Alumnus Pjotr Sauer is a Russia affairs correspondent for the Guardian

Pjotr Sauer UCU Alumnus '15
Pjotr Sauer

Alumnus Pjotr Sauer has not been sitting still after his time at University College Utrecht. Today, being a Russia affairs correspondent for the Guardian, he looks back fondly on his UCU experience. Pjotr, who graduated in 2015, remembers his time on our campus like it was yesterday. We talk to Pjotr about his years at University College Utrecht, his educational and professional journey and his current job in a tumultuous period.

Pjotr, what did you do after UCU?

After University College Utrecht, I was accepted to the Russian and Post-Soviet Politics Masters in London at University College London (UCL). I decided to postpone the master’s by one year, though, and did two internships that year, mostly to get some real life experience; one at the Dutch Embassy in Baku and one at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an international organisation based in The Hague.

After that, I moved to London and did the master’s programme at UCL. There I focussed on one region and topic, which I found interesting. I started working for a political risk consultancy company, but while there, I realised that consultancy wasn’t really for me, and journalism was something I wanted to try. 

I moved to Moscow and started to work for the Moscow Times. Around five months ago, I moved to the Guardian, a British daily newspaper. Officially, I am based in Moscow, but when the war started, I had to leave. I moved to Amsterdam and will live here for now. I hope to go back at some point, but when remains unclear.

How do you look back on your time at University College Utrecht?

I had a great time at UCU. Especially for journalism, I think it is really useful to pick different subjects and get a broad and interdisciplinary programme. As a journalist, you have to be able to tap into any topic and try to understand it. That is why it is so important to have that background in different disciplines. 

Additionally, the intensity of the work at the College is quite high. The rigour forces you to learn how to handle deadlines, another thing that is very useful for journalism. There are always deadlines, and very often no time to postpone. 

Of course socially, UCU was fantastic, too. I made really good friends and I still keep in touch with them. Campus was very engaging, sometimes maybe even too engaging. There was always something going on there. This constant liveliness on campus also helped me develop some useful skills for journalism, because you always have to meet new people and talk to people from different perspectives and backgrounds.

Especially for journalism, I think it is really useful to pick different subjects and get a broad and interdisciplinary programme.

Were there also things that you didn’t like?

I didn’t like that I didn’t really get to know Utrecht as a city. But that was partially also up to me. I did go to Amsterdam a lot. If I could go back I would definitely explore Utrecht more. 

Campus can feel a bit overwhelming and like the centre of the world. I started, together with a few other people from UCU, a football team outside of the College. I think we were the first ones to do so and it ran for 2 to 3 years. Every Sunday we played around the region against other local teams. This was a nice way to get off campus. So if you are, for example, into sports, you can always join a local community. Don’t be scared. This way you will both get some off campus time and also meet new people. 

Is there anything in particular you learned at University College Utrecht that you still benefit from today, both professionally and personally?

At the College, your brain gets challenged to do one subject and, within an hour, switch to another. You have to be able to make a switch of perspective, of focus. I think that is really what journalism is often about as well. Now, I am mostly writing about the war, but usually, I might write about very different topics. One day I could be writing a cultural piece and then the next day it could be a very mercenary story.

I think University College Utrecht was very useful for developing this skill. Obviously, the writing there was great. You always have to write essays and papers and that's the same with journalism; you just have to keep on writing. I also improved my writing and English skills. And socially the College helps facilitate talking to and getting in contact with people from many different backgrounds.

And socially the College helps facilitate talking to and getting in contact with people from many different backgrounds.

Did University College Utrecht change you as a person?

I had quite an international background from attending a United World College (UWC), so I was already used to being exposed to international backgrounds and different perspectives. But it was important for me to continue that path. I went to Durham University but dropped out to go to University College Utrecht because I was missing the diversity offered by international schools and places like UCU. The College helped me to develop as a person and widen my interests.

Do you have any advice for our current students?

After studying at University College Utrecht, it is a good idea to specialise in something. The College is great for getting a broad understanding, but it is important to try to find your specialty that suits your skills and interests. I can only talk about journalism of course, but if you decide to go into that field, go and try to find your specialty. Whether you do it through a master, a job or an internship, that’s completely up to you. But, just really try to find something that you know more about or something that interests you more than others. 

In my case, I was really focussing on Russia, because I knew the language and I was brought up there, which turned it into my passion. From there you can also write about other places or things.

How do you find out what your subject is?

After all the courses you take, you will see what you like most. You are probably the best at the things you enjoy most and the things you are most interested in. My advice would be to focus on these things and make sure you really get to know them. Don’t do something only because you think it will make you more employable.

My advice would be to focus on these things and make sure you really get to know them. Don’t do something only because you think it will make you more employable.

Is journalism what you thought you would be doing when you look back?

Honestly, I never thought I would be a journalist because I did not think I was good enough for it. But my curiosity and intuition have helped in developing my skills in this profession. In the end, I decided to not be afraid and just go for it. Luckily, you can learn a lot of things on the job as well, as long as you have the intuition for it. Especially with journalism, it is all about curiosity and intuition. So if you have those two skills, you can always learn how to write better. 

That is also what is great about University College Utrecht. Even if you do not know what you really want to do yet, the end of your time there is not the end of the world. It is just about knowing what you find interesting.

Was there also any subject that you didn’t like?

Some of the science stuff, like Earth and Environment, was not really for me. I was not very good at statistics either. The good thing about University College Utrecht and its broad and interdisciplinary nature is that you get exposed to different subjects. You do not know if you like something until you try it. For example, I did not know what anthropology was but took a class and absolutely loved it. I am still not the biggest fan of science but was happy that I was able to be exposed to it and would be even happier to try a statistics course again now, because I think statistics is actually quite useful, even more for journalists.

Considering the circumstances you are living in now, is everything ok with you?

It has been quite hectic because I had to leave my house and a lot of people I care about behind in Moscow. Luckily, my girlfriend came along from Russia. We left with a suitcase. It is quite worrisome that I do not know when I can get back to Moscow. Right now it is just not safe for journalists. But at the same time, I at least have a place in Amsterdam to go; my life is not that bad compared to people living in Ukraine now. Other than that, I have just been crazily busy. I never worked as hard as I do now. Every day I’m doing stories. It gives me purpose, and it feels rewarding, but it can also be very tiring. So, hopefully the war ends as soon as possible, and we can all get some rest.

Thank you for what you’re doing. Journalism is often under threat, but so important. 

Yes, journalism is often undervalued. It is not an easy position to be in. But moments like these remind us why we need it. 

More information

Pjotr Sauer is a Russia affairs correspondent for the Guardian. His work can also be found in The Moscow Times, The Telegraph and Het Parool. He has been a guest on the BBC, NOS, and Al Jazeera, among other outlets. Follow him  on Twitter @pjotrsauer.