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Strong need to talk together about Ukraine

Everyone has been watching the attack on Ukraine, a war on the European continent, with a sense of foreboding. It will bring devastation, loss, suffering and worry and it raises questions. With these words, Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl opened the meeting on the war in Ukraine at Wijnhaven on Thursday afternoon. ‘This situation affects the whole world, including our community here at Leiden University, so I am happy that we are together here today in the room and online.’

Researchers from different faculties explained the background of the war led by moderator Jan Melissen. Questions were also asked from the audience and from home, where more than 500 people watched via a livestream. Students and staff from the region were specially invited by the Rector Hester Bijl: ‘It is good to come together. To have this conflict explained in scientific terms, to look for answers and to think as a community about what we can do. But above all to listen to one another, to talk to one another and to support one another.’

With a full house and many listeners online via the livestream, the need to talk together about this topic proved enormous. Jan Melissen: ‘We all get up with the news and go to bed with the news. As a university, we also have an academic duty to look beyond the headlines.’

Veronika Yefremova

A burden we will carry for generations to come

The personal story of Veronika Yefremova, a Ukranian PhD fellow at the faculty of law, made a big impression. She began by outlining the distance. Leiden-Rome by car is as far as Leiden-Kiev. ‘To give you some idea because most people know something about Ukraine but have never been there.’ Yefremova talked about the history and identity of her country and the similarities she shares with Russia, but also about the powerlessness she feels. ‘I speak Russian, my surname is Russian, I have Russian friends... But we are our own country. What is happening now is a drastic intervention on our identity. Families are being torn apart. We don’t know what to do. Yet we need each other. How we deal with this will be a burden we will carry for generations to come.’

Extraordinary fighting spirit

Honorata Mazepus, an assistant professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs, then addressed the dynamics of civil society and talked about the fake news that circulates. Mazepus is from Poland and has done a lot of research in Russia and Ukraine. She praised the fighting spirit and unity of citizens in Ukraine. To counter disinformation and the spread of fake news, she says it is important to give Russians every chance to provide them with the right information. ‘Let the Russian soldiers who surrender call their mothers to tell the real story.’

The impact of the war and the sanctions on the cultural sector and the church were examined by Otto Boele, a senior university lecturer at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society at the Humanities faculty. Among other things, he looked at the enormous consequences of the war and the sanctions on, for example, the Russian film industry. All ties with Russian directors or filmmakers will be severed and budgets will be drastically reduced. Boele expressed the hope that even with fewer resources, documentary makers will continue to show their skills in a creative way.

Honorata Mazepus

A tragedy for all of Europe

Frans Osinga, Professor by Special Appointment of War Studies, spoke of a European tragedy. ‘I have been walking around with a heavy heart since the start of this war. Not only for the people in Ukraine but for all of us.’ As Osinga pointed out earlier in this article, Putin’s behaviour comes as no surprise to him.

The theory of international relations and alternative logics and perspectives was discussed by Isabelle Duijvestijn, Professor of International Studies and Global History. '‘We are all struggling to understand what is going on here.’

Finally, Antoaneta Dimitrova, Professor of Comparative Governance at FGGA, discussed the EU’s future international relations with Ukraine. She called it historic that Ukraine, while involved in a war, is applying to become an EU member. ‘This is normally a very long process. But normal doesn’t count now.’

More questions than there is time to answer

Questions from the audience and from home were plentiful. From a Russian student who made a statement by voicing her solidarity with the Ukrainian community. From a Chilean student who was eager to learn more about the political landscape in Ukraine, and questions like: Why is Zelensky so eager to join the EU? What are Putin’s security concerns when it comes to Ukraine? How do other refugees view the willingness there is now to help people from Ukraine? And a call to action from Matthew Hoye, an associate professor at ISGA: to provide shelter for academics and students who are no longer safe. ‘A “University in Exile”. Of course this is a national issue, but why shouldn’t we as Leiden University take the lead in this?’

Hester Bijl

After more than two hours, the conversation continued outside the room and there was time to meet and catch up. Staff from Student Support Services and Service Centre International Staff were present. Because talking, that is what we will be doing a lot of in the coming period. Not only in debates and round tables, but also during lectures and beyond. To conclude with the opening words of Hester Bijl: ‘For me, this meeting is also an expression of the core values of our university. We do not take these values – freedom, responsibility, connection and innovation – lightly. We want to actively and concretely propagate them. That also explains why we have come together today.’

Text: Margriet van der Zee
Photos: Wilke Geurds

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