Enhancing the resilience and capacity of Russian diaspora to enact change

With democracies across the globe backsliding, and a full-blown war raging in the midst of Europe, the European Wergeland Centre gathered representatives of the democratic Russian diaspora and Norwegian academia in Oslo’s Litteraturhuset on November 24, 2022.

They came together to share their thoughts and insights on how to enhance the resilience and capacity of educations, youth, and civil society – representing Russian diaspora – to promote democracy and human rights. During a busy public event, participants examined how education is used to undermine democracy in Russia, and what can be done to oppose these tendencies. They addressed questions such as:

How does the current Russian government use education to undermine democratic values, indoctrinating and militarizing society?

What is it like to teach and study in an authoritarian state, where critical voices are dubbed traitors?

What can the Russian democratic diaspora do to defend democratic values through education?

These discussions came against a rapidly deteriorating situation in the Russian Federation, where children in public schools are now required to attend weekly classes featuring war movies. Traditional patriotic values have become the core of the curricula at schools and at universities throughout the country.

“These developments are part of the Kremlin regime’s effort to cultivate a militarized and anti-Western version of patriotism in Russia, generating support from society and silencing any critical voices as traitors,” noted EWC advisors Larisa Leganger Bronder and Valentina Papeikiene, the event’s organizers.

Paradoxically, what is presented as protection of Russia from external enemies has become the main way of weakening it and sabotaging its future, believe the participants of the event.

Andrey Danilov, a Sami participant, spoke at length about the way the Sami people have built their society and identity across national lines, embodying an example of an inherently democratic community.

“Education plays one of the most important roles in what we have achieved, in the way we solve problems,” he shared. He emphasized that what the participants discussed and learned from each other during these days in late November is highly relevant to any group seeking democratic changes – be it a smaller group like his own Sami people, or a larger one like Russian diaspora abroad.

In her keynote speech, Valentina Papeikiene described how a national education system is intertwined with political developments. She traced the tendencies after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russia focused on building an identity rooted in traditional values and the image of itself as a powerful state.

Against this background, Denis Grekov, a political scientist who was forced to flee Russia after voicing strong criticism about the war in Ukraine on Facebook, compared democratization programs to oxygen for those who have stayed behind in the increasingly authoritarian state.

Others, however, questioned whether the role of the diaspora today is to help, from outside, those who stayed back in Russia. They suggested that it may be best to focus instead on supporting those who arrive to any specific country. There are numerous things they could be doing locally in their new countries of residence, such as addressing the practicalities and the lack of integration for the fleeing Russian citizens.

This debate highlighted an important obstacle: Russian opposition is divided, facing a “major problem of dialogue”. One participant termed it “a value gap”. Even when people disagree with the ongoing war, for instance, they may disagree for very different reasons.

“Even now, as we talk to each other, we should speak the word ‘war’ more often, more willingly, and address exactly what we do against it,” urged one participant during the introductory discussion.

EWC was pleased to offer its expertise in facilitating and supporting these important discussions and dialogue. For two full days prior to the public event at Litteraturhuset, a team of our experts ran the Citizenship Education: Role and Opportunities of the Russian Diaspora seminar. Relying on the approaches of non-formal education – discussions, interactive methods for immersion, active participation – these sessions on November 22-23 were conducted by representatives of EWC and a partner organization for our Citizenship Practices project. 

As part of these efforts, EWC advisors Inga Riseth and Kristin Flacké led an interactive session on stereotypes, prejudice and hate speech. Their work at EWC is informed by the Learning Democracy at Utøya project, which proved to be highly relevant in the Russian setting.

“Stereotypes are not necessarily false, but they are just a single story. If we repeat this story often enough, we might believe that it is true – and that this is the only story,” they cautioned.

Senior advisor Marianne Haugh, building on her professional expertise from the conflict-ridden Balkan region, shared the specifics of working with controversial issues. Among the numerous skills that make this challenging task possible, she emphasized the trainer’s personal awareness and self-reflection, the ability to plan and manage discussion effectively, as well as the ability to use and apply a range of teaching techniques – all part of the training programmes EWC specializes in.

Building on these discussions and debates, the event at Oslo’s Litteraturhuset on November 24 was lively and informed. It was attended by the media and diverse stakeholders, and streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.1 You can watch all talks and discussions in English or in Russian below.

Event with simultaneous English translation
Event with simultaneous Russian translation.