“Proof that history can be changed”


For decades, Russian civil rights activist, historian, and German scholar Irina Scherbakova has been working to shed light on the repressive policies of the former Soviet Union. This Monday, she was awarded the Goethe Medal.

Irina Scherbakowa

Irina Scherbakova was born in 1949. She is a civil rights activist, historian, and German scholar. In 1988, she was one of the founding members of Memorial – the first Soviet human rights organization.

Simone Brunner spoke with her:

Ms. Scherbakova, two years ago a book consisting of a dialogue between you and the German historian Karl Schlögel was published under the title Der Russland-Reflex – Einsichten in eine Beziehungskrise [The Russia Reflex – Insights Into a Relationship Crisis]. What is the relationship between Germany and Russia like today?

Unfortunately, it has not improved. For quite a while now we have been witnessing undemocratic developments in Russia, such as the pressure put on civil society and the brutal crackdown on demonstrators in winter 2011/12. The situation then became even worse with the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. There is no trust between Russia and Germany. And without trust, it is simply not possible to call it a good relationship.

There are many people in Germany at the moment calling for more dialogue with Russia.

But dialogue is always two-sided. Even if you fundamentally disagree with one another, there must be a certain basis of trust – a knowledge that the other party is telling the truth and not lying. Unfortunately, this is absolutely not the case in dealings with the Russian side. An honest dialogue only exists among civil society; it is currently not possible at a political level.  

You have been working to tackle human rights violations in your country for decades – first in the Soviet Union then in Russia. How did you personally come to be involved in this topic?

Well, it is the main topic of Soviet history! And yet it was not publicly spoken about or reported on; archives were closed to the public. But this topic affected us all – there were millions of victims. It was clear to me that society would not be able to evolve if it did not address this repression.

With the human rights organization Memorial you are still campaigning for more open dialogue on the crimes committed during the Stalin era. Why do you still consider this to be such an important task?

Without this open dialogue it is simply not possible to establish a democracy. Also, we need to pay tribute to the victims. These were the slogans of perestroika. Unfortunately, however, this process has been interrupted – perhaps even undone; today, the victims are forgotten and the crimes suppressed. A positive image of Stalin has re-emerged with memorials to him being erected. A so-called “power vertical” has been created under President Vladimir Putin that is symbolized by these figures from the past, this strong state power. Their revival was necessary to ideologically underpin this development.

You also coordinate the Memorial history competition – an annual contest that encourages students to look into their family history. Memorial was recently put on the list of “foreign agents” by the Russian Ministry of Justice. How is this impacting your work?

We are being vilified as enemies of the state, as enemy agents; state television is being used to stir up public opinion against us. It has also become hard for us to raise money for projects or to cooperate with state-run organizations like museums or theaters. And, not least, it makes our actual work with teachers and students difficult, as they are also put under pressure by being told that it is unpatriotic to work with us.

On August 28, you were awarded the Goethe Medal for your achievements in cultivating the German language and in promoting international cultural exchange. What does this mean to you?

It is a very great but unexpected honor. Exactly 74 years ago, on August 28, 1943, my father was injured in Ukraine during heavy fighting against the German Wehrmacht. He was 19 years old at the time. He could never have imagined that we would one day have this sort of relationship with Germany again – let alone that his daughter would receive such an award! In this respect it is wonderful proof that history, too, can be changed.

You also developed a particular interest in German culture and the German language. Where did this come from?

I think there are two facets to this. One is the fact that German culture and literature has always been very important for Russia – despite the war. The other is, of course, the history of National Socialism. That war shaped my father and his friends; it played a constant and prominent role in the environment in which I grew up. It is certainly no coincidence that Memorial has particularly close ties to Germany. I think it also has to do with our shared history –and, of course, with the positive example set by Germany in how it dealt with its own history.

You met Heinrich Böll when you were working as an interpreter for your father, who was also a literary scholar. What was this meeting like?

Oh, I was still a young student then! (laughs) There were many German writers who had a big impact on me, like Franz Fühmann. I saw how they were trying to shed light on the past and deal with their own traumatic experiences. That’s why Böll was also interesting, as he was one of the most popular authors in the Soviet Union. He told us the sorts of things we wanted to know about the “other side.” I think it was important for Soviet post-war society to discover the humanity that also existed in Germany.

You spoke about an increase in pressure on Russian civil society. What advice would you give young civil rights activists today?

I’m afraid to say that I’m very pessimistic when it comes to Russia’s immediate future. I don’t see a bright future dawning any time soon. In fact, I fear that the pressure will turn into aggression. The Russia we see today is one where no one can feel safe and there is no protection from persecution – regardless of your age, regardless of your authority, and even if you’re a famous director [Russian stage and film director Kirill Serebrennikov was recently placed under house arrest]. But I hope that an enlightened era will dawn again. This is what we must keep working towards.