Maksim Sitnikov: ‘I no longer consider myself 100% Russian, my life is here now’

Maksim Sitnikov: ‘I no longer consider myself 100% Russian, my life is here now’

Russian PhD researcher and junior lecturer Maksim Sitnikov (27) came to Tilburg as a 19-year-old in 2016. He has been a Dutch citizen since May 2023. Returning to his homeland is not an option for him. “I don’t want to hide what I think.’

Maksim Sitnikov: ‘Many Russian boys study to avoid military service, not because they are motivated.’ Image Ton Toemen

Lees dit interview in het Nederlands.

‘How do you actually eat your tompoes? Because I understand that everyone has a different approach.’ We are at the home of PhD researcher and junior lecturer Maksim Sitnikov, in a sleepy Tilburg suburb. In his sports socks, he slides into the kitchenette and takes the orange glazed pastry out of the refrigerator. Last weekend he celebrated King’s Day with a friend, he says.

‘It’s important to respect local traditions.’ His slim-fit T-shirt is as snow white as his studio, which is furnished with surgical precision. On the small desk in the corner, everything is lined up dead straight. With a cheerful smile, ‘If your house is in order, you have your life in order, too.’

Sitnikov came to Tilburg in 2016 for a Bachelor’s degree in Global Management of Social Issues, followed by a Research Master’s in Social and Behavioral Sciences, majoring in organizational studies. ‘I didn’t find research on people that interesting anyway,’ he confesses. ‘I prefer to deal with statistics and strategic research on a global scale, and with how companies can perform better on a financial and social level.’

In addition to his PhD research, he teaches seven courses in the Department of Organizational Science. ‘I can be lazy sometimes, but I like to set goals. I usually get up at 6:15 a.m. and I go to bed by 10 p.m. at the latest, just like my father. He started running 10-15 kilometers every day, I go to the gym in the morning. PhD research is intense, you also continue working at night and sometimes on weekends. Fitness gives me a boost in the morning, it clears my head.’

Internationals in Tilburg

Chinese, German, Brazilian: internationals from all corners of the world have been moving to the Netherlands for a long time. Science crosses national borders and Dutch universities want to score well on the world academic stage. But a lot of internationals came this way: lecture halls and student houses are overcrowded and many courses are only taught in English.

Time for a turnaround, it now sounds. Politicians want fewer internationals and English at universities. Universities are making plans to reduce internationalization. There’s a lot of talk about internationals. But who are they actually? And how do they see their future? In this section, Univers talks to international students and employees of Tilburg University.

27 years ago, Sitnikov was born an only child in the Russian industrial city of Perm, near the Ural Mountains, some 1,200 km from Moscow. ‘My grandmother lived with us. We lived in a flat in a suburb, near a large oil refinery. In my childhood, everything was gray, as you know it from Eastern Bloc movies.’

What did you do in your spare time?

‘I had little free time; I was mostly learning. In my free time, I played sports. I didn’t get out much because we lived in a bad neighborhood. Many peers were already smoking and drinking alcohol; I wasn’t going to be one of them. On the streets, gangs hung around and you were harassed by unsavory types.

‘In the late 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a crisis and the country had to be rebuilt from scratch. Crime became an easy way to make money because you could just bribe the police. There was a lot of corruption but at a different level. Today, corruption is pretty much the ideology of the government.’

You were born in 1997. What was the political situation like in your youth?

‘In my youth, everything was going fine for the government because they made a lot of money from oil. There was little political activism, yet it felt freer because there was still little propaganda. But starting in 2008, when the conflict between Russia and Georgia broke out, television started spreading the message that everyone was supposedly against Russia.

‘In 2011, there was a big demonstration in Moscow because people were under the impression that the government had committed electoral fraud, but otherwise there was little overt opposition. After the annexation of Crimea, in 2014, the brainwashing on TV was total. The news was all about the war in Ukraine. And when the war in Syria broke out in 2015, it was all about that. It was like being a Russian living in Syria, so dominant was the coverage.

‘These days it’s exactly the same, you never hear anything about the internal problems in the country. In April, there were floods on the border with Kazakhstan, but the government sees to it that almost nothing is published about that because that undermines their credibility. Many online media are blocked, and many VPNs no longer work either.’

So how do you find out what is really happening in Russia?

‘I follow foreign news sources, and I follow some Russian media on Telegram, and I watch a lot of videos on YouTube. I also read the comments underneath because between the lines you can sense what the mood is among the population. There are also a lot of bots in between, but those posts again give insight into what message the government is trying to push through.’

In 2014, you left for Israel to finish high school.

‘I played basketball from the age of twelve. When I was seventeen, I entered a tournament at an international school in Jordan with a friend. I really liked the atmosphere, and by chance, we heard that a new international school was opening in Tel Aviv. I was able to get a scholarship so I thought: great, I’m going out into the world! But my departure turned out miserably.

‘I broke up with my girlfriend; she was my first serious relationship. Two days before I flew to Israel, a good friend of mine died. He didn’t have a driver’s license, but he had a car. During a police chase, he drove himself to his death. It was traumatic to see him lying in his coffin. A week earlier I had seen him as usual. At home I didn’t have much left, I had to start from scratch.’

Did you experience some pressure from your parents to do well in school?

‘Let me put it this way: I was encouraged to perform, but I also love studying and I wanted to make my parents happy. They set a good example for me. My grandmother had no higher education, and my father came from a small village, but still my parents managed to make a career.

‘They are trained as engineers and work as managers. My father works as a department head at the local power company. When there are problems with the electricity supply, he manages the team to solve it. My mother works in the oil sector. As soon as new oil mines are discovered, she arranges the planning and makes sure the environment is polluted as little as possible.

‘How much sense does it make to study? Others get the same diploma as you because they bribed someone’

‘So yes, it was clear that I had to prove myself if I wanted to achieve anything in life. In Russia and in countries of the former Soviet Union, parents try to support their children. Here, on the contrary, it is normal to work in your field in addition to your studies, I respect that. In that respect, Dutch students are more independent than Russian students.’

Did you feel at home in Israel?

‘No, that school felt a bit like a prison. The idea was good, they wanted to train future leaders who could solve the conflict. 30% of the students were Palestinians and 30% were Israelis. The rest came from everywhere.

‘But as soon as classes started, the conflict between Israel and Gaza escalated again. For security reasons, we were not allowed to leave the school grounds. For the first two months, we were not even allowed to go to the store by ourselves.

‘On weekends, there is little to do in Israel. Friday night the Sabbath begins and everything closes, even public transportation is at a standstill, yet cabs are extremely expensive. Mostly we just studied, watched movies, or played basketball. It was a closed, protected community, with strict rules. I felt pretty lonely. I called my parents every day.’

In 2016, you came to Tilburg. Wasn’t studying in Russia an option?

‘No, there are good universities in Russia, but then I should have studied physics, mathematics, or mechanical engineering because you can usually earn a reasonable income in IT or the oil industry. Many boys study to avoid military service, not because they are motivated.

‘The education system there is completely different. In Russia, it’s normal to copy your homework from a classmate, or look up the answers online, because you get so many assignments that it’s impossible to finish if you also want to build a social network. People also cheat on their exams because you take all those courses just to be able to tick them off.

‘Studies in Russia take a long time, but your degree is worth little. Because of the culture of bribery and corruption, academic integrity means little there. How much sense does it make to study if someone else has the same grade or diploma as you because they bribed someone or copied the exam answers?’

Why did you choose the Netherlands specifically?

‘I felt that the Netherlands would suit me better than Israel. Israelis are quite defensive and focused on themselves. From their perspective, it is ‘us against them,’ probably because Jews were so heavily oppressed in the past and because Israel is surrounded by countries with a different religious ideology.

‘Dutch culture is a bit more open, and Dutch universities are highly regarded. I wanted to go to a country where people speak English well, so I could easily go somewhere else if I didn’t like it.

Maksim Sitnikov: ‘In the Netherlands you can get everything, but you have to take initiative.’ Image Ton Toemen

‘By chance, a classmate of mine was accepted at Tilburg. The study program appealed to me, and I was able to get a full scholarship. I had to, because as a non-European a study costs between €10,000 and €12,000. Moreover, I found the Netherlands a very interesting country.’

Can you explain that?

For a small country, the standard of living is impressive. Everything is well organized; the streets are clean and tidy. In Perm there was no asphalt around the flat, you sometimes walked through the mud. Here, when I see people throwing garbage on the street, I feel they don’t appreciate their environment.

‘In this country you can get everything, but you don’t get it as a gift, you have to take initiative. For example, if you want to get a PhD while there is no vacancy, it makes sense to inquire about it anyway, who knows, maybe there is a spot for you after all. In the Netherlands you can work in a safer and more relaxed way.

‘As an employee you have rights because of the unions. And if you lose your job you get an unemployment benefit. In Russia, if you criticize, you get fired in an instant. Here you get more room for negotiation.’

Did you have to get used to that?

‘Absolutely. In the Netherlands, if you disagree with your professor or have feedback, you can indicate it; professors sometimes even welcome it. In Russia, that is not an option. If my classmates didn’t find a topic in class useful, the program was changed. Students here are treated like customers, with respect. Lecturers try to tailor the program to their needs, as if they were an audience the university should serve.’

Is that only positive?

‘No, because now that I am on the other side as a lecturer, I find that sometimes students are too demanding, as if I have nothing else to do. If I give them a deadline, they sometimes hand it in later, with a lame excuse. Then I think: we had an agreement, didn’t we? Should I start giving you punishment now? In your future job, no one is going to wait for you if you don’t hand in an assignment. Then they will find someone else to do your work.’

How do you deal with that?

‘It depends on the relationship I have with such a group of students. If it happens once in a while, I try to accommodate them and still give feedback so they learn something. But if I notice that they only show up to get a six, or if they break the rules more often, it’s not my fault if I give them a low grade.’

To what extent did your background play a role in your choice to study management and organizational sciences?

‘I was quite business-minded as a kid. At 14, I was selling sneakers that I ordered from America because in Russia you could hardly get cool sneakers. I still do some drop shipping from time to time. I always wanted a high management position with a company, just like my parents.

‘Because if you can implement a new strategy as a manager, you can hire more staff, and you become better than your competition. I believe that you can improve people’s lives only if there is competition. This applies not only to the market economy, but also to the working individual.

‘If you criticize in Russia, you are seen as a traitor’

‘Competition forces us to perform better, but in Russia it was lacking. With the privatization of state ownership in the 1990s, many people became owners of large companies without having a background in that field. Then you saw that such a company was not run efficiently at all.’

What is your plan for the future?

‘Right now, my main goal is to obtain a PhD. I’m researching emissions trading within the European Union, where polluting companies are allowed to offset their emissions with the purchase of emission rights. I am considering working in that field or beyond as a market analyst or consultant because I doubt I want to stay in academia. In academia, projects are long term, so you don’t always feel like you’re making an impact.’

Would you ever want to return to Russia?

‘Right now that chance is one in a million. If I go back now I will probably be called up for military service. They can check your phone at the border, and once they see that you’ve clicked on a news item critical of the current government, you could be in trouble.

‘Indeed, if someone on the subway looks over your shoulder and sees that you have a Ukrainian flag on your phone, they can easily call the police and claim that you are a Ukrainian spy. And as soon as I say something wrong, I get fined or put in jail. The current political regime is killing its opponents.

‘But I do not want to hide what I think. I will never say I am pro-Putin because I am not. But as soon as you say that or criticize, you are seen as a traitor. Many people are crazy right now; they can’t think critically anymore. They only repeat the message they get from TV.

‘The West is supposedly against them, they think they are fighting NATO in Ukraine, and that Ukrainians are Nazis, all that kind of nonsense. As soon as you try to engage in conversation about that they become aggressive.’

How is that for your parents now?

‘They cannot speak out; it is too dangerous. Russia is a pretty toxic environment. It is normal there to judge others and interfere in other people’s lives. A bit like older people, who think they are always right. Of course you should respect older people, but that doesn’t mean they are smarter than you. They often suffer from tunnel vision, whereas an open mind is important just now.

‘In Russia, for example, many people are homophobic. The international LGBTQ movement has been listed as a terrorist organization. Before the war, Europeans were very concerned about the rights of minority groups in Russia, but they looked at it from a Western perspective, without taking the context into consideration.

‘I mean, when you have a society where there is no democracy, where there is massive corruption, and where you are persecuted and oppressed for your political opinions, the rights of the LGBTQ community are really the least of your concerns. Which does not mean that nothing should be done about the problems of that group. Of course you should continue to speak out about that.’

What are your fond memories of your childhood in Russia?

‘Those mostly have to do with nature. I love winter, it can be minus 40 degrees. With my father, I often went cross-country skiing in the forest. In the summer, we went to my grandparents’ house in the country, to swim in the lake and have a barbecue. I miss the mountains, and our summer house, with the sauna. But if I went there now, it wouldn’t be the same.’

What did it cost you to leave your homeland?

‘I have less contact with my parents; I haven’t been home since 2021. Last year I saw my parents in Turkey, and I met my mother and grandmother last summer in Georgia, where many Russians moved to after the war. I try to keep in touch with my closest friends, but that also brings disappointment.

‘It made me feel safer to become a Dutch citizen’

‘I find it painful to see that some are now on the other side of the barricade, actually on the wrong side of history. That’s how it happened with one of my friends from Perm. All his friends are pro-war, without them he is on his own. I don’t want to break the connection, but actually I don’t want contact with him either because it makes me angry and sad.

‘It is difficult for people to rebel because when you are the only one around you who has his eyes open, it is easier to remain silent. That makes people depressed.’

Do you feel tension when you meet someone from Ukraine on campus?

‘No way, my girlfriend is Ukrainian, and I am friendly with several Ukrainians. That does surprise me; I expected people to react negatively, especially if they fled here. When your homeland is destroyed and your family is massacred, I don’t expect you to treat me kindly.

‘When the war broke out I was scared though because some people said all Russians should be sent back. I thought: suppose if universities cut ties with Russia, what will happen to me? After all, you can’t choose where you are born. Sometimes I noticed that people didn’t know what to say to me. Maybe they doubted which side I was on.

‘When I wanted to rent this apartment two years ago and the landlord asked where I was from, there was a very uncomfortable silence for a while. But I got a lease anyway. By now I see myself partly as a Dutchman. I know the culture, I speak Dutch reasonably well, and since May 2023, I have a Dutch passport.’

Why did you want to become a Dutch citizen?

‘It made me feel safer, also because of the current political climate here, and it makes it easier for me to travel. It was a logical move because I feel in place here.’

Do you feel more Dutch than Russian?

‘Yes, I have a kind of identity crisis because I no longer consider myself 100 percent Russian, although I still speak Russian regularly. I miss little of Russia, my life is here now. Once in a meeting, when I disagreed with my superiors, just constructively critical so to speak, one of them, a Dutchman, said, ‘It’s clear you’ve been here for a while Maksim, you sound like a cheesehead!”

ABOUT MAKSIM SITNIKOV (Perm, Russia, 1997)

2014 – 2016 Eastern Mediterranean International School (EMIS)
2016 – 2019 BSc Global Management of Social Issues, Tilburg University
2017 – 2019 Outreach Honors Program, Tilburg University
2018 – 2021 Student assistant, Tilburg University
2019 – 2021 ReMa, Social and Behavioral Sciences (Organization Studies track), Tilburg University
2021 – present PhD candidate and junior lecturer, Department of Organization Studies, Tilburg University

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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