‘I live in a parallel reality.’ Olga Sosnytska – a small but energetic brunette with big eyes and curls –closes her laptop. ‘I have my life here, in the Netherlands, but when I open Facebook I see those horrible things happening in my home country. When I switch off my laptop, it feels like I’m putting away a book, but I’m not.’
Olga knows the situation in Ukraine is a bitter reality. In September last year she moved to Groningen for her Master’s in Arts, Culture, and Media. But her family, especially her mother, are facing uncertainty every day.
‘My mother actively supports Euromaidan and talks about it at work. Right now there are a lot of people in Kyiv who are supporting these protests, but if Euromaidan loses, my mother could lose her job and end up on the streets.’ She is very proud of ‘the bravery and strength of the Ukrainian people’ but is terrified by the worsening situation, with the Russian army having just invaded Ukraine’s southern peninsula – Crimea.
She’d rather be with her family than studying in Groningen’s happy bubble at the moment. She is trying to contribute to the protests in the Netherlands, for example by taking part in the student demonstrations in front of the Ukrainian embassy in The Hague. Three weeks ago the Arts, Culture and Media Master’s student decided – on impulse – to fly back to her home country. It didn’t really help, though.
‘I felt like an outsider’, explains Olga as she prepares coffee and tea. ‘Of course, you often want to go home, but watching the situation in my home country from far away makes me feel homesick.’ A small ribbon, pinned on her wall, is the only evidence of protest in her flat. Rembrandt smiles at me from the coaster before Olga places a hot cup of coffee on his face. The room is just as neat and tidy as Olga’s educational career. During her studies, though, she witnessed one of the underlying causes of the current crisis in Ukraine, widespread corruption.
In 1995, at the age of four Olga witnessed the University’s first graduation ceremony since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union and decided she wanted to attend the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, which is pro-Ukrainian. That is the same university as the Student Assembly’s Nina. ‘I saw the graduates throwing their black bonnets in the air – a wonderful event that impressed me so much that from that moment on I wanted to study at Kyiv-Mohyla.’ So she did. Her teacher told her that was the biggest mistake of her life.
Parents pay bribes
‘People called me a fool for attending that university. Usually, parents pay bribes to enable their children to study such prominent subjects as International Relations and Law, but I was able to gain a place simply due to my outstanding results in the entrance exams. They were among the top four in the country.’ However, she didn’t feel like studying such ‘corrupt’ subjects. It wouldn’t get her anywhere anyway.
‘Basically, if you want to have a job in Ukraine when you finish your International Relations studies, your father has to work for a multinational company or an embassy. My dad doesn’t have any connection with the Government, so I wondered what I’d do there. Besides, I’d rather study what I love.’ That is art.
In September last year Olga moved to Groningen for her Master’s in Arts, Culture, and Media. She continued to focus totally on her studies – so much so that she became depressed. This was mostly due to the many independent study assignments. Fortunately, she was able to lift her gloom with some salsa dancing and Dutch lessons, and by making new friends. Actually, she is glad she came to the Netherlands.
‘I feel happier here, not for economic reasons – I study art – but because of the kindness of the Dutch. People are much friendlier in public than in Ukraine. Over there they rarely smile and are often rude. Here strangers treat each other in a very polite way.’ Nevertheless, she sometimes has difficulty coping with Dutch society – for example communicating with men.
Individualistic and pragmatic
‘I had a date with a guy and he was a true gentleman. He opened the door for me, looked for a seat for me on public transport, took my coat and so on. In Ukraine girls expect boys to do that, but Dutch boys usually don’t. That’s one of the differences between my country and the Netherlands. I consider a couple to be two people becoming one, while here people are more individualistic and pragmatic. So I thought that something was wrong with the Dutch guy I was dating. Then I found out he was half British, half Dutch. That explained a lot.’
In addition, Olga finds it hard to cope with Dutch humour. When she made a joke about Jews, people looked at her strangely, as if she was a racist. ‘I am fascinated by Jewish culture, though. I’ve even conducted a lot of research into their culture in Kyiv!’ At the same time, she is amazed that Dutch people make very direct jokes, but not about Jews or Muslims. ‘I really can’t understand what you can and cannot say, but I think I’ll understand in time.’ She has time as well.
Soon she will be starting a three-month placement at an auction house in Amsterdam. Since those don’t exist in Ukraine, she hopes to get a job at one after she finishes her Master’s. A job-seeking permit will extend her Schengen visa for another year. That she has this chance to look for a job in western Europe is a major difference to previous generations, who were restrained by the Iron Curtain.
Lychees from the market
Suddenly Olga notices it’s almost 5 p.m. and announces she has to go to the Vismarkt. ‘They sell a surprise bag there filled with fruit and vegetables. In Ukraine we don’t have as much variety when it comes to fruit and vegetables, so every week is a surprise. Last week I got lychees. I’d never seen them before in my life.’
While putting on her shoes – Ukrainians usually take their shoes off when they enter their homes – Olga recalls a joke that was popular in Soviet times.
‘It’s spring again and again I want to go to Paris. Wow, last spring you were in Paris? No, last spring I also wanted to go there.’
‘My mum told me that when they told this joke she thought she would never see Paris. Now she can. She cried when she went there.’ Olga smiles. ‘Who knows’, she concludes, ‘maybe my children – born in a new Ukraine – will be able to travel freely around Europe.’
For now that’s a distant dream. Although pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych has fled the country, Olga is skeptical. The Ukrainians have learned from the Orange Revolution of ten years ago, which brought a lot of euphoria but little systematic change. She is terrified of what is coming. ‘I don’t think this crisis can be solved by diplomacy, Putin is too powerful. I don’t see an end to this crisis any time soon. People know it’s going to be a struggle for many years.’