The situation of the Russian society is critical: Many intellectuals have left the country, supporting NGOs and other actors from the outside has become nearly impossible. How will the civil society in Russia carry on? In our interview Ekaterina Schulmann, currently a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, analyzes the current state of the Russian society and shares her hopes for a democratic shift in her home country.
You are one of the leading voices analyzing the Russian political system. Over a million people follow your expertise on YouTube alone. How did Russia's war against Ukraine change your position as an intellectual in this country?
Ekaterina Schulmann: When the war started, I was still in the country. I was experiencing the same hardships as my audience. The same fears. The same anxiety. The same universal pain. At first it seemed as if what had happened on February 24 has bereft everything I did of all its value. Like there was no longer any sense in teaching or speaking or writing. But the end of the world has not come yet. And whatever happens doesn’t free you from your duties. It just makes it more difficult to go on with them. When I left Russia I was not able to say much for quite a while but I did continue to monitor the developments in my field of study. Putting all human feelings aside, I must say for a scholar it’s an intensely interesting thing: a political system trying to transform itself in quite a revolutionary way without an actual revolution.
The Russian authorities listed you as a foreign agent in April 2022. How did this affect your life?
I can’t say that I was forced to flee the country as I was not directly threatened. I’m much more fortunate than many of my colleagues, because there has been – as far as I know – no criminal case opened against me. But of course, if the director of your university gets arrested and the police starts inquiries about a list of people and your name is on it – it makes you wonder what the next step will be. Being listed as a foreign agent prevents me from teaching in any state or municipal university and from doing any sort of educational activity with minors in Russia.
I was offered the Richard von Weizsäcker Fellowship by the Robert Bosch Stiftung in 2021. In April 2022 I decided to take it up and to leave Russia for a year. But I think that the whole tenor of my discourse with its stress on enlightenment and peaceful transformation of mores necessitates that I practice what I preach – that I live in the environment I describe. So, for me leaving was and will continue to be painful.
How has the decision to leave Russia impacted you?
It offers me a space to listen, speak and debate that would not have been possible in Russia. But I am in a position of comparative safety. I do not want to elaborate on it, but I think examples from recent political and criminal history show the fragility of this safety and how hard it is to hold states accountable. It’s an illusion that once you leave the country you are able to say and do whatever you want.
I do hope that my country will not be closed to me permanently, I have a great hope of going back under almost any circumstance except a direct physical threat to my life and freedom. But it’s difficult. I have already been afforded one administrative fine for failing to mark some of my social media publications with the “foreing agent” plank and the chance of getting another one is absolutely arbitrary. It can happen at any moment. The danger of this is that, according to the current Russian legislation, the third case can already be criminal and that means the actual blocking of my access to Russia. I would not like to make it this easy for the other side to close the door for me.
In April 2022 Schulmann was listed as a “foreign agent” by the Russian authorities. The foreign agent law requires people who receive “support” or are “under the influence” from outside Russia to declare themselves as “foreign agents”. Once registered they are subject to additional audits and threatened by high penalties for noncompliance. The law was labelled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.
Can you give us a glance into the Russian society: What is the political sentiment beyond the picture the Russian government paints?
There is a poll taken yearly by the Levada center which monitors what people are anxious about. Since 2019 when politically targeted repressions became more widespread, we have witnessed a substantial increase in the percentage of people who express fears of political nature. During the year of 2020 we experienced an increase of trust in political and social institutions such as regional and local authorities, the church, NGOs or businesses, but that was evidently the effect of the pandemic and turned to be short lived. In 2021 those levels declined again. A decline which was especially experienced by the President. He was the only political institution that has not benefited from the 2020 increase either. People even started preferring regional authorities over federal which is quite a new thing in the country.
So, at the beginning of the hostilities in 2022 the society was depoliticized, atomized, anxious and very much afraid of war and state repression. Interestingly the people’s fear of war has also experienced a transformation from 2018: from the fear of Russia being attacked from the outside to the fear of Russian authorities engaging in something that will provoke a war. In this environment it has been possible for the powers to make almost any decision without meeting any substantial protest. This kind of society was not able to mobilize - for better, for worse.
“The tremendous growth within the Russian civil society cannot be eliminated within six months - not even by targeted efforts of the repressive state.”
How does the Russian civil society carry on under the current circumstances?
Russian civil society looks and feels stupefied and frozen with horror at the moment. But specifically, the sector of NGOs has experienced tremendous growth during the last ten years. It cannot be eliminated in six months, not even by the targeted efforts of the repressive state. The organizations I know are still working. But they are doing so under tremendous pressure and under huge financial difficulties. For example, the main instruments to collect money like Instagram have been blocked and lots of people have stopped donating because they have less and less money themselves. Also, many NGO leaders have protested against the war at its start, and have been obliged to leave the country, their positions or both afterwards.
Eastern Europe, including Russia, used to be one of the foci of the Robert Bosch Stiftung. But the restrictions by the authorities have made it nearly impossible to support civil society actors. How can we support people in Russia promoting democratic values?
For the moment it is absolutely impossible to engage with people within the country without endangering their position. But you definitely can help those who want to leave. When inhabiting a new country, help may be offered for them to continue doing what they used to do. The immigrants of today should not be forced to repeat the experience of the immigrants of the hundred years ago, when writers and university professors and politicians became taxi drivers.
Even if it seems highly unlikely at the moment: How could a democratic transformation in Russia look like?
As a political scientist, I know that gradient transformations are the best. A country cannot reinvent itself from zero, but a democratic shift is not impossible. A substantial number of people believe in the values of democracy and uphold the Western type of political institutions - elections, parliaments and the accountability of power to the people. This might be a position which is considered state treason right now, but these people have not disappeared. A democratic transformation in Russia should take place from the grassroots rather than be enforced from above. The most widely supported democratic change would be the return of direct mayoral elections. This is where the transformation should start. I will not say that the rest will take care of itself. We definitely need a new constitution or amendments to the existing constitution. But beginning from the ground level is essential.
“For Mikhail Gorbachev people mattered more than ideas or state structures.”
Talking about democratic transformation, let us briefly turn to Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away last week. He was revered in the West, but rather disliked in the East. What memory of him would you like to preserve?
As a political scientist I know that empires, especially ideologically driven ones, tend to fall apart, and the dissolution is never bloodless. It may seem peaceful when seen from the capital, but the margins of the empire usually take the brunt of the centripetal movement. In such political periods glory is to the one who does not accelerate the level of violence, who tries to keep the blood price as low as historically possible. Gorbachev was essentially a humane person, for him people mattered more than ideas or state structures. This is a relatively rare trait among political leaders, and a stroke of pure luck for humanity in Gorbachev’s case.
As a person who grew up in Soviet Russia and went to school in 1985, I would like to keep forever the memory of turbulent years of change, the heated discussions of the grown-ups on political subjects, the flurry of magazines and newspapers that I also tried to read. These were impressionable years. Also, it’s impossible to forget such things as the creation of the school parliament which was championed by my mother, then a young deputy headmistress. I was the representative for classes below 7th, and the parliament used to have debates about the best way to run the school that lasted well into the night. It was the era when every next day brought down restrictions and prohibitions rather than bringing in new ones, like what we are used to in our epoch.
What strikes you most when talking to people about Russia in these days?
As a Russian citizen I have universally experienced great sympathy towards the country. I know that for a lot of people Russia is a country that draws them in. This love has received a blow for all of us. I have seen Russian colleagues trying to distance themselves from the political system committing such horrendous things. It’s very understandable. But my foreign colleagues, Russia watchers or analysts, have managed to preserve their friendly interest in the country through all the daily pain. They still have the desire for this country to really do better, to survive and to assume a more humane form. This is what fills my heart with tearful gratitude.
The Robert Bosch Academy offers international opinion leaders, decision-makers, and experts a residency for several months in Berlin. The residency provides Richard von Weizsäcker Fellows with the intellectual and physical space to pursue individual research and outreach activities on future-oriented topics in an international context.