Polina*, third-year student in International Business in Breda, comes from Russia. Since the war with Ukraine began she has slept badly and is extremely concerned about the invasion. She is afraid of the effect of the war on her family, who would dearly like to flee the country.
Polina’s interview with Punt was due to be held on Monday but she cancelled it at the last moment, on Sunday evening. She apologised several times for cancelling it. The reason for the postponement was that on Monday she went with some fellow students to the Koepelgevangenis prison in Breda to set up a space for refugees from Ukraine who will soon be housed there. “I felt that I had to do it. Ukraine has been invaded by Russia and I like to help people, so I really wanted to do this. There are also Russians who do not agree with Putin”, she says.
A short while ago, Punt talked with Avans student Yurii from Ukraine, who is going through a very hard time. He is always listening and watching for the latest news and is helping his family at home in any way he can. And it isn’t going much better with Polina, who for safety reasons does not want her family name to be mentioned. “I’m nervous, exhausted and scared to death. I’m really only concerned with what is happening in the two countries. My mother wants to get out of Russia. She and a lot of other Russians, including me, have disagreed totally with Putin and the government for many years. We are afraid that at some stage the president will press a couple of buttons and start a nuclear war; then there will be nothing left”, Polina explains. “But escape isn’t so easy for my family there. Many countries have closed their air space to Russian aircrafts.”
Polina spends many hours a day looking for news on Telegram and passing it on by phone to her mother and grandmother, who live in St Petersburg. To the best of her ability, she is trying to keep her family informed of what is going on, something that is virtually impossible in Russia. “99 percent of what is broadcast on TV is state propaganda and is untrue. Many people, even soldiers in the army, are therefore unaware of what is really happening and can do nothing about it. They don’t know any better”, says Polina, referring to her grandmother, among others. “She is 74 and has lived her whole life in Russia. She doesn’t know what to believe and is very confused. That’s really hard.”
For the time being, her International Business studies are taking a back seat, although she is doing everything she can to get a ‘simple pass’ in as many subjects and exams as possible. “I’m already behind in my studies and cannot afford any more delays. Coming from a non-European country, things are already expensive enough for me. But it’s hard to concentrate, partly because I’m sleeping badly. Sometimes I manage to get six hours’ sleep, generally less and sometimes I don’t sleep at all. Or I cry myself to sleep”, she says, her voice wavering.
What makes the situation even worse for her is that she is safe in the Netherlands while her family is living in uncertainty. Not since last winter has she visited her family in St Petersburg, which she says is an extremely beautiful city. “Really worth visiting, as is the rest of the country, if you know where to go”, adds Polina, who doesn’t think she will be going back there for a while. “There’s nothing for me there. I’m young and want to keep developing as a human being: that’s not possible there right now. Many big companies are pulling out of Russia, not to mention the severe sanctions that have been imposed on the country.”
Polina has good contact with her lecturers at Avans and she is getting support where necessary. What really helps Polina are her fellow students from Ukraine. “I talk with them a lot, we speak the same language. That gives some solidarity. We also worked together to get the prison ready for refugees. It’s great that we can do that together.”
“It isn’t something that I personally have come across yet in the Netherlands but there’s a lot of anti-Russian sentiment around. People are afraid of Russians and think all of them are bad. But that isn’t true. Not every Russian supports Putin and his government. They don’t deserve to be cold-shouldered by people outside Russia simply because Putin is there. I would like people to keep that at the back of their mind.”
Polina has no idea how the war can be ended. But she believes that Russians need to take to the streets in their homeland in large numbers. “It’s really risky, of course; the police don’t treat demonstrators gently. But the government cannot lock everyone up. They don’t have that much room.”
In Polina’s view, other countries should not get involved in the armed conflict between the two countries. That would only end badly, she feels. “Putin has already said that he will wipe out any countries that intervene. I just hope that it’s over quickly. People are dying.”
*Polina’s family name is known to the editors.