Hardly any science is currently in such a difficult situation as Eastern European Studies. Already in public: On the one hand, expertise in the past and present of post-communist states has become more important than ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, opinion entrepreneurs like Richard David Precht crowd out well-informed scientists in many media.
And they themselves have to contend with limitations: since the 1990s, more than 70 chairs for Slavic studies and Eastern European studies have been axed at German universities, and on-site research in Russia, Belarus and the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine have now become impossible.
In addition, this scientific community is faced with a major humanitarian task: It is necessary to take care of colleagues who are threatened in those regions or who have had to flee from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. For the latter, for the lecturers and students who have fled, especially in the humanities and social sciences, things are currently becoming more difficult than before.
"At European universities, the time for short-term help is now ending," says Jan Claas Behrends, a historian of Eastern Europe at the Center for Contemporary History Research in Potsdam. After the beginning of the Russian war of aggression, temporary guest lectureships and scholarships were created at many universities, with the help of which refugees could teach and research.
"But now all of that is coming to an end," says Behrends, "and it's not possible to create permanent jobs." But since it can be assumed that scientists who have fled from Ukraine and especially from Russia and Belarus will have to stay here longer, it's okay now about creating permanent scientific work opportunities so that their knowledge and skills do not expire. "They shouldn't have to drive a taxi," says Behrends, "that would be a huge scientific loss. They want and need to be able to continue working.”
That is why Behrends supports the plan to found a new university with these refugees. The project already has a name: The University of New Europe (UNE). However, it should be "not a ghetto for Eastern Europeans," says Behrends, "but a platform on which a new exchange between scientists from many different countries becomes possible."
The project was recently presented in Berlin by the Dutch literary scholar Ellen Rutten, who heads the Institute for Russian and Slavic Studies at the University of Amsterdam. "Our long-term goal is a new international university where we reserve 50 to 60 percent of all posts and positions for threatened students and academics from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia," said Rutten WELT. "At this university you will study, research and teach together with scientists from many other regions."
It is completely open whether the UNE initiators will be successful with appeals for donations and public funding from the EU states and the EU itself and when and how the new university could be built. But one basic prerequisite – intensive cooperation between scientists from East and West – has already been created by the East European scholars. In the form of emergency aid.
"We create networks," says Rutten, "and are currently using them primarily to support scientists, students and artists who have had to flee Ukraine because of the Russian war or who are threatened with repression in countries like Russia or Belarus. This is currently about concrete help for threatened and needy people.”
An important role is played by the voluntary mentoring program of a Berlin-based organization that works closely with the UNE initiators and calls itself the Science at Risk Emergency Office. Funded by the Federal Foreign Office, the organization has established contacts with around 280 threatened or refugee scientists and artists who are mentored by a similar number of mentors from western countries.
"We put refugees in contact with scientists in Europe and provide them with scholarships, study places, research or teaching positions, especially at German universities," says Philipp Christoph Schmädeke from Science at Risk. "At the same time, we try to help those who remain in their home countries and are threatened there."
Ellen Rutten also emphasizes that support for those who want to stay in those dictatorships, at least for the time being, is just as important as helping refugees. "It's not about bringing all the scientists to us. Many don’t want that at all, they want to stay in their home countries as long as they can.” That’s why the university project should not only work in a building in a European city, but also research and teach with scientists and students who stay in Belarus and Russia . Therefore, one of the most important – and probably most difficult – tasks is the development of secure digital channels.
The participation of those who want to stay in their home countries is essential, according to Rutten. You have to "give them a long-term voice in international science". Science in the EU countries could also benefit from this. "Now that the official contacts to Russian and Belarusian universities have rightly ended, here in the West we urgently need to work with the liberal academics of these states and learn from them," says Rutten.
"The new university should also contribute to this, as an alternative to the no longer possible cooperation with state institutions in these countries."
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