On Tuesday afternoon students and professors traded a rare Dutch sunshine for getting an insight into the cold and distant Russian lands. This is not surprising, given that Russia has hardly left newspaper pages with the ever escalating political tensions and the unending conflict in the Ukraine.

‘’I don’t understand Russia’’, Olaf Koens opened his lecture with a confession. Yet, he managed to deliver a mix of anecdotes from personal experience and comments on all the major events hitting the headlines in the last two years.

Understanding Putin?

‘Putin is a system’, Koens declared at the outset of his talk. He argued that trying to understand Putin as a man is a misguided attempt. This tells us little about how ordinary Russians live, what they think and believe in. Having lived in Russia for eight years and travelled all around the country, from the Arctic circle region to the Caucasus mountains, the journalist remarked ‘’Russia is ruled vertically and people are completely separated from the government’’.

Ukrainian War

Working at the fronts in the Ukraine, the journalist experienced the conflict as not just a matter of military. He has witnessed both the real suffering of the civilians and the constructed images of the soldiers. ‘It is a media war, a battle of propaganda from both sides’, Koens concluded with bitterness.

To Holland with love

Koens sees the MH17 plane crash in this context of media war as well. Although reluctant to comment on the topic, Koens said that ‘the Dutch lacked the political will to find the perpetrators’. He acknowledged the great effort put into the technical investigation, but he thinks the search was misdirected.

Russians as they are

Putting political issues aside, Koens shared the personal insights he got out of his everyday life in Russia. He discovered that some widespread stereotypes like large-scale corruption and a nostalgic attitude towards the past held true. Whereas the prejudice about the unfriendliness of Russian people proved false.

‘Russia is a country which comes in a sweet and sour flavour. I’ve loved it and I hated it’, admitted Koens. However, as a true journalist, he urged the students to see for themselves: ‘Just go, you won’t regret it’.

Having left Russia, now Olaf Koens himself is taking his open-minded attitude to explore the Middle East.