"Imagine a neighborhood soccer team defeating a squad of professionals because the professionals all got drunk, beat each other up, broke each other’s legs and didn’t make it out onto the pitch."
What sounds like the plot of an absurdist play is actually sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky’s description of a recent protest in Russia, when community activists made international headlines by blocking the government’s construction of a toll road through the suburban Moscow forest of Khimki.
When authorities arrested a group of people opposed to the start of logging for the proposed Moscow–St. Petersburg highway in July, they were not prepared for the intensity of the backlash. After all, the forest’s demolition had been planned for years, and previous protests had come to nothing. But over the next two months, thousands marched and attended concerts in solidarity with the forest defenders, culminating in an appeal to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev from U2 frontman Bono to stop the project. On August 26 the president reversed course and ordered a halt to construction, pending further consultation; a month later, he even fired the once invincible Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who had become a key supporter of the road.
The Khimki protests rode a growing wave of civic activism in Russia. And in succeeding where other recent protests had failed—against a polluting paper mill on Lake Baikal, in favor of Article 31 (the Russian Constitution’s protection of freedom of assembly)—they have inspired an intense debate about the prospects and limitations of Russian civil society.
Yevgenia Chirikova, the entrepreneurial 33-year-old mother of two who leads the movement, believes that with organization, hard work and persistence, ordinary people have the power to effect change even in the absence of a functioning democracy, provided they focus on concrete issues close to their lives.
Her can-do message is catching on. Chronicling another outbreak of what the Vedomosti newspaper has called "the forest uprising," an October 1 poll by the Levada Center found that residents of the nearby town of Zhukovsky are willing to protect their local Tsagovsky forest from a similar road development. "We have shown that when a critical mass of popular resistance reaches a certain point, even the Russian authorities will make concessions," Chirikova says.
But others caution against a view of civic activism that focuses on mass mobilization while ignoring broader power structures. Kagarlitsky believes that the Khimki protests succeeded where similar actions have failed, not because of their superior organization but because they played into an existing conflict within the elite. "If the authorities saw no political advantage in the Khimki protests," he says, "then the forest would have been fully cut down long ago without any consultation."
Nikolai Petrov, an authority on civil society at the liberal Carnegie Endowment, concurs. Civil society actions can succeed, he says, only when they are able to ally with one elite group against another. This was precisely how environmental groups succeeded in getting the government and oil companies to reroute a pipeline around sensitive areas of Lake Baikal four years ago. Similar protests to prevent the razing of a dacha village in Rechnik in January failed because protesters could not find an elite sponsor.