Russia correspondent Eva Hartog: ‘Return to the Netherlands? No way!’
Russia correspondent Eva Hartog took a Master’s in Political Philosophy in Leiden in 2011. This former editor-in-chief of The Moscow Times sees this short period as a new chapter in her life. And she is once again contemplating her future now she can no longer ask the big questions in Russia.
We meet at a crossroads in her life. In March the former editor-in-chief of The Moscow Times, Eva Hartog, fled her home in Moscow for Tbilisi in Georgia where she has lived ever since.
That she would ever fall for the biggest country in the world wasn’t something she had ever envisaged. She dismisses her parents’ influence, even though the connection is obvious. Her mother fled the Soviet Union in the early 1980s and became an interpreter – she sat in on the discussions between Mikhail Gorbachev and Rudd Lubbers in 1986. And anyone with a copy of the Dutch translations of Konstantin Paustovsky’s work from Van Oorschot Publishers’ Russian collection on their bookshelves will see that Eva’s father Wim is the translator.
‘In hindsight, it’s tempting to make a logical puzzle of your path in life. But Russia never crossed my mind for a moment. My parents didn’t push me in any direction and my upbringing was loving and passionate, but free. I had to work lots of things out for myself. And my mother didn’t want to hear about Russia. She called it a wretched country. So I only heard snatches of her mother tongue. And my father? As a superspecialist in Paustovsky’s work he once came out of his study crying: ‘I’ve spent all day on a sentence, and I’ve got it!’ After which an enthusiastic explanation followed. So language has been a topic via my father, but not Russian in particular.’
‘My father made a big effort to keep my brother and me connected to the Netherlands.’
The family moved from Amsterdam to Tenerife in 1994 and the children ended up at a provincial British school. ‘My father made a big effort to keep my brother and me connected to the Netherlands. We had Dutch books shoved under our noses – which we generally didn’t read.’ Her light English accent still betrays a British background. ‘At the age of six I suddenly found myself in a very strict British environment. I didn’t understand the language and to feel less lost I’d sneak into the small school library. I read Little House on the Prairie as well as For Whom the Bell Tolls: totally unsuitable for children but I didn’t understand what it was about.’
In Tenerife Eva discovered another language: she became addicted to the violin. ‘In the summer holidays, when everyone was playing outside, I’d spend six hours a day practising my scales. And when we visited the Netherlands – which didn’t happen very often because we don’t have much family here – I stayed behind in the house in the dunes with my violin.’ For a while it looked as though she would go to a conservatoire. ‘But I was like a wild animal, loved sports and wanted to experience all life has to offer. I took some lessons with the acclaimed violin teacher Coosje Wijzenbeek, who brought Janine Jansen to the world stage. It soon became clear that I wasn’t serious enough.’
Her Dutch passport opened the door to Liberal Arts and Sciences at University College Utrecht. ‘In the mid-noughties that was the only English-taught university degree in the Netherlands.’ Along the way Eva discovered that she wanted to ponder the big questions: what is autonomy? What is authenticity? After her bachelor’s degree in Utrecht, the road was open to elitist Oxford or London. She hoped. ‘To me, those universities were the holiest of them all. Any self-respecting person would want to go there, right?’
The reality threw cold water on her plans: as the banking crisis hit in 2008, Eva was unable to find a job that would earn her the money she needed for such a master’s. ‘Tempo Team rejected me as a postwoman.’ She was a property guardian in Zaandam and ended up working at a car alarm centre for the minimum wage. ‘I asked myself in despair: “Is this what my life has come to?” A real freak-out moment.’
In 2010, she came across the Master’s in Political Philosophy in Leiden, another English-taught programme. She enrolled straight away. ‘The master’s only took eight months and I didn’t have many contact hours. There was hardly any time to get to know the city properly either. From the station I went directly to the Pieter de la Court building and with my study friends we usually ended up on the terrace at Van der Werff.’
But she has fond memories of this short period: ‘What began as an exercise in humility, also felt safe and culminated in inspiring exchanges with lecturers and students about questions that really matter. I immersed myself in Taylor and Kymlicka and compared texts by thinkers who fundamentally disagree with one another. If you ask me, Leiden could have lasted much longer. What I took away from it? That your ideas about learning and acquiring knowledge are not necessarily true. There are different ways of doing it.’
A few years later, just when she seemed to have her life on track, she took a radical step, the one her mother had once taken in the other direction. ‘I had a relationship, a flat in Amsterdam and a job as a managing editor at a start-up, but I didn’t feel happy, away from the big questions I had developed a taste for in Leiden.’ When she chanced upon a vacancy for an internship at The Moscow Times she responded on an impulse. She hadn’t seen the editor-in-chief’s reaction coming: ‘Looking at your CV, we can see you’re not suitable for an internship. But we’d like to offer you a job as an online editor.’
She packed her bags and left: ‘It may have felt destructive to others but to me it was a unique opportunity for a new professional start. I was lonely to start with but the juices began to flow again. I realised that despite not having a Master’s in Slavic Languages from Oxford – unlike some colleagues – I could keep my head above water just fine. My Russian improved by leaps and bounds. And I found myself back at my neighbour’s kitchen table discussing issues that I’d only really dwelt on in an abstract way until then. Like: if Putin wins the elections, is that a democratic result? Many Russians completely shut themselves off from politics and don’t see themselves as political beings with a political say. What does that do to a society?’
As time passed, she began to wonder about her own links to this country. ‘My mother was nervous about my decision and we still didn’t speak much about Russia. But I suddenly saw people around me with her traits, realising that she and I are like peas in a pod. I began asking her questions about her childhood: for instance, if she had ever been to the 9 May celebrations. And then – and this must have been painful – she opened up.
‘She said: “On Victory Day we went to the park with your granddad, his uniform full of decorations.” And she told me about my great-grandfather, who was arrested in 1937 on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Stalin. His family fled from Moscow to the Donbas; my mother fled the Donbas later for the Netherlands and I had to pack my bags quickly in March this year. This repeating departure has something of an intergenerational déjà vu. I’m currently working on a book about my great-grandfather Fyodor.’
Back to her years in Moscow. Hartog was soon allowed to write reports and features on the editorial staff of The Moscow Times, and when founder Derk Sauer bought the paper in 2017, she was offered the job of editor-in-chief. Her star also rose in the Netherlands, as a Russia correspondent for De Groene Amsterdammer and RTL and as a table guest on De Wereld Draait Door. In her feature stories she prefers to stay close to the experience of ordinary people and is often a strong presence as a first-person narrator.
‘The weird thing is that I’ve only been writing in Dutch for a few years. And to be honest I struggle with it. I structure my sentences very carefully and open the translation app to check the exact meaning of words and sayings. In my head all the languages flow together before I make a translation. I interview in Russian and often think in English. Maybe then you come up with fresh new constructions and metaphors.’
‘When I was sitting in the courtroom during the Navalny trial, I thought: “We can’t sink any lower.” But we did.’
With its law against ‘fake news’, Russia has made writing about the war impossible. Hartog chose to continue reporting from Georgia. She’s barely had time to deal with her sadness at leaving. ‘Russians who left for Europe or Georgia have seen their lives collapse: they had to leave their work, family and possessions behind. And Ukrainians have lost everything, sometimes even loved ones. In comparison my sadness is nothing.’
As a journalist she wants to keep her emotions in check, but it continues to be unreal: ‘I arrived in Russia just after the protests in 2011 and 2012 against Putin’s re-election. Until recently there were national grassroots organisations that could freely express dissent. And journalists could also do their work reasonably well, even if cracks did begin to appear in the past year. When I was sitting in the courtroom during the Navalny trial, I thought: “We can’t sink any lower.” But we did.’
She reflects: ‘I’ve always been committed to writing impartially about the rich and varied Russian experience. I was never one for doom and gloom headlines at the top of articles. Told you so, my mother could say now, but she doesn’t. We talk a lot about the dramatic fate of Ukrainians and Russians.’
Hartog is thinking about her own future. The plight of Russian refugees in Georgia is no longer headline news. So what now? Back to the Netherlands? ‘Definitely not. Russia is so important, the Russians are so intense and the questions so fundamental. Now I’m used to that scale, the Netherlands isn’t an option. I can only escalate, but how? A life without Russia?’ She is now toying with the idea of going to Latin America.
This article previously appeared in Leidraad alumni magazine (in Dutch).
Text: Fred Hermsen
Photos: Taco van der Eb