On 24 February Russia attacked Ukraine. Where were you at that moment?
Borys: ‘I was just about to go to bed but before that I watched Putin’s speech on the YouTube livestream. Shortly afterwards a friend in Ukraine texted me to say he’d heard explosions in the suburbs of the city where I come from. I was deeply shocked and immediately called my family to ask if they were safe and what they planned to do.’
Anna: ‘I felt totally lost. I wanted to become invisible so that I’d no longer have to see reality. I thought that by now we’d learned to negotiate with words, not with weapons. On that day I had appointments and lectures. Since I still didn’t really know what was going on, I decided to go to the university. Everyone there was engaged in discussions, posting stories and asking questions. I was happy to see that everyone was concerned and involved, but at the same time I had an ambivalent feeling because of my Russian nationality.’
Were you worried about your family? How difficult is it to be far away at a moment like that?
Anna: ‘It’s very difficult to be apart now. Especially because you can receive more emotional support when you’re close. However, I’m really happy to have my friends and that everyone is trying to be together online, and so to bridge the physical distance.’
Borys: ‘I find it very hard to concentrate on my studies, because I keep thinking about what might have happened to my family. I’m constantly phoning home to ask how things are. The best thing I can do now is to graduate from the UvA and to find a job here in Amsterdam. My family wants me to stay here in the Netherlands, too.’
Anna: ‘My father and mother give me as much mental support as they can – and in turn I try to support them. This keeps us together, and being together makes us stronger. Unfortunately the extreme propaganda in the Russian news makes it hard to keep talking to other more distant family members. It’s so sad that we as normal people now also come into opposition to each other.’
People at the UvA felt a strong need to come together to share feelings and discuss developments. How do you see this?
Borys: ‘I was really surprised, when it all began, to see the Ukrainian flag hanging from roofs, balconies and windows in Amsterdam. Until February of this year most of my international friends knew nothing about my country. This changed when the war broke out. They asked how I and my family were doing. My answer was the same every time: we’re completely dismayed and uncertain about the future.’
Anna: ‘I am really grateful for the support and involvement of the university, and from the student advisers as well. This means a lot to me. The people here understand that there’s an essential difference between the people and the government in my country. We, Russians, didn’t choose this war. Thanks to the emergency fund I can remain here and continue studying.’
There has also been criticism of the university’s decision to help Russian students as well. Critics think that the level of hardship is not comparable and that assistance for Russian students is in conflict with the imposed sanctions. How do you see this issue?
Borys: ‘I more or less agree with the view that helping Russian students is in conflict with the imposed sanctions. But I can’t happily live my life knowing that there are Russian students who are being hit by the sanctions and blamed for the death of Ukrainians, simply because they are of Russian nationality.’
Anna: ‘The situation for the Ukrainians is certainly much more serious than for the Russians or Belarussians. Some of them have lost family members, others have lost their home. This is a much greater problem than not being able to travel to Russia, that the euro has doubled in price or the difficulties with money transfers. The war makes it hard for me to accept being Russian and to share this fact with others. After “what’s your name?”, the next question is usually “where do you come from?” – and this is where I have to pause for thought – simply because I don’t know how people will react. It makes me feel vulnerable, but of course there’s no comparison to what Ukrainians have to experience at the moment. But I still need the support of the fund: my parents have just lost their jobs and as a result we no longer have an income.’
What consequences are the sanctions by the Western countries having for you personally?
Borys: ‘The imposed sanctions are really helping to block money transfers that will fund the war. I understand that, apart from military help, freezing credit balances is the only broad and effective support that Western countries can give to Ukraine. In one sense I felt hugely relieved by measures such as these, but at the same time I felt guilty towards my friends from Russia and Belarussia, who had difficulty transferring money or topping up their European credit cards.’
Anna: ‘My father had a small company that was completely dependent on international suppliers of materials. He has had to close his business, but still pay the rest of the bills. My mother worked for international companies that do business with Russia, and have now stopped these activities. So she’s out of a job too. I’m really grateful for the UvA emergency fund. For the time being I can complete my studies without having to think about not being able to pay the rent. The fund is on time, it’s important and it’s very much appreciated.’
(*) Anna is not her real name. Due to fear of negative reactions this 20-year-old Russian student prefers to tell her story anonymously. Her real name is known to the editorial team.