Iris de Graaf, correspondent in Russia for the Dutch broadcasting organization NOS, has been elected Alumnus of the Year 2022. The Russian invasion of Ukraine once again shows how important it is to have independent journalists such as her: people who know the facts, explain developments, and are able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
At the time of this interview, Iris de Graaf had just returned from a week’s stay in Antalya, on the Turkish coast. The NOS correspondent for Russia needed a break after the hectic situation that she had been in since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early February. However, the Mediterranean beach town is more than just a place to catch her breath. Antalya was the place where she decided to register for the degree programme in Slavonic Languages and Russian Studies at the University of Groningen in 2009.
Rude, drunken Russians
De Graaf took this decision after she had been working in a tourist entertainment team for two years, entertaining Russian tourists in Antalyan hotels together with several Russian dancers and choreographers. ‘I met so many Russians there that I got fascinated by them’, De Graaf explains during a hasty lunch interview, which clearly shows that the tranquillity of her Antalya holiday is already a thing of the past. ‘Many people know the clichés about rude, drunken Russians on holiday. And although we had very nice Russian families there too, I have indeed experienced situations that fully satisfy those clichés. There were people who had paid a lot of money for their holiday and felt that this gave them the right to boss everyone about. This resulted in conflicts with me, a liberated Dutch girl. I was fascinated, and I thought: I need to do something with the Russian language. And then I saw that there was a degree programme in Groningen, in which you could spend a semester studying in St Petersburg. That convinced me: yes, I want to study in Russia and learn the language.’
This story might sound rather impulsive. However, De Graaf’s interest in Russia actually started much longer ago. One of her grandmothers grew up near Belgorod, a Russian city close to the border with Ukraine and not far from the hard-fought city of Kharkiv. Several family members from her grandmother’s side still live in Russia, not far from the resort city of Sochi.
‘I used to be fascinated by my Russian grandma and her stories’, De Graaf says. ‘My mother was not raised bilingually and so she occasionally followed courses in Russian. I would then sneak up to the attic with her schoolbooks to read and listen to the cassette tapes that came with them. I found it such a mystical language, and I wanted to be able to speak it too – that was an idea that I had in my head from a very young age. I also often practised vocabulary with my grandma.’
Once De Graaf really started learning Russian, during her studies at the UG, a whole new world opened up to her. ‘Russia is a rather isolated country. You cannot know much about Russia if you don’t speak the language. My grandmother had already opened the country up to me a little bit. But speaking the language enables you to follow Russian television, to understand the propaganda, to watch films, and to read books. Russians always talk about the “Russian soul”. That has always fascinated me – where exactly do you find that soul? Is it in Dostoyevsky’s books, or in Eisenstein’s old films? I found it very special, for example, to read Dostoyevsky in Russian, because there are so many Russian words that are in fact untranslatable. It is an incredibly poetic language, with a rich selection of adverbs and adjectives of which we cannot even imagine what they might mean. A phrase that is translated into English as “a deep, morbid, dark emotion for a bygone love” is in fact one single word in Russian. I also feel that the language really helps me as a correspondent to connect to people and understand sensitivities, nuances, and emotions.’
‘Russians are very good at giving speeches. When you go to a birthday party, you can expect seven toasts. Each sip comes with a ten-minute speech about how great the person is. Putin’s speeches are also all about how unique and mystical Russia is. They strongly appeal to nostalgia and emotion. That is also the case in this war and the entire state propaganda. I find it fascinating how this is expressed. Russians have an entirely different worldview than we do. I am often reminded of a quote from the writer Fyodor Tyutchev: “Russia cannot be known by the mind. Russia can only be believed in.” Russians often say about themselves that “you can never understand us if you are not Russian yourself. We are mystical. We have a unique destiny in the world.” I have no idea what they mean by that, and I don’t even think they themselves know.’
Correspondent in exile
De Graaf had only been working as the new NOS correspondent in Moscow for one year when the war in Ukraine broke out. She returned a good week later, in early March. The new censorship resulted in a very insecure situation. She feared for the safety of her local producer and cameraman. At the same time, it is frustrating to be a correspondent in exile. De Graaf is trying to continue her work, for example by talking to Russian refugees in the Netherlands or in Georgia.
She is also closely following the Russian state media – currently via a VPN connection because the EU has taken the Russian channels off the air. De Graaf has her doubts about this EU decision. ‘I understand the reason, but I think it will have serious consequences that Europe has decided to do this rather than, for example, labelling these channels as “Russian state channels”. Russia will use this decision to take countermeasures, to introduce censorship, and to take accreditations away from journalists. This will result in a further decrease in information flows, whereas I think that it is more important than ever to have as much information as possible coming to us from Russia.’
Back to Moscow
De Graaf’s own press accreditation is valid until the end of January 2023, and she does not want to let it go to waste. She wants to go back to Moscow as soon as possible, despite the limitations caused by the censorship. ‘I think it is important for every journalist to have a good look at what is still possible in Russia. There are still people who are very eager to tell their story, even if it may be dangerous to them. They know what the risks are and still want to talk. I don’t think I will be able to assess how I can continue to do my work until I am back in Russia. But in any case, I think we should continue to share the Russian perspective, however incomprehensible this perspective may sometimes be for us.’
‘You have no idea’
‘I often tweet about how Russia is sliding towards a dictatorship. And sometimes I receive reactions from Dutch people who claim that “it is no different here in the Netherlands”. I never respond to these claims, but I do think to myself: you have no idea how grateful you should be that we have a free press. As a correspondent in Russia, I am constantly trying to answer the question: how can you continue to do your work when it is no longer possible? That is a very difficult question.’
De Graaf is briefly reminded of her job interview with the NOS for the post in Moscow in 2019, at a time when few people could predict such a catastrophic war and so much repression. ‘This was not the fantasy that I had about my correspondentship. However, we should never stop looking for ways to continue to report on Russia. If we don’t do that, we will not be getting any information at all.’
Iris de Graaf (1991) studied Slavonic Languages and Russian Studies in Groningen from 2009 to 2014, where she subsequently also followed the Master’s degree programme in Journalism, during the time that journalist Jeroen Smit – Alumnus of the Year 2009 – was professor. Her Master’s thesis was about the media coverage of the MH17 plane crash. She had a blog about fashion and lifestyle and started working as a reporter on youth culture for the NOS broadcasting organization. Her knowledge of Russia and the Russian language helped her land a job at the NOS foreign editorial office, resulting in a correspondentship in Russia in 2020. The Rector Magnificus will present Iris de Graaf with the Alumnus of the Year award during the Opening of the Academic Year on 5 September. This event, as well as her lecture at the Faculty of Arts on 6 September, can be followed via livestream.
Text: Jurgen TiekstraPhoto: Reyer BoxemSource: Broerstraat 5
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