Alexander Sich, a professor of physics and pre-engineering at Ohio’s Franciscan University of Steubenville, who has lived and worked in Ukraine, will return to the eastern European nation next month as the recipient of a Fulbright Teaching and Research Fellowship.
During the 2014-2015 academic year, Sich, who speaks both Ukrainian and Russian, will be teaching classes and doing research on the philosophy of nature at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, the first Catholic university in the territory of the former Soviet Union. Sich spoke with Register correspondent Judy Roberts about his work and his hopes for Ukraine.
How did you become interested in Ukraine?
My parents are Ukrainian. My father is from Ukraine and had a pretty bad experience during World War II. He was incarcerated by the Nazis and was slated for execution, but his group of prisoners caught typhoid, and the Nazis fled — abandoning them in a cellar jail to die. He escaped and made his way toward Germany, was caught and served time in a Nazi labor camp, but was finally freed by the Americans.
My mother is a Ukrainian from Croatia. Her father was a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest murdered by the communists in then-Yugoslavia. She and my grandmother immigrated here, and my parents met in New Jersey.
After receiving my first degree in nuclear engineering from Rensselaer [Polytechnic Institute], I went on to graduate studies at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], which was only two miles from Harvard University. One summer, I attended a Soviet nationalities mini-session course. The person running it happened to be the administrator for Harvard’s Soviet Union program. He invited me to apply for a master’s in Soviet studies.
So I finished my doctoral qualifying exams at MIT and withdrew for two years to attend Harvard. When I was close to completing the Harvard degree, I thought I would return to MIT, complete the Ph.D. and “grow up” to be a nuclear engineer ... and move on.
But two things changed the course of my life. Chernobyl [a 1986 nuclear disaster] occurred when I was at MIT, and Rotary International initiated its first exchange program with the former Soviet Union, looking to place students in the western Ukraine city of Lviv.
After graduating from Harvard, my wife and I took 10 American kids to Ukraine on this exchange program. That was my “in,” because, at that point, since I was very interested in Chernobyl, I was able to start snooping around for research, which was unheard of, especially for a foreign graduate student.
I started making friends and was eventually invited to visit the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone by the head of the scientific group analyzing the remains of the destroyed reactor. I was invited to conduct research there and, as it turns out, at that point was the first and only Westerner asked to do so.
I spent a year and a half living inside the 30-kilometer zone. They provided me with a cottage in the town of Chernobyl so that I could work directly with scientists, and I was given virtually unimpeded access to data as the Soviet Union was collapsing around me. So, when I returned to MIT, I was loaded with information the West did not have. I wrote my dissertation, published a few articles and was hired first by the European Bank, then the U.S. Department of Energy, to represent the International Nuclear Safety Program in Kiev for three years.
Following this, I worked for three and a half years on an international project to build an environmentally safe confinement over the destroyed [Chernobyl Unit-4] reactor. After that, I returned to Kiev for five years to work for the Science and Technology Center in Ukraine as a senior specialist to support U.S. nonproliferation policy by coordinating former Soviet weapons of mass destruction scientists in converting their military-science expertise to civilian uses.
Besides your doctorate in nuclear engineering and master’s in Soviet studies, you have a master’s degree in Thomistic philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. How did this come about?
The philosophy degree is closely connected to why I came to Franciscan. When I was living and working in Kiev, I had a very close friend at the U.S. Embassy who was an atheist, but he wasn’t “in your face” about it. He was a very well-educated guy and a very nice, quiet and humble man. But, perhaps for the first time in my life, he started posing questions that really challenged me. That spurred my interest in learning more, and I went in the direction of philosophy — eventually obtaining the master’s from Holy Apostles.
Along the way, and as a scientist, I became so interested in the philosophy of nature that it reoriented, if you will, my life. It was very interesting and challenging to be doing international nuclear safety and weapons, but after a while, the philosophy, in terms of its Catholic context, kind of took over my life. I started looking for teaching positions and ended up at Franciscan.
It was important for you to find a college faithful to the magisterium. Why?
Partly because I was kind of sitting back and observing what was occurring in the world. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Western culture is not in the best of conditions these days. On the other hand, and on a positive note, I saw the answer in a Catholic setting, but one where I was able to challenge myself and challenge students intellectually. What that means is a close following of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, because it’s here at Franciscan where I’m able to live that. It’s a very vibrant faith community, but also very stimulating and challenging intellectually.
The cornerstone of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) where you will be teaching during your fellowship was blessed in 2001 by the pope who would become St. John Paul II. Tell us why this saint has special significance for you and your family.
In 1988, when Ukrainians were celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of the Christianization of the region now known as Ukraine, it was still part of the Soviet Union, and the Soviets wouldn’t dream of permitting Ukrainians to celebrate an historical and religious event that was rightfully theirs. The pope realized this. He invited Ukrainians in the Western world to celebrate the millennium of Christianity in Rome. I flew there and met my future wife. It was miraculous, because she flew over on the same plane, and that’s how we met in Rome. Nataly is from Knoxville, Tenn., but was born in Bosnia, is Ukrainian, and her grandfather was also a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest. Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was about 3. It took the pope to bring us together. Next year is our 25th wedding anniversary, so we hope to take our kids to Rome to show them where our family started.
Your wife and five of your seven children will be accompanying you to Ukraine, where even a family with five children is considered large. How do you see your family as witnesses to the faith?
That’s one of the reasons Bishop Borys Gudziak [president of Ukrainian Catholic University] asked me to consider living in the dorm, and I formulated my Fulbright proposal to support his request. Bishop Gudziak would like to have large families like ours provide exposure to Ukrainian students to show that it can be done. (As an interesting side note, our oldest son, Markian, was born in Ukraine before the Soviet Union collapsed and spent most of his life there. Last year, Markian graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and is now in Pensacola, Fla., training to be a Marine aviator. Bishop Gudziak is his godfather.)
Part of the problem is the legacy of the former Soviet Union, which was everything from abortion as a form of birth control to poor economic conditions. So, on average, you would get one to two kids per family; three was a burden, and four was “What are you talking about?”
Four of our seven children were born in Ukraine, so we know very well what it means to raise a family in Ukraine. For a number of years, we lived like Soviet citizens, facing their day-to-day difficulties. We’ve run the whole gamut, but we still want to show them it can be done. Birth control is a difficulty that Ukrainians face because of Western pressures. So my wife and I want to talk to them about natural family planning.
Some at UCU are very interested in this. Franciscan University has already provided books, and they have a small, pro-life movement there.
Ukrainian Catholic University calls itself “an open academic community living the Eastern Christian tradition and forming leaders to serve ... for the glory of God, the common good and the dignity of the human person.” Tell us about the campus and student body.
There are three parts to the campus: the main administration and classroom building and a newer part, which consists of a dormitory and a classroom/cafeteria/events building. They are building another dormitory there and are in the midst of building a church in the center of campus. There is also an off-campus location not too far away, located next to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic seminary, and it houses philosophy, the business school and other departments.
The student body is geographically diverse, and the university goes out of its way to attract students from eastern Ukraine, where they are much more isolated from the West, in terms of the Russian influence and economic and language situation.
What will you teach during your fellowship, and what do you hope to bring to the students there as well as take back to Franciscan?
I am going to be teaching a two-course sequence on the philosophy of nature. The first course will be history, starting with the ancient Greeks to the Middle Ages, to understand how the natural sciences developed. The second course is a Thomist philosophy of nature. I also will be conducting research and hope to finish a book I started from the perspective of the Thomist philosophy of nature criticizing intelligent design.
We’ve already started a trickle of activities between Franciscan and UCU. We’ve had three vice rectors from UCU visit Franciscan because they are very interested in Franciscan’s student life and particularly the student-household model we have here. What I would like to do is initiate formal student and faculty exchanges between the two universities.
For example, I can envisage faculty members from UCU coming and teaching Eastern theology and patristics here and our sending students and faculty members there to teach the Franciscan culture and mindset and about saints like Francis and Bonaventure.
What are your hopes and fears for the future of Ukraine?
My hope is that if Ukraine is given the chance to develop and recover its history and culture, it indeed will be a flower, as it was more than 1,000 years ago, when the proto-state was the No. 1 trading empire between the East and West and the North and South. However, I don’t know what Russia’s going to do.
What I do know is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s revanchism and nationalism will not permit him to simply walk away: He is fanning the flames of nationalistic historical and cultural myths that run very deep. We all know empires do not die easily. Ukraine knows what it faces.
I also hope that [regarding] the low-hanging, rotten fruit of the bad things of the West — the push for homosexual "marriages," rampant abortions and other social dangers from Western Europe — that the Ukrainians don’t succumb to those kinds of pressures.
In your experience, are most Americans aware of the threat to democracy Ukraine is facing?
No. There’s very little understanding.
At some level, people do see that something wrong is going on over there, but it’s so far away from American life that, basically, they look at it as tribal infighting. It’s not tribal infighting, and it’s happening in the geographical center of Europe. That’s the significance. It’s the place where we would want Eastern and Western Europe to come together to reconcile.
Bishop Gudziak unwaveringly asserts Ukraine doesn’t want to take from Europe, but to contribute to a Western Europe that has lost its way and is culturally tired. To have that potentially at risk or to have that collapse. ... Heaven forbid the entire European project collapses. Heaven forbid.
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.