[Column] Humanity

However terrible the war in Ukraine is, do not judge individual Russians and the beauty that they have produced by the war, writes Monique van der Veen.

Monique van der Veen: “If you are concerned about polarisation at all, then assuming that ‘I am the problem’ is a very good option.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

My four year old daughter did a sponsored walk at school. When she told me about it when she came home, she said that it was for the children of Ukraine. I asked some questions as I wanted to know what she heard about the situation. She could say no more than “so that they win”. The school probably wanted to teach the children about solidarity with others that are less fortunate. She probably heard the word ‘win’ in the playground.

In times of peace it is inconceivable for us that people somewhere would ever want a war. Unfortunately, history shows us otherwise. Historians know that a population really can want a war. We are pulled into the ‘us versus them’ more quickly than we want to admit.

During World War II, for example, masses of American citizens stopped knitting in the continental style in favour of knitting in the English style. The former knitting style arose in North, Central and East Europe, in particular in Germany, while the latter arose in places such as the British Isles, the Netherlands and Belgium. The continental ‘German’ style is much handier, but the association with Germany was undesirable.

Similarly, during World War I, it was not acceptable in the USA anymore to talk about sauerkraut or German measles – they had to be liberty cabbage and liberty measles. There were even calls to stop performing the works of great German composers such as Bach and Beethoven.

‘Lay claim on the beautiful things that individual Russians make or do’

This sounds familiar: both The Hague and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestras recently cancelled performances of great Russian masters such as Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. Stravinsky has Ukrainian and Polish family members, and Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality is being censored by the Russian state.

Milano-Bicocca University in Italy scrapped a course on Dostoevsky (dead for over 100 years and the author of several of the greatest novels exploring morality) in the first week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Luckily, after a lot of protest, the University reversed this decision.

I also saw a tweet by an academic at the EPFL Technical University in Switzerland. He called on his institution to reverse its decision to help its Russian – and besides also Ukrainian – students who are facing financial problems because of sanctions. While to my mind, it is no more than normal that a university board feels responsible for its student body.

Please note, Putin’s actions are horrendous and can only be condemned. Ukrainians were confronted with immeasurable injustice and cruelty. In their own country too, Putin and his henchmen rule strongly repress citizens who are critical about the war.

But these do not justify to stop judging individual Russians on their personal humanity. Russians are being harassed in the Netherlands too, I read in the newspaper. A Russian colleague of my husband burst into tears during a team meeting because a friend had called her a murderer.

See people as individuals. Lay claim on the beautiful things that individual Russians make or do and do not let them be the domain of Putin and his cronies and their view of the world. They are unworthy of this beauty.. A good place to start is the six autobiographical books by Konstantin Paustovsky (Story of a Life) which chronicle the years before, during and after the Russian Revolution. Wonderfully beautiful he describes his wanderings on the Ukrainian coast, the Crimea and the Caucasus.

Also read Anna Akhmatova’s poetry who, despite the Russian Revolution, stayed in her country (described in Emmanuel Waegemans’ History of Russian Literature Since Peter the Great 1700-2000). For her, ‘the political situation of a country can never be the reason for a poet to leave his fatherland’: ‘I do not belong to those who have given up their country … to have it torn apart by enemies’. ‘She stayed … even though she knew that it would be become very difficult for her.’

Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team at www.tudelft.nl/cheme/vanderveengroup and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen.

Monique van der Veen / Columnist

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