MAASTRICHT — The worst thing about it, says Marina Smirnova, is that people won’t tell her directly to her face what they think of her. When the 27-year-old Russian, a linguist, joins a discussion with colleagues at work about the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, and points out that responsibility for the tragedy has not yet been formally established, everybody suddenly goes silent.
Feeling increasingly isolated, Smirnova is sure that people are badmouthing her, making malicious remarks behind her back. On Facebook there have already been calls tor Russians to be chased out of the Netherlands and for a killer commando to be sent to take care of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
Smirnova has read the posts. She sits in Café Zuid by the Maas River in the Dutch university town of Maastricht and reflects about where her relations with Dutch people are going.
"My wish is that the negative climate doesn’t escalate further," she says.
Of the 298 people who lost their lives in the crash a week ago, 193 were Dutch. The plane was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, when halfway through the flight it was downed and crashed in eastern Ukraine where soldiers loyal to Kiev are fighting pro-Russian separatists.
Not even U.S. intelligence has so far delivered conclusive proof that the Russian government is behind this act of terror. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, many believe that Putin and his cohorts are responsible. When on Wednesday the first victims’ coffins were brought back from Ukraine to the military airport in Eindhoven, thousands of Dutch people stood on the streets to pay respects as the vehicles transporting the coffins drove by.
It was like a funeral cortege for MH17’s dead. And as people wept, and people spoke of the "Dutch 9/11," the finger-pointing at Russia grew. The collective mourning is punctuated by anger, almost all of it directed at Russia. The anger is shared by some prominent politicians and sports personalities, as well as regular folks. And the anger needs outlets.
One mayor lets loose
Last week it was Putin’s daughter, Maria, also known as "Masha," in the crosshairs. The 29-year-old reportedly lives in the posh neighborhood of Hilversum. "We could deport her. That would send a whole other signal," said mayor Pieter Broertjes in a radio interview. A few minutes later he backtracked on Twitter, but the fire had already been lit.
Throw Putin’s daughter out of the country? Many of the Dutch believe it’s a good idea. And yet it isn’t even certain that Maria Putin really lives or lived in Hilversum or if it’s all empty talk. According to the Bild am Sonntag newspaper she left the Netherlands and is now back in Moscow.
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Russian citizens Vladislav Sadykov, Irene Boesten and Marina Smirnova (with their dog named Putin) in Maastricht — Photo: Tim Röhn
John van't Schip, a former soccer star, also joined the debate. "I call on our football association, the KNVB, the government and FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to boycott the World Cup in Russia in 2018," the 1988 European champion wrote on Twitter. This was met with widespread approval, as was the idea of immediate economic sanctions against Russia.
Writer Bas Heijne wrote that the Dutch government has "coddled ... the dictator" Putin for too long.
Thirty thousand Russians live in the Netherlands. Marina Smirnova is one of them. Together with friends she is currently building a Russian community in Maastricht, which has an overall population of 120,000. Forty Russians turned up for a get-together at the newly-opened Russian consulate in Maastricht, and in August there’s going to a big summer party to which only Russians are invited.
Student Vladislav Sadykov says they want to inform people about Russia and reduce prejudice. "We understand the Dutch and their grief. We know what it’s like to lose loved ones," says the 26-year-old remembering the terror attacks in Russia in years past.
Nevertheless neither he, Smirnova nor Irene Boesten, the third Russian sitting in Café Zuid on this afternoon, can understand the anger people feel towards their country.
It’s too simplistic, they say, to keep claiming that Russia is involved: "Why don’t they wait for the outcome of investigations?" Media coverage is "laughably one-sided" says Boesten, 30. Still, she says, she has been able to persuade her Dutch husband of "the truth" and his anger at Russia has calmed.
A dog named ...
One certainly couldn’t say that’s what happened to most of the Dutch. In Groningen, the owner of a Russian grocery store was heckled by an angry group of locals reportedly screaming "the Russians murdered."
"Luckily," Nicolaas Kraft van Ermel, told Die Welt, "so far the attacks have only been verbal. I know of no Russians who have been physically attacked."
Van Ermel works for the Dutch-Russian Center in Groningen, which among other activities advises Dutch companies thinking of doing business in Russia. "We’ve received hate mail, and I’ve been encouraged to quit my job," van Ermel says. "The mood has changed. Now, Russia’s being blamed for everything."
All the events of the recent past have been thrown into one pot: the MH17 disaster, the arrest of Dutch Greenpeace activists trying to prevent a Russian oil tanker from docking in Rotterdam, even the tough measures taken against homosexuals in Russia. Russians living in the Netherlands are being blamed for all that as well.
It's gotten to the point where Marina Smirnova is worried about her personal safety. "I hope nobody goes after us with baseball bats," she says only half-jokingly.
Vladislav Sadykov believes that investigations will show conclusively that the Russian government was not responsible for the crash of the plane. He says that some Dutch people are beginning to come round to his point of view. Anyway, he’s not afraid.
Irene Boesten thinks that everything will take care of itself once the Dutch recognize that the Western media are not the only sources. The Russian press is better, she says, stroking the dog she has brought with her.
The Cocker Spaniel is black, one-and-a-half years old. His name is Putin.