Elena, thank you for your availability for an interview with the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. German-Russian Exchange in St. Petersburg has existed virtually since the very moment, when Russia became independent. How is it going now? What are the perspectives?
Yes, indeed. German-Russian Exchange in St. Petersburg was established in 1992, just a few moments after the organisation with the same name had been founded in Berlin. Volunteers from Germany started implementing several social projects in St. Petersburg, and, as a result, a number of organisations and various initiatives evolved.
Of course, since then a plenty of projects and ideas have been implemented by the German-Russian Exchange. Today the organisation finds itself in a rather difficult transition situation. Since 2014, many NGOs involved in international activities in Russia have faced certain problems. As the international cooperation has always been one of the main objectives of the German-Russian Exchange, we also fell victim to the new policy and, in the end, were deprived of many of our activities.
However, talking about today, we are reviving, despite all the difficulties mentioned above, this time on other grounds. If previously we were largely dependent on international grants, now we are trying to develop completely new topics. For instance, we offer significantly more study tours nowadays, not only for foundations but also for European academies or universities.
Are these tours directed at Germany?
Mostly the other way round – from Germany and other countries to Russia, to St. Petersburg. We seek to develop this field of activities, because we would like to show Russia not only as it is imagined in a traditional or historical way but also a contemporary country, not only official Russia or Russia shown by journalists but also Russia that has been developing various civic initiatives and ideas, where a plenty of new developments emerge.
Now I understand why the next “Autumn Talks”, a German-Russian Exchange brand, will be dedicated to education. Please tell us more about this project, which will be taking place at the end of September in St. Petersburg.
Obviously, we are not only trying to bring someone from Europe but also to develop something related to Europe here in St. Petersburg. This is also connected to a not very positive trend of Russia’s self-isolation that we unfortunately observe. Three years ago, we organised the first “Autumn Talks” in St. Petersburg, which is essentially a brand of the German-Russian Exchange in Berlin that usually focuses on Russia. Here we did the opposite and switched the focus to Europe. The first question we asked ourselves was: ‘How Is Europe Changing?’ Last year we selected the topic “How Information Technologies Are Changing Europe”. This year, we decided to look at how education was changing in Europe, and this topic appeared not by accident. Through the interaction with the interested audience, it became clear to me that that was one of the topics many are concerned about. Many people are engaged in it one way or another, and each and everyone has something to do with it.
We will be discussing how the school, higher, further and civic education is changing in Europe. At the last discussion, we will strive to give an answer to what kind of education is needed in today’s world. It seems to me that the Russian audience will be interested in various dimensions of this topic. Although we can see what is going on in this field both in Russia and in Europe, not often we get a chance to reflect on it with good European experts representing different perspectives.
In St. Petersburg, we have a good educational event – the “Sklad Uma” (Mind Constitution) Marathon, but it has been always oriented inwards, to what is happening in the city. Obviously, universities establish partnerships and think about their development, but they rarely look at education from a broader European perspective. Besides, I am particularly interested in a popular trend in Russia – the so-called edutainment, which might be also related to the crisis of traditional university (and, perhaps, even school) education.
We have talked a lot about changes, in particular, in the field of education. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum has been also changing. A long process of discussing strategy, which will be soon presented to the Forum member organisations, has been going on. What are the new topics that appear in the strategy?
Indeed, we have been very seriously working at a new Forum strategy for the period 2020-2025. As a Board member, I am part of the working group that has been preparing a package of strategic documents. Since the previous strategy was designed for 2015-2018 and then – with minor changes – extended until 2020, it was oriented at a difficult period of conflict between EU and Russia, including the problems with civil society in Russia and some other countries in Europe, from the very beginning. However, back then, these trends were only emerging. Nowadays it becomes clear to us that they continue evolving and can stay with us for a longer period. That is why it is necessary to approach the issue in a completely different manner and to adequately assess our capacities.
In the recent years, new information and media technologies have been developed. A new generation of civic activists have grown up. New forms of civic initiatives have emerged, both in Russia and in European countries. The civil society as a whole is changing, it becomes more informal. All this poses certain challenges for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, since the Forum has been mainly working with traditional NGOs. And now many questions arise: How to adapt to a new reality? How not to lose ourselves in a constant flow of communications and in the world, which has been moving so fast? And we have been discussing such questions with regard to the strategy.
We already had some interesting exchanges during the General Assembly in May 2019 in Bratislava. Now we are trying to put all our thoughts into one document. Very soon, this document will be submitted for review to the Forum member organisations. It will contain plenty of closed and, most importantly, open questions, and we hope to receive a substantial feedback, detailed responses from Forum member organisations to be able to finalise the new strategy.
Elena Belokurova is Director at the German-Russian Exchange (St. Petersburg) and has been involved in educational projects and activities of the organisation since 2007 . She has been also working with the St. Petersburg State University and the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, where she has been a lecturer on European integration and civil society. She has been also involved in the research work related to the NGOs and civil society in Russia and Europe. She gathered a lot of experiences and expertise in cooperation between Russian and EU organisations – such as NGOs, universities, or research institutions. Elena is also a Board member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.