Russian-born Ksenia Robbe initiated the open letter that called on the UG to set up emergency grants for Ukrainian scholars. But through her research on memories of crises, she also hopes to be able to bring both peoples together again in the future.
The day before Russia invaded Ukraine, Ksenia Robbe was in Budapest, leading a seminar on remembering political transitions in Eastern Europe. Three decades after the fall of the Berlin wall, German, Russian and Polish scholars strove to find a way to facilitate dialogic connections around contested memories.
The next morning, all their research efforts seemed to have been in vain. ‘The war started and I was thinking, how can we speak about dialogue at all now?’
But hearing Ukrainian and Russian on the streets of Warsaw – ‘There has been an exodus during the last months’ – gave her new hope that there’d be a need for dialogue someday. Robbe, senior lecturer of European languages and cultures at the UG, was a visiting researcher at the Polish Institute of Advanced Studies working on a project on remembering transitions.
Robbe decided she didn’t want to wait until that time comes to take action: as she was travelling back to Groningen, she started composing an open letter, calling on the UG to set up emergency grants for Ukrainian scholars.
While she was born and raised in Russia to a family with Ukrainian roots, it’s not her background that moved her to act, she says. Rather, it was the immediacy with which Polish universities announced a straightforward procedure for offering positions to displaced Ukrainian academics.
For the academic world, where application processes usually take a long time, that’s a crucial step, says Robbe. Because the Netherlands hasn’t been as fast to act as other European countries, ‘I felt the responsibility and the wish to help colleagues who are fleeing to sustain their lives, their families and also just their sanity.’
The letter was signed by more than two hundred UG employees in just a few days. ‘I was very happy about this immediate readiness to join forces and prompt the university to focus on concrete actions for academics and students that are forced to flee Ukraine’, says Robbe. ‘Regardless of their citizenship and skin colour.’
Although the university’s board of directors hasn’t responded so far, Robbe remains hopeful. ‘I didn’t expect anything quickly, but I hope that together with proposals from various faculties and the Young Academy, our letter will have an effect.’
Looking towards the future, she also hopes that scholars from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus – ‘Those who are protesting and resisting the actions of the Russian government’ – will be able to stand together.
That won’t be easy, she knows, considering the human rights violations taking place. In Russia, scholars are being silenced by a recently adopted law which makes spreading what the government says is fake information about the war punishable by up to fifteen years of imprisonment.
Robbe’s own political activism – her papers on Russian culture contain ‘quite a strong political stand’, she says – means that she might become a persona non grata in her home country. ‘Because of my writing and work with civil society organisations that promote democratic practices, I think I might not be welcome in Russia’, she says. ‘That’s extremely painful, because my parents and my extended family live there.’
Even though she can see why it might be attractive right now to blame Russian society for allowing a regime like Putin’s to continue, she fears that in the future, it may divide people who have been connected for many years.
Through her research, which revolves around memories of crises and transitions, she knows that memory can be used as ‘a double-edged sword’. It can simultaneously connect and set people against each other.
One vivid example of the latter is how the Russian state selectively appropriated the nostalgia for the Soviet Union that existed in Russian society – ‘Because its dissolution brought about economic collapse, political conflicts as well as change of identities’ – to political ends.
‘Putin has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century and, unfortunately, that kind of nostalgia that has been used very skilfully to shape toxically nationalist and imperially minded communities’, says Robbe.
‘But nostalgia can also unite people around the values that are perceived as marginalised in a present context – such as internationalism or cosmopolitanism – even if they had never fully been realised in the past.’
Although the majority of people in Russia and Belarus are ‘scared, intimidated, and confused by the propaganda’, Robbe hopes there will be a time when her expertise in the ways memories can be used could be helpful in bringing them together. Looking for examples in former Yugoslavia, South Africa, Germany and Spain, she will think about what practices can be applicable in Russia and what has to be invented anew after Putin is gone.
‘There will be a rethinking of everything, including memory politics. And I think that will be a very complicated process, where there will be a need for critical voices to not simply scrap everything that was in the past, but at the same time to have a clear moral view on what was acceptable and what wasn’t.’
But for now, Robbe just wants to help promote the voices of Ukrainian scholars. Since the study of Ukrainian culture is still rare in Slavic studies programmes, as the first step, she plans to include Russophone Ukrainian literature into her syllabus as well as invite experts to speak about Ukrainian culture. ‘At least this power imbalance has to be equalised now.’