• Russians feel misjudged

    ‘Why did you shoot down our plane?’

    25 years after the fall of the Wall, Russia is the West’s enemy all over again. However, this time many Russians live and work in Groningen – at the RUG. ‘Our country is being demonized.’

    in short

    The RUG has many staff members and students from Russia. They are often questioned about the situation in Ukraine.

    They feel the Western media offer an extremely one-sided view of the situation. Russia isn’t the aggressor: they’re only trying to help.

    Some have relatives and friends in the disputed areas. They tell them that many people in Eastern Ukraine felt liberated by the Russians, not invaded.

    People in the West are too comfortable in their own views, they feel.

    Also: Putin’s popularity is through the roof.

    Most important: Russia is no Western country. It should not be expected to behave as such.

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    Reading time: 7 min. (1,290 words)

    Their friends sometimes joke, ‘What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be invading Ukraine right now?’

    Or, ‘Why did you shoot down our plane?’

    These days, Russians who are working or studying at the University of Groningen often feel that they have to justify to their colleagues and fellow students what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine right now. But it’s not easy: even in this student city where so many nationalities come together, they notice that people are extremely prejudiced and don’t even realize it.

    Take Anastasiya Musiyachenko, a student of English Literature in Groningen. Her grandparents live in Krasnodar, a fairly large city not far from Eastern Ukraine – the part of country that is currently rebelling against the Ukrainian government.

    Her aunt and cousin live near the conflict zone in Rostov-on-Don, a city of millions that is a two-hour drive away from the Ukrainian border.

    Gruesome images

    From them, she hears about refugees from Eastern Ukraine that arrive on a regular basis and settle at massive campsites – people who have run from death at the hands of the current Ukrainian government. We do not see those gruesome images in the Western media, she says, because it is not in the West’s interest to show them. ‘The West openly supports Ukraine’s awful government.’

    Her family tries to help the refugees out by giving them food and clothing. Some even take them into their own homes. ‘These people lost everything, but you never hear about their plight or their attempts to seek asylum in Russia in Western news.’

    What you do hear, though, is that Russia is to blame. ‘Propaganda about how Russia is an aggressor – it’s so twisted!’

    ‘It’s all propaganda about how Russia is the aggressor – it’s so twisted’

    If you ask Anastasya, it’s the other way around. These people from Ukraine aren’t as peace-loving and defenseless as the Western media makes them out to be. There’s a reason her parents and 11-year-old brother, who lived in the center of Kiev during the Maidan protests, were scared to even speak Russian in public. ‘They felt they were being targeted.’

    Why? For starters, one of the first measures of the interim government was to abolish Russian as a second language – an alarming action, given that so many Ukrainians only speak Russian and the fact that Ukraine’s history is deeply interwoven with that of Russia.

    Country is being demonized

    Anastasiya’s parents witnessed looting, violence and people being beaten up on the streets by men wearing military fatigues and balaclavas. They typically used batons, but Anastasiya’s parents once saw men carrying handguns in the street in the later stages of the protests.

    She visited Kiev herself three times during the protests. ‘I saw how different the Western news was compared to what I witnessed.’ She thinks the West gave too much credit to the protesters. ‘I don’t know about you, but seeing a huge bald guy with a Molotov cocktail in one hand while yelling at the police is not my idea of a peaceful protester.’

    Her country is defending those affected, she says. ‘You never hear about the good things Russia is doing to help Russian-speaking victims. The country is being demonized in the Western media and the criticism towards president Putin is really unfair.’

    She’s not the only one who feels that way. Ekaterina Ovchinnikova, a 30-year-old post-doc, is by no means a supporter of Putin, but she too uses the word ‘demonize’ when talking about the way the West discusses Russia these days. ‘It’s not fair. Russia is just concerned that there is a war so close to its own border.’

    Refugees are real

    The West panics as soon as Putin sends aid convoys into Ukraine to help to the people in need, but the refugees in Eastern Ukraine are real, in need of help and want the opportunity to settle in Russia.

    Sofya Postnikova, who is fresh off the plane from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, calls it a great  gesture. She has been studying Literary and Cultural Studies at the RUG for only three weeks now. ‘I belong to the majority of Russians who believe that our aid programme is necessary to help people in need, even if the Ukrainian government doesn’t agree!’

    ‘Russia doesn’t bend over for the West, and why should it?’

    By annexing Crimea, Putin defended the majority of Crimeans who wanted to join Russia in the first place. ‘I am convinced that Russian speakers in Crimea were threatened before the annexation. Judging from what is going on now in Luhansk and Donbas, the latter was a rational decision of its people.’

    Biomedical Science Student Ksenia Myacheva has lived in Groningen for a year now. At first, she felt very uncomfortable with the way Crimea was added to Russia. ‘It was done so blatantly.’

    Changed her mind

    However, she changed her mind after visiting her parents in Moscow this summer. She met up with several Crimean friends and discovered many Crimeans were actually ecstatic to join Russia. They felt they had had a legitimate choice to either join Russia or stay with Ukraine. ‘They did not feel like they were occupied at all.’

    The same goes for Evgenia Galanicheva, who is also a Biomedical Science student. She was extremely worried about her close friend in the Russian army that took control of Sevastopol in March. ‘I tried calling many, many times. I was so worried about him.’

    When she finally got a hold of him, she found that he was very excited and had received a Medal of Honor for the return of Crimea. ‘He said the locals he spoke to were happy and thankful.’

    Why should Russia bend over?

    But the people in the West do not seem willing to even consider a different point of view. ‘Russia doesn’t bend over for the West, and why should it?’ says Anastasiya.

    She understands that Russian news is driven by an agenda, but she thinks that Westerners are too comfortable looking at their own side of the story and believing whatever they are being fed. She herself deliberately follows a variety of news outlets. ‘The Western media makes loud statements and claims which are unsupported by evidence about who shot down flight MH17, for example, or the mysterious Russian military presence in Eastern Ukraine.’

    ‘If the West wants Putin out, they have failed miserably’

    She thinks it’s worth entertaining the possibility that there is a hidden agenda for the Western powers, too. ‘The West would benefit the most from challenging Russia-Ukraine relations’, Ksenia believes. For her, the Cold War never ended and it’s in the West’s interest to have a weak Russia. ‘Sadly, while the West tries to increase its influence in the region, Ukraine ends up being the biggest loser of all.’

    Putin’s popularity is through the roof

    In the mean time, the Crimean campaign has only strengthened Putin’s position. People believe they finally have a strong leader again after 23 long years. ‘People who originally disliked him at least respect him now’, Ksenia says.

    ‘If the West wants Putin out, they have failed miserably’, Anastasiya says. Raising her voice, she adds: ‘His popularity is through the roof!’

    To many Russians abroad, the biggest issue is that people just can’t seem to understand that Russia is not a Western country. ‘Russians do not share the same values, culture and mentality as Westerners’, Anastasiya says. ‘Expecting the Russians to behave as such – like with the situation about gay rights – is ridiculous.’

    Even though she has not lived in Russia since she was twelve and recently married a Dutch man, she is still strongly connected to her roots. ‘I feel our culture in my blood; I grew up learning about our amazing history, writers and painters. It’s a country you can be proud of.’

    Now, her country has its patriotism back. ‘Our future is looking brighter’, she says with a smile. ‘People are hopeful again.’

    This article is one of two articles about the Ukrainian conflict. The other one highlights the Ukrainian point of view.

    UK freelance journalist Christiaan Triebert visited the Maidan protests earlier this year and Ukrainian student Nina was interviewed about the situation.