‘I recall still very good, that trip. I was seventeen and flew from Schiphol to Moscow. There we went to sleep for the night and then by train to Novorossiysk, in the south. I remember the Kursk station with a lot of drunk people, and yet I did not think: I want to go back. ‘
How to fall in love. A year on exchange to Russia, even before she began studying, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. A year in which she was in danger of losing not only her toe but almost her entire leg due to ignorant doctors. And then back to Holland and still studying the language and culture, for the first time alone to Ukraine, swimming in the Black Sea. In the following years, now professor, he went every year to Moscow, to the most courageous and progressive academics, to self-guide and excite the students. Always the story: ‘No, but Moscow is the place for the cozy hipster bars and breweries, there is a very good atmosphere.’ She also knew that at the same time, an ever-increasing dissonance was moaning through it.
It was two students who encouraged her to become more politically candid, says professor of Slavic languages and culture Ellen Rutten in her room in the PC Hoofthuis at the University of Amsterdam. She had always been very active in international academic networks, but the boys challenged her. What do you want to do with all the political prisoners in Russia? It was around 2016, in the wake of the Crimean annexation, and she also thought: This is going in the wrong direction. She made a book with the students and two colleagues, Putin’s court, her first major politically motivated project. The second came in 2021, when she and international colleagues in an open letter stated that a new Eastern European university was to be created for scientists and students at risk. The letter was signed by Masha Gessen and Judith Butler.
The irony: it is precisely the international cooperation from which such ambitious projects can emerge that is under pressure as a result of the war. Researchers from the countries involved are in immediate danger, and European universities have severed ties with Russia. Moscow colleagues whom Rutten liked to visit were placed under house arrest. It can be difficult to get Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians to one table. A member of the Ukrainian University Steering Committee was unable to cooperate: he had to bring his parents to safety, and his daughter enlisted in the army. And then there is the problem with the unmanageable university: Rutten and four professors have been trying for months to get one Russian scientist to join UvA. It almost seems to work, but that’s not how it works. “I know students who are now in danger of being arrested while we talk.”
‘I know students who are now in danger of being arrested’
Ukraine’s turning point
Since the first Russian cruise missiles landed on Kiev on February 24, 2022, the attack on Ukraine has been called a historic turning point. But what has changed then? Based on ten major and minor protagonists (plus one former General playing Risk), The green Amsterdammer balance for the first time.
She could not sit still for a long time. Four months of war and Rutten has established a mentoring program with a group of volunteers, where researchers from Russia and Ukraine are matched with mentors from the West who can help them apply for scholarships. There are now 450 people in it. With a team of researchers, journalists and hackers, she supports Eastern European citizens’ initiatives. She has sought psychological help for her students at UvA. Concerns about her own friends and colleagues, students with family in bomb shelters, seeped into her weekends and evenings. If Putin said on television that intellectuals were insects, Rutten would sit on the couch in the evening and tie people together. Until she no longer knew where to go with her frustration, powerlessness and confusion. Now she is building rest to be sad.
The Eastern European University under development is new and therefore agile. It is a way to immediately offer researchers from high-risk countries a safe place – more than fifty percent of the seats are intended for them. Work is underway on housing construction in Latvia, and six master’s degrees have been designed, all based on the idea that Europe is in crisis and will remain so for years to come. The climate crisis, the health crisis, the technological crisis, geopolitical tensions. Other universities are also aware of this, but this has built it in from day one.
For example, there will be a master’s degree in New Military Studies, which she is now working on together with former Chief of Defense Tom Middendorp. She sent him an email: I think our types of knowledge can fit well together. To her happy surprise, he was immediately thrilled. There will also be a scientist who specializes in the military through gender studies. Knowledge intertwines, reinforces each other, a good diplomat also knows a country’s literature.
The projects that Rutten is now involved in come from an international academic network of people who keep going, even though they know they are doing crazy work. The route knows from previous scientific collaborations what kind of brain power can be released if you bring different types of knowledge together. Despite the weight, the pins spread cheerfully after each meeting. ‘Because you build something new together, without any framework. Ideas come from all sides that I would never have come up with. It’s magical. ‘