[Translate to English:] Auf dem Bild: Irina Scherbakowa

Understanding Russia is not the same thing as accepting Russia

At the beginning of the 2018 World Cup, the Bertelsmann Stiftung hosted a visitor from Moscow. Speaking on 20 June in Berlin, historian and journalist Irina Scherbakowa provided valuable insight into the current situation in her country.


The day after the beginning of the football tournament and Russia’s 5:0 victory over Saudi Arabia, Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev announced an increase in the official pension-eligibility age, from 60 to 65 for men, and from 55 to 63 for women. What seems reasonable in principle is a watershed moment that could produce existential harm in a country where most citizens are poor, and where life expectancy is significantly lower than in Germany, for example. Russian pensions are already so low that recipients also tend to work in order to make ends meet. However, pensioner status also carries crucial tax advantages, along with benefits such as the free use of public transportation.

With this announcement, President Putin, who promised in 2003 that the pension age would never be raised during his time in office, must have deliberately set up the government to take any blame. If the law meets with too much resistance, he can always soften it, or even retract it altogether. Protests during the World Cup are unlikely, as demonstrations in the World Cup host cities, which are also the main political centers, have been banned. This means that any participant would automatically be subject to criminal penalties.

“The critical sphere of public life is under attack. We have lost the battle to show that freedom is worth something. The concrete freedoms, such as the freedoms of opinion and assembly, are disappearing.”

Irina Scherbakowa

Arbitrariness and state repression have increased, Scherbakowa said. A virtually “postmodern dictatorship” has arisen, she added, supported by media propaganda and secured by an increasing number of security organs such as the Russian Guard, or through entities like the Center for Combatting Extremism. Because these entities have to justify their existence, they seek to attract attention through a particularly high degree of "efficiency". The https://ovdinfo.org/website, where young Russians compile civil-rights violations, also testifies to the scale of this problem.

Putin came to power following the difficult 1990s, promising to usher in an era of modernization and stability. He has fulfilled neither promise, despite his assurances – routinely offered on the state-owned television station’s annual live-broadcast question-and-answer session – that the Russian economy is increasingly healthy. In fact, real wages are shrinking, Scherbakowa said. This is why even wholly ordinary people have started paying attention to oil prices as a part of their daily life. Reforms remain unrealized, whether in the health care sector, the school system or the economy at large. Thanks to her work with the annual nationwide “The Man in History” student competition, Scherbakowa is in contact with people from across Russia. The social situation outside the large cities is particular cause for concern, she said. People are unhappy that they have little ability to plan for the future. The concerns of young people particular are evident in the fact that a majority of this demographic group wants to leave the country. To be sure, the Putin generation has known no other president. But it does know there are other ways of living, she noted.

“We must not separate Russia’s foreign policies from its domestic processes.”

Irina Scherbakowa

Rather than joining the “common European home” envisaged by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia today defines itself through the demarcation of internal and external enemies. Elites promote a Russian nationalism that idealizes the Stalinist past. The presidency of Donald Trump, whose political style retrospectively legitimizes Putin’s foreign policy, has created an additional challenge.

In today’s Russia, the respected “Memorial” NGO, an early post-Soviet civil-society organization co-founded by Scherbakowa with the initial goal of research into Stalinism, has been declared to be a “foreign agent.”  However, Scherbakowa is not giving up her societal engagement. Rather, she wants to “make use of post-modern contradictions, and continue working where it remains possible.” Civil society must remain a part of public life, she said. However, she will not allow herself to lose her dignity, she added. The education and dialogue initiatives she leads are an example of how islands of freedom can still be preserved.

A judicious optimist, Scherbakowa continues to combat isolation and seeks to prevent divisions, both in Russian society and on the common European continent. Nationalism and populism must not be allowed to gain the upper hand, said the recipient of the German Federal Cross of Merit, who – due to her own Russian-Jewish family background – has direct personal experience of the complexity of Europe’s 20th-century history.