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“This war will change the lives of every Ukrainian”

Prof. Dr. Leonid Yatsenko fled from Ukraine with his family. He is a guest in the research group of Prof. Dr. Arno Rauschenbeutel at the Institute of Physics and was recently invited by the Presidential Board of the HU to report on the tragic events in his home country. In this interview, he describes how much the war in Ukraine has changed his life, what he wishes for and what drives him.
Leonid Yatsenko

Prof. Dr. Leonid Yatsenko, 
Photo: Sebastian Pucher / HU

How are you feeling at the moment – in view of the terrible circumstances in Ukraine?

Prof. Dr. Leonid Yatsenko: It feels like a lifetime has passed since I woke up from the air raid sirens in my home in Kyiv at 5 am on the 24th of February when Russia started its unprovoked war with Ukraine. Since then, my feelings have passed through a couple of stages.

In the beginning, there was a complete disbelief since what I was seeing just couldn’t be happening: missile strikes and bombings of the Ukrainian cities by the Russian army, a full-scale invasion by ground troops aiming for a rapid occupation of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kherson, Mariupol. Despite numerous warnings from the US President Biden and the global media, no one really believed this could happen and so this invasion (even though it was not the first one after Crimea and then Eastern Ukraine in 2014) felt like a shock.

When did the magnitude of what was happening dawn on you?

It took a few days before I realized that a war to destroy the Ukrainian state is indeed ongoing and that Russia will stop at nothing; that war has entered our lives for a long time and that it will change the lives of every Ukrainian. 

Recently, I can’t help feeling disappointed with the majority of Russians. It seems that 80 per cent of them support Putin's actions in Ukraine. Like many Ukrainians, my wife and I, have close relatives living in Russia and Belarus. It is particularly painful to see them (who should be well aware of the real situation in Ukraine) also fall under the influence of Putin’s meaningless narratives about the denazification and development of mythical biological and nuclear weapons in Ukraine. 

The only constant feeling throughout this month remained the admiration of the young Ukrainians protecting our country in the Armed Forces, territorial defence or working as volunteers. Due to my age, I can’t join them but I am very grateful for everything they do to bring our victory closer.

How were or are you affected by the war?

It is rather symbolic that February 23, the last day of peace, was also the day when the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine appointed a new Head of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine (NRFU) and thus ended my three-year term in this position. During these three years, my colleagues and I managed to create (basically from scratch) a new institution for Ukraine to fund our best scientists on a competitive basis. In many respects, NRFU is similar to DFG, which as you know plays a very important role in supporting science in Germany. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that the NRFU launch was a milestone in the development of Ukrainian science. Three big competition rounds have already been held, two more were in progress, thousands of Ukrainian scientists got a noticeable increase in salary or funds for modern scientific equipment. 

Unfortunately, the war has stopped the NRFU’s activities, its funds were fully transferred to the needs of defence, competition rounds are suspended halfway and many scientific employees joined the resistance as fighters or volunteers.

In other words, the war has basically destroyed the results of three years of hard work.

What impact did the start of the war have on your work and your research?

The Russian war also deprived me and my colleagues of the opportunity to do our job – to practice science ­ in Ukraine. The Institute of Physics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU), where I spent my entire scientific career and which I led as a director for 10 years, is now closed. The staff is transferred to a remote mode of operation, most of them had to relocate, either abroad or to the Western regions of Ukraine. Some joined the Armed Forces, territorial defence, or to work as volunteers, for example helping evacuate civilians from towns near Kyiv under siege by Russian troops. 

Unfortunately, the war has not only deprived some of my colleagues of the opportunity to work but also of life itself, as happened to my colleague from the neighbouring Institute of Semiconductor Physics of NASU, a corresponding member of NASU, Prof. Kladko. He was shot by the Russians in Vorzel (a town near Kyiv) while trying to save his family.

And, of course, the war has significantly affected my daily life. Now we are settling in our stay in Berlin, where we arrived in early March, leaving almost everything behind in Kyiv.

Which difficulties did you come across when you fled to Germany?

Even though our daughters (who both live abroad: in Germany and the Netherlands) insisted weeks before the war started that we should prepare everything for a move in the worst case scenario, to be honest, we didn’t believe it could ever come to that. So we didn’t have time to prepare the documents that would allow my elderly mother-in-law and our labrador Richie to go abroad and of course we couldn’t even imagine going anywhere without them.

That is why we didn’t plan to flee abroad at the beginning of the war. We decided to go to our small country house (so-called “dacha”) near Kyiv and wait there for a few days for the most acute phase of the war was over. This turned out to be a bad strategy since our “dacha” is located in the now famous town of Hostomel. You may recall that when Russian forces took control of an airport in Hostomel, a few kilometres north of our “dacha”, on the first day of the war, many military experts predicted a quick takeover of Kyiv. But more than a month after the invasion, Ukrainian forces are still fighting there. As a result the area we had hoped would be our safe haven became the centre of heavy fighting and destruction. After a few days of constantly hearing explosions and gunfire, living without light, cut off from Kyiv, we decided to flee. As the EU allowed Ukrainians to enter the country with their domestic passports and pets without any documents, we were now able to drive to our daughter in Germany. After a few days we arrived in Berlin – not without obstacles but overall safely, to get to Berlin.

What kind of support do you receive in Germany and from Humboldt-Universität?

Of course, the main support in Germany comes primarily from our daughter, her husband, a native of Berlin, and his close relatives. The support of my old colleagues and good friends has also been extremely important, physicists from TU Kaiserslautern and TU Darmstadt, colleagues from DFG and, of course, Prof. Dr. Arno Rauschenbeutel from HU. As for the official bodies of Berlin, everything is going well, maybe in a few days we will have official status. In general, I would like to express my gratitude to all the people of Berlin for their help, to all volunteers who help refugees from Ukraine (mostly women with children, since men below the age of 61 can’t leave the country with a few exceptions).

What do you think is still missing in terms of support?

In my opinion, the European Union is doing everything possible to support the refugees from Ukraine. What the refugees really want, however, is to return home as fast as possible. So the most important support would be anything that would force Russia into a more constructive position in the negotiations with Ukraine. This could be more anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons provisions for the Ukrainian military and even tougher sanctions imposed against Russia, up to the complete renunciation of Russian gas and oil. This would significantly accelerate the Ukrainian victory or cessation of hostilities on fair terms and would result in the vast majority of refugees returning home as soon as possible.

Is enough being done for academics fleeing Ukraine to Germany?

Since the first days of the war, many different proposals have emerged for of Ukrainian scientists in European universities and research institutions. The Ukrainian scientific community is extremely grateful to all our colleagues for these proposals. 

Among the problems I see here is the problem of age. It often happens that a person is still an active scientist by Ukrainian standards but is already retired by German standards. There is also a problem with younger scientists (mostly women, as young men are currently not allowed to leave Ukraine). It seems that there is a lack of suitable opportunities for Ukrainian scientists who fled the war and have not yet gained international recognition.

All in all, in my opinion, a lot has been done for scientists who left Ukraine, but many remain in Ukraine and need support as well. Many colleagues continue to work in the terrible conditions of the war in Kyiv or Kharkiv, under constant fire from the Russians, while others find themselves in difficult circumstances as internally displaced persons. As far as I know, there is only one example of Western aid in this direction. The Wolfgang Pauli Institute (WPI) Vienna led by Prof. Dr. Norbert Mauser, supported Ukrainian colleagues in mathematics, physics and related natural sciences who remain in Ukraine by paying them “flat rate scholarships” for an initial short period (WPI fellowship for the Ukrainian researchers).

Eventually the war will end and it will be time to compensate for the losses. The Ukrainian scientific community will urgently need the EU’s help, so it would be advisable to draw up plans for such support now.

In what framework conditions can you work now at HU?

At the moment, as a guest researcher, I have excellent conditions to work at HU. Thanks to Professor Dr. Arno Rauschenbeutel,  I have been able to immerse myself in creative scientific work with a strong and active group of young researchers led by a world-renowned professor in the prime of his scientific career. My research interests are quite close to those of the “Forschungsgruppe Grundlagen der Optik und Photonik” and I hope for the success of our joint work. In case of a possible transformation of my status into a senior advisor, I will work to build fruitful cooperation between HU and the Ukrainian scientific institutions, including NFDU, NASU and the universities.

Did you know the colleagues who are now supporting you before from joint projects?

I have known Prof. Dr. Rauschenbeutel for almost 20 years, we met during his time at the University of Bonn in the group of Professor Dr. Meschede, with whom we jointly supervised the work of postgraduate students from Ukraine as scientific advisors. Since then, I have followed his remarkable career as an experimental physicist and am now fortunate to be able to work together with him.

What is your greatest wish today?

To return to Kyiv as soon as possible after Ukraines victory in the war with Russia and to continue working on the joint projects with Prof. Dr. Rauschenbeutel in which highly interesting quantum effects are being studied.

The questions were posed on March 30, 2022, by Hans-Christoph Keller, spokesperson for the Humboldt-Universität.

About Leonid Yatsenko

Professional Experience

Leonid Yatsenko was a Post-graduate student at Lebedev Physical Institute, Moscow until 1979. From 1979 until 1986 he was a junior research fellow at the Institute of Physics National Academy of Sciences, Kyiv, Ukraine. Until 1997, he was a senior research fellow there and before he became 2007 the director of the Institute Institute of Physics National Academy of Sciences, Kyiv, until 2018, he was a leading research fellow. Since 2006 he is the head of the department of the Institute of Physics National Academy of Coherent and Quantum Optics Sciences. Until February 2022 he was the the Head of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine (NRFU).


Ukrainian Physical Society, National expert of Laser Association of NIS, Dissertations defence specializedcouncil of the Institute of Physics, Academic council of the IP NAS.


Coordinator of several projects funded by International Science Foundation, INTAS, Science and Technology Center in Ukraine, DFG, NATO, State foundation of basic research (Ukraine).