At risk of persecution, scholars continue research at Penn

The recently launched At-Risk Scholars Program has enabled two people—an art historian and economist—to escape persecution and danger with a period of residence at the University.

Pavel Golubev and Angel Alvarado
Russian art historian Pavel Golubev (left) and Venezuelan economist and lawmaker Ángel Alvarado are able to continue their research and share their expertise with the Penn community thanks to the At-Risk Scholars Program.

For Pavel Golubev, a Russian art historian in charge of exhibits at a Ukrainian museum, it became clear at the start of the Russian invasion that he wasn’t safe there any longer. For Ángel Alvarado, an economist and Venezuelan congressman, it was political oppression hindering his efforts to restore democracy and rebuild the economy that prompted him to leave.

Now, both are continuing their research and sharing their expertise with the Penn community thanks to the recently launched At-Risk Scholars Program.

The program provides University support to Penn schools, centers, and departments that wish to help scholars escape persecution and danger through a period of residence at Penn.

Administered by Penn Global on behalf of the Office of the Provost, the program is intended to simultaneously lend humanitarian aid and refuge to at-risk scholars and to enhance the University’s teaching, research and service missions. The program has made five awards to date, and so far brought three scholars to campus, including Golubev and Alvarado.

“Penn is committed is to engaging globally, and this program is an extension of that commitment,” says Penn Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel. “Our moniker at Penn Global is to bring the world to Penn and Penn to the world. Whether it’s the Museum, the library, or particular departments, these scholars create more opportunities for our faculty and students to work globally and to make their work more productive by bringing together resources and creating collaborations. It’s the embodiment of the creation of Penn Global."

From Russia to Ukraine to Philadelphia

Golubev’s research looks at late 19th century and early 20th century Russian art, but he is most known for his publication of the diaries of painter Konstantin Somov. The fact that Somov was gay was something Russian institutions had suppressed for decades, and Golubev’s efforts to bring that fact to light met much resistance and created serious issues for him, he says.

In 2018, the Odesa Fine Arts Museum in Ukraine invited him to create a Somov exhibition, which he did.

“The Russian museums consistently avoid mentioning Somov’s homosexuality. During the work on the exhibition, even amid the Odesa museum’s crew, there were doubts if the local public would take the show well. However, the anniversary exhibit of Somov was the most successful show in the history of that museum and received positive press,” he says. 

Pavel Golubev speaking in front of art museum
Pavel Golubev (left) chats with visitors outside the Odesa Fine Arts Museum during the Konstantin Somov exhibition in 2019. (Image: Courtesy of Pavel Golubev)

Afterwards, he was offered a position as chief of the exhibition department at the museum and was working in that role when Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine in February.

“At the beginning of the invasion, I understood that I would be forced to leave Ukraine sooner or later. Large exhibition projects with thorough scientific research, which were the purpose of my invitation, became impossible in the circumstances of the war,” he says.

That was also when he received a call from Jonathan Katz, associate professor of practice in the Department of the History of Art.

The two had met previously as Katz was putting together a major exhibition called “The First Homosexuals,” which opened at Wrightwood 659 on Oct. 13 in Chicago. The show visually tracks the first representations of homosexuality in art after the coining of the word “homosexual” in 1869, and Katz had assembled a crew of scholars from every region of the globe and was in search of a Russian scholar. “Everyone said Pavel was the guy,” he says, and they connected and arranged for the Odesa museum’s works to be included in the exhibit.

“As soon as the war happened, I got nervous because I knew he’d been driven out of Russia by Putin’s government to take refuge in Ukraine,” Katz says, adding that he called Golubev urging him to flee.

“It was a classically Pavel response, and he said ‘Well, I can’t leave, I have to hide the collection. What if a bomb hits the building?’” Katz says. “I said, just get out of Odesa.’ And long story short, we got him out.” 

Golubev took a circuitous route to Penn, traveling first to Paris, then taking a flight from Casablanca, Morocco, to the U.S. 

Here at Penn, Golubev will be teaching classes in Eastern European queer art history. Once the war broke out in Ukraine, all the Russian loans for the exhibition dematerialized, Katz says, but Golubev was able to secure eight works from the Odesa museum, including Russian pieces from Somov.

On Dec. 2, Golubev will present his long-standing research project about Somov in a colloquium at Myerson Hall.

“We protected the life of a pioneering scholar who has been threatened multiple times by his own government, but Penn also benefits from the international exchange that this entails,” Katz says. “Pavel is aware of an entire literature that is not part of our canon, and that is of inestimable value.” 

Golubev arrived in Philadelphia Aug. 8 and says he’s enjoying all the access to library materials that he couldn’t get when he was doing research in Russia.

Now I have a safe place here at Penn, but I take hard the difficulties museum workers encounter in Ukraine and worry about their lives. Pavel Golubev

“For any literature concerning gender and sexuality in art, the Fisher Fine Arts Library beats all the Russian libraries altogether,” he says, citing the opportunities to access other materials through interlibrary loans. “Formerly I was constantly visiting libraries in Germany and France to read the latest books in this area. Now all the books I desire come into my mailbox. The art history researchers are spoiled here.”

He doesn’t dwell on what his life would be like had he stayed in Ukraine, but is focusing on his research and looking toward continuing his education in art history.

“It’s a peculiar and paradoxical feeling when you try to save Russian art, which is about half of the Odesa museum’s collection, from the air strikes of the Russian army. Now I have a safe place here at Penn, but I take hard the difficulties museum workers encounter in Ukraine and worry about their lives,” he says. “Jonathan did a lot to bring me here, and he and Penn probably saved my life.”

Fighting for democracy from afar

Alvarado was a congressman in Venezuela, who rose from poverty to become a leading economist and expert on the region. As Venezuela’s economy collapsed after years of corrupt leadership, Alvarado spoke out and was targeted for doing so, he says.

He says he owed it to his constituents who elected him to continue to fight for them.

angel alvarado speaking at a table
Ángel Alvarado answers questions during his time as a congressman in Caracas, Venezuela. (Image: Courtesy of Ángel Alvarado)

“I dedicate my life to restoring democracy in Venezuela,” he says. 

He came to Penn in March with the help of the At-Risk Scholars Program and Penn economics professor Jesús Fernández-Villaverde.

Fernández-Villaverde connected with Alvarado in his efforts to understand what went wrong in Venezuela and what academia could do to help the country to be a more prosperous and democratic society. “It’s a country that is blessed by so much—minerals, the world’s largest oil reserves—and yet it has been doing so badly economically,” he says.

As he became aware that the regime was targeting Alvarado, Fernández-Villaverde made a push on his own to try to raise money to bring him to Penn. Then, he heard about the At-Risk Scholars Program.

“We applied and we were very lucky that we were selected,” he says. 

Alvarado now has an office space at the Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics, and has started a podcast about the economic reality of Latin America.

He’s also set to teach a free, open online course on the economic history of Latin America in the spring. The course will also feature guest experts from around the region and the goal is to have hundreds of students around Latin America participate, he says.

Having a policymaker like Alvarado in the department is invaluable, Fernández-Villaverde says. “It’s one thing to read a paper about the economic collapse in Venezuela and it’s another thing for students to hear what happened from someone who was in the room,” he says.

With the stress of being targeted by the government, it was difficult to focus on his research in Caracas, Alvarado says. 

At Penn I have time to think, I have time to write and research. That is an important improvement in the quality of my research. Ángel Alvarado, an economist and Venezuelan congressman

“At Penn I have time to think, I have time to write and research. That is an important improvement in the quality of my research,” he says. “I have a lot of resources, especially the library, and that’s a big difference.”

He’s also glad to have the opportunity to talk about Venezuela’s economic collapse and his vision forward with Penn students.

“I think that it’s great for me but also it’s great for the community of Penn. Venezuela is part of these students’ world and it is an incredible opportunity to share my stories,” he says.

Penn’s commitment to knowledge and the globe

“A primary role and responsibility of a university is the advancement of knowledge,” says Laura Perna, Penn’s vice provost for faculty and member of the committee that reviews at-risk scholar applications. “Academic freedom in teaching, research, and scholarship is such a fundamental principle of higher education, so when we see that under threat, we need to do something if we can. This initiative recognizes the importance of academic freedom, and recognizes that the ability to freely and safely pursue knowledge is under threat in real and frightening ways in some places.”

Constantia Constantinou, the H. Carton Rogers III Vice Provost and Director of the Penn Libraries, is also part of the review committee, and says it held a lot of personal importance to her. She was a refugee at age 10 when Turkish troops invaded her hometown on Cyprus, and came to the U.S. to study at age 18.

She sees the At-Risk Scholars Program as a continuation of Penn’s commitment to the globe and making a difference in the world.

“Institutions like Penn actively work to build connections around the globe and that community of scholars and students brings different perspectives and experiences that include war, tragedy, and persecution,” she says. “They enrich our thinking and understanding of our humanity. The entire Penn community can learn from scholars at risk. It’s a dialogue that takes place; we learn from them as much as they learn from us.”

Pavel Golubev
Pavel Golubev was head of the exhibition department at a Ukrainian art museum who was able to escape danger with Penn’s At-Risk Scholars Program. He is currently a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History of Art in SAS.

Ángel Alvarado is the Latin America's Project Senior Fellow in Penn’s Economics Department in the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) at the University of Pennsylvania.

Constantia Constantinou is the H. Carton Rogers III Vice Provost and Director of the Penn Libraries.

Ezekiel Emanuel is Vice Provost for Global Initiatives; the Diane v.S. Levy and Robert M. Levy University Professor with appointments at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Wharton School; Professor of Healthcare Management; and Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy.

Jesús Fernández-Villaverde is a professor of economics in the Department of Economics in SAS; Director of the Penn Initiative for the Study of the Markets; and Co-Director of the The Business, Economic, and Financial History Project.

Pavel Golubev is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History of Art in SAS.

Jonathan Katz is an associate professor of practice in the Department of History of Art in SAS.

Laura Perna is Vice Provost for Faculty; GSE Centennial Presidential Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education; and Executive Director at Penn AHEAD.