Some Russian Students Pay for Homeland’s Stigma

Putin’s actions do not win friends for Russians in the Czech lands

By Eloise Cassier, Katerina Patin and Devan Schulte

A scene from a December 2014 protest against Czech President Milos Zeman’s sympathy toward Russian President Vladimir President. Photo by Laura Zablit.

A scene from a December 2014 protest against Czech President Milos Zeman’s sympathy toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo by Laura Zablit.

Several Russian students in Prague believe they may be targets of increased hostility, as Czechs are showing a heightened displeasure with their former overlord’s support of the rebel forces in Ukraine and alleged incursions into Ukrainian territory by Russian troops.

The students note that Czechs are vocal in their dislike of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

“In the Czech Republic, no one except for the president supports Russia,” Maxim Legkostup, a 22-year-old from Krasnodar, Russia, said.

Czechs recently fostered an international petition against Russia’s foreign policy which gained over 10,000 signatures in March. The petition is tied to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, a small peninsula in the south of Ukraine with strong cultural and ethnic ties to Russia. For many Czechs, the conflict has triggered memories of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the following two decades under the communist regime.

Today, 51 percent of Czechs hold an unfavorable view of Russia, according to the Pew Research Center. Despite anti-Russian sentiments, the Czech Republic remains a popular destination for Russian students who come to study at the internationally accredited universities. In 2013, 2,874 Russians were studying the Czech Republic, the second largest minority group after Slovaks, according to the Czech Statistical Office.

“In the Czech Republic, no one except for the president supports Russia.”

Arsenij Baljajev, a 26-year-old from Saint Petersburg, Russia, now lives in Kladno, 15 miles northwest of Prague. His Czech friends at the University of Economics, the biggest economics university in Prague, complain about the large Russian student population, saying, “they move here because we pay for it.”

Legkostup is currently a student at Prague Education Center, a Czech language school for Russian-speakers. Because university courses in Czech are free, many foreign students complete a Czech language course upon their arrival with the goal of a free university education in a European Union country. Legkostup cites the free, high-quality education and opportunity to escape the political situation at home as his motivations for coming to Prague.

Despite the appeal of studying in Czech universities, Russian students occasionally face hostility. Legkostup recalls a woman on the tram accusing him of taking spots at a university that could be going to Czech students. She overheard him speaking Russian and “started yelling, ‘what are you doing here in this country? You’re taking up spots at school. Czech students could take classes here.’”

Ukrainians, the largest group of foreigners and Russian-speakers living in the Czech Republic, according to The Economist, have also faced discrimination. Tetyana Bryzhachenko, 26, from Donetsk, Ukraine, came to the Czech Republic almost 10 years ago and has encountered numerous housing listings asking for “non-Russian speakers only.”

Russians are labeled with stereotypes such as “loud, impudent and rude,” Bryzhachenko said.

Baljajev perceives jokes or comments about Russians as normal given the circumstances but said blatant discrimination is the exception rather the rule. He said Czechs’ perception of Russia at the moment is mostly negative, but they distinguish between the Russian government and the Russian people.

“Russians remind people of communism.”

Still, in recent months, Bryzhachenko has noticed a change in how Czechs treat Russians, and nervousness among native Russian speakers. Her good friend from Volgograd, Russia, “always told people she was Russian,” yet now “if someone asks her, she tells all Czechs that she’s Latvian and that she only lived in Russia for some time.”

Czechs’ disapproval of Russia — specifically its foreign policy and human rights record — came to the forefront during protests on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when thousands of Czechs criticized President Milos Zeman’s pro-Russian stance.

“Russians remind people of communism,” Jakub Karhanek, a 22-year-old Czech student at VSE, said. “Everything that came from Russia was wrong or unwanted.”

Baljajev believes the generation that experienced the Soviet invasion of 1968 has the most negative feelings about Russia. Although he has yet to experience discrimination himself, Baljajev recalls one incident while waiting in a hospital, when his parents were told to “go back to Russia” by a man who cut in front of them.

“The older generation, they consider that we’re also guilty for what happened in ’68,” Maxim El-Kama, a 19-year-old Russian student at Prague Education Center, said. “As if we somehow participated.”

“I think Czechs’ attitudes towards Ukrainians has changed for the better,” Bryzhachenko said. “And towards Russians only worse.”

 

Eloise Cassier is in the College of Arts and Sciences class of 2017. Her hometown is Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Katia Patin is in the College of Arts and Sciences class of 2016. Her hometown is Washington, D.C.

Devan Schulte is in the Bucknell University Class of 2016. Her hometown is Wycoff, New Jersey.

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Categories: Spring 2015 Issue Number 2

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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