Chair of the Executive board Mirjam van Praag posing with ten Ukrainian students.
Taking Action 10 March 2022

'Words of peace have no value now'

Emotions ran high at a solidarity gathering for Ukraine, yesterday at the VU. Lecturer Kilian Wawoe brought in ten students from Ukraine he had picked up at the Polish border the day before.

“Russians are not the enemy”, said Mirjam van Praag, chair of the executive board of VU Amsterdam, at the start of a gathering to express solidarity with Ukraine. There was quite a turnout at the event, held yesterday at the Auditorium in the main building of VU. The hall was lit in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag and a large image was projected above the podium, of someone holding up that flag.

But Van Praag started by pointing out the plight of common Russians, who had nothing to do with the war or with the Russian president Putin, but were still the target of anger and hate from the people around them. Earlier that day member of the executive board Marcel Nollen told the works council in a meeting that at VU too, Russian students and employees had experienced discrimination and lived in fear of being expelled from the country.

An emergency fund will be set up to help Ukrainian and Russian students

As far as VU is concerned, Nollen said, everything will be done to keep the Russians safe and at the campus. An emergency fund will be set up to help Ukrainian and Russian students in financial trouble because the war and the sanctions against Russia will deprive them of the money sent from home, and counselors, student workers and psychologists are standing by to offer support to those who need it.

Poem for peace

“We should not let this divide our community”, said Van Praag, explaining that as little as VU could do, it would focus on keeping up its core values, help people where it could and keep the community together. And it would help its partner university in Ukraine, the Karazin Kharkiv National University in Kharkiv, to rebuild after the war was over.

She called out everyone who wanted to help, to turn to VU “to let us help you help”. A webpage has been set up to coordinate and describe all efforts for Ukraine and the victims of the Russian attack.

After Van Praag, Bastiaan van Apeldoorn spoke, professor of Global Political Economy and Geopolitics and senator for the Socialist Party, saying there was no military solution to this and that he hoped diplomacy would prevail, and then director of Communication and Marketing Gijsbert Siertsema read a “poem for peace” by preacher/poet Herman Koetsveld.

‘The only way to stop this is to defeat Russia’

But the next speaker would have none of that. “Saying we want peace has absolutely no value now”, cultural anthropologist Anastasiia Omelianuk said with a voice trembling with emotion. “The only way to stop this is to defeat Russia and that’s what the world should help Ukraine do.” Omelianuk held an angry speech about the Ukrainians shielding our safety with their very own lives and the privilege we enjoy, being protected from having to fear for our lifes. She herself was ashamed, she confessed, of her own privilege of working in the EU, “with such a massive gap between me and my family and friends in Ukraine.”

She appeared to reproach the audience when she said: “Remember you will never understand what the Ukrainians are going through.”

Stand strong

There were other Ukrainian speakers. Igor Kostiuk, PhD candidate astroparticle physics, who held an exposé about the greatness of Ukraine, being “a grave for empires and authoritarian rulers”, and indeed, Ukrainian soldiers were amongst the liberators of the Netherlands in WWII, and some are buried here. PhD-candidate Functional Genomics Ganna Balagura spoke about taking the chance to make a difference and changing the narrative. She spoke frantically, almost like she was in a trance. “We can make it stop, make it happen, this should never have happened, we really need to prepare a path, this is  a story about shared pain”, she said. “We have to stand strong against those who want to divide us as a people.”

Somewhat disconcerting was the speech made by professor Dutch Private Law Masha Antokolskaia, who appeared to make herself as small as she could, saying she was ashamed, “not of being a Russian, but of being a coward. Too long we have looked away, we were all silent, we didn’t oppose Putin. That makes us murderers and responsible for what is happening.”

‘Too long we have looked away, we were all silent, we didn’t oppose Putin’

The thing is, Antokolskaia explained, that Russians have been raised with a constant feeling of fear for generations. Her grandparents had been afraid of Stalin their whole lives, always afraid to speak up, and “with Putin it is the same”.

She too spoke words of war. “You can’t defeat aggressors like that with peace talks”, she said. “Russia is attacking the free world.” The sacrifices the Dutch might have to make are nothing in that light, she thinks. “So you may suffer a little cold, a little discomfort”, she said. “That is not much.”

Chair of the executive board Mirjam van Praag talking to the Ukrainian students who fled the country


A sort of climax came in the form of ten Ukrainian students, arrived the day before, brought to the Netherlands by lecturer human resources management Kilian Wawoe, who teaches at the University of Kyiv too. Together with others he drove to the Polish border with two vans, to pick up ten of his students there, all women, because the men have to stay and fight, and drove back home in one go, driving the whole night through.

He found the students a place to stay and raised enough money to be able to give them a job at the university for five years, he said. He wants to have them registered as students at VU, bypassing all the bureaucracy this uFkhsually involves and called out to scientists to offer their scientific articles for free, have them translated in Ukrainian and bundled to raise more money to help more Ukrainian students.

‘I am safe while people at home are dying’

Two of his students spoke about what they had gone through the past weeks, the violence, the fear. The first one, called Olga, immediately began to speak of survivor’s guilt. “I am safe while people at home are dying”, she said. “I hope you don’t think I’m selfish.”

The second student, whose name I missed, told us how she tried to volunteer to fight, as so many other people, but there were too few weapons. So she volunteered to give blood, but the hospitals had run out of space to store all the blood that was already donated. Angrily she moved her head closer to the microphone and said: “Putin is bombarding our civil infrastructure.”

“We just want to live as a free people”, she concluded.

As from today Ad Valvas uses the Ukranian names of cities, instead of following the Russian transcription.

Peter Breedveld
IMAGE: Peter Breedveld


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