‘What am I to you? A fake?’
Ukrainians in Groningen were dismayed when they read how many Russians at the RUG view the Ukrainian conflict.
However, professor of EU Constitutional Law Dimitry Kochenov knows where they are coming from.
‘It’s Russia, which is a self-closed, absurd society that has chosen this way of isolation, versus the world’, he says.
His view is shared by Ukrainian students in Groningen. ‘If you feel like your human rights are being repressed, you might want to join a country with a better record on human rights.’
Refugees are real. But they are also aided by people in Ukraine and Belarus.
Also, the referendum was absurd. ‘It was just incorporation by a foreign state.’
The Russian propaganda is so strong that even relatives living in Russia don’t believe the Ukranians when they tell them about the local situation
Reading time: 9 min. (1,676 words)
‘It’s like a bully at the playground, and no one can do anything about it. All these superpowers are doing is saying, ‘don’t do that.’ Dasha Shapovalova, a 22-year-old PhD in Arctic Law, is from Yalta in Crimea, and she was dismayed when she read how Russians in Groningen view the Ukranian conflict.
The Russian side of the story is tough to read for Ukrainians. Marta Mokhunova, an 18-year-old international relations from Donetsk, says it’s painful. ‘Every time I hear someone talking about the conflict and saying something really ridiculous, it just…’ – she holds out her hands, palms up, shaking and empty – ‘it just hurts.’
Professor Dimitry Kochenov, chair in EU Constitutional Law at the University of Groningen who was born and grew up in Russia, shares Marta’s disbelief. But he knows where these students are coming from – he was Russian himself, before becoming a Dutch citizen. ‘It’s Russia, which is a self-closed, absurd society that has chosen this way of isolation, versus the world.’
Kochenov has been working in the Netherlands for a decade, and is a regular guest on BBC World Service Russia as one of the few Russian-speaking academics who can openly comment about the legality of Russia’s presence in Ukraine. ‘Everyone else [who is still in Russia] is refusing to comment, because there are plenty of cases of harassment of professors.’
Dasha, who is currently living in Aberdeen, was a student at the RUG from 2012 to 2013. She thinks it’s valuable to show just what the Russian side is. ‘The contrast of what Russia Today is showing and what BBC is showing is radical. My dad called me, totally outraged, saying ‘I just turned on the TV and they are saying that the Ukrainian government is Nazis and they’re going to criminalize the use of the Russian language.’
The stories that are reported in Russian media are laughable rumors, says Oryna Stetsenko, a 19-year-old sociology student in Groningen. Oryna is from Sumy, an Eastern Ukrainian city that is far away from the conflict – she hopes so, anyway. Like many Ukrainian students, including Dasha and Marta, Oryna stood on Maidan and took part in the protests. ‘The events on Maidan are still hard to talk about. The situation in the spring… it was horrible. It’s like it happened to someone else.’
When the protests began in December, the Kiev International Institute of Sociology found that 63 percent of the participants had higher education, and 91 percent were unaffiliated with any specific political party, organization or movement. But as the protests grew, things changed: ‘In a few months, when it became regular to stand on Maidan, then there were a lot of homeless and some strong organisations’, Oryna admits. It went from being ‘the safest place in the city’ to the scene of deadly police crackdowns, as the world streamed live.
She can’t help but see the irony in marches held within Ukraine by people demanding to join Russia. ‘It was like a joke in Ukraine, that people are marching for joining a country where marches are forbidden.’
New law was unenforceable
Dasha agrees: ‘If you feel like your human rights are being repressed, you might want to join a country with a better record on human rights.’
The most common rallying cry – that Russian-speaking people are being repressed in Ukraine – is grossly misrepresented by Russian media, all of the students say. In February, the Ukrainian parliament did declare the existing language policy – which protected Russian as a regional language in 13 of Ukraine’s 27 regions – void, but that is not the same as abolishing it.
As a law student in Crimea, Dasha has personal and professional experience with Russia’s accepted status there. ‘The new law was unenforceable. It didn’t have any accompanying amendments in the budget.’
Nearly 85 percent of Russian-speaking Ukrainians have never felt threatened when speaking the language, according to an April poll.
9/11 conspiracy theorists
But there are people fleeing. As of October, the United Nations reported that more than 1 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the fighting. But Marta says it’s not true that Russia is their only refuge. ‘They just go where they can. There are groups on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, where people offer help from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. People just go where there are houses left or wherever people can host them.’
Dariia Gaioshko, a 23-year-old business master’s student from Odessa, adds that ‘without Russian support, there would not be any armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine’ that people have to escape.
As for the flippant dismissal of Russia’s role in shooting down MH17, it is illustrative of the denial that Kochenov sees is common among many Russians. ‘It’s like 9/11 conspiracy theorists. How can you speak with those people?’
Kochenov specializes in EU constitutional law, and says that describing what happened in Crimea as a referendum is ‘absurd.’ ‘It was not a referendum, it was just incorporation by a foreign state.’
Dasha, now living in Scotland, found the contrast between that country’s recent referendum and what happened in her home region to be shocking. ‘It’s not something that you do in a week.’
Back to the Cold War
‘I think only a couple of my friends even went to the referendum’, she says. ‘My parents said, ‘this is a joke. This is totally illegitimate, why would we even bother?’ You don’t want to go vote for Ukraine when there are people with guns on the street.’
It’s bizarre being abroad while so much is changing back home – even the concept of what country is your home is uncertain for the students. ‘As a Crimean, I feel a little bit betrayed because my government didn’t fight for me at all’, Dasha says.
When she came home for two weeks this summer, she went through a time machine back to the Cold War: her family was held at the border in a car for nine hours while Russian police inspected her text books – ‘foreign literature’, she says. ‘Do I feel safe at home now? Not really, but it is still my home and no one can take that away from me.’
Netherlands seems like a paradise
Marta feels the same. ‘I just don’t know what country I’m going to come back to in a year. Here in the Netherlands, it just seems like such a paradise, really. It felt like I’ve come out a jungle. I was literally escaping.’
She says that any claims made by Russia that people in the east want to join Russia ring hollow. ‘All the people from the region have left, so it’s only rebels or people who are pro-Russian minorities who are still in Donetsk. So, who are they talking about when they say that Donetsk wants independence?’ She says they’re only speaking for themselves – no one else is left.
Dariia concedes one point, though: Russia is not a Western country. ‘But Ukraine is, as I and many Ukrainians believe, and has been for many centuries.’ Dasha was dismayed that the Russian sentiment seemed to change so quickly: Russian people she knew were suddenly acting as if it was obvious that Crimea belongs to Russia. ‘They would say things like, “Ukrainians are not even people. Ukraine is a fake concept that was created.” So, what am I to you? Am I fake?’
Dehumanization is often necessary in war for troops to follow orders. But denial that Russian soldiers are at war at all and actually dying across the border is terribly popular. Those who dare to investigate are literally chased away: a cemetery in the Russian town of Pskov contains graves of Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine, but journalists and family members have been harassed by men guarding the graveyard. Names are removed from the crosses marking the graves to prevent cross referencing the soldier’s names with their regiments.
Dariia has Russian relatives who live across the border, like many Ukrainians. ‘The Russian propaganda is so strong that even our relatives living in Russia don’t believe us when we tell them about our local situation’, she says.
Whether it’s Russian or Ukrainian soldiers dying and no matter what they think they’re fighting for, Oryna just wants it to stop. ‘No territory and no resources are worthy of so many deaths.’
All of the girls, who have protested for their country’s rights, agree. Dasha says, ‘Russia claims they don’t supply guns to Ukraine, but guns miraculously appear. They say they do not shoot planes, but planes are getting shot. They say they are not providing Russian soldiers, but somehow, Russian soldiers are being buried on the border, and their mothers are asking, ‘Why are our sons dying in Ukraine?’ So, either admit it and make it an open war or just stop doing it.’