“Some colleagues have come out in support of Putin”

UM researchers quit academic additional functions in Russia

08-03-2022 · Background

Dutch universities have suspended their institutional contacts with Russian and Belarusian institutes with immediate effect. Meanwhile, two Maastricht professors decided to step down from their positions at Russian universities. 

Remco van Rhee, professor of Comparative Civil Procedure, was involved with a Russian journal until recently; together with five international experts, he gave advice on articles. Until last week, that is, because Van Rhee and his colleagues condemn the invasion of Ukraine and demanded that the editors published a statement to that effect on their website. The editor in chief refused. Van Rhee: “We won’t do that, was the reaction, we deal in science, not politics.”
Van Rhee: “After that, we all stepped down together. When I urged an editor to remove our names from their site, he reacted cynically with: ‘You must be really scared for repercussion in Europe.’ Like we were trying to save our own skins. I am glad that we have discontinued our activities.”
Van Rhee thinks that some editors – connected to the university of Kazan, to the east of Moscow – have come out in support of the Putin regime. “At any rate, nobody distanced themselves from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Maybe they are badly informed or don’t dare to open their mouths, but maybe it is in their best interest to support the regime. I find that hard to gauge.”

MH17

Herman Kingma immediately cancelled his chairmanship of the international advice council of the Siberian State Medical University in Tomsk. “That is a position that rather stands out. And if you stay, that could be explained as support for the regime. I wanted to prevent that, because I think it is terrible what Putin is doing in Ukraine.”

Kingma has been a retired professor of Clinical Vestibulology from the UM since 2016, but has in fact just continued to work, he says. “I still have two Maastricht PhD students in Tomsk, who are just about to complete their theses. I am now in consultation about that matter. You don’t want to cause too much damage to individual researchers. I am against Putin, but not against the kind-hearted Russians, who also didn’t ask for this war. You don’t want to punish them.”

At the same time Kingma feels that Dutch higher education would do well to send a univocal clear message and suspend institutional contacts with Russian institutes, as was announced in the past few days.

Kingma: “Relations between the Netherlands and Russia were strengthened in 2013, when Putin came to the Netherlands for the opening of the Amsterdam annex of the Hermitage. Since then, I myself have started all kinds of collaboration projects with Russian universities. After the MH17 disaster, we in Maastricht wondered if we should continue with these. The answer was yes, but with the invasion of Ukraine, a clear line has been crossed.”

Fake institutes

In a statement, rectors from Russian universities said that they support Putin in his intention “to finally put an end to the eight long years of confrontation between Ukraine and the Donbas, to bring about the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine in order to protect Russia against the increasing military threats”.

The fact that rectors support Putin, does not surprise Kingma at all. “They have no choice, otherwise they risk being imprisoned for years. Also, many rectors have been selected by the Kremlin, with all the corruption that goes hand in hand with that. I saw many examples of that when I was there, even when I set up the Tomsk International Science Program, a bachelor’s like the one we have in Maastricht. I was given maximum support, but in the end, they were empty promises. There was no money for personnel. That disappeared in the pockets of the university board. When I threatened to leave, they suddenly offered me a gigantic salary. But I wasn’t going to allow myself to be bribed. The science bachelor’s served as a front, to give the impression that the university offered fantastic international education. All the while, it was about image, not about good education.”

That is also the reason for the many fake university institutes, says Kingma. “One day, for example, you meet the director of the International Institute for Smart Technology, and later you hear from the vice rector that this doesn’t even exist, that it is a construction on paper. Civil servants from the Kremlin feel that this subject deserves some attention, so then the university sets up a fake institute for appearances’ sake. That is something that slowly dawns on you. My education institute was actually just such a paper construction. Except my young staff, the students actually gave it real content. Looking back, it is very disappointing, but the students and my staff were so enthusiastic, I did it for them.”

Windows shot to pieces

For Van Rhee, this is not the first time that he has stepped down from his duties in Russia. Since 2010, he has taught at the universities of Kazan and Yekaterinburg. His lectures were about the fundamental principles of procedural laws as can be found in, among others, the European Convention on Human Rights. “The students were enthusiastic and even came to the conclusion themselves that affairs in Russia were not always in order. When Putin invaded the Crimea, I stopped teaching.”

In the years after that, the collaboration with Ukrainian scientists from the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv grew. “In view of the Association Treaty between Ukraine and the EU, in 2014, intended for far-reaching political and economic co-operation, law reform was also on the agenda. Together with professor Irina Izarova and others, I organised meetings throughout the country on this matter.”

In the meantime, Van Rhee knows that Izarova has fled the country with colleagues. “Others are stuck and cannot travel westward because of the acts of war, while others have joined the army in order to resist. I heard from one colleague in Kharkiv that she spent four days in an air-raid shelter. She wanted to return to her apartment, but all the windows had been shot to pieces.”

Guest appointments

Van Rhee is now trying to help the colleagues who crossed the border. “We are making an inventory of what is needed. I have offered to book hotels and help them apply for grants, so that they can pick up their academic work. We also want to help them maintain an important procedural law journal.”

The Faculty of Law may help them with that, says dean Jan Smits. But that is not all. “We are going to create a few guest appointments for refugee law scientists from Ukraine. We will do that in consultation with the Dutch government because of the refugee status. We are also considering teaching refugees who end up in this region and who are interested in law.”

Photo: archive Remco van Rhee, Taras Shevchenko National University, Kyiv/ archive Herman Kingma

Tags: Ukraine, Russia, war

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