Goethe-Institut in Russia: strengthening mutual trust
Providing people in different countries with direct access to German language and German culture is the main goal of the Goethe-Institut – one of the most effective non-governmental organizations in Germany. Named after the German literary genius, philosopher, and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the organization currently operated in almost 100 countries. In one of her speeches, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the Goethe-Institut as “Germany’s calling card abroad, which the federal government is very proud of.” Capital Ideas talked to Dr. Heike Uhlig, Director of the Goethe-Institut in Moscow and Head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, about the association’s activities in Russia.
The Goethe-Institut was established in 1951. Were there any challenges in terms of opening an office in Moscow when the association first came to Russia?
Your question prompted me to look into the memories of the founder and first director of the Goethe-Institut in Moscow. Kathinka Dietrich van Wering came to Moscow in 1990 to create the Goethe-Institut. It opened in 1992. She writes about the great interest Russian artists, cultural figures, and German language teachers showed toward interacting with the German cultural and educational community, about their desire to create and strengthen ties with German and European institutions and German colleagues. She also talks about the great enthusiasm of German language teachers, about their interest in German literature and area studies. And last but not least, she writes about looking for employees, who didn’t wait for official vacancy announcements, taking initiative and expressing their desire to work at the newly-established Goethe-Institut. Some of them are still with us today. Of course, she also recalls the challenges of day-to-day life that she had to overcome back in those days, as well as the support she received from the Russian side in dealing with administrative issues. This was all compounded by the challenges in relations between the two Germanys – back when the Goethe-Institut moved to the former GDR embassies on Leninsky Avenue, it was in a certain sense a clash with the history of a divided country.
Since then, the geography of the Goethe-Institut’s presence in Russia has expanded considerable. Which regions are you present in now?
Today, the Goethe-Institut exists in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Novosibirsk. Since the very beginning in 1992, it was obvious that it would be impossible to address the country’s needs in the sphere of culture and German language without a large partner network. It was established in the following years. Now, the Goethe-Institut supports German reading rooms across 16 Russian libraries. It also carries out cultural projects in various cities: concerts, film screenings, exhibitions, theater and dance performances, reports, seminars, master classes. They are held with the support and cooperation of our local partners — regional and city administrations and cultural institutions. In addition, we have eight contact offices in the Russian regions. They organize cultural projects together with the Goethe Institutes in Moscow and St. Petersburg, taking over local information support and coordination. Russia also has 20 German language centers. They are partners of the Goethe-Institut in Russia, and the curricula and services they offer meet the quality standards set by the Goethe-Institut. In addition to training, they provide an opportunity to pass exams developed by the Goethe-Institut.
Do you plan to open new branches in Russia?
We don’t have any plans like this right now. But our partner network is very active and we’re always open to cooperation.
In no country in the world is the Goethe-Institut represented as widely as in Russia. Can we say that this is a testament to the importance of cooperation between Germany and Russia?
If we look at the number of German language students in school, then on a global scale Russia ranks second after Poland. Of course, most school children learn English as their first foreign language, just like everywhere else in the world. Nevertheless, German is in the first place as a second foreign language, and the number of students is growing. If you describe the current situation in one sentence, you can say this: without English you can’t do anything at all, but with German you can do more! This is especially true of the prospects in education and professional development that open for young people who speak both English and German. Over 5,000 German companies have representative offices in Russia today, and trade relations between our countries are still very strong. There are also long-standing and very close cultural ties between Germany and Russia – thanks to this, lively and fruitful cooperation has been maintained in all areas of culture.
Right now, relations between Berlin and Moscow are unfortunately far from ideal. How do you think they can be improved and what can the Goethe-Institut do to facilitate this?
The Goethe-Institut isn’t a government institution, we’re an independent organization. We support active cooperation with our Russian partners in the cultural, educational, and social spheres, just like we always have. This is the core of our activities, which isn’t subject to pressure from current developments. This both creates mutual trust and establishes a reliable foundation for our relations. There are different kinds of formats – from coproduction, joint projects, and artist residencies in the social sphere to scholarships and youth exchanges in the field of education. We want such meetings in one country or another to be possible and actively support them, because such a dialogue is incredibly important for bilateral understanding.
Knowing the language of our partner countries is the foundation of dialogue between people. One of the most important objectives of the Goethe-Institut is the popularization of the German language abroad. What is the scale of these activities? How many people are learning German with the help of your organization all over the world, including in Russia?
As I mentioned earlier, according to the official numbers Russia is in second place after Poland in terms of the number of school children studying German as their second foreign language. This is noticeable in terms of demand for our language courses in Moscow: almost 6,000 people take them every year. In Goethe-Instituts around the world, 270,000 people are learning German. Cities with the highest demand include Hanoi, Cairo and Bangkok. But the number in Moscow is also quite high.
Is this a lot or a little? Is it true that interest in German language is declining in Russia, just like interest in Russian in Germany? If this is the case, what are the reasons behind this?
At schools all over the world, people learn English first. Russia and Germany are no exception. English is simply necessary, end of story. Other foreign languages, of course, are secondary or tertiary, and there is less space for them in the school schedule. Often, students and their parents make decisions from a purely practical point of view: what will this language give the student? Is it useful for their education or career? Or would it just be nice to know the language of this country if you happen to go there on vacation?
In Russia, the number of students who learn German as the first foreign language really has decreased somewhat. But an increasing number of students are choosing German as their second foreign language. My colleagues launched a major program to support schools and teachers, established resource centers together with educational institutions, and thus laid the foundation for language learning to be enjoyable and in demand. And school children still have a lot of interest in learning German along with English.
Please explain to our readers in different countries: why is it worth it to learn German?
I am convinced that in today’s world, where everything is interconnected, it is no longer enough to just know English if you want to work for international companies. Any additional language gives access to other cultures, introduces a different type of thinking, and helps you understand other people better. Germany is a great place to study. There are many English language programs in German universities, but German is still used in everyday life and to communicate with other students. Germany is also one of Russia’s largest trading partners, and many German firms operate here. People in the company may communicate in Russian or English, but you need German to go to the head office for advanced training. Whether or not to study a language may be a purely pragmatic decision these days, but there’s nothing wrong with this.
What are the people who study German at the Goethe-Institut in Russia like? Are they mostly children, young people, or others as well?
In the past few years, we really have had more courses for children and young people. We hold language camps in the summer, where children can study German and then play games for practice after class. The thing is that many students learn German in school as their second foreign language and take additional classes in their spare time in order to do better on exams and improve their chances of getting an education or training in Germany. But the majority of people who study at the Goethe-Institute are still students and young professionals. The same as it is all over the world.
Who teaches German at Goethe-Institut courses in Russia? Do teachers come from Germany or do you hire them in Russia? How qualified are they?
Native speakers do not teach at the Goethe-Institut in Russia. We work with Russian German teachers. They learned German as a foreign language, and then received additional training at the Goethe-Institut. We regularly offer additional language, methodology and didactics training to our teachers, along with scholarships for attending seminars in Germany.
Aside from teaching German, what else does the Goethe-Institut do? What kinds of projects do you undertake, and in what spheres?
Aside from German, the Goethe-Institut pays special attention to culture – dance, theatre, music, film, fine arts, literature and discussions and cooperation in the field of education. We have an excellent library with an online subscription that lets people borrow German books and magazines. The library is an information center where you can learn more about Germany, German language, and culture. We help build bridges between professional associations in many fields. For example, we once set up an exchange of experience for librarians, where they discussed how to turn public libraries into places for study and communication. And this year we will support an exchange between German and Russian artists. The Goethe Institute is also more and more interested in the digital revolution, especially in how it affects our lives. There will be a big conference dedicated to this subject in the fall.
You were in Moscow in 1998-2004, so this isn’t your first time here. What were you doing in Moscow back then? How much has the Russian capital changed since? What were you most impressed by?
I worked at the Goethe-Institut in Moscow from 1998 to 2004 — I headed up the language department. Moscow has changed a great deal since then. I take public transportation and these days almost everyone is on their phone, playing games, reading, or listening to music. It’s become much easier to find your way around the metro and the city thanks to new signs and maps. And most importantly, people have become friendlier and more attentive. Theatres and concert halls are still full, and I see a lot of young people in the audience. I am very happy that I’m here and still have a lot of interesting discoveries to make.