Student Awards

'Suddenly the media were on my doorstep’

Niels Drost, nominated for the Best Master's Thesis Award in 2022, researched Putin's speeches. Photo: Anna Loh

It certainly doesn't happen to every recent graduate, but picture this: after several lonely months of working hard on your thesis, something happens in the world that draws everyone's attention to your work.

That's exactly what happened to Niels Drost, whose dissertation Tsarstruck demonstrates how Vladimir Putin utilises Russian history, especially that of the tsars, to serve his political agenda.

Some four weeks after he handed in the final version of the thesis to his supervisor, Distinguished Professor Beatrice de Graaf, Russia invaded Ukraine. “I spent months making an effort to get the attention of my parents and girlfriend, and suddenly the media were on my doorstep," says the UU alumnus, who has been invited to react live to one of Putin's speeches on the Dutch TV show EenVandaag. He also gave an interview to the newspaper Algemeen Dagblad and was a guest at a radio broadcast by RTV Utrecht.

At that time, Drost already had a part-time research contract which had him working three days a week at Clingendael, an institute for international relations. He was promoted to a full-time position in no time because of the war.

Now, he’s supporting his close colleague Bob Deen, who has become the main commentator on the war in Ukraine on Dutch media. But he is still asked to talk about his dissertation often. "This feels crazy. It's fun, but also very cynical to feel this way considering the war is what led to it."

The tsars as a weapon
In his thesis, Drost argues that, at first, Putin’s many referrals to Russia's grandiose History were only meant to inspire the population, making people proud to be Russian following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout the years, however, the Russian president started to use that rhetoric as a "weapon" to justify his power aspirations.

In his thesis, Drost also shows how Putin becomes more and more radical in his statements about Ukraine. "At first, he spoke of Ukraine as a brotherly nation, but later on he started arguing that the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the Belarusians actually form a single nation, so the state of Ukraine had no right to exist.”

Nevertheless, Drost was "shocked" when Putin decided to invade the neighbouring country. “Based on his statements you could say that something like that was already in the offing, but I really didn’t expect him to do it for no apparent reason. At the same time, this demonstrates the importance of my thesis: let’s pay attention to what political leaders are saying. History cannot be predicted, but leaders can put their money where their mouth is.”

History 2.0
Drost also owes his nomination for the student award to a new research method he used. Using a code he wrote himself, he managed to scrape 20,000 of Putin's speeches and statements from the Kremlin's website. He acquired that skill through YouTube tutorials. Thanks to a specialisation in Russian Studies in Leiden and an exchange in Yekaterinburg, Russia, he has enough understanding of the Russian language to read the texts.

Reading everything would be simply undoable, of course. That’s why he let another programme search the texts for keywords having to do with the Russian tsaristic past. “Handling the material this way is a rather new way of practising history. Beatrice de Graaf calls it ‘History 2.0’”

The results were overwhelming. “I was expecting Putin to refer to the glorious tsaristic past a lot, but it turned out to be much, much more often than I’d thought,” says the graduate.

Although he is now busy with other things, Drost is still following Putin’s statements. "Many people say Putin's main reason for invading Ukraine is "denazifying" the country, since the Kremlin has frequently brought this out. But that’s nonsense, a smokescreen. His imperialist ambitions are probably much more important. This is evident when he makes comparisons with Peter the Great's foundation of St Petersburg on territory that had been conquered from the Swedes."

Alongside Beatrice de Graaf, Drost is currently working on a scientific publication based on his research. On UU’s intranet, people are also saying he has enough material for a PhD research. But that's something Drost still has to think about. “For now, I think it’s fantastic that I can work at Clingendael. But who knows what the future holds.”

In this video, Drost explains what he's learned from his thesis research:

Human being
But Niels Drost is not the only nominee for this year's Best Master's Thesis Award, of course. Chiara Lacroix and Sophie ten Rietbrink have also been selected by the jury, out of 26 entries. A post on UU’s website explains what their dissertations are about.

Lacroix finished her Master’s degree in History & Philosophy of Science with a thesis examining the historical development of the concept of "human being," with a focus on thoughts about human reproduction. Lacroix is currently a PhD candidate in Florence. 

Ten Rietbrink completed a Master’s in Climate Physics with a thesis conducted on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean, where scientists were analysing the spread of nano plastics. She stood out by creatively improving research methods and bypassing the limitations of the equipment. She managed to get results for saltwater samples using a freshwater installation in the lab. Ten Rietbrink is now a PhD candidate in Stockholm.

Autism, refugee, and undesired behaviour
This year, there are also three contenders for the award of best administrative or social initiative. The nominees were chosen out of five entries. 

Renate Bosman, a Bachelor's student in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, works for the Platform Studying Without Limitations. She knows how important it is for a university to be inclusive because she is autistic and dyslectic herself. That's why she conducts research into how the university can help students with autism. Last but not least, as a member of the Interpersonal Integrity Committee, she aims to guarantee a safe space for everyone.

Kimia Milani Sabzewar, a Master's student in Medicine, set up the Abadi Foundation to support refugees from Afghanistan, providing activities and language courses for children in refugee centres. She's also a member of Coding, a student collective committed to a healthcare system that attends to the needs of patients from different cultures.

The Gelijkspel Foundation is an initiative by students Marloes Lucas Luycks, Lotte Toet, Giulia Hietink, and Isa Steijn. They aim to improve notions about sexuality among students. Their activities include providing information about sexual manners to student associations (fraternities and sororities). The foundation is now active in several university cities in the Netherlands.

The winners of the two awards will be announced at the ceremony to officially start the academic year, which is taking place today, September 5, in the Dom church. You can watch the ceremony's live stream here. The winners will get a certificate and a 1,500-euro prize. They will also be invited for a dinner after the ceremony, alongside other invitees.