Politically active civil society has not fared well in Russia in recent years.
Since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency for a third term in 2012, the Kremlin has imposed a series of laws restricting nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding, effectively eliminating most organized groups that conduct election monitoring, defend human rights, or champion liberal causes. Environmental, cultural, LGBT, and even indigenous peoples' rights groups have fallen victim to the crackdown.
But that does not mean critical groups don't exist. A diverse band of urban activists, communicating largely through social media, are combating plans to build an enormous high-rise housing development amid the forested ring around the capital known as "the lungs of Moscow."
The protesters who make up the Mortongrad Nyet! coalition have no shared ideology, and certainly aren't interested in criticizing the Kremlin. Yet they are redefining the limits of Russian civil society by focusing on specific, realistic grievances as they confront local government. And they have been changing expectations in another key way – by actually winning a few of their battles.
"We have all different kinds of people from all across the political spectrum who've gotten involved," says Katya Miroshnikova, an activist of the group, which she says has about 2,900 participants. "This is about doing whatever we can do to change things in practical ways. I want to show by my actions that you can fight against these huge businesses that are tied up with corrupt officials, and make them listen. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe we could achieve something."
The course of this, and several other similar battles currently raging over urban development around Moscow, may be a bellwether for the fate of public democracy in Russia.
The members of Mortongrad Nyet! are mainly local residents, joined by a few city intellectuals, whose concerns are about the impact of ill-considered, runaway housing developments on their suburban ecology, aesthetics, and quality of life. They accuse the local government of being unresponsive, incapable of long-term planning and, all too often, in league with big construction firms.
But while the group's criticism does impinge on the interests of big business, experts say the Moscow media, which generally reflects the Kremlin's views, have remained neutral toward grassroots citizens' groups that challenge local development plans.
Local government and media outlets connected with it have been more hostile. Ms. Miroshnikova says some activists have received threats. Construction companies typically stack official hearings with their own people, and local bureaucrats often make themselves unavailable when citizens try to utilize legally mandated channels for feedback.
"We are witnessing something new, which is real pushback from residents who dispute the way development is being carried out," says Alexei Novikov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "It's not political. It's about basic quality of life issues, and outrage over developers who do not obey regulations of urban planning. There is anger over corrupt officials who turn the other way in favor of unscrupulous builders. And some people are just against any kind of development that disrupts their accustomed life.
"Moscow is growing rapidly, and we do not have the strict zoning and building codes that prevail in most European cities," Prof. Novikov adds. "These clashes between officials and the public are inevitable, and the means of resolving them have not yet been worked out."
The officially named Ilyinskoye-Usovo "micro-region" – dubbed Mortongrad by protesters after the Morton construction firm that is building it – was tentatively approved in 2014, and finally given an official go-ahead by the Moscow regional government last month.
But the residents' group has maintained unremitting, organized criticism, including active social media discussions, popular YouTube videos, and flash mob protests organized as meetings with sympathetic elected officials – which protects demonstrators from police crackdowns.
Surprised local authorities agreed to make sweeping changes to the original project, including cutting the height of the planned 17-story-max apartment buildings by half, reducing the number of inhabitants, finding alternative sources of water supply so as not to pressure local resources, and building rapid transit connections to Moscow to minimize traffic congestion.
"When this project was first presented, it caused a lot of complaints from local inhabitants," German Yelyanyushin, deputy chair of Moscow regional government's construction department, said in an emailed statement. He added that authorities took account of the criticisms, forced the company to redesign the project through an open competition staged by the Moscow Union of Architects, and came back with a largely redesigned concept.
Morton insists it has bent over backward to accommodate public opinion. The now green-lighted development will be a dormitory city about seven miles from Moscow city limits, to accommodate 54,000 of the huge numbers of people from all over Russia who move to the capital in search of job opportunities each year. The company's website paints a glowing picture of the project, which it says will be a self-contained community, with all the infrastructure needed for inhabitants to "work, live and rest" amid pleasant surroundings.
"This project is a bright example of the new approach to urban development," Yekaterina Mironenko, of Morton's public relations department, said in emailed comments. "This is the first time such a project has been conducted in several stages, allowing for improvements to be incorporated according to the wishes of local inhabitants and the opinions of experts."
Still a rocky road
That doesn't satisfy many of the protesters. They say that even the revamped project is illegal, environmentally destructive, and ruinous to the traditional lifestyle of villagers and dacha-dwellers in the region.
"This region is a nature preserve. We have forests and fields here. By law it is not permitted to build any structure higher than three stories – let alone construct a huge agglomeration of enormous apartment blocks," says Anna Ivanova, a lawyer who lives in a local village. "I understand that Moscow has to expand. But surely not by destroying the nature preserves around the city?"
The first major confrontation between organized citizens and developers in the Moscow region was a struggle by grassroots environmentalists in the suburban city of Khimki, beginning about a decade ago, to prevent destruction of an old-growth forest to make way for a new toll road. It did not turn out well. Local authorities cracked down hard; activists were arrested, and several were severely beaten by unidentified assailants. The toll road has since been completed.
The leader of the campaign to save Khimki Forest, Yevgenia Chirikova, won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts. But she also became politicized, and went on to help lead mass protests against election fraud in 2011. Fearing persecution, Ms. Chirikova has since gone into self-exile in Estonia.
Reached by email, Chirikova commented that the Khimki Forest battle opened the way for more sophisticated public action. "Our struggle inspired many people around the country to fight for their rights," she said. "Compared to the situation 10 years ago, there is now a proliferation of groups who are finding ways" to take on corrupt authorities and expose their ties to unscrupulous developers.
Miroshnikova, who has taken part in protests in the past, says that "I understand what kind of consequences there can be."
But, she adds, Russian society is evolving and she is optimistic that public activism can make a difference.
"We are citizens exercising our rights under Russian law," she says. "I want our authorities to read the constitution, and to respect the law on every level. I do believe this is possible."