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Russian students split by escalating conflict with West

As the struggle between pro-Russian and pro-Western sympathizers broke out in Ukraine, Russian students in Copenhagen were forced to take a stand

Copenhagen has a large community of Russians, with more than 4,000 living in the city. Copenhagen sports a center for Russian culture, a Russian supermarket, and several Facebook groups for Denmark-based Russians. And then there are the hundreds of Russian students in both the University of Copenhagen and in other higher education institutions in the city.

But the conflict of the last two years, in Ukraine and Crimea – and latest with the confrontation over Syria between Russia and the West – has the community is split in two: Do I support Putin, or do I support EU and the West? Family and friends have severed all contact due to disagreements over the Ukrainian issue.

“It’s almost like a war between people. Family and friends who stop seeing each other, because they disagree. It is happening in Denmark as well as in Russia,” explains Maria Serdobolskaya, a student of economics at University of Copenhagen.

Standard phrase: No wrong – no right

She herself came to Denmark six years ago and has witnessed first-hand the before and after of the Ukrainian crisis – in Denmark. During the crisis, Russian as well as Western media have been covering the situation intensely. And according to Maria, not necessarily objectively.

“The Russians get served one version of the situation, and we get another. It makes it hard for people here not to have an opinion on the issue,” she says.
Fortunately, Maria has not lost herself friends or contact with family because of the crisis. As Maria puts it:

“I try to keep as neutral as possible. What I say to people is: ‘it’s wrong to say who is right and who is not. Usually none of the sides are perfect. If we hadn’t had any weapons, there would be no war’”.

I’m Russian, but nobody knows what is going on

Russian CBS student Sofya Dergacheva Lund has witnessed polarization, especially on the internet: “People are not afraid to write all sorts of things on Facebook and other social media. In that way, the internet can be a catalyzer for the conflict, because people are writing things that they would not dare to say in front of people in real life.”

Sofya Dergacheva Lund is a Russian student at CBS (Photo by Ane Løvetofte)

It is not easy to stay neutral when people keep asking you about your thoughts on the crisis, according to Maria. Danes constantly ask Russians about their sentiments towards Putin and issues like for example Crimea.

“When people hear that I’m from Russia, they often ask me what I think about Putin. I usually answer: I don’t know, I live here in Denmark,” Maria explains. “The fact that I speak Russian doesn’t make me more capable of understanding the situation. Nobody knows what’s going on, really. The only thing I can say is that Russia is not the only guilty party. Both sides play a part in this conflict.”

Ukraine still corrupt

Maria says she finds it natural for Danes to be interested in hearing about the crisis from a Russian, and she tries to answer their questions.

“Personally, I am not at all satisfied with the way things are happening down there. And I don’t like the way Russia has annexed Crimea. Even though Crimea perhaps ought to end up being part of Russia eventually, the way it is happening now is completely wrong.”

Sofya is more critical towards the new pro-European Ukrainian government: “I don’t think the new government is doing any good for Ukraine. They still have the same problems. Look at their big cars and big houses – it shows that there is still corruption. They are making agreements with Russia and the US, but then they don’t respect them. Instead, Ukraine should focus on getting a proper government, who can rule the country properly,” she says.

Reluctant to reveal nationality

Danes mainly identify themselves as pro-Western when it comes to the Ukrainian crisis. But Maria and Sofya have not experienced any hostile reactions from Danes when they tell people they are from Russia. They had both heard about the growing hostility towards Russians in Denmark, but have not experienced anything like it firsthand.

But Maria hesitates to tell people about her nationality:

“I feel reluctant to reveal that I am Russian. But I have to tell people anyway, because they can hear on my accent that I am not Danish.” But she hastens to add: “Fortunately, I have never experienced any negative reactions on me as a person based on my nationality.”

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