Interview with Tatiana Dovgalenko, Secretary General of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO

In 2023, Tatiana Dovgalenko, Deputy Director of the Department for Multilateral Humanitarian Cooperation and Cultural Relations of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, became Secretary General of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO. The new Secretary General is confident that the humanitarian dimension of international cooperation can and must become the bridge to restore trust between states.

Tatiana Dovgalenko graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia in 1996. That same year, she began her career in the Russian Foreign Ministry. She held diplomatic positions at the Russian Embassy in France and the Permanent Mission of Russia to the OSCE in Vienna. In 2011-2016, she headed the EU section of the Department of European Cooperation of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2016-2023, served as Deputy Permanent Delegate of the Russian Federation to UNESCO. In 2023, Tatiana Dovgalenko was appointed Deputy Director of the Department for Multilateral Humanitarian Cooperation and Cultural Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Secretary General of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO. She has the diplomatic rank of an Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, 1st class.

You have extensive experience working in various positions in Russia and abroad. Your track record includes cooperation with the Council of Europe, the European Union and the OSCE, all of them rather difficult partners. In recent years, you have been Deputy Permanent Delegate of the Russian Federation to UNESCO, and recently you were appointed Secretary General of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO. Do you see the difference between working in Paris and in Moscow, between the global humanitarian organization and other multilateral platforms?

I would answer yes and no to both parts of your question.

UNESCO is a specialized agency within the United Nations. The responsibilities of a diplomat there are not fundamentally different from working in other international organizations. This is typical multilateral diplomacy: meticulous work with documents, conducting public discussions, communicating on the sidelines and, of course, searching for consensus and mutually acceptable solutions. The difference, given the specifics of UNESCO mandate, is that your vis-a-vis are often scientists, cultural figures, artists — in a word, not career diplomats but specialists in the fields of UNESCO competence.

These fields are quite numerous and diverse. Despite its global reputation as a cultural organization, the lion’s share of its budget goes to educational projects. UNESCO is also the key UN agency on media issues. In addition to promoting cultural, educational, and scientific cooperation, the Organization’s agenda includes exciting and important issues such as anti-doping, freedom of media, safety of journalists, Internet governance, multilingualism in cyberspace, artificial intelligence, bioethics, hydrology, biodiversity, ocean exploration, etc. In other words, its activities are linked, in one way or the other, to the achievement of almost all Sustainable Development Goals. This forces you to continuously broaden your horizons, including on topics that seem unrelated to foreign policy.

Unlike my previous experience in dealing with regional associations (CoE, OSCE, EU), UNESCO is a universal organization in terms of membership. It includes 194 member states, the whole world at one table. The range of approaches, nuances in the countries’ stances is wider. And until recently, there were no alignment issues.

As for comparison of Moscow and Paris, the Permanent Delegation and the Commission are two sides of the same coin. We are working closely together. But we have differences. From the headquarters, you see UNESCO activities through the documents we adopt — resolutions, conventions, rules, negotiations on new solutions and statutory regulations.

In Russia, these abstract constructs for me became embodied in specific people. Here, I am discovering the extensive “Russian UNESCO family.” I see how the decisions made there affect the lives of thousands of people — managers of heritage sites, teachers and students of associated schools, scientists, social activists, etc. Thousands of kilometers away from Paris, in the most remote corners of Russia, there are enthusiasts who know inside and out the UNESCO nomenclature and the ongoing processes, their lives are guided by the ideas of the Organization, and they implement its goals and principles. It is thanks to their expertise, perseverance and passion that Russia plays such an important role in the UNESCO international movement.

What do you mean? In which areas are we leaders? What are our priorities?

We are present and actively working in almost all areas of UNESCO competence. For instance, we are holding leading positions in terms of involvement in the implementation of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). We actively promote multilingualism, also in cyberspace. Russia ranks third in the number of UNESCO chairs, we have 58 of them, and in the top three in terms of the number of associated schools — 387. We regularly come forward with new initiatives in the field of educational policy.

We should also mention the UNESCO-Russia Mendeleev International Prize in the Basic Sciences, the Organization’s largest. Its annual prize pool is $500,000, half of that of the Nobel prize.

The Russian Federation has made a significant contribution to the establishment of approaches to the ethics of artificial intelligence during the preparation of UNESCO recommendation of 2021. This is still the only universal document on the regulation of this new technology.

We have sound positions in the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Russia was one of its originators. This unique international body deals with mapping the seabed of the World Ocean, solving problems of conservation and rational use of its resources, and the Tsunami Early Warning system.

Russia is one of the largest donors to the Fund for the Elimination of Doping in Sport established under the International Convention. As the Vice-Chair of the 7th and 8th sessions of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the International Convention against Doping in Sport, we greatly contributed to the improvement of the global anti-doping system.

Our contribution is visible even in the titles of official documents — they feature the names of Russian cities of Kazan, Khanty-Mansiysk, Yakutsk, and many others.

I would prefer not to answer in terms of leader/outsider dichotomy, in part because competition and attempts to outflank the others do not correspond to the spirit of the organization. We should rather talk about the involvement in the common cause. In this case, once again, our expertise is extensive, it is in high demand, and we make a significant contribution to program activities, from approving the documents to their implementation “in the field.”

The international situation is now tense, we are being criticized by UNESCO. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also made hard-hitting comments about the board of the Secretariat. How would you assess the current relations between Russia and UNESCO?

This is not an easy stage. UNESCO does not exist in a vacuum, and the degradation of the international situation could not but affect the atmosphere of this once purely professional intergovernmental forum, designed to promote intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind, as stated in its Constitution. An aggressive minority of countries with an art worthy of a better cause imposes political debates that are not in the nature of this platform, the “us” and “them” division, the continuous “Ukrainization” of the agenda. However, the majority are gradually getting tired of this confrontation, and there is the growing need to turn this dialogue professional once again. This is clearly demonstrated by the results of the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh. As you know, at that session the Astronomical Observatories of Kazan Federal University became another Russian site included in the World Heritage List. It becomes obvious that Russia cannot be isolated, and “total politicization” harms not Russia, but UNESCO itself, which does not and cannot solve political issues since it was created and exists for other purposes.

One notorious example was the decision to postpone consideration of the proclamation of the World Day of the Russian Language, taken by the UNESCO Executive Board in April last year under the pressure of Western delegations. Those who blocked this initiative aimed at Russia but hit UNESCO, undermining its fundamental principle of multilingualism.

Earlier, the Organization proclaimed international days of Arabic, Portuguese, Swahili and Romani languages. It was the turn of the Russian language, the largest Slavic language spoken on all continents of our planet. The language of outstanding works of world literature, theater, science, international communication. The first words spoken by a man in Space were in Russian. Seventeen other countries co-authored the idea of the World Day of the Russian Language alongside Russia. By making a stand against it, the “collective West” showed disrespect not only to all these states, but also to Russian-speaking communities around the world, including in their own countries.

I wonder what Russian-speaking employees of the Secretariat in Paris think about it.

You know, there is practically none of them left in UNESCO headquarters! It is very unfortunate that the staff of the universal organization does not have the universal geographic diversity, and this imbalance only grows worse. Just think about it: a quarter of the Organization’s staff consists of representatives of two European countries — France and Italy, while a good half of the Member States are underrepresented or not represented at all.

One of my foreign colleagues made a witty remark that India that has a billion and a half people successfully landed a spaceship on the Moon, but it cannot “land” a member in the UNESCO Secretariat. The same applies to other rapidly developing countries – members of BRICS, SCO, ASEAN, the African Union and other associations.

As a result of such imbalance in personnel management, we face a biased approach of international officials who forget about neutrality and choose the deaths of which journalists to condemn and which not. Another disturbing example is the deafening silence of the Secretariat regarding the ongoing persecution by the Ukrainian secular authorities against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which manages the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. With the expulsion of the monks of the canonical church, we see the cultural erosion of the sacred place, the centuries-old spiritual tradition is lost, the cultural rights of believers are violated. I am convinced that if such actions were taken by any country other than Ukraine, which enjoys the patronage of the West, we would hear immediate harsh criticism. Such obvious doublethink is deeply depressing.

The UNESCO Constitution prescribes something completely different — “to increase the means of communication between their peoples for the purposes of mutual understanding” with the goal “to advance, through the educational and scientific and cultural relations of the peoples of the world, the objectives of international peace and of the common welfare of mankind.”

It is encouraging that the overwhelming majority of UNESCO Member States, including most of the global South, are determined to promote a unifying agenda taking into account the balance of interests and the civilizational diversity of the modern world. They understand that Russia’s membership in the governing bodies of UNESCO, including the Executive Board that will be elected in November in Paris, is a matter of balance and pluralism of opinions in the Organization.

What countries are these?

Our approach is shared by many like-minded partners. Over the decades of proactive and responsible work at UNESCO, our country has gained a reputation of a reliable partner of developing countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Thus, Russia was one of the first to join the “groups of friends” of Africa, one of the two global priorities of UNESCO, and of Small Island Developing States. “Green Chemistry for Life” grants programme for young scientists launched by the Russian company PhosAgro is aimed at fostering the potential of developing countries. We provide them with unwavering support in the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation. We consistently call for a representative and geographically balanced UNESCO World Heritage List, in which cultural and natural monuments from various parts of the world will be adequately represented.

We have seen the enthusiasm which followed Moscow’s decision to allocate funding for the initiatives of the UNESCO International Programme for the Development of Communication in Africa this year.

You mentioned two global priorities for UNESCO. What is the second one?

The second priority is Gender Equality. We strongly support the strengthening of the role of women and strive to achieve the corresponding 5th Sustainable Development Goal. We are willing to share our experience. Contrary to widespread stereotypes about our alleged “pastness,” I would like to remind that our country was one of the pioneers in proclaiming equal rights for women. As you know, equal rights in Russia were guaranteed more than a hundred years ago, following the October Revolution, including the right to freely choose occupation and the place of residence, to receive education and equal pay, etc.

The composition of the national commission speaks for itself: important female figures of science and education, culture and art, heads of state departments make a visible of more than a hundred of its members. Women head a number of Russian UNESCO programme committees and actively participate in the meaningful contribution of our country to the Organization’s activities.

We, like the vast majority of UNESCO member states, are talking about two sexes, two genders, men and women. This fully corresponds to the documents of the Organization. And we are not ready to spend UNESCO’s funds that are so desperately needed for development on playing “gender diversity” games and creating countless genders, in the spirit of neoliberal interpretations.

As we know, UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. According to you, which of these areas of cooperation has the highest priority for Russia?

We have already touched on this topic. I cannot say that our country gives priority to any one aspect of the UNESCO mandate. The Russian National Commission has more than a dozen programme committees covering all areas of the Organization’s activities. Regional committees are actively working, in particular, in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Ulyanovsk, Yakutia.

We are actively fostering networking through biosphere reserves, geoparks, creative and learning cities. Major international events on indigenous languages, information and communication, cultural and natural heritage are held annually in various Russian regions.

By the decision of the UNESCO Executive Board, the 300th anniversary of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Novodevichy Monastery were included in the UNESCO Calendar of Anniversaries in 2024-2025. The Handwriting and Notes of Fyodor Dostoevsky were recently added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. We continue to increase the number of Russian sites in the World Heritage List. Currently, our country is represented by 32 of them, which ranks Russia in the top ten countries in terms of the number of heritage sites of outstanding universal value.

We are determined to promote our ample positive experience in the development of scientific knowledge — digital technologies, fundamental research, hydrology and oceanography. We are ready to continue sharing our best practices with all interested partners.

I would therefore say that our priority is not a specific area, but the word “united” that is present in UNESCO’s name. Our stance in the Organization is built around this concept, which involves mutual respect and the culture of consensus, originally inherent in UNESCO. I am convinced that in our turbulent times, the humanitarian dimension of international cooperation not only can, but simply must become the bridge that will help restoring trust between peoples. The Russian Federation will make every effort to achieve this.