important for her as a Ukrainian.

“I try to read or see news with traumatic content. I read interviews with survivors from occupied territories, who are survivors of torture, rapes, etc. I do it intentionally so [as] not to forget,” she said, before comparing it to self-harm or the ripping of scabs off skin.

“It is symbolic. I know it will hurt. But I feel like it’s necessary to connect myself with the reality, because this is the new, awful, catastrophic reality of my people.”

Facilitating a way back

For its part, the government in Kyiv is working on ways of motivating students who have graduated to return. It is doing so by facilitating their way back into Ukrainian universities or the workforce.

“If you have finished your bachelor or masters degree, you want to return to Ukraine and work with your foreign degree without any obstacles,” said Kudriavets.

There are 4.2 million job vacancies in Ukraine and his ministry’s responsibility is to match graduates with these positions, he said.

Yakiv Bystrov, chair of English at VSPNU, sums up what Kyiv can do to help stem the ‘brain drain’ in one word: assistance. Even before the end of the war, he said, once various regions are no longer under threat, the government should roll out a strategy that includes the rapid and transparent post-war reconstruction of affected regions and assistance in finding a well-paid job in a safe region.

Both Bystrov and Dobko draw attention to a hopeful sign: university enrolment has not, as has been feared, collapsed.

“One year on [from the full-scale Russian invasion], we can observe an entirely different picture. Many students came back to resume their studies at the university,” Bystrov said.

Further bolstering enrolment, Kudriavets said, is the fact that under a law dating to the 1990s, university students are exempt from military service, a practice that has come under increasing criticism.

Ukraine goes global

When used in Canada, the phrase ‘brain drain’ refers to educated Canadians going to the United States and is followed by much hand-wringing by television pundits and columnists. I was, therefore, surprised to hear Kudriavets say that the “‘brain drain’ is not catastrophic for any country when you handle it correctly”, and for others to echo him.

“We need to think of how to connect these people to the recovery and rebuilding and general re-imagining of the future of Ukraine right now. Not in the future. Not even tomorrow, but today! We need to start with them to think together on different models, how to rebuild, how to recover.

“We need to ask them, ‘What is your contribution to victory? What is your contribution to the international recognition of this war [ie, explaining Ukraine’s position to people in other countries]? What is your contribution to Ukraine right now, while you are studying at the University of Chicago’?”

Even the negative impact on Ukrainian humanities that both Bystrov and Dobko fear – the loss of humanities professors to better paid positions in the West – can, Dobko suggests, be to Ukraine’s advantage.

Though he does not have the data to prove his point, Dobko surmises that the increased interest in Ukraine in Western Europe and North America could lead to these scholars seeding new Ukrainian studies departments that will not be subordinate to Russian studies.

“These professors will want to give a voice to Ukrainian scholars. I’ve seen this when our people in the humanities have ended up abroad in language and literature and history.

“You must understand that this is an interesting development because Ukraine has always lacked Ukrainian voices in universities and international organisations.”

A humanities moment

And yet, both these university administrators and Kudriavets argue that humanities scholars have a special role both now, during the war, and in the post-war rebuilding of Ukraine. Bystrov views them in almost military terms, as a “professional reserve” that, after Ukraine’s victory will be the ones who will help this generation to understand why Ukraine fought and to understand themselves.

For his part, Dobko told University World News that humanities professors are “the ones who will be most sensitive to the question of nation building, of understanding why it was important to participate in the rebuilding of the country”.

Shaipov expressed the same idea in sociological terms when I asked him why organisations like UGU emphasise supporting humanities students: “It is of great importance because we are talking about the development of society. People need to contribute to the development of Ukraine’s civil society, to its social cohesion.”

In contrast the strident attacks on the humanities from American and British politicians who accuse humanities professors of teaching useless subjects (when compared to STEM) at best and being intent on indoctrinating students with “woke” ideology at worst, Kudriavets presents a full-throated defense of the humanities, while lamenting the fact that because of the country’s military needs the government in Kyiv could not provide more financial support for the humanities.

Understanding Ukrainian literature and history is part of the resistance against Russia. It is based on our culture, our values, he said.

“Our nation can resist this kind of terrorism because of the spirit of the nation. Ukraine has been at war with Russia for more than 400 years, 80 years of it was [under occupation by] the Soviet Union.”

Humanities professors are needed to counter the caricature Russia created of Ukraine: a village culture that is funny. Humanities professors are central to countering the colonisation of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture by Russians, the deputy minister explained.

A Miltonic moment

Towards the end of our discussion, Tykha sounds a Miltonic note. About half way through Areopagitica: A Speech for Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England (1644), the future author of Paradise Lost writes, “Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks: methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam.”

Tykha says: “We are now experiencing a kind of rebirth of national identity. And at the same time, the whole world is fascinated by Ukraine’s resilience and history. This includes language. A lot of people used to speak Russian in the east and south of Ukraine. And since the Revolution of Dignity (November 2013, which deposed the Russian-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych), people have changed their mindset.

“That’s what I mean by rebirth,” she said a few moments after reversing the camera on her smartphone so she could show me the deep green grass and flowers in bloom in one of Cardiff University’s gardens.