Ukrainian researcher: “I live day by day"

Ukrainian researcher: “I live day by day"

30-11-2022 · Interview

After the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian Maria Vtorushina fled to the Netherlands via Slovakia. Now she is doing research at FASoS into LHBTIQ+ art in Ukraine. And after that? “I live day by day. My family and friends in Ukraine are still alive today, but they could be dead tomorrow."

Halfway through the interview in the Paulus pub, she holds up her telephone and shows photographs of a pitch-black street in Kyiv, where she visited friends three weeks ago. The power was out. Not one person to be seen in the street. Deserted, while this used to be a lively place in the city, she says. “Just like here,” and she points out the window to the Grote Gracht, where a group of FASoS students, gesturing and laughing, leave the faculty building. 

Maria Vtorushina (29) has worked as a researcher in the same building since the end of September, she has a guest appointment until April. Vtorushina grew up in Kyiv, in the centre. Just before the war broke out, she found an apartment in Bratislava, in Slovakia, for her mother and grandparents, where they still live. “My mother now wants to return to Kyiv at all cost. It is their choice.”

Some of Vtorushina’s friends have not survived, most of them men who voluntarily went to the front. “In the first month, I lost five friends.” Others moved through the country, going from one city to another, to work and to avoid the constant missile attacks. There are also those who stayed in Kyiv and have done everything to help keep daily life in the city going.

Vacancy

Mid-March, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Vtorushina took refuge abroad, in a small town on the border in Slovakia. “I first wanted to travel on to Berlin or Amsterdam, but I couldn’t handle living in a large city at that time. I lived in a cocoon, felt nothing. Past, present and future, my whole life was in ruins. Living in a super relaxed city like Amsterdam, I would be constantly asking myself why people could just continue living normally without a care in the world while my country was being bombed.”

Via non-profit organisation Artists at risk, she ended up in Tilburg, where she lived and worked in De Pont Museum for a couple of months. That is when she discovered the vacancy at FASoS. She applied for the job and was accepted.

Sodomy

Within the department of liberal arts, Vtorushina is doing research into Ukrainian art, that the Soviet Union appropriated. Moscow considered Gogol and Malevich as Russian artists but they were Ukrainian, she says. “Art that was not in keeping with Soviet ideology, was suppressed. This happened on a large scale from 1937. Many Ukrainian writers, poets and artists were tortured and executed under Stalin.”

For LHBTIQ+ artists, there was definitely no place and Vtorushina is zooming in on them. A famous case was that of film director Sergei Paradjanov, who made a breakthrough in 1964 with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. “He was imprisoned on the charge of sodomy and all his films were banned. This, despite sharp protests by many foreign, mainly French intellectuals, such as Louis Aragon.” Paradjanov was only released in 1977, but remained a persona non grata.

Vtorushina is focusing in particular on the female LHBTIQ+ artists. “They have remained completely under the radar. I hope I am able to find enough information to portray five of them.”

No plans

About her visit to Kyiv, a couple of weeks ago: that was an “emotionally intense experience,” she says. “People are bucking each other up, are remarkably tolerant towards each other, and they form small, close-knit communities in order to provide water, electricity and Internet. I felt part of something very meaningful, I felt important and I noticed… that dispels the fear”

What the future holds? She burst out laughing. What future, she asks. “I may live abroad, but emotionally I am still part of Ukrainian life. And that means that you can’t make any plans, that you live day by day. My family and friends in Ukraine are still alive today, but they could be dead tomorrow.” 

One Ukrainian researcher working at UM

Of the Maastricht faculties, only FASoS and Law have undertaken steps to offer shelter to Ukrainian refugee researchers. All-in-all, only one researcher from Kyiv works at FASoS: Maria Vtorushina. Her grant was funded via crowdfunding, which yielded ten thousand euro. Six thousand of this was donated by FEM, a UM network of scientists and academic staff members who devote themselves to gender equality and diversity. 

Thirty-five Ukrainian researchers applied for FASoS’s vacancy, says researcher Giselle Bosse, at the time a member of the Faculty Board. “Behind each letter, there was a human tragedy, but we only had money for one place.”

Shortly after the Russian invasion, the Faculty of Law also had talks with five refugees, who were in Germany at that time, but in the end none of them came to Maastricht, says dean Jan Smits. Some preferred positions at German universities. 

The law faculty is still open to Ukrainian refugee colleagues who are looking for a research place. This is what the faculty’s job offer says that they put on the international website Science for Ukraine. They are also looking for five PhD candidates, to which Ukrainian students can also sign up. 

The medical, economics, data sciences and psychology faculties do not have Ukrainian refugees. According to dean Harald Merckelbach, the board of the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences did “speculate about the question whether we should contact the bombed Faculty of Psychology in Kyiv in the near future, to see if we can contribute towards its reconstruction.”

The Science for Ukraine website lists thirty vacancies at Dutch universities, usually for one PhD, sometimes several. Exceptions are Tilburg University and the University of Twente, which have no vacancies. In March, UNL and NWO were among the parties that launched a Dutch platform where guest working places for Ukrainian researchers could be put. That platform doesn’t seem to be a success: at this moment, not a single vacancy can be found there. 

Students from Ukraine at UM: three groups

With a considerable donation from a sponsor, who does not want to be named in public, UM was able to provide five Ukrainian refugees with study grants for one year in March. The grants provide for tuition fees and a maintenance allowance, on top of the 260 euro that every refugee receives from the municipality. Three of them study at the Faculty of Law, the other two at SBE and FHML. Why the university did not give publicity to these grants, is unclear. 

The problem is that Ukrainians are not eligible for student financing, says Luc van den Akker, co-ordinator of the international service desk and contact person for refugees. “That is because they have the status of ‘displaced persons’. They can start a job immediately, but they cannot receive money from DUO.” 

Although Ukrainians should pay the high lecture fee rate, because they are from outside the EU, Dutch universities have agreed to apply the low rate of 2,209 euro. 

Six Ukrainians already studied at UM when the war broke out. Van den Akker: “These are regular international students, who pay for their studies themselves. An emergency fund has been set up for them at UM, but they have hardly made any use of this.” 

Then there is another group ‘third-country natives’, students who were registered in Ukraine at the time of the Russian invasion, but who do not have Ukrainian nationality. “Between ten and twenty have been in contact with me. Most of them studied Medicine in Ukraine and are from Africa. They do not get a green light because, with one exception, they do not meet our admission requirements for the study of Medicine. Moreover, as things stand at the moment, they will be expected to leave the Netherlands before March 2023.”

At Vtorushina's request, the original headline was modified in October 2023

Festival director, curator, researcher

As artistic director, Maria Vtorushina managed the Kyiv Art Week, which attracts 25 thousand visitors every year. At the same time, she worked as a curator and researcher; her exhibitions were about various facets of freedom, and her academic work about the history of LHBTIQ+ art and the struggle for human rights in Ukraine. 

At this moment, as a temporary employee at FASoS, she is doing research into the ‘voices and practices’ of LHBTIQ+ people in her country, who have had to deal with censorship and oppression since the beginning of the 20th century.

Vtorushina is also fellow-founder of Set Foundation, a collaboration of various trends in contemporary art and culture. Since the Russian invasion, Set has been offering help to Ukrainian artists who are struggling to keep their heads above water. You can make a donation on their website: setsupport.online.