Science
Hans van Koningsbrugge Photo by Reyer Boxem

Interview Hans van Koningsbrugge

Russians are not like us

Hans van Koningsbrugge Photo by Reyer Boxem
Ever since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia expert Hans van Koningsbrugge has become a fixture in the media. But while his expertise is more relevant than ever, he’s also seen decades of work fall apart. ‘We immediately knew that this was the moment to pull the plug. We were done.’
5 December om 16:57 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 December 2023
om 11:08 uur.
December 5 at 16:57 PM.
Last modified on December 13, 2023
at 11:08 AM.
Avatar photo

Door Christien Boomsma

5 December om 16:57 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 December 2023
om 11:08 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

December 5 at 16:57 PM.
Last modified on December 13, 2023
at 11:08 AM.

He doesn’t even like Russia that much. He has no great affiliation with Russian culture. But what about the literature? ‘I mean, take Oblomov, for example. Sixty-four pages to describe someone lying on a sofa? That’s amusing, at most.’

In spite of this, Hans van Koningsbrugge has been one of the few Dutch Russia experts in the past thirty-five years. He was there when Russia democratised in the ‘wild nineties’. He saw Putin come to power in 2000 and over the past ten years has watched the country backslide into the isolation it had previously lived in for hundreds of years. 

‘I’ve literally seen everything’, says Van Koningsbrugge. He’s smuggled microfilm with important archival documents on them out of the country; has been robbed in a hotel of the few thousand guilders he had with him to pay local staff with. ‘Every floor had this old Russian woman, a babushka, and they would tip off the local mafia that foreigners were staying at the hotel and that they could go rob them.’

Honorary professor

But he’s also been taken to a state dinner attended by then prime-minister Medvedev in a fancy car with tinted windows; and he was named honorary professor at the Russian State University for Culture. ‘An absolute highlight of my life.’

The country is constantly in crisis mode over everything

‘My family wasn’t as happy, though’, he says. ‘There was this job opening for director of the Dutch Institute in Saint Petersburg. During a family dinner, I half-joked that I would be interested in the position.’ His family, and his oldest son in particular, did not appreciate the joke. ‘He jumped up and yelled that I was nuts if I thought any of them were coming with me.’ 

Obviously, he never went; he’d never planned to. Because, as stated before, he’s not that fond of Russia. ‘I can’t handle the chaos, the lack of structure’, he says. ‘The country is constantly in crisis mode. Over everything.’

Invasion

But he did become the director at the Centre for Russian Studies at the UG, as well as director for the Netherlands-Russia Centre founded in 2007 which, until the start of the war, provided recommendations on strengthening the bonds between the two countries. 

And all because a colleague once recommended he expand his knowledge of Netherlands-Sweden affairs, his original passion, by including Russia. ‘I wanted to do a PhD and he told me to add Russia. They wouldn’t be able to refuse my application if I did. But I could’ve just as easily added Mexico, or Zimbabwe.’

But then, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. ‘We immediately knew that this was the moment to pull the plug. We were done’, Van Koningbrugge reminisces. ‘It took me less than five minutes to realise that.’

All the contacts he’d made over the last three decades? Gone. Archives he knew like the back of his hand? Closed down. The many, many friends he’d made? Unreachable. Even the Centre for Russian Studies was recently renamed as the Groningen Institute for Middle and Eastern European Studies. 

Relevant

At the same time, his expertise as the only professor of Russian history and politics in the Netherlands had never been more relevant. His phone is ringing off the hook and he sometimes does up to seven interviews a day – especially when something interesting happens, such as Wagner boss Prigozhin’s rebellion, a Ukrainian drone flying over the Kremlin, or the heavy fighting around Marioepol.

Photo by Reyer Boxem

Russians have learned not to expect anything from their government

He’s long since accepted that this is difficult to combine with his work as lecturer and leader of a research centre. ‘What’s the point of all this if I just keep my mouth shut? I was hired to put this knowledge out there to the best of my abilities.’

He has a message, and he will repeat as often as he needs to: The Russians, Van Koningsbrugge says, are different. If you want to understand what’s happening in that country, that’s something you must keep in mind. ‘A Dutch ambassador in Russia once said that it would be so much easier if all the Russians were painted purple. At least then we’d be able to see that they’re not like us.’ 

It’s because the country developed completely independently from the West. They didn’t have a French Revolution, no Renaissance, no Enlightenment. On top of that, the entirety of the Russian nobility was killed or fled the country after the revolution. 

Mass murderers

As a result, people have a completely different attitude towards life, and completely different values. Just look at the way the country recruits the worst criminals for its army in exchange for a pardon. Or the way someone suggested releasing female prisoners if they agreed to have a baby. ‘We’re talking about mass murders whose criminal record is wiped clean being released back into society. So much for justice.’

The average Russian isn’t much interested in democracy, either. ‘They’ve learned not to expect anything from their government’, Van Koningsbrugge explains. ‘They’re mainly just trying to survive.’

That explains why it was so easy for Putin to grab power. ‘The nineties were a terrible time for Russians. The population was reduced to beggary, inflation was up by 2,000 percent. A man’s average life expectancy was fifty-four!’

Social contract

So when Putin came to power, coincidentally during a time when the price of gas and oil was rising, he quickly became incredibly popular. ‘He took the state companies back from the oligarchs and gave the profits back to the Russians so their lives improved.’

No one actually cared that he wasn’t investing in the economy or making any innovations. ‘There was this kind of social contract: if people promised not to get involved in politics, he would make their lives better’, says Van Koningsbrugge. ‘And that worked. At least, until 2014. That’s when the economic model had run its course.’ 

We’re looking at a new Iron Curtain, a new Cold War

It gave rise to Putin’s new, nationalistic course. He had to do something to ensure the people’s support, and that was occupying the Crimea and the current war in Ukraine. While this led to protests in the West, no one stands up to him in Russia. 

‘Russians are hard as nails’, says Van Koningsbrugge. ‘Look at their history: The Russo-Japanese War. They lost. The First World War. They lost. The Russian Civil War, which led to millions of dead civilians. We may have forgotten all that, but it happened. Then there was Stalinism, which I don’t need to tell you about. The Second World War. They may not consider human life worthless, but it doesn’t factor into their decisions.’

The Russian government doesn’t have to worry much about resistance, Van Koningsbrugge thinks. Decades of propaganda have broken the people’s spirit.

Kid ourselves

That means we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the relationship with the country, he says. Any and all attempts to make the country more like the West – which was the entire reason behind the Centre for Russian Studies – have failed. ‘Our world view is completely wrong’, Van Koningsbrugge confirms. ‘We’re looking at a new Iron Curtain, and a new Cold War.’

As such, we should expand and cultivate the knowledge that we have of Russia and its surrounding countries. That’s why his research centre is changing focus to Middle and Eastern Europe. That’s where the next crisis will be, says Van Koningsbrugge. ‘Serbia and Kosovo’, he predicts. ‘Or Bosnia.’

We should also prepare for a drawn-out conflict, he says. ‘Even if the war is over in a year or two, that won’t solve the mutual animosity.’

No even Putin leaving – or dying – would change that. ‘Once he’s gone, he’ll just be replaced by one of the hard liners he now surrounds himself with. No more and no less.’ Van Koningsbrugge shakes his head. ‘It would be very unwise of us to think that anything is going to change.’

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