Civil activism: Are Russians exiting the Soviet eclipse?

The Russian public largely believes that it is up to the state to organize everything – a notion the Kremlin is happy to encourage in the political sphere. But in the nonpolitical realm, grassroots projects are shooting up in ways they never have before.

Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin/Sputnik/Reuters
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (l.) congratulates head of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alexeyeva on her 90th birthday during a meeting in Moscow last month. Ms. Alexeyeva, a dissident who challenged the Soviet regime and Russian authorities for decades, advocating for democratic rights and seeking justice for political prisoners, is still one of Putin’s most scathing critics.

For the past four years, Oksana Dubinina has been working with stray animals, particularly the estimated 30,000 homeless dogs who roam the streets of Moscow.

She's put together a group of a few dozen volunteers, who manage to get by on crowdfunding, with which they provide shelter, training, and veterinary services for about 40 dogs annually. They have forged ties with local orphanages, schools, hospices, and nursing homes, and bring dogs to foster mutual comfort and companionship. Sometimes, a dog finds a permanent placement. Ms. Dubinina calls the project “Friend for a Friend.”

This may sound unremarkable. But in Russia, where taking any kind of grassroots initiative is a whole new thing, it is a significant accomplishment.

Statistics show, and activists affirm, that people in their local communities are increasingly identifying problems and appointing themselves to address them – something virtually unheard of in the past. That includes raising funds and forming constructive relationships with local institutions.

To be sure, authorities in many places remain suspicious and unwelcoming of even the most apolitical activities. And the Kremlin has cracked down hard on politically active nongovernmental groups that receive foreign funding. But it also appears to be taking note of the new civic activism and creating fresh sources of funding, even for some of those it previously branded “foreign agents.”

“I am glad to say that there is a new generation emerging,” says Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a legendary Soviet-era dissident and human rights champion. She cites 19th-century writer Alexander Herzen, who argued that in order to become a free country, Russia would need at least two “un-whipped” generations. “This is the first one like that since the collapse of the USSR. In that sense, we are halfway along in our journey,” she says.

A whole new sphere

The Kremlin's war on foreign-funded groups that engage in what it deems to be political activity continues apace. About 160 NGOs remain trapped on the toxic “foreign agent” list, which makes it almost impossible to raise money or interact with the public, and 30 of them have been driven out of existence. The affected groups are disproportionately in politically sensitive fields like election monitoring, human rights, democracy activism, and environmentalism.

That picture remains dire. But Yelena Topoleva-Soldunova, head of the Agency for Social Information and an expert with the Federal Civic Chamber, an assembly of officially approved civil society groups, argues that it shouldn't obscure the extraordinary growth of non-political civic activism, volunteering, and raising money for worthy causes that is changing the grassroots landscape in Russia.

“I travel all over, and see many groups, often not registered or with any legal existence, starting to do things. They organize to improve their immediate surroundings, such as cleaning up streets, parks, or apartment lobbies. To protect the natural or architectural heritage of their communities. Or to help children, or disabled people, or find homes for stray cats,” she says.

“You have to appreciate how new this is in our country. Opinion polls show the vast majority of people still believe the state should organize everything, and they see no reasons to act on their own,” she adds. “This is the Soviet legacy, which is still very much with us. It's hard to change. But at least now our authorities know what civic activism is, and we can hold a dialogue with them. It doesn't mean they will be cooperative, but at least we are talking the same language nowadays.”

Ms. Topoleva-Soldunova recently took part in a round-table meeting with President Vladimir Putin that mainly focused on groups that provide assistance to the mentally ill, drug addicts, elderly, and terminal patients in hospices. This type of non-professional activism is new and controversial in Russia.

“Putin seemed surprised to see so many people who are sincerely involved in such nonprofit activity, and who believe in the values they express,” she says. “We are seeing the birth of a whole new sphere of private providers, both commercial and noncommercial, who are ready to step into the gaps in official care of orphans, elderly, disabled people, alcoholics, etc. The goal now is to integrate these new NGOs with the state system.”

Russian civil society has grown by 10 percent over the past decade, according to a new report prepared for the Public Chamber. About 5 percent of the population is regularly active in organized NGOs or report experience of “political activity,” while some 30 percent say they have taken part in occasional non-political involvement in their own communities. Topoleva-Soldunova says there are currently around 220,000 registered NGOs in Russia, and uncounted thousands of unregistered ones.

While cracking down on foreign-funded NGOs, the Kremlin has instituted its own system of grants to encourage civil society groups that it approves of, and has instructed regional governments to do the same. This year the Presidential Foundation for Civil Society Development disbursed about $40 million to almost 1,000 civil society groups. To the surprise of many, three groups that had previously been declared “foreign agents,” including the independent Levada public opinion agency, were included among the recipients.

Hanging on

Most groups still stuck on the “foreign agent” list have survived and learned to adapt.

“Of course we still accept foreign funding, because there are no other sources of money for us here,” says Galina Arapova, head of the Center to Protect Media Freedoms in the central Russian city of Voronezh. “Russian big business is afraid to donate money to any human rights cause, and the average person doesn't see any reason why he or she should.”

“But I think the state is starting to realize that they can't strangle every single NGO. Some of the weaker ones have ceased to exist, but we've been around for 20 years and we will live through these bad times. I'm an optimist, and I hope this paranoia will end one day.”

Even those who've managed to prove they no longer receive foreign funding and get themselves removed from the Justice Ministry's list of “foreign agents” say they are not out of the woods.

“We have been removed from the Justice Ministry's list, but they continue to insist that we are engaged in political activity,” says Yelena Gerasimova, director of the Center of Social and Labor Rights in Moscow, which provides legal assistance for workers who have disputes with employers. The reason, she says, is because the group is publicly critical of Russia's labor laws.

Due to the pressure of fines they had to pay over refusing the “foreign agent” label, Ms. Gerasimova's center has had to give up its offices and is reduced to consulting with workers and trade unions in public places and peoples' homes. “We're off the list, but all the accusations against us remain,” she says. “We gave up foreign funding, but there is no way to make up for it.”

Dubinina, who works with stray dogs in Moscow, says she's never had any unpleasant contacts with authority, and is surprised by the question. But the scarcity of money, due to the undeveloped culture of giving in Russia, is a huge obstacle to expanding operations, she adds.

“It would be really nice if we could find a big corporation to sponsor us, or something like that,” she says. “There is so much more we could do.”

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