MIT students, faculty, and staff gather to discuss the war in Ukraine

Around 40 MIT students, faculty, and staff gathered on Thursday, Feb. 24th, to discuss the Russian attack on Ukraine and what this might mean for the institute’s connections with Russia. Most of those who joined were Russian language learners or those with ties to the region.

Today is a very dark day for Ukraine and for Russia itself,” said Elizabeth Wood, Professor of Russian and Soviet history at MIT and Faculty Co-Director of the MIT-Russia and Eurasia Program. “Russian teachers have always impressed on students that they have to distinguish between the actions of governments and the actual people from a country,” she went on.  “This war will have terrible consequences for the people of Ukraine – already so many are dying – and also for the people of Russia who oppose it.”

Prof. Richard Lester, Associate Provost for international activities at MIT, expressed concern for the Ukrainian people and called the actions of the Russian leadership “appalling.”

“I think that at these kinds of times exchanges between people of different counties are incredibly important, even more important than in normal circumstances. Universities have an especially important role during these periods because they can enable interactions between students and faculty -- interactions that focus both on academic things and learning about each other’s societies,” said Lester.

He reminded participants that MIT has several programs with Russia and admitted that the institute’s leadership has some difficult decisions to make in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  “Do we keep going? Do we stop? Do we pause? I’d really be interested to hear what you think we should do,” he said addressing the community.

>>Related: MIT has ended its collaboration with Russian university Skoltech<<

“People of our age, we are here to pursue our dreams. I can’t even imagine what people of our age there are going through right now,” said one of the students.

Another one, a graduate student from Russia, described her phone call with Russian peers that morning. “We all cried. We didn’t choose this,” she said.

A student from Estonia, who takes Russian language classes at MIT, reminded participants about his country’s complicated relationships with Russia: “One good thing that has come from Estonia’s lengthy and complex relationship with Russia and often one of significant suffering, it is that we’ve been also in the position to appreciate from the front lines that culture and that literature.”

Finally, a student from Texas talked about the importance of people-to-people connections. “Once I came to MIT, I had the opportunity to meet people from different cultures, including Eastern Europeans. Maybe the view of Russia is so skewed back [at home] because there are no such connections there,” he said. In his opinion, academic programs that promote international connections significantly add to students’ education.

The MIT-Russia and Eurasia program was launched in 2011. It offers MIT students opportunities to teach STEM workshops, participate in internships, and conduct research in Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia.