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The Bigger Picture #4

Vera from Russia ‘You have to live with the guilt’

Illustration artificially generated by Dall-E
When you’re from a country where poverty is rampant or people’s human rights are violated, living in the Netherlands can be alienating. In a short series, students reflect on their experiences in Groningen. Final installment: Vera from Russia.
27 March om 10:15 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 March 2023
om 10:15 uur.
March 27 at 10:15 AM.
Last modified on March 27, 2023
at 10:15 AM.
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Door Cristian Apostol

27 March om 10:15 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 March 2023
om 10:15 uur.
Avatar photo

By Cristian Apostol

March 27 at 10:15 AM.
Last modified on March 27, 2023
at 10:15 AM.
Avatar photo

Cristian Apostol

Often, Vera would rather not say where she is from. But whenever she talks to her parents, there’s no denying the reality: her country, Russia, is no longer the home where she grew up, nor a place where she and her family feel safe. ‘And there is nothing I can do about it.’

Vera – who started her studies in Groningen this past September – clearly remembers February 24, 2022, the day her life took a 180 degree turn. Russia invaded Ukraine. ‘I woke up, I read the news, and I just couldn’t believe it. Words fail. You don’t know what’s happening and why. And you can’t accept this has actually happened.’

Her life in Moscow had been okay. Things hadn’t always been easy for her family, but they always managed to get through it and she had a great childhood. She had considered studying abroad, because she wanted to experience another country, a different culture. She finally decided against it, as she wanted to stay close to her family. Her studies were going well and she even started to work as a high school teacher, a job that she very much enjoyed. 


But after the invasion, the mood in Moscow suddenly became very dark. ‘There was fear, depression. People were kind of frozen.’ War was everywhere: on the tv, in newspapers, people discussed it on the street. It was impossible to escape it.

And so, Vera decided to do what she hadn’t wanted to do before: leave Russia and continue her studies elsewhere. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Netherlands, but her only priority was getting out of Russia.

I kept thinking something would go wrong and I would have to go back

‘I had to complete my application in a rush’, she says. ‘Things were changing very fast. Russia was starting to get isolated by the international community.’ She lucked out: just after she had taken her IELTS exam, they announced they were ceasing their activities in Russia. ‘I think I was in the last group of students to take it.’

She couldn’t really believe it when she had managed to leave the country. ‘I kept thinking something would go wrong and I would have to go back. I couldn’t really calm myself down until I got my Dutch BSN number. For some reason, that’s when I finally realised I was really living in the Netherlands.’


Vera was prepared to face a tough welcome after what her government had done. However, people in the Netherlands were open and friendly, and usually very understanding of her complicated situation. ‘One time, I encountered a group of drunk Dutch guys who were astonished by the fact that I am Russian. They kept asking me how I managed to get out of the country and every time I would answer: by plane. It was quite funny.’

There were some exceptions, though. One of Vera’s Russian friends was told that ‘a good Russian is a dead Russian’. Another friend of hers met someone who told him how much he liked Putin and his actions. ‘To which my friend replied that he didn’t agree with that point of view. The guy then said it was a test to see what kind of Russian my friend was.’

Vera tries not to think too much about such interactions. After all, the online world is full of hateful comments towards Russians. However, that doesn’t mean she is not affected by them. On the one hand she feels guilty, but at the same time, what could she have done to prevent the nightmare that is currently unfolding? 

‘The feeling of guilt is everywhere these days, it’s inescapable. But you have to learn to live with it.’ For Vera that means talking to people and condemning the actions of her government. 

Communist symbols

A thing that took Vera by surprise was all the communist symbols and flags she saw around Groningen. ‘I was viewing an apartment and saw this huge picture of a young Lenin. I don’t really understand the attraction of the Soviet Union in general, the fascination with it.’

I don’t really understand the attraction and fascination with the Soviet Union

Most of the people who display such symbols, she says, don’t really know what they mean and for what purposes they were used in the past. ‘I think if they knew more about the communist regime, they wouldn’t proudly display its symbolism.’ 

People have the image of the Hollywood Russian in their heads, she thinks. ‘Russia seems exotic to them.’ Vera is not particularly fond of the alcoholic gangster stereotype. ‘But the only thing you can do is just talk to people, try and get them to see that things are different in real life.’


What was a huge relief though, was that in Groningen she can finally be open about being a member of the LGBTQ+ community. In Russia, she got used to not talking about it openly, as society there is generally homophobic. She would also risk losing her job as a teacher, since she could be seen as breaking the ‘gay propaganda’ law. 

‘In Russia, you never know what’s going to happen when you express your views. You never know if the person you talk to feels the same. And of course, speaking out has real consequences now. Before it was just disagreements, now you could get actual prison time for certain beliefs.’

Vera feared being judged and isolated by society because of her sexuality. But as she became older, she stopped caring as much about what people would say and started wearing masculine clothing in public. 

Gay bar

‘Most people were fine with it. I would get some confused looks from time to time or some funny reactions. But they were mostly harmless.’ Vera still held back, though, since she feared she’d attract the attention of people who might be less understanding. She had to constantly control her identity and how she chose to express herself.    

I have hope that one day Russia can be a normal, democratic country again

So when she visited a gay bar in Groningen, she was relieved by how open the atmosphere there was. She finally felt like she was amongst people like her. ‘Gay bars in Russia feel very underground, even though they are not necessarily hidden. It just feels different than here. And back home, gay bars are mostly full of men. I didn’t feel like I belonged.’

Vera is now a member of an LGBTQ+ student association. She made friends from different countries there and doesn’t feel alone anymore: she’s part of a community now.


Asked what her hopes for the future are, Vera immediately says: ‘For Ukraine to win and for Russia to become free.’

One day, she would like to be able to go back home and be reunited with her family, and to continue to teach there. But things have to change first. She hopes that her country will lose the war ‘that no one wanted’ and that it will lead to the end of the regime. Her country, Vera believes, can still change for the better.

 ‘When I was younger, I remember we were becoming more open, turning towards Europe. People were travelling, discovering new places, and noticed they had other values there. It gives me hope that one day Russia can be a normal, thoroughly democratic country again, where the government is not oppressing its people.’