“The situation is so extreme, I now have to publicly take a position”

“The situation is so extreme, I now have to publicly take a position”

Russians at the UM on the war in Ukraine

09-03-2022

MAASTRICHT. It is Monday evening and on the other side of the Zoom connection, a young Russian UM student appears. She would agree to the interview on condition that it could be anonymous. Her “gut feeling” tells her that is the wiser thing to do. She has been feeling horrible for days, is visibly affected. “Two weeks ago, I was an ordinary student, now I am almost only dealing with the war. I am sleeping somewhat better now, but I am still compulsively checking my phone every fifteen minutes for the latest news.”

She awakens every day with the hope that the violence has finally stopped. Her grandfather and grandmother are Ukrainian and the country was her holiday destination for years during the summer. “Grandfather died some time ago and grandmother has lived in Russia for years, but every Russian has ties with Ukraine. I can’t imagine how awful it is for them. Because of the Russian government’s attack, our brotherly connection has been destroyed.”

Her family and friends in Russia agree: “The war is wrong.” Some of them dare to actively speak out against it, others fear, for example, that they will be suspended from the university. They get their information from the social media platform Telegram, a kind of WhatsApp, where (international) independent media also have accounts.

The Russian government, not the Russians

A prison sentence of at least three years is what Russians risk when they speak negatively about the war in Ukraine, even if they only refer to it as being a ‘war’. Still, the student and two Russian UM employees quickly said “yes” to the request for an interview.

“A line has now truly been crossed,” says Alexander Vostroknutov, associate professor of Economics. “This situation is so extreme. I feel that I now have to take a position to inform the Ukrainians and the rest of the world that it is not the Russian people but the Russian government that is responsible for what is happening there now.” It is the first time in his life that Vostroknutov speaks openly against the Russian regime.

Also, becoming involved with politics is something that a lot of Russians won’t easily do, says Alena Kamenshchikova, assistant professor of Social Sciences. Either because they are afraid or simply because they don’t know how. “Anyone who speaks out or demonstrates – often those in their twenties, thirties and forties – are beaten by the police or arrested and imprisoned. Those who are in their fifties and sixties grew up in the Soviet Union and later lived under Putin’s regime. They have no idea how to become active in the public debate.”

Too emotional

Her parents, both in their sixties, belong to that generation. “They don’t support the war, but they are not actively against it either. They just continue on with daily life.” Kamenshchikova finds this difficult. “I am really close to my mother, but I haven’t spoken to her in two weeks. I am too emotional to have that conversation.”

She is not angry about it. “They don’t know any better. They live in the middle of Siberia and for twenty years, they have heard the same thing on television. That is their only source of information. Putin’s propaganda machine is very dangerous.” Vostroknutov agrees: “Independent media are very important for a country to function properly. If you hear the same story year in, year out, you eventually start to believe it.” When Vostroknutov tells Russians who hold on to the propaganda what is really happening, the ball is just put back in his court. “’It is in the West where they have propaganda,’ they then say. There is practically no fighting against it.”

Russian world

“The world broke two weeks ago,” says Kamenshchikova. Before this, she thought that the Putin government was an oligarchy, a club of rich men that are mainly looking for more corruption for even greater financial gains. “But when you listen to Putin’s speeches lately and see what he is doing, it seems like there is a whole ideology behind it. ‘A Russian world, denationalisation of Ukraine’. I am afraid. What does the future of Europe look like with this man in power?”

Sweet messages

The majority of the world condemns Putin’s war. ‘The Russian’ is not looking good. Do they have any trouble in that regard in Maastricht? “No,” all say. Vostroknutov: “I feel very supported by my colleagues and by the UM. They send sweet messages. I get the feeling that people in the Netherlands know that this is not our war and that my heart is with the Ukrainians.”

Author: Yuri Meesen

Photo: Katie Godowski via Pexels

Tags: Ukraine,Russia,war,Putin,instagram

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