Alexandra Polivanova Alexandra Polivanova
Alexandra Polivanova
Democracy and human rights

"We must not disappear into a black hole"

Russian civil society between repression and hope

Alexandra Polivanova is a board member of the International Memorial network and curates the research projects of Memorial's Moscow center. Founded in 1989, Memorial is one of the largest and oldest civil rights organizations in Russia. IJAB spoke with her about the situation of civil society, the exchange between Russia and Germany, and the importance of coming to terms with history.

20.07.2021 / Christian Herrmann Alexandra, Memorial once had an independent youth organization that, for example, conducted international work camps in Perm 36, a former Gulag camp. What happened to the youth organization?

Alexandra Polivanova: We have a lot of intergenerational projects at Memorial. Young people are particularly strong in the Moscow and Perm regions, and youth organizations existed there in the past. We have since incorporated them into our local groups. The youth organizations wanted to avoid being labeled as "foreign agents". Maybe the young activists still meet, but they no longer have a formal structure. We still have a lot of young people active. Meanwhile, Memorial as a whole is classified as a "foreign agent" by the Russian government. What effect does this law on "foreign agents" have in practice?

Alexandra Polivanova: This law was made against Memorial and other civil right NGOs and we were one of the its first victim. Because we are an international network, it was particularly easy to blame us to be agents of foreign countries. On all our publications we have to state that we are classified as "foreign agents." You as a German journalist may not care, but if I give an interview to a Russian journalist, he has to write that we are "foreign agents". Moreover, it means a lot of administrative work, because we have to submit detailed activity reports to the authorities four times a year. The third effect is that people and organizations are afraid of us. This also affects our cooperation partners. We can no longer do exhibitions or books with them without further ado, because they have to fear disadvantages themselves. Meanwhile, practically all human and civil rights organizations are on the list of foreign agents.

"Undesirable" organizations On May 26, 2021, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office declared three German NGOs "undesirable organizations," including Deutsch-Russischer Austausch. This is associated with a ban on activities in Russia, and the Russian partner organizations are under threat of punishment if they continue their cooperation. This means that youth and specialist exchanges are now also affected by the repression. Is this a sign that conditions for Russian civil society are getting worse and worse?

Alexandra Polivanova: Some of our international partner organizations have already been declared "undesirable organizations," others not yet. But even they are wondering whether this will soon be the case and what will happen then. Those affected are organizations working internationally in the field of human and civil rights and all those that place values at the heart of their work. In the past, it was at least possible for individuals to find support, for example by doing an internship or voluntary service abroad. Even that is impossible now, at least if it takes place at an "undesirable organization."
Many from the women's, environmental, and civil rights movements are moving into non-formal structures of self-organization. They have no organizations and no money, but they are growing.

Everything is political In Germany, there has been a discussion for years about how political youth exchanges have to be. How political can it be in the exchange with Russia?

Alexandra Polivanova: Ultimately, everything is political, we just have to be aware of it. Football, for example, seems to be apolitical, but there are also women's clubs that show that not only men can play football. They see themselves as part of the women's movement. Sports associations often don't have democratic structures and are more like dictatorships - we can talk about that, too. In 2018, during the World Cup, we did a project together with the Heinrich Böll Foundation about the famous Moscow football club Spartak and how it became a victim of Stalinist repression. And sport is of course also a propaganda weapon. After the big wave of protests against the arrest and conviction of opposition politician Alexey Navalny, things have become calm again. Will it stay that way?

Alexandra Polivanova: Yes, it seems calm. A lot of people have been arrested, others have gone abroad. When I look at the list of my Facebook friends, I realize how many of them are in prison or have left. But things can also change. In September we have Duma elections. A lot of candidates have been excluded from the election or could not register because they collaborated with Navalny. After the last Duma elections, there have been mass protests because of election fraud, and the events in Belarus have also shown how angry people can become when elections are manipulated.

"Moral support is important" What support does Russian civil society need from German civil society in this situation?

Alexandra Polivanova: Moral support is important for me. I constantly check my values and when I read an article in which my values are shared, I know that it is not me who is crazy, but the world around me. People can also demonstrate. When Putin was in Geneva the other day to meet Biden, I was pleased to see how many street protests there were. You can demonstrate for the release of Navalny, but there are also other political prisoners - right now there are about 300. It's not so much about Putin, because he doesn't care about relations with other countries. He talks a lot of nonsense about our neighbors and is not afraid of the consequences. It's about us continuing to be seen and not just disappearing into a black hole. Every non-violent pressure, every support of a grassroots initiative is important. Memorial has become internationally known mainly because of your reappraisal of Stalinist terror. Now we keep hearing about Stalin monuments being erected. Is your work more important today than ever?

Alexandra Polivanova: These monuments are not about the historical Stalin. They are about a symbol of absolute power and a strong state in which a single person counts for nothing. We have to deal with the mechanisms of power when it is unlimited. That is why we are studying history and gathering evidence. We have to examine it for what values we need in society. Incidentally, there is now also a new law that targets the writing of history. Whoever writes today that Germany and the Soviet Union both invaded Poland and thus triggered World War II, can be convicted for it. Only the victory in the war should count. Would you like to say something more that is important to you?

Alexandra Polivanova: I think about my son, who is a teenager, and other young people. Putin has been president for so long now that they can't remember any other president. Many have also never traveled. Because travel is difficult for us, we need to find online methods so that young people can experience that there is another world out there and so that they can broaden their horizons. That's important to me.

Ein junger Mann spricht in ein Mikrofon
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IJAB understands international youth work and youth policy cooperation as contributors towards a strong civil society, a democratic polity, and greater social justice.