Paper

Civil Society in Russia: Its Role under an Authoritarian Regime, Part I: The Nature of Russian Civil Society

Civil Society in Russia: Its Role under an Authoritarian Regime, Part I: The Nature of Russian Civil Society

Save to My Resources

Want to dive deeper?

Visit the Education Center

A productive and dynamic civil society with active participation by a broad and diverse representation of the population is fundamental to the development of democracy and the growth and prosperity of any country. Ensuring the free and unfettered development of civil society should be a basic national interest of a democratic state.

But what about an authoritarian country? How does it see the role of civil society in a state that is dominated by a small ruling elite? Must the activities and role of civil society be suppressed in order not to interfere with autocratic rule? Or is the role of civil society—through manipulation or other means—to serve the interests of the rulers while maintaining control? What is the danger to an autocratic regime if it loses control over civil society?

In this essay on civil society in Russia, I will address these and other questions. I will explore this topic in three parts. In the first part, I will examine the nature of civil society in Russia and will include a historical perspective to better understand current issues. In the second part, I will explore life, opinions, and nostalgia in contemporary Russian society. In the third part, I will delve into leadership and dissent and offer some thoughts about prospects for a more active role for civil society and the possibility of a substantial protest movement developing over the next several years.


The Challenge of Managing Civil Society in Authoritarian Russia

In an authoritarian state, civil society[1] is often perceived as an adversary rather than as a partner as it is in a democratic state. For this reason, authoritarian states strive to maintain firm control over the population. When the people are perceived as an autonomous political power, autocrats fear they could become a destructive force that could overturn the regime. In today’s globalized world, autocratic regimes face increasing pressure, not only internally, but also from external forces, be they foreign powers, non-governmental actors, or the international media that seek to promote and facilitate communication and interaction across borders in increasingly unrestrained and, at times, intrusive ways.

Controlling internal and external challenges from civil society has been a primary concern of Russia’s rulers over the centuries. For much of that time, the Kremlin has maintained control through intimidation, coercion, and force. On occasion, however, as civil society has felt egregiously abused by the authorities and the authorities have shown themselves to be weak in responding to legitimate demands from society or have acted cruelly and violently, elements of civil society have risen up against the authorities in protest and even rebellion.

Over the centuries, Russia has struggled between the centripetal forces of the central authority struggling to hold the country together under tight control, and the centrifugal forces represented by regional leaders, disgruntled elements of civil society, and anarchistic forces that want to weaken or destroy central control. Weakness in the center has led to strengthening forces in the periphery and a more prominent role for certain elements in civil society. A strong center has meant the supremacy of tight, autocratic rule marked by force, suppression of basic civil rights, and the demand that civil society strictly comply with the arbitrary rule of the Kremlin.

With very few exceptions, Russia has not known or experienced the benefits of what a vibrant, free civil society can bring to the country. Those few exceptions have either been marked by chaotic, anarchistic eruptions of popular discontent or short-lived expressions of freedom during which civil society and the national leaders appeared to share similar objectives. The first is best illustrated by the turmoil of the 1917 revolutions. The second case is exemplified by the transformation that occurred in the 1990s when the Soviet Union broke apart and a new Russia emerged. Otherwise, Russia has been dominated by autocrats, and civil society has been the hapless victim of arbitrary and oppressive authoritarian rule.

The problem in Russia is not that there is a lack of understanding about what the relationship should be between the leaders and civil society to benefit the country. The problem is that the people and the structures of civil society have been largely powerless to influence how that relationship should develop. Vladimir Inozemstev, a noted Russian economist and the founder and director of the Center for Research on Post-Industrial Societies, is among those Russians—mainly intellectuals and opposition leaders—who argue that,

[T]he problem [in Russia] is the lack of recognition that it is the people who empower their leaders, and not the powers-that-be who determine the people’s degree of freedom. The problem is the lack of recognition that the state can and must be constructed from below, through democratic elections and the possibility of effective control over the authorities through meaningful local government and federalism.

Unfortunately for Russia, while this view is understood and has emerged to prominence at various times in the country’s past, it remains the view of the minority. Much more prominent is the ideology that supports the supremacy of the ruling elite over the general population.

Vladislav Surkov, who in recent years has occupied senior positions in President Vladimir Putin’s government and has been dubbed the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal” for the leading role he has played as an ideologue and framer of the term “sovereign democracy” to describe the framework of Putin’s rule, has been blunt in defining the reality of Russia as an autocratic state. Although some have criticized Surkov’s views, others find much truth in them, particularly in his historical analysis.

On February 11, 2019, Surkov published an important article, entitled “Putin’s Lasting State” in the popular Russian newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta. In his article, Surkov describes the origins of the Russian state, which, in his view, determined the course of its evolution over more than 1,000 years. Surkov wrote:

The character of the Russian state has been central in shaping Russian strategic thinking. It has never been conceived as an emanation of society, instituted to protect the rights of citizens, temper the consequences of conflicts among them and advance the public weal. Rather, it emerges as an alien force invited to establish order over an unruly people. “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us,” as the Primary Chronicle, written in the 13th century, describes the creation of the Russian state. The new rulers were not kin of the local Slavic population, but Nordic Varangians, soldier-traders who moved through Slavic lands for commercial purposes.

In support of his argument, Surkov quotes the noted American historian Richard Pipes who opined that “the [Russian] state neither grew out of society, nor was imposed on it from above. Rather it grew up side-by-side with society and bit by bit swallowed it.”

In expanding on the role of the state, Surkov argues that

[T]he all-encompassing state has been the central and decisive actor in Russian history.… Loyalty to the state in the person of the sovereign lay at the core of Russian identity. It is not an exaggeration to say that, at least in the minds of the rulers, without the state, there would be no Russia.[2] Hence, the preservation and progress of the state has been their central mission throughout history. It is the restoration of the state after the profound crisis of the first post-Soviet decade [the 1990s under President Yeltsin] that Russia’s current rulers [President Putin and his administration] count among their greatest achievements. Their mission requires defending the state from enemies at home and abroad.

Surkov recognizes that Russia has adopted certain political terminologies and institutions from the West that impart a veneer of democracy and democratic practices, but in reality are nothing more than a façade, a pretense of having institutions that in essence are alien to Russian political culture as practiced by the autocratic state. Surkov cynically described this situation as follows:

The multilayered political institutions which Russia had adopted from the West are sometimes seen as partly ritualistic and established for the sake of looking “like everyone else,” so that the peculiarities of our political culture wouldn’t draw too much attention from our neighbors, didn’t irritate or frighten them. They are like a Sunday suit, put on when visiting others, while at home we dress as we do at home.

We shall return to the nature of Russian concepts and institutions and their development within civil society throughout this essay. Although Surkov expresses a view that is undoubtedly shared within certain powerful circles of the ruling elite, there are competing views within civil society that are rising to challenge the conservative, autocratic ideology and policies of those in power. How the more influential views of the leaders of civil society, as well as those of the general population, are emerging and are challenging tradition will be explored below.

Putin Rebuilds the Authoritarian State, but Where Does Civil Society Fit In?

The 1990s was a transformative decade. The Soviet Union collapsed. Fifteen independent countries emerged from what was the world’s largest totalitarian empire. Each of those countries sought its own path of development and in so doing struggled to build a government and a civil society. Except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, most of the other former Soviet republics, including Russia, fell into the traditional pattern of authoritarian rule with a weak civil society.

Decades of living under the oppressive Soviet system in which people’s social behavior and relations with the all-powerful state were tightly controlled had so stifled individual initiative and the incentive to actively engage in social, much less political, activities, that when state controls were substantially relaxed, civil society struggled to develop into a meaningful, influential force. The free-for-all environment that emerged in Russia in the 1990s, in which bandit-capitalism, roaming criminal gangs, widespread corruption, chaos, and economic collapse dominated society—often in the name of “democracy” and “freedom”—drove both the Russian authorities and society toward the same goal: restore stability and predictability in the economic, political, and social life of the country. When Putin became president, this became his compelling objective—regain control over the economy, strengthen the state, re-centralize its power, and restore calm to the nation. These tasks were greatly facilitated by the weakness of Russian civil society and the people’s yearning at almost any price to see stability return to their lives.

Putin openly acknowledged the weakness of Russian society. In his “Millennium Manifesto,” which was published in the newspaper Izvestiya on December 30, 1999, Putin described Russian society as “split and internally disintegrated.” He returned to this theme on several occasions over the coming years for he strongly believed that if Russia were to develop and regain its position in the world, it needed civil accord. As prominent Russian analyst Maria Lipman noted, in Putin’s public addresses he favored the word “reconciliation” to describe how he wanted to see Russian society come together. But in fact, Lipman points out, Putin’s policy was one of demobilization and pacification.

During the first two terms of his presidency (2000–2004 and 2004–2008) Putin was able to achieve his goal of restoring order (“demobilization”) and calm (“pacification”) to Russian society. The state remained mainly aloof of controversial issues, and it eschewed the reestablishment of any official ideology. The people grew acquiescent, and stability was restored. Lipman cited the term “nonintrusive” that was coined by sociologist Boris Dubin to describe the Russian state of the 2000s. Aided by high oil prices, Putin was able to raise the standard of living for a large segment of the Russian population who, for the first time in their lives, moved into the middle class. Major cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, enjoyed an economic boom. Many of their citizens experienced a positive change in their lives. Urban society focused on the pleasures of an improved lifestyle, while the leaders in the Kremlin consolidated their power.

But this apparent tranquility, this apparent stable balance of interests between society and the authorities proved to be ephemeral. A series of shocks in 2008—a worldwide economic crisis, a major drop in oil prices, a change at the top of Russia’s political leadership, and growing discontent within Russian society—were to have a major impact on the Kremlin, on the nature of its rule, its relationship with civil society, and within civil society itself.

The consequences of these events did not appear immediately. They were moderated for a time by the rhetoric and half-hearted attempts at reform and modernization by Russia’s new president, former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who changed jobs in 2008 with President Putin because the latter could not constitutionally run for a third term. Despite the promising rhetoric and the appearance of Medvedev as a forward-thinking, iPhone-toting leader, conditions in the country did not improve. Recovery from the 2008 economic collapse was slow. Corruption from the highest levels down to local officials, abusive conduct by law enforcement officials, and arbitrary decisions by the courts created an increasingly depressed mood among the population. When President Medvedev announced in September 2011 that he was not going to run for a second term so that Vladimir Putin could run again for president (the legislature had amended the constitution to permit this), civil society erupted in a series of protests in the winter of 2011–2012 at a scale that was unprecedented since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The reaction of the new Putin administration was swift, decisive, and ruthless. The police and special forces cracked down and arrested protestors and even innocent bystanders. The courts took corresponding measures to sentence minor offenders to unwarranted prison terms. Repression replaced “nonintrusiveness.” Russia was beginning to restore some of the more odious features of the Soviet Union while losing many of the hopeful, albeit chaotic, signs of progress toward a more open and democratic society of the Yeltsin years. The people suffered while the regime prospered. Gone was the balance between growing prosperity and society’s aloofness from politics. A recalculation and a readjustment in the relationship between the rulers and the ruled were inevitable.

The Kremlin responded in two ways: by tightening its grip over civil society and the population as a whole through repressive measures, and by developing an official quasi-ideology that was to become the foundation of a resurgent national identity in an effort to rally support for the regime. Neither of the two has provided more than temporary societal acquiescence.

Repression has been the default policy for Russia’s rulers over the centuries. Putin’s administration is no exception. Law enforcement agencies and the courts have been working in tandem to impose strict and speedy punishment on anyone participating in demonstrations against the authorities. Olga Romanova, a journalist and director of the civil rights organization Russia behind Bars, writing for the Carnegie Moscow Center in September 2019, identified several important trends in the Putin administration’s use of repression. “The first trend is that the authorities have completely stopped investigating (never mind opening criminal cases into) accusations of the unjustified use of force against detainees.” This became apparent following mass arrests at protests sparked by the authorities who refused to register opposition candidates for elections to the Moscow City Council that were held on September 8, 2019. “The second trend,” Romanova identifies, “is the outright refusal by judges to admit (or even view) what the defense claims is evidence that clears the defendant.” Moreover, Romanova notes that cases brought against political protesters that were previously classified as minor “administrative” violations were now being tried as more serious crimes for which the accused could be sentenced to years in prison. There have been several cases of protestors and even innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were charged with allegedly injuring policemen during arrest scuffles and were sentenced to several years in prison. Romanova notes that such strict repressive measures have not failed to resonate with civil society. She concludes that “what is clear is that the faction [within the Putin administration] urging for harsh repression currently has the upper hand. This will impact not just the prevailing mood of protest,” Romanova predicts, “but the entire state of the Russian justice system, which was already lamentable.”

The Putin regime has also taken legislative and administrative measures to clamp down on the activities of civil society when they run counter to official policy. The infamous law on “foreign agents” that was passed by the Russian parliament and signed into law by President Putin in 2012 is a case in point. Any non-governmental organization that receives funding from a foreign source and does not register as a “foreign agent” is subject to stiff penalties, including hefty fines. Perhaps most importantly, it labels such organizations as “foreign agents,” which in the historic Soviet and Russian context implies being agents of a foreign intelligence organization, that is, spies. This odious law has severely impacted the nongovernmental community in Russia, forcing many to close their doors, and has imposed draconian restrictions on others that have survived, such as Russia’s most influential civil rights organization, Memorial. Surkov, in his Nezavismaya Gazeta article, sets forth an argument in support of this law. He argues that it is the mission of the authorities to defend the state

[F]rom enemies at home and abroad. Under these circumstances, they firmly believe they have the right and obligation to severely restrict and closely monitor the activities of foreign and foreign-funded entities operating in Russia, and, at the extreme, to expel them or shut them down. They remain determined not to succumb to America’s form of hybrid warfare.

President Vladimir Putin addressed the state’s reaction to protests and to the motive for a “foreign agents” law in comments he made on March 2, 2020:

If you want to express your point of view,” Putin said, “then get a permit for a public demonstration and go to town. In some countries, unpermitted rallies can cost you five or even 10 years. Get a permit. And if you don’t, and you protest anyway, then you’re in for a buzzcut when they lock you up. Take a load off and relax a bit behind bars. And we aren't the ones who invented foreign-agent status—that was the Americans. Comparing it to the yellow badges the Nazis forced on the Jews is unfair. The only goal of the law against foreign agents is to protect Russia from outside political interference.

The Russian parliament has imposed further restrictions on Russian citizens’ freedom of expression. On March 6, 2019, a law was passed that allowed courts to fine and even jail people for “indecent” online posts that “disrespect” government officials, including President Putin, and demonstrate a “blatant disrespect for society, the country, Russia’s official state symbols, the constitution, or the authorities.” Violators of this law are subject to fines up to 100,000 rubles ($1,300). Repeat offenders can be fined twice that amount or sentenced to 15 days in jail.

The second important step the Putin regime took after the wave of protests in the winter of 2011–2012 was to develop a quasi-ideology to strengthen national identity and rally the people around a set of values of which they could be proud. To do so, the Kremlin reached back to past glories and achievements of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union and a value system deeply rooted in Russian tradition and the Russian Orthodox faith. According to Putin’s quasi-ideology, the powerful, ever-vigilant state was protecting the nation against the omnipresent threat from foreign enemies who encircle Russia and want to destroy the country and seize its wealth. Internal enemies who were doing the bidding of foreign powers were portrayed as equally dangerous and had to be prevented from pursuing their evil schemes. Russian society was strengthened by relying on traditional, conservative family values and morals. Spirituality and the tenets of the Russian Orthodox Church were widely propagated. The immoral West was condemned for pursuing a licentious lifestyle. The word Gayropa was coined by the Russian propaganda machine to condemn Europe for its support for gay rights and other nontraditional (from the Russian perspective) societal changes. It has also been used mockingly by Russia’s youth as a cynical retort to Russian traditionalists and the authorities to demonstrate their opposition to the family values promoted by the state.

Russia’s exceptionalism and strong patriotism received a major boost with the seizure (or return, in the Russian explanation) of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s support for, and direct involvement in, the war in eastern Ukraine. Nationalist fervor and support for President Putin reached a fever pitch and helped sustain the Kremlin’s quasi-ideology for several years. But nationalism, patriotic slogans, and television images of Russian Orthodox priests blessing nuclear missiles, or public figures condemning the increasingly Western-oriented lifestyle of Russia’s youth cannot sustain for long a state-sponsored propaganda campaign in the face of a deteriorating economy, a decaying infrastructure, unaddressed social needs, and a growing civil consciousness among Russian citizens.

With the weakening of the Kremlin’s ideologic message and the state’s growing reliance on repressive measures, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the state is losing control over the social agenda and is no longer able to respond to the needs of society. As Tatyana Stanovaya of Carnegie Moscow Center states, “In its twentieth year, the Putin system is closing in on itself and self-isolating from society.” She further explains, “The government has simply forgotten how to empathize with the public and understand its demands, which it increasingly perceives as excessive and politically untenable. To understand the nature of Putin’s fourth presidential term [2018–2024] look to the government’s new maxim: ‘We don’t owe you anything.’”

A dialogue between the authorities and civil society does not exist. Putin and his cohorts are increasingly isolated from society—a society that is itself beginning to undergo its own transformation brought about by challenges forced upon it from within; by the devasting impact of the coronavirus[3]; by the coming of age of a new, urban middle class; and by the failures of the Kremlin to pursue a bold and effective agenda. As for the future, Stanovaya sees it being set to a significant degree by society. “What happens next,” she argues, “will be determined much more by people’s political mobilization, by the effectiveness of new opposition leaders, and by the number of mistakes the government will make.”

Russian Society and Civic Activism

On December 4, 2019, Yegor Zhukov, a 21-year-old university student appeared before a Moscow court accused of extremism for posting videos on YouTube in which he talked about nonviolent protests, issues regarding political power, and his campaign for a seat on the Moscow City Council. At his trial, he read a bold and courageous statement that was an indictment of the Russian political system and the ills it causes to Russian society. His statement became a media sensation and a symbol of what is wrong with Putin’s Russia. In the end, Zhukov received a sentence of three years’ probation—an unusually light sentence based on current practices of the Russian judicial system, probably because of the public reaction to his statement.

Zhukov’s words were powerful. His message was not just political but also emotional. He spoke of love; he spoke of trust; and he spoke of the loss of both. Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, captured the essence of Zhukov’s statement in an article in The New Yorker on December 7, 2019. I quote the highlights of Zhukov’s poignant message.

An impenetrable barrier divides our society in two. All the money is concentrated at the top and no one up there is going to let it go. All that’s left at the bottom—and this is no exaggeration—is despair. Knowing that they have nothing to hope for, that, no matter how hard they try, they cannot bring happiness to themselves or their families, Russian men take their aggression out on their wives, or drink themselves to death, or hang themselves. …

Now I would like to talk about love. Love is impossible in the absence of trust. Real trust is formed of common action. Common action is a rarity in a country where few people feel responsible. And where common action does occur, the guardians of the state immediately see it as a threat. It doesn’t matter what you do—whether you are helping prison inmates, speaking up for human rights, fighting for the environment—sooner or later you'll either be branded a “foreign agent” or just locked up. The state’s message is clear: “go back to your burrow and don’t take part in common action. If we see more than two people together in the street, we’ll jail you for protesting. If you work together on social issues, we’ll assign you the status of a ‘foreign agent.’” Where can trust come from in a country like this—and where can love grow? I’m speaking not of romantic love, but of the love of humanity.…

The only social policy the Russian state pursues consistently is the policy of atomization. The state dehumanizes us in one another’s eyes. In the state’s own eyes, we stopped being human a long time ago. Otherwise, why would it treat its citizens the way it does? Why does it punctuate its treatment of people through daily nightstick beatings, prison torture, inaction in the face of an HIV epidemic, the closure of schools and hospitals, and so on? …

Let’s look at ourselves in the mirror. We let this be done to us, and who have we become? We have become a nation that has unlearned responsibility. We have become a nation that has unlearned love. More than two hundred years ago, Alexander Radishchev [widely regarded as the first Russian political writer], as he travelled from St. Petersburg to Moscow, wrote, “I gazed around myself, and my soul was wounded by human suffering. I then looked inside myself and saw that man’s troubles come from man himself.” Where are these kinds of people today? Where are the people whose hearts ache this much for what is happening in our country? Why are hardly any people like this left?

It turns out that the only traditional institution that the Russian state truly respects and protects is the institution of autocracy. Autocracy aims to destroy anyone who actually wants to work for the benefit of the homeland, who isn’t scared to love and take on responsibility. As a result, our long-suffering citizens have had to learn that initiative will be punished, that the boss is always right just because he is the boss, that happiness may be within reach—but not for them. And having learned this, they gradually started to disappear. According to the state statistical authority, Russians are slowly vanishing, at the rate of four hundred thousand people a year. You can’t see the people behind the statistics. But try to see them! These are the people who are drinking themselves to death from helplessness, the people freezing to death in unheated hospitals, the people murdered by others, and those who kill themselves. These are people. People like you and me.

These are the words not of a learned scholar of sociology, not of a political opposition leader, not of a popular media pundit. These are the words of a 21-year-old student; a young man who has lived his entire life under the regime of Putin; a man deeply concerned about his country, its people, and its future. His wisdom, his analysis, and his passion can offer inspiration to others, can inspire a shift toward more activism in civil society, or perhaps will just be drowned out by the cacophony of boisterous, undisciplined street protests and demonstrations, by the shrieks of baton-wielding police and the sirens of paddy wagons. Regardless of what transpires, Zhukov’s statement before a court that was to decide the fate of this very young man cannot help one not be deeply troubled about Russia’s future and the future of the Russian people.

Zhukov spoke about the atomization of society at the hands of the authorities. This, indeed, is a fundamental policy pursued by the Kremlin. It is also a natural phenomenon caused by the sharp divide within Russian society itself, which the Kremlin takes advantage of for its own purposes. Civil society is split. One component consists of organizations that cooperate closely with the government, pursue agendas approved by the Kremlin, and receive state support and funding. Some of them are attached to government ministries and other state agencies. The other component consists of totally independent non-governmental organizations that struggle to survive without government funding. Private philanthropy in Russia is not widespread and is risky because independent NGOs might pursue projects that the authorities oppose, thereby causing unease among domestic funders who do not want to be on the wrong side of the government. Foreign funding is also precluded because of the “foreign agent” law, thereby making it difficult for independent NGOs to survive. Many of them find themselves in conflict with the authorities because of the issues they take on. Only the most courageous, persistent, and lucky manage to survive.

Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center describes the dilemma Russian civil society faces:

One option is to cut a deal with the state, and operate in full compliance with its terms, allowing organizations to continue their valuable activities, but de facto conferring political support on the Kremlin. The other option is marginalization, becoming outcasts destined to be in constant conflict with the state. In the meantime, the result is conflict and potential polarization within Russia’s civil society.

Within the broader spectrum of Russian society, beyond the realm of the activists—be they aligned with state institutions and policies, or operate independently, the chasm between those who are politically, socially, environmentally concerned about changing Russia for the better and the majority of the population, which is either indifferent or even hostile to the efforts of the activists, could not be starker. As Russian analyst Maria Snegovaya writes in a tweet, “Once again we have two Russias: One is beaten at demonstrations, the other actively votes for the KPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation]. Neither of the two Russias believes the other.”

This dual nature of Russian society has deep roots that extend far back into Tsarist Russia as well as to Russia’s more recent Soviet past. Yegor Zhukov identified many of the traditional weaknesses and problems of Russian society in his statement before the court. Much of the population is reluctant to push for change that could improve their lives. They prefer to remain aloof from political involvement and social activism, adopting a more fatalistic approach to life, convinced that there is nothing that they can do against the forces of the authorities and the powerful state.

Although much has changed for the better in the daily lives of the Russian people since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, people’s perception of, and relation to, the state and the authorities have been slow to change. As Maria Volkenstein, President and CEO of the VALIDATA Market Research Agency explains:

As soon as the state and the government begin to put greater pressure on society, as they have been doing in recent years, the old Soviet skills of hiding and subterfuge come in quite handy. This cat-and-mouse game with the government is habitual, and even if it had been forgotten in the 1990s and 20oos when the government was less intrusive, people remember it at the drop of a hat. I remember the moment—around 2006–2007, I guess—when people in focus groups suddenly became afraid to talk. They immediately remember that skill.

This aloofness from the political life of the country, this reluctance to get involved has been a traditional weakness of Russian society and has facilitated the authorities to rule arbitrarily. Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Russia’s most famous human rights activist who was a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group and one of the last Soviet dissidents active in modern Russia, blamed society for allowing such a situation to exist. Before her death in December 2018, she charged that “if [the rulers] conduct themselves badly, then we are guilty in this more than they are.”

Fortunately, there are bold and courageous individuals brave enough to carry on the civic activism of Alekseyeva and her contemporaries. These individuals are today’s leaders at the forefront of civil society who are willing to risk their private lives and personal freedom for a better life for the Russian people. Ironically, the political activism being waged by a small cadre of civil society leaders is helping the non-activists, the apolitical masses to begin, as Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Institute of Contemporary Development points out, to “slowly but surely, to rise up off [their] knees…and recognize [themselves] no longer as part of the faceless mass of people but as individual[s] with dignity and personal interests.” These interests include “doing what one wants,” having the “opportunity to earn a decent living for themselves and their families,” and being able to expect “protection from lawlessness and injustice in court.”

This does not necessarily embolden political activism, but it does help to raise civic consciousness. So when local issues arise as a result of the arbitrary actions of the authorities, such as locating a garbage dump near a populated area, planning to build a large church in one of the few remaining open spaces in a city, closing hospitals and clinics, or other actions that intrude into the lives of ordinary citizens, more and more people who have never before come out onto the streets to protest are willing to do so now. As a result of several recent successful efforts to halt the government’s intrusion into the lives of citizens, people are beginning to feel change and sense that the state’s impact on their private lives is weakening. Economic and environmental causes—causes that directly impact the lives of ordinary citizens—are gaining support among a much broader segment of the population than have the political demonstrations and protest movements of political activists. The challenge for the leaders of civil society who want a better Russia is to channel the energy of both social and political activism into a common cause.

This should be deeply troubling for the Kremlin. A recent headline in the Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets predicted that the Russian people will not come to the aid of the authorities “at the moment of their collapse.” The popular tabloid cited the fate of Tsar Nicholas II, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin and sent a warning that “the people will lend those in power their silent support—until they don’t.” Author and analyst Mark Galeotti, commenting on this article, tweeted: “[This is a] useful reminder…that even Russians are aware of the impermanence of power and are not willing to indulge any leader forever.” Russian society has more than once risen to prominence, either as a supportive element or a crucial player, in deciding the political fate of the country. Russia does not yet appear to be on the verge of significant change, but these are increasingly troubling times, and it is impossible to predict what might happen. The significance of the Moskovsky Komsomolets article should not be ignored by Russia’s rulers. If they do so, it is at their peril.

Washington, DC
May 2020

[1] By civil society, I mean a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity. Civil society is traditionally comprised of groups or organizations working in the interest of the citizens but operating outside of the governmental and for-profit sectors. In this essay I will, at times, conflate the more limited concept of civil society with the population as a whole when there are clearly defined mutual interests. When those interests diverge, I will make the distinction.

[2] A similar view is shared by others in positions of authority in Russia today. In October 2014, Deputy Chief of Staff of Putin’s Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, told an international audience that “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin.”

[3] The impact of the coronavirus on Russia’s domestic and foreign policy will be the subject of a separate essay.

Stay Informed

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.

Sign Up




Close

My Resources