She was the kind of smart, sturdy, effortlessly cool blond girl you secretly envied in high school. Not because she was popular—she wasn’t—but because she couldn’t care less about being popular. The girl you are not surprised to find out grew up to be a volunteer organizer at the local “Rainbow” LGBT club before deciding to start the first feminist group in the capital city of a resource-rich but flyover region. Nothing about this scenario would be surprising if I were in America, but I am not. I live in Russia, and Tanya is one example of why I currently exist between parallel universes: the one where Tanya and I live and the other presented in Western media. The narrative that everything in Russia is awful, and that civil society has been silenced and crushed by Putin, has been building for years. The Washington-based Freedom House “Freedom in the World Index” not only declared Russia “not free,” but rated the status of political rights and civil liberties in Russia as equal to that in Rwanda and worse than Afghanistan.
I have never been to Afghanistan or Rwanda, but I have lived in Siberia for 25 years. I spent the first 20 as an activist and the last six months going to events for active citizens, journalists, and academics. There are two things that everyone I met agree on. The first is that more people are more active addressing a wider range of issues than ever before. The second is the explosion and game-changing nature of a multidimensional growth in charitable giving and support for civic initiatives. One more thing that NGO leaders I talked to agree on is that the first two are happening in the context of a more constrained legal environment for some (the so-called foreign-agents law among other things) and more empowering legislation for others (the massive shift of social-service provision from state institutions to NGOs). Whether inspired by, in spite of, or in response to these changes, civil society in Russia appears to be coming into its own. Vyacheslav Bakhmin, who went from being in a Soviet labor camp to becoming one of the most respected civil-society leaders in Russia today, described the dynamic: “The environment has tested the NGOs, challenged them in ways they were not challenged before, and they could have just lived through it, but instead of that they are developing!”
I recently got a Facebook message from someone I knew in junior high school. We had not been in touch for almost 50 years when he wrote, “I came across this article in The New York Times and wondered if this is a true reflection of what is going on in Russia?” It was an opinion piece describing in depressing, no doubt accurate, detail the decay of a small town in Russia. It was the tone, not the details, that struck me, because it was a reminder that many people in Russia still expect the government to take responsibility for their lives, blame their life circumstances on the government or their neighbors for being hostile toward active citizens. My universe is filled with people who believe the opposite, like Mikhail, founder of the Tchaikovsky Community Foundation. The composer was actually born in a neighboring town in a neighboring region but close enough to add legitimacy. Today, his town has gained notoriety as home to one of the oldest community foundations in Russia and a model to support social and economic development for other small towns and villages. In his mid-50s, Mikhail is a big guy in every sense of the word, the rare person you can count on to be the life of the party at night as much as you can depend on him to show up to volunteer the next morning in his well-worn suit and no tie, with the top button open. Since 1999, the foundation has mobilized volunteers to create 90 playgrounds for children, but Mikhail was most excited about a new grant competition they were launching called “My Town, My Fate,” financed by a local businessman.
During the two-day training program for community activists, a woman from a small town challenged the success stories, saying that everything in her community was awful, the mayor won’t cooperate, the school is not available for activities, etc. Another piled on: “If two or three people gather, the government thinks they need to control them.” The rest of the participants pushed back, saying there is always someone who is ready to cooperate. Mikhail agreed, “Don’t spend your energy trying to break through, find a way to go around.” Life is too short and too interesting for him to waste time complaining: “This work is creative, those who want to do it will find a way.” Confirming that they have mastered the full branding/PR cycle, Elena, the tiny, elegant vice director of the foundation, presented me with a swag bag filled with a 50th-anniversary book on their town, a wooden jewelry box decorated with a piano and a portrait of the composer, and a small bottle of locally produced 45-proof alcohol.
That creativity was on full display as another participant talked about how she made and sold pirojki to raise the money needed to register an NGO in Gybaha (population 20,000, located 219 kilometers from Perm) the regional capital city. Next, they bought a samovar for their events to make money selling tea at other public events. A nonstop talker, she explained that in 2012 the town supported an idea by the local youth theater to attract tourists. The first “Ballet at Sunset” featured the Perm Ballet Company performing for 5,000 people as the summer solstice light hit the Krestovaya Mountain behind the outdoor stage. Now an annual event, in 2016 25,000 people celebrated the fifth anniversary and “Gybaha City Day” with fireworks after a presentation of the Russian rock opera Juno and Avos. Gybaha is only six miles closer to Perm than Donskoy, the town featured in the New York Times editorial, is to Moscow. If you look at videos on YouTube, it is clear there is much you could complain about in both. Or you can start selling pirojki.
My universe expands as you travel from Perm to the other side of the Ural Mountains, about the same distance as Boston to Denver, to Krasnoyarsk, the largest krai (administrative division) in Russia. Fifteen times the size of France, it is resource-rich and home to the smallest percentage of poor people in the country. It is also the birthplace for the Russian community school model, which evolved in response to the economic and social devastation brought on by the ’90s transition. Education was one of the spheres hardest hit, with teachers often going six months without a paycheck and their status plummeting from being among the most respected members of a community to “you must be an idiot to do that job.” Many of the factories, farms, and institutes around which communities were built were downsized or crashed. Schools remained the only fully functioning institutions, and so the logical place to become centers for community development. Today the context in which community schools operate has changed dramatically, but the mission remains the same: to promote improved quality of life through increased citizen participation.
In Krasnoyarsk, I attended a forum for school directors, teachers, and youth NGO representatives. I had breakfast one morning with two women both named Irina from a neighboring region, which is one of the poorest but most beautiful areas around. The older woman was a school director in a village of 1,400 people; the younger, a teacher at a school in the capital city. Both of them work at “community schools” and credit this model for inspiring graduates that are more active. “They go on to higher education, join clubs, and become leaders,” according to the elder Irina. The younger Irina highlighted the success of an interactive approach to working with at-risk children, teachers, and parents: “Before, none of the parents wanted to go to these meetings; now the attitude has changed. It isn’t ‘What can the school do for me?’ It’s “What can I do for the school?’” They also described the mixed messages they get from the government. On the one hand, all they care about are exam results: “To hell with your volunteers, what did they get on the chemistry state exam?” On the other, the elder Irina described a phone call she got from the district education department, when she was asked, ”You are a community school, why aren’t you participating in the “Clean the Riverbank” action?” Her response: “Because we don’t have a riverbank, there are three schools that do, I will give you their contact information.” The younger Irina said she would not be that bold, but she had high hopes for the future: “Before, when we suggested something to kids, they would say, ‘Why me?’ Now they have chosen the slogan for their initiative group: ‘Who if not us?’ It used to be ‘Youth ne ta’ [youth is not what it used to be]. Now it is ‘Youth ne Taaaaaa’ [youth is so much better than it used to be!].
A change in the attitude of the general population was captured by the “Laboratory for Civil Society and NGO Research” at the Higher School of Economics. By monitoring responses to the question “Do you feel responsible for what happens in your town and country,” researchers found that after dips during the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a steady climb up, from 46 percent of respondents that feel responsible for their towns to 74 percent in 2015, and from 27 percent to 62 percent who feel responsible for what happens in the country. In relation to how many people feel they can influence what happens in their town, it went from 34 percent in 2008 to 55 percent in 2014. Ability to influence the country went from 17 percent in 2008 up to 39 percent before a dip, and then back up again in 2014.
The numbers are important, but it is the people that matter, and everywhere I went extraordinary personalities emerged. The shared characteristic for those who have been the most effective is a deep passion for their work mixed with extraordinary discipline that allows them to keep their emotions out of it. It is the calm, long-haul methodological demeanor that makes Igor mesmerizing to listen to. Co-author and editor of the remarkably user-friendly 692-page digest for citizen’s monitoring and control, Igor is part Gandhi (strategic patience and not much hair) and part Joe Friday—“The facts, ma’am, just the facts.” Igor sees a natural progression: “The middle class is busy with those civic-enlightenment activities, fairs, other popular things like charitable activities. There are organizations now that can collect big donations. That is all important and didn’t exist before. And there are these sports clubs and others who self-organize. Environmental organizations that address specific problems, there are also many. All that non-political activity has really increased. It is very modern, postmodern activity. In terms of political non-institutional monthly activities, since we serve as a resource center five to six times a month, people come to us for advice on how to target their activities at such things as improving medical care or against the closure of something more effectively. Many people are active with these little meetings and pickets.” When I asked about results, he gave a recent example of a village with 300 people outside his city. A babushka found out that the government planned to close down the only medical-care facility, a feldsher [analogous to a nurse practitioner] office. She mobilized the residents, mostly other babushkas, and got in touch with Igor’s resource center, which notified the press about the planned action. When the ambulance arrived to take away the equipment and close down the office, the villagers surrounded it and would not let it move. Photographers captured the scene and pictures of the babushkas stopping the ambulance to protect their health-care provider appeared in the press and the feldsher office was saved. Igor explained: “Our role was to make sure the press was there. There are many examples like that”.
I did not have to leave home to find the subject of the last portrait in my universe. Luda is a former math teacher and representative of the Akademgorodok intellectual community. Her circumstances differ from many in this community because she lives in a one-room apartment with her blind and mentally disabled 40-year-old son. I first met Luda in the ’90s, when she found herself living in a type of poverty she did not think possible, certainly not in a democracy. The problem wasn’t food. She, like most people during that period, could feed her family with vegetables grown at the family’s dacha. The faucet in her bathroom sink broke, so there was no water. Utility services were no longer available to people without money, and even if they had been, she had no money to buy the necessary replacement part. I helped her out and she became my weathervane for how Russia was evolving. A friendship developed as my husband and I continued to provide help when she asked. Her requests were never for money, and we always received something in return—fresh vegetables or berries from her dacha or old children’s books for my daughter.
Over the years, the nature of Luda’s requests changed. At first, it was mostly trips to the dacha to move the boxes of tomatoes for planting or the harvest to the root cellar in the fall. Then she gave us a wonderful old German piano she wanted to get rid of to make more space for a new bed she saved to purchase. In the mid-2000s, she started to ask for rides to IKEA so she could select a new kitchen set or to the appliance store for a flat-screened TV. It was clear that the Putin government was providing for people in a way the Yeltsin government hadn’t. She wasn’t rich, but she could budget and save and live the life of dignity she and her son deserve.
My weathervane pointed in a new direction recently when Luda called to ask for help with something totally different: organizing a campaign. “They are going to close down the library,” she said, “and I have been talking to a lot of people and we are not interested in computers or the Internet—we read books, we love books.” The library is on valuable land and the science-workers union will no longer support it. Luda’s group were circulating a petition but wanted to hold a meeting. I put her in touch with the head of the community foundation, who is also a deputy, and a week later I met Luda at the library. The room was so full it was hard to breathe and filled not only with pensioners. There were teenagers, students, and mothers with small children. Luda couldn’t stay because her son wasn’t feeling well. “My job was to get people here,” she said. That was several weeks ago, and the outcome is still uncertain. What is clear is that Luda and her coalition will not give up and that most people in Russia today are ready to become active when something they care deeply about is threatened. Equally significant, there is a whole infrastructure in place to help them.
The infrastructure of NGOs, community foundations, community schools, and civil-society resource centers were all inspired by Western models. They were adapted over time by activists to most effectively respond to Russians’ needs and support Russians’ aspirations for the future. These models also share a common heritage of being initially supported by Western funding and now primarily financed by a wide range of Russian donors. There is not enough money, there is much that is still not fair, and things are not perfect, great, or in some instances not even good, but they are for the most part better. And they are better because people organized at the grassroots level and started to build something new. It was ironic that after six months of traveling around attending events for people who were active, I had a “Dorothy in Oz” moment. Everything I went looking for, confirmation of what I thought to be true, was right here in my own backyard. I reject the Western narrative and Freedom House ratings not because I am a glass-half-full kind of woman, but because the glass has shattered as my universe continues to expand.