In July, INC has published a new 44th edition of Theory on Demand, called Dispatches from Ukraine: Tactical Media Reflections and Responses, which includes the following piece. Order a physical copy or download the whole publication free of charge here.
In this text I introduce two initiatives by a collective of scholars and activists from across Europe in response to the Russian war in Ukraine :
- A plan for the University of New Europe (UNE) – a new university with ample space for scholars, students, and cultural workers at risk from, firstly, Ukraine and, secondly, Belarus and Russia; and
- A spin-off of this project – the Akno/UNE mentor programme, which targets the same groups of students and colleagues.
In my role as Professor of Slavic studies at the University of Amsterdam, I have been a part of both initiatives from the start – but both are collective projects, which would be unthinkable without the efforts of colleagues, students, and institutions whom I introduce in some more detail below.
UNE – the University of New Europe – is an initiative that historian Alexander Etkind (Central European University, Vienna) and Jan Claas Behrends (WZB Berlin Social Science Center/Viadrina European University Frankfurt) founded in June 2021. Frustrated by protest repressions in Belarus and Russia, Etkind, Behrends and I wrote an open letter to the EU and its member states, in which we plead for more porous borders and humanitarian visas for critical thinkers from Belarus and Russia; plus for a new university in response to the acute risk that an increasing number of critical Russians and Belarusians were facing. We ended the letter with the following call for action:
Relying on the successful experience of such transnational institutions of higher learning
as the European University Institute, Central European University, the European University Viadrina Frankfurt, the European Humanities University, College of Europe, and CIVICA (an alliance of eight European universities in social sciences), we need to create a new East European University located in one of the member-states of the EU. We … welcome public and private initiatives aimed at funding and hosting such an institution of higher education. It will provide new opportunities for those who were fired, repressed and forced to leave their homes, and also for those who wish to learn and study according to high European standards. We will commit our intellectual resources, experience, and leadership to creating such a university.
The letter was signed by fifty high-profile scholars and thinkers, including world-renowned philosophers (such as Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek), cultural and media theorists (such as Mieke Bal, Marianne Hirsch, Boris Groys and Geert Lovink), journalists (such as Masha Gessen and Zhanna Nemtsova), and writers (such as Dmitry Bykov, Lev Rubinstein, and Nobel Prize Winner Olga Tokarczuk), among others. We published translations of this letter across different European media, including Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Corriere della Sera, and Swedish Morgenbladet.
Our open letter marked the launch of the University of New Europe. Since the autumn of 2021, an international steering group of seven scholars and activists from Western and Eastern Europe has been actively lobbying for the creation of this institution. As a group, we assert that Europe – not Eastern Europe, but Europe as a whole – is confronting new challenges, which are not limited to but include:
- A new war in the heart of Europe
- Climate crisis and environmental degradation
- Migration and humanitarian crises
- Expanding and sophisticated authoritarianism
- The enormous complexity of the post-pandemic Green Deal .
We are convinced that in response to these crisises, we need a new educational and scholarly space for shared learning, research and dialogue – one that “provides the soft power necessary to explore and respond to these challenges.” With this aim in mind, the new institution needs teaching programs in which academics, artists, journalists, activists, artists, designers and NGO representatives cooperate actively, and in which the need to address pressing societal challenges is built in from the start. Of course existing universities–particularly those transnational spaces of higher education that we mentioned in our open letter – also actively address these challenges. But even when taken as a whole, Europe’s existing higher education system simply cannot harbor the vast amounts of critical students, academics, and cultural workers who are currently in need of new homes, and new places to think freely.
In our open letter, we called for an ‘East European University’ – but with time, we moved away from the idea of an exclusively Eastern-European institution towards a vision of a more transnational shared space of learning, research and dialogue. Within this space, we will welcome students and staff members from across different world localities. But in view of recent illiberalization developments, we do believe that the new institution needs to allocate a substantial number of places – say, fifty to sixty percent – to scholars, students, and cultural workers who are at risk. Firstly, this group includes Ukrainian colleagues and students, whom the Russian war in Ukraine has placed in acute or life-threatening danger, and who should currently be prioritized when filling at-risk positions. Secondly, we will create positions for Belarusian and Russian colleagues and students who now face the risk of persecution for
political reasons. Last but far from least, we plan to allocate part of the at-risk positions to students and staff from outside Europe. With this last step, we offer at least a modest response to the current dearth of options for this large and underprioritized group of colleagues and students in need; but it also helps to prevent the creation of a Eurocentric institution and to amplify inclusive, globally oriented spaces for knowledge-building.
The war has ramped up the logistic pace of our work on UNE. Our steering group is currently conducting conversations about six draft MA programs with colleagues from Latvia, where the initiative has active support from the mayor of Riga, multiple Latvian parliamentarians, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. At the same time, UNE is a university in the making – and making a university is no quick-and-dirty task. There are several, particularly financial, hurdles to be overcome before we can speak of an actual Latvian or other physical institution. At the moment, we are patiently tackling those hurdles one by one, with support from the German Slavic Association, the Akademische Netzwerk Osteuropa, the Dutch Young Academy, the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies, the University of Amsterdam, and the Institute of Network Cultures, among a broader and steadily growing range of institutions and individuals who have gracefully agreed to help us in realizing our plans.
The UNE mentor program
The University of New Europe, in short, is a long-term project. An ambitious – some would say megalomaniac – plan like this cannot be realized without cautious long-term logistic planning and detailed work on ethical and moral challenges. How, for one, does one responsibly unite Ukrainian and Russian students and scholars around the same table, at a time when more than one expert voice claims that this is impossible in times of war? This process takes time – and when the Russian war in Ukraine reached a new gear in February 2022, we were increasingly worried that we could not offer instant support at a time that which support is needed so urgently. The UNE team then decided that, alongside our work on a physical institution, we also needed to create shorter-term solutions to provide emergency support, and to focus at least part of attention on making it easier for people to find and make use of existing opportunities. With this aim in mind, we created the so-called Akno/UNE mentoring programme, in partnership with Akno, a German Eastern-Europe association that safeguards academic freedom.
The Akno/UNE mentor programme connects at-risk students, scholars, cultural workers, and artists from, most importantly, Ukraine, as well as from Belarus and Russia to experienced professionals from elsewhere. With this programme, we try to act as matchmakers between these two groups and to offer personal mentors to at-risk students and colleagues. In our introductory message, we provide each mentor/mentee pair with a link to our resource list – an interactive survey of available options for the purposes of fleeing, emergency relief, shelter, or fellowships.
The idea behind the Akno/UNE mentor programme is simple. Mentors are asked to schedule a series of online meetings with their mentees. Ideally, at the first meeting, mentees share their concerns and wishes or needs; the mentors then use the resource list, their network connections, and/or their skills with grant or application writing to help formulate the best scenario for their mentee. This can mean jointly concluding that there are no options at the moment – in which case the mentor connection can still be a useful lifeline or form of moral support. It can also mean jointly discussing and exploring options to relocate, or exploring remote support options (these options are important for Ukrainian academics or cultural workers, many of whom want to continue their work without leaving Ukraine).
In addition to the resource list, we offer regular mentor/mentee consult hours to advise participants on the process of mentorship. At an upcoming consult hour, a certified psychologist has been asked to share some relevant links and advice, for instance.
Together with the Leiden-based slavist and cultural historian Dorine Schellens and a team of nine assistants and volunteers, we have currently paired about 450 people in the programme (225 mentees and 225 mentors) . A small-scale evaluation showed us that the mentor connection has made a tangible positive difference to the professional futures of several mentees. At the same time, we are encountering various obstacles, ranging from a lack of academic options available for scholars from Russia and Ukraine to failures of communication between mentors and mentees (where those occur, we offer mentees a new connection).
We welcome new mentees – and those who are reading this who have experience with grant writing and who want to support a colleague or student in need, are also welcome to visit our site and register as a mentor . If you choose to join our mentor project, we thank you in advance for your costly time and efforts. Please also keep an eye out for news about the University of New Europe. We hope to soon start attracting donations, and the new institution can use all the help and support that committed professionals are willing to offer.
 I thank Maria-Laetizia von Bibra for assisting me in finalizing this text.
 “Open letter: we need a new university for eastern Europe,” June 2021, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/open-letter-we-need-new-university-eastern-europe/
 The citation comes from our website, https://neweurope.university.
 Resources for Academics and Cultural Workers at Risk (crowdsourced and updated daily): https://
 Special thanks go to Maria-Laetizia von Bibra, Julie Haverd, Kirstine Arentoft Kristensen, Mari Janssen, and Margarita Shaburova for their work on the Akno/UNE mentor programme
 https://neweurope.university; for historical context, also see https://overdemuur.org/de-oorlog- in-oekraine-als-kenniscrisis-hoe-kunnen-we-steun-en-solidariteit-bieden-aan-academische- gemeenschappen-in-nood/ (in Dutch).