Kremlin expert Hans van Koningsbrugge: I never thought this would happen

The Centre for Russian Studies (CRS), part of the university library, never dealt with any undue influence by Russia, says its director, Russia expert Hans van Koningsbrugge.

What’s more, the professor of Russian history and politics says, this was a strict requirement when the centre was founded in 2010. ‘The then board of directors and myself were perfectly clear: any kind of meddling would mean we immediately shut down the centre.’

The Netherlands is currently cutting various ties with Russia due to the country’s invasion of Ukraine. The UG put an end to all collaboration last Friday, after an ‘urgent call’ by education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (D66).

Reach

Through the CRS and the Netherlands-Russia Centre (NRCe), the UG has close research and education ties with Russia. The Groningen academic community has become increasingly concerned about the Kremlin’s reach.

Can these centres be compared at all to the Chinese Confucius Institute, which has close ties to the Chinese government and is therefore considered a propaganda tool?

Renowned

‘People don’t know what they’re talking about’, says Van Koningsbrugge. He’s been working with Russia since 1986 and is a renowned Russia expert in addition to director for both centres.

‘The Confucius Institute was funded by Chinese money’, he says. ‘But the Netherlands-Russia Centre never received any money from Russia, never had any kind of Russian financial partner. It was founded using university funds and with the support of the Gasunie.’

Financial partner

While the CRS did receive ‘a small sum’ from a Russian partner, Van Koningsbrugge says it can’t be compared to the Confucius. ‘That money was made available to hire a librarian. The position was needed because it’s a research centre inside the library. But this person didn’t do any research, didn’t teach any classes, and wasn’t able to influence either of these things.’

Besides, the relationship with this Russian partner ended on February 1 of this year. ‘The contract ended and we decided not to pursue it’, says Van Koningsbrugge. This was before Russia invaded Ukraine on Wednesday night, February 23, starting the war.

‘We decide’

‘Everything we do at CRS involves an exclusively Dutch staff’, says Van Koningsbrugge. ‘We decide on the programme, on which lectures to organise and why. And we develop the lectures ourselves.’

The centre did work together with Russian partners, but those were mainly other research centres, like the one that was going to collaborate on a series of lectures about the north of the Netherlands under Napoleon’s regime. This project, which involved both French and Russian partners, will now be developed with just the French partner.

Easy to criticise

Van Koningsbrugge says it’s easy to criticise the centres’ relationship with Russia now. ‘But over the past thirty years, our approach has always been that if we worked together and as the economy over there improved, they’d slowly start seeing things more our way.’

‘It’s easy to say that “everything was wrong”. That’s not true. No one, not even I, who keeps a close eye on the Kremlin, would have thought this could ever happen’, he says, referring to the invasion.

The UG should in fact be glad that they have a department of Russian studies. ‘It provides us the ability to better understand what’s happening. One of my close colleagues wrote his doctoral thesis on the historical political context of Ukraine. I’m glad to have an expert on Ukraine with me, or I wouldn’t be able to keep up.’

Nederlands

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