The forum of civil societies in Russia and Germany has been developing partner relations between the two countries for over 20 years. Even during the most challenging years, experts found a possibility to discuss the most pressing issues and solutions. The Director of the forum directorate Anna Vasilyeva talked about the meetings of the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ working groups during the pandemic. 

How did the pandemic affect the format of the ‘Petersburger dialogue’?

At the beginning of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, when the long-term perspectives were still unclear, the previously planned events of the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum were transferred to a later date. However, many new pressing issues to be discussed appeared on the agenda. That is why the working group heads showed initiative in holding online discussions in order to stay in touch and exchange experience. One of the first online meetings was conducted by the working group ‘Civil Society’ headed at that time by Mikhail Fedotov, Director of the International Research and Educational Centre ‘UNESCO Chair on Copyright and Other Intellectual Property Rights’ at HSE University, and Johann Saathoff, Coordinator for Intersocietal Cooperation with Russia, Central Asia and the Eastern Partnership Countries, Bundestag Deputy on the part of the Social Democratic Party. The first discussions in the online format went well, so it was decided to continue in the same way. During 2020, only three events were held in a hybrid format with the observation of all the sanitary and epidemiological requirements: the 5th Annual Applied Research Conference ‘Climate, Soil Fertility, Agricultural Technologies’ (over 400 participants, 14–16 October 2020, Samara, ‘Golden Autumn’ platform); the meeting of the working group ‘Mass Media’ and the editorial board of the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum newspaper (up to 60 participants, 5–8 November 2020, Sochi, Zoom platform), and the International Round Table of the Four Dialogues: ‘Petersburger Dialogue’, ‘Trianon Dialogue’, ‘Sochi Dialogue’, ‘Russia—Italy Forum Dialogue’ (up to 30 participants, 26 November 2020, Moscow, Zoom platform).

As a result, 18 events of the forum were held online, including the following:

  • joint online meeting of the working groups ‘Economics’ and ‘Healthcare’ on ‘The Current situation in Russia and Germany in the field of Economics, Politics and Healthcare’ (17 June 2020, Zoom platform)
  • online meeting of the working group ‘Workshop of the Future’ titled ‘How will the world change after the pandemic: the experience of Russia and Germany’ (25 September 2020, Zoom platform)
  • round table of the working group ‘Civil Society’ on ‘The Memory about World War Two: new spaces in Russia—Germany perspective’ (3 December 2020, Zoom platform)

At the same time, 37 events were transferred to 2021, including the following:

  • meeting of the working group ‘Science and Education’ on the issues of organising the 1st International Contest named after Lyudmila Verbitskaya ‘Russia and Germany — Partnership Dialogue’ (St Petersburg)
  • bilateral meeting of the members of the coordinating committees and the heads of the working groups of the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum (Berlin, Kazan)
  • meeting of the working group ‘Economics’ on the topic of ‘Transport Infrastructure of Europe and Asia’ (Kazan)
  • meeting of the working group ‘Healthcare’ titled ‘Value-based Healthcare’ (Belgorod)

All in all, the work of the forum did not stop even for one day. The working format was chosen according to the current situation.

Do you notice changes in the forum information agenda caused by the pandemic?

The representatives of the working groups and, thus, of different spheres of public life continue talking about ‘the new normal’. Such circumstances could not but bring about change.

The issues of the economy, science and healthcare came to the forefront. It was also discussed how these issues were affected by the value of human life that had become more important for the general public and the state. An example is the meeting of the working group ‘Science and Education’ with representatives of Russian and German universities and research organisations; the topic was ‘The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on science and education — The exchange of experience and the discussion of international research and academic cooperation under the new conditions’ (22 October 2020, Zoom platform); the participants discussed the experience of conducting research during the pandemic. They also considered the global pandemic in the aspect of internationalisation as a digital transformation symbol. Thus, the issue of the value of human life that had become more important for the general public and the state was reflected in the city map created by the working group ‘Civil Society’.

Undoubtedly, the entire list of restrictions experienced by the citizens of Russia and Germany, and their consequences, could not be included in the agenda.

In 2019, there was a tendency to discuss the issues of digitalisation, information security and civil society. What topics have become relevant this time?

These issues were among the forum priorities over the past years, which could be explained by the objective changes in our life. In 2020, they became even more essential against the backdrop of global events. Since the work was mostly conducted online, the digitalisation of different processes was discussed in relation to all areas. It acquired a special importance in the area of education, since education in Russia and Germany was mostly transferred into the online format. The round table ‘Media education: from digital jungle to digital society’ (1 December 2020, Zoom platform) addressed in detail the issues of digital literacy and media consumption by children and young people. As a key-note speaker, Anatoly Puyu, Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St Petersburg University, made a presentation on ‘Digital democracy and online-education’. Apart from the digitalisation advantages, the importance of storing information in a safe way was emphasised. This topic was also raised by economist and public figure Andrey Nechaev at the online session of the working group ‘Civil Society’ (30 April 2020, Zoom platform) during the discussion of online monitoring of the location of citizens. Digitalisation also played a part in the field of healthcare. It helped to reduce the number of personal meetings between doctors and patients, and improve the exchange of experience between specialists. In particular, these issues were discussed at the joint online session of the working groups ‘Economics’ and ‘Healthcare’ (17 June 2020, Zoom platform). The participants underscored the current connections between these areas, when healthcare and progress cannot exist without economics and vice versa.

The issue of information security has also become quite pressing due to the drive to make a fast transition to digital technologies and the new ways of tracking personal contacts during the pandemic. The number one topic was, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. The working group ‘Civil Society’ (9 April 2020, Zoom platform) started a series of online sessions on the essential topic of ‘The Reaction of civil society to the COVID-19 pandemic’. Then, all online sessions of the forum working groups considered the impact of the pandemic on the concrete areas, on the society at large, on the future trends, or discussed specific phenomena through the lens of the pandemic crisis. The latter was true for the joint session of the working groups ‘Ecological Modernisation’ and ‘Economics’ (20 November 2020, Zoom platform) devoted to the topic of ‘European green course: impact on the economy of Russia and Germany, and the future of Germany/Europe—Russia relations in the field of energy production’. The green course was determined taking into account the current crisis and the need to overcome it.

Are there any specific projects that could be implemented despite the pandemic? What impact can the forum meetings have on the educational process and scientific research?

In general, this year has unfolded under the auspices of active interaction. The absence of personal meetings and contacts stimulated the forum representatives to meet online more often. This has led to a regular exchange of experience, knowledge, proposals, which has been crucial in the current situation. Here are several examples of the brightest projects in 2020. The participants of the working group ‘Civil Society’ created the road map with a list of tasks, needs, and offers of the German and Russian societies on supporting the population in the difficult time of the coronavirus crisis. The document was published at the forum website and forwarded to the representative offices of both countries.

Visit ‘The Iron Age. Europe without Borders’ exhibition virtually at the State Hermitage Museum website.

The long awaited opening of the exhibition titled ‘The Iron Age. Europe without Borders’ took place online. The project was conceived by the working group ‘Culture’ of the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum. It was the result of 10 years of cooperation between the museums of Russia and Germany. It was supposed to be a grand event attended by many highly distinguished guests including the top public officials and ministers of both countries. Instead, it was held online due to the epidemiological situation. The exhibit is open and available at the State Hermitage Museum. It is symbolic that despite the closed borders and the absence of personal meetings, the dialogue maintains an open and trust-based relationship.

The working group ‘Science and Education’ headed by Igor Maksimtsev, Rector of Saint Petersburg State University of Economics, and Wilfried Bergmann, Member of the Scientific Council of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, held a series of applied research workshops aimed at supporting international cooperation during the pandemic. For example, guest speaker Gabriele Kötschau spoke about ‘International cooperation as the key to safety and wealth’ at the workshop on the pressing economic and financial issues (22 December 2020, Zoom platform).

This set the stage for a large project on developing cooperation between the universities of Germany and Russia with the goal to exchange knowledge between young and experienced specialists of the two countries. Also, an international contest was established named after Lyudmila Verbitskaya for the best research work among young scientists of Russia and Germany ‘Russia—Germany Dialogue: View of the Youth’. This was at the initiative of the heads of the working groups ‘Science and Education’ on the Russian and German sides and with the support of the chairs of the forum coordinating committee. At present, preparations to launch the project are being made.

In September, with the support of the forum and in association with Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, a research seminar for young scientists and graduate students on ‘The international justice authorities and their influence on fording the international law standards’.

The summer school has been conducted for several years offering a platform for discussions, exchange of opinions, and consulting for young researchers from different countries working on the problems of international law. Moreover, together with the Russian Academy of Science there was a round table on the topic of ‘Media Education: from the digital jungle to the digital society’. The participants discussed the possibilities and prospects of online education, already existing projects and the currently relevant sphere of blogging.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus infection, the meetings between Russian and German experts have been suspended till autumn. Was there a need to catch up when resuming the meetings or did the agenda include only new issues?

The adverse epidemiological situation prevented the holding of a number of socially significant events including the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum. Also, it is impossible to discuss many topics and implement many projects online. For example, we had to cancel the previously planned session of the working group ‘Civil Society’ that involved visiting a prison in Brilon in Germany in order to learn about the German penitentiary system. However, the events that were cancelled in 2020 for objective reasons will be transferred to next year. Undoubtedly, the agenda is constantly changing, which has been taken into account during planning. In general, we can’t say that a lot has been missed out and has to be caught up with. During the months of the coronavirus crisis, we did everything to stay in touch and continue a productive exchange of opinions and experience in a new situation.

The meetings of the Russian and German civil society representatives resumed in the online format in spring. This was at the initiative of the working group heads and with the support of the chairs of the forum coordinating committee. It was mostly due to the need to discuss the current situation, exchange new experience and look for solutions together. The agenda included not only the issues related to the coronavirus, but also the topics that had been planned in 2019. Certainly, not every event could be transferred into the online space. The visit was shifted to the next year, while the discussion of the penitentiary system in Russia and Germany still took place online in 2020.

How many Russian and German specialists attended the round tables and meetings of the working groups last year? How many reports were made?

The online format of the events resulted in expanded geography and increased number of participants. If a standard offline session of the working group usually has about 10 representatives from each side, the number of participants in the online mode increased severalfold reaching and exceeding 100 people. A major part of the session was devoted to the presentations of experts included in the agenda. For example, over 400 people took part in the 5th Annual applied research conference ‘Climate, Soil Fertility, Agricultural Technologies’ (14–16 October 2020, Samara, ‘Golden Autumn’ platform); while about 100 people attended the workshop for young scientists from Russia and Germany on ‘The Development of international cooperation between the youth of Germany and Russia’ (2 December 2020, Zoom platform) moderated by the working group ‘Science and Education’.

18 meetings of the working groups and 6 satellite events held with support from the forum took place in 2020 on the margins of the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum.

Depending on the event format and the topic, the format of presentations also changed. However, a common characteristic of all events was their bilateral nature. Every session featured experts from the Russian and German side. Special time was allocated for questions and discussion. Due to the trust-based dialogue and further open discussion, the participants were able to define the solutions to the listed problems and find the ways for productive interaction.

Could you mention some experts from St Petersburg University who took part in the forum?

Traditionally, St Petersburg University is a special platform for the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum. With the goal to support and strengthen historical relationships, the forum directorate provides all kinds of support in this regard. In 2020, 13 events of the forum were attended by over 25 University representatives including managers, teachers and students. Among them were: Marina Lavrikova, Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Activities and Teaching Methods; Anatoly Puyu, Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication; Viktor Titov, acting Senior Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Economics; Igor Gretskiy, Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations in the Post-Soviet Area; and Nikolai Bobylev, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Environmental Safety and Sustainable Development of Regions. The experts were invited according to the declared topic of the event. The event agenda always included issues that were of professional interest to the invited expert. It is impossible to single out one or two priority areas. All delegates directed by the University have greatly contributed to the programme content in the form of their presentations, expert opinion, and participation in the discussions.

How did you choose the experts for the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum sessions? Is there a database of researchers where you find the speakers on a given topic or does everyone look for the speakers independently?

The heads of the working groups create the list of participants for each session of the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum. Each working group has two heads — one on the Russian side and the other on the German side. Each of them creates a list of the delegation participants from their country in accordance with the topic of the session and the vector of the discussion. Thus, the list of participants of each session is defined and approved bilaterally by the working group heads, who stick to the principles and spheres of interest of the given group. The speakers are selected in the same way by the heads of the working groups, and so is the format of the presentation.

The forum also supports various summer schools and applied research conferences for young scientists. What advantages do they gain by taking part in these events? Do you organise scientific contests on the margins of the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum?

I can mention many events among the conferences, workshops and schools for young people held on the margins and with the support of the forum. These are theological meetings for young people, international summer school for young historians, research workshop for young scientists and doctoral students in the sphere of law, international summer school on the Kantian heritage, applied research workshops along the lines of the ‘Science and Education’ working group and Russia—Germany science slam. Young people can also take part in international student events along the lines of scientific cooperation between Russia and Germany held by St Petersburg University, Peter Boenisch Contest for young journalists, and Lyudmila Verbitskaya international contest ‘Russia and Germany — Partnership Dialogue’ for the best scientific article among the young scientists of Russia and Germany.

Students and young researchers that attend forum events for young people gain a unique experience of communicating with experts. They find like-minded people and future partners for research activity and joint projects, which lays the foundation for future cooperation. They also have an opportunity to make a contribution and speak about the results, conclusions and specific solutions to their research questions at a public international platform. Young delegates often raise the issues of the educational system dual nature, youth exchange, and cooperation in the exchange of specialists.