Frau blättert in einem Buch

At the University of Jena, a Ukrainian researcher who fled the war in her country is able to continue her work

Author: Gudrun Sonnenberg

Scholar of administration Tetiana Kovalova had to give up her home in Kharkiv – but not her research. She is now in Jena, working on a project to do with post-war reconciliation and conflict transformation. Her work is supported by the Volkswagen Foundation.

A train. It’s only a train. But when Tetiana Kovalova hears one coming, she can't help but think of the terrifying sound made by the Russian bombers that drove her from her hometown. As purveyors of death and destruction, they flew low over Tetiana's house in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, before dropping their deadly load over the densely populated city. From the first day of the war, they came every night from 11 p.m. on. Every night. Flying over the house they sounded like the high-speed trains in Germany. Just like trains! "But the sound was directly above me," says Tetiana. And unbearable.

Now, however, it is she who sits above the noise. In Jena, far away from Kharkiv, far away from the front, from the danger and the ruins. Tetiana’s office is on the eighth floor of the 31-story Jentower in the center of the city. Here are the rooms of the Institute of Slavic and Caucasian Studies at the Friedrich Schiller University. Her office is rather sparsely furnished. Next to the two desks is an upholstered couch. When Tetiana Kovalova looks out of the window, she can see the rooftops of the city, the theater and, in the distance, the hills that surround Jena. You don't hear any trains up here.  

Emergency services only In Kharkiv

In Kharkiv, she lived in a house with a garden and worked at the National V.N. Karasin University as an associate professor of law, national security and European integration. The Russian attacks have brought research activities there to a standstill, she says. Only the university's main building is still functional but very few colleagues remain on site – just enough to maintain essential services. Twenty-seven academics and students have been killed in the war so far, and Tetiana Kovalova had worked with two of them. The university has erected commemorative plaques. 

Frau zeigt ein Foto eines zerstörten Gebäudes auf dem Handy

A picture of destruction: This faculty building of Kharkiv University was hit by a Russian missile.

In April 2022, the professors at Karasin University relaunched their teaching activities – with online courses. By then, Tetiana Kovalova had already fled with her mother and son to another town away from Kharkiv's immediate combat zone – but nowhere is really safe, she says: "There is no safe place in Ukraine." Now living in Jena, she teaches in the master's program "Public administrative activity under the conditions of hybrid threats." She also reaches out to her Ukrainian students online. One was killed at the end of 2022. Already 41 years old, he had been in one of her courses of continuing education and served as a general in the Ukrainian army. 

Open arms in Jena

In Jena she can do research again – together with a group of Ukrainian colleagues who are here since summer 2022 as visiting scholars, with the support of the Volkswagen Foundation and other sponsors. Ruprecht von Waldenfels applied to the Foundation for a fellowship for Tetiana Kovalova. He heads the Institute for Slavic and Caucasian Studies at the University of Jena. The war refugees were warmly received, says Tetiana. German colleagues tried to help them find a place to live. No one, though, could do anything about the sleep disorders and concentration problems she initially suffered from. It was a post-traumatic stress disorder. What a relief to have work: "I took on any task I could to get my mind off things," she says.

Frau auf einem Platz, im Hintergrund Gebäude

Workplace in the center of the city: The scientist's office is located in the 31-story Jentower (in the background).

Research on post-war democracy

Her work entails research on propaganda, disinformation and psychological warfare as well as ways to counter the hybrid threats through building resilient democratic structures and regulatory social mechanisms. This includes the goal of integrating Russian-speaking Ukrainians into the Ukrainian national identity and removing them from Russian state influence. is now a question of national security how Ukraine deals with the Russian language.

Tetiana Kovalova also examines the role of language. "Right now, it is now a question of national security how Ukraine deals with the Russian language," Kovalova says. And in future, language will also be important, because the research results should be transferred to Ukrainian society. There is an agreement between the Institute of Public Administration at Karasin University and the Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies at Friedrich Schiller University to establish a bilateral degree program and work with civil society organizations to stabilize Ukrainian democracy once the war is over.  

Cooperation, a question of survival

In addition, Tetiana Kovalova, together with her German colleagues, has initiated a memorandum of the two universities, expressing the will for further cooperation: for example, in the exchange of students and researchers, joint projects and degree courses. Behind this is the important and existential goal to which Ukrainian academics everywhere are committed: to maintain teaching, to continue exchanges of students and researchers, and thus to ensure that students who have left their homes for other cities, other countries, or as soldiers can complete their studies. It is a matter of survival for the Ukrainian nation. "If this doesn't succeed and we are unable to continue, we will lose a valuable resource," she says.

Frau tippt auf einem Laptop

In online courses, Tetiana Kovalova teaches her Ukrainian students from Jena.

She hopes that large numbers of German academics will participate in teaching the Ukrainian students and in other cooperation activities. "In Germany, the greater part of the scientific community didn't have Ukraine on their radar," she says, "the war first made them aware that we existed." In Ukraine, she says, the education system is transforming, and, "There's a whole new collaboration between academia and civil society." The war "changes everything." It should be seen as a terrible circumstance that may yet contribute to the further development of education and science," says Tetiana Kovalova.

That's one way to win a war. 

There's a whole new collaboration between academia and civil society.

The research project in Jena 

What will happen after the war in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine?  This is the subject of the project "Public Policy and Institutional Change in the Middle of Conflict" run jointly by the Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies at the Friedrich Schiller University and the Education and Scientific Institute of Public Administration at the V.N. Karazin University in Kharkiv. Even before the start of the war on February 24, 2022, Russia tried to destabilize Ukraine in preparation for the invasion with media campaigns and disinformation in what amounted to psychological warfare. These strategies can also be observed in other states. Strengthening national identity and democratization work against such attempts. The project aims to research the transformation of conflicts in the Russian-speaking Ukrainian regions and post-war reconciliation, develop a Ph.D. program for Ukrainian graduate students, and establish a research journal. 

Ukrainische Flagge

The Foundation's fellowship program for refugee researchers (completed)

The Volkswagen Foundation announced a fellowship program just one week after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Host universities and research institutions could apply for funding to enable researchers who had fled Ukraine to continue their work. By the deadline of April 5, 2022, 9 million euros had been approved for 275 fellowships. 85 percent of the grantees are female. At the time of the grant, most planned to stay in Germany for a year. However, with no end to the war in sight, a return remains unlikely in the foreseeable future.