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Leiden Slavist in Ukraine: ‘My love for Russia has faded’

To read Chekhov in the ‘original’. That was what motivated Arie van der Ent to study Slavic languages and literature with Karel van het Reve at Leiden University. ‘My love for Chekhov hasn’t faded,’ says Van der Ent from his home 60 kilometres south of Kyiv. ‘But it has for the rest of Russia.’

The sun is shining today, in Ukraine too. It’s a beautiful clear day. Arie van der Ent (65) has heard the latest news from his brother in Leiden. ‘He’s a historian and he keeps on top of things. The Russian minister of defence appears to be in intensive care. And the Russians can’t make any more hypersonic missiles. All good news, therefore.’

Van der Ent, who was born in Krimpen aan den Ijssel, is now taking a more measured approach to the news. ‘In the first few weeks, I followed everything. I was in shock. I really didn’t think there would be a war. Then I suddenly woke in the middle of the night. Boom, boom. It was far away but clearly audible. Really unreal.’

Arie van der Ent sees Ukraine as his second homeland.

Van der Ent, who is a writer and translator, has lived in Ukraine since 2016. Love brought him to the country, but he may have ended up there without it. He wanted to leave the Netherlands anyway because life there was too hectic. Six years later and he now feels at home in Ukraine. He sees it as his second homeland. ‘Even before the war, I identified with this country. The invasion has only made that stronger.’

You get used to war

In the first month of the war, he barely left his village. ‘Then, if you do visit a nearby town, you suddenly see trenches there. And roadblocks and checkpoints. We now wave at the soldiers. You get to know them.’ The war hasn’t come any closer as yet. Kyiv was blockaded to the north, but the south, where his village is, has been left unscathed. He hasn’t wanted to flee for a moment. ‘We’re on the right side of the Dnieper River.

‘You get used to war, just like you lot are in the Netherlands. At some point, I threw myself back into my work When the war started, I didn’t feel like doing it for the first weeks. I was working on a translation of Eugene Onegin by Pushkin. I couldn’t stomach that at all anymore. The man would have been a complete Putinist nowadays. So I stopped. But at some point, I tore myself away from the war, or at least all the news about it.’

When Kyiv was liberated the stress subsided. ‘It almost feels like it has for the past eight years.’ He is exaggerating, but still. ‘Last year there were 100 deaths in the Donbas. The only thing that we noticed were the billboards calling on people to enlist.’ He falls silent. ‘Did you hear that?’ he asks in surprise through the screen. ‘A fighter jet! That’s been a while. The airspace is closed. You don’t hear much from up there anymore. Really strange.’

Small sanction

As his own small sanction, he no longer translates Russians. At least no Russians who are staying in Russia. 'Russians who have fled or Russian-speaking Ukrainians are all fine. But no real Russians.' He has strong opinions about Russians. ‘They suffer from an inflated sense of self-importance that stems from a gigantic inferiority complex. I’ve known that for longer and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve never wanted to live in Russia. I mean, the Russians have pulled a few stunts over the centuries. They aren’t as nice as we are. Russians have a great talent for being offended.’ Van der Ent says he always had a ‘healthy suspicion’ of the Russians. ‘Karel van het Reve always said that he never had a communist in the class on the Slavic programme in Leiden. We were interested in Russia for other reasons, often the literature.’

He falls silent again and points up. ‘Another fighter jet. Really odd.’

Slavists should be listened to more closely in this conflict, says Van der Ent. ‘Political scientists and defence specialists know their stuff, but we Slavists know the people. We know that you needn’t be so afraid of Russians. Things are generally much worse there than they seem. The Russians always think they can compensate with tough talk.  And then they become intoxicated by one another’s words. They thought Ukraine would fall in a day.’

‘If you ask me, we’ll drive the Russians right back, from Crimea too.’

Ukrainian novel

For Van der Ent the outcome is certain: Ukraine will win. ‘The United States has already invested so much money in it. Then you really aren’t going to lose. You can’t anymore. If you ask me, we’ll drive the Russians right back, from Crimea too.’

In the meantime, he is busy writing his war diary and the Armageddon sonnets he posts on Facebook every day and translating Ukrainian writers. The war means attention is finally being paid to Grey Bees, an acclaimed novel by Andrey Kurkov. ‘A fantastic book. Should definitely be made into a film. I’ve almost finished so it won’t be long before you can read it. It’s about two men who are the only ones left in a village in the occupied Donbas. One is a beekeeper and the other is very much sympathetic to the separatists. A really beautiful and topical story.’His finger goes up again. ‘The third fighter jet during this conversation. Jeez! What could it be? Oh well, we’ll read about it soon enough. And otherwise, I’ll find out from my brother.’

Emergency fund for students from Ukraine and Russia

With the Russian invasion, life for the Ukrainian people changed overnight. Many lost loves ones, thousands fled and hope and dreams for the future went up in smoke. Ukrainian students abroad not only feel an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and grief, but are also suffering the consequences of the war in their home country in their day to day lives. 

We feel a responsibility towards all affected students, regardless of their origin or nationality. That is why students from Ukraine and Russia who study at Leiden University can count on support from the Leiden University Fund (LUF). We have set up an emergency fund to contribute to immediate support for students with problems related to finances, study progress and residency status. Together, let us take away the added worry, stress and uncertainty caused by these issues. Donate now!

Text: Marijn Kramp
Banner photo: Checkpoint in Ukraine, ANP.

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