The New Civic Activism in Russia

The New Civic Activism in Russia

Indifference and suspicion might be as much to blame as authoritarianism for Russia’s lack of democracy. That’s why an uptick in local-level civic engagement is welcome news.


"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.

But this ostensible weakness can become a strength if Khimki-style grassroots civic movements actively embrace a more Machiavellian, divide-and-conquer approach to the elites. "Even if we accept that the Khimki victory came down not to our strength but to a tactical coincidence of circumstances," says Kagarlitsky, "that does not mean that we must be pessimistic about the fate of civil society in Russia. We must closely monitor what goes on in government, very carefully observe their internal conflicts and use these elite disagreements to leverage our goals."

Such a calm tactical strategy could pay dividends because the most adversarial civil society groups tend to be the least successful. This is not just a result of state repression but because broad antigovernment protests end up alienating government loyalists, who remain a strong majority of the population. According to the most recent Levada Center poll, 77 percent of Russians approve of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s performance, and 73 percent approve of President Medvedev’s.

Many citizens have also become alienated from traditional civil society players such as NGOs, which they feel do not reflect their values and everyday experience. "The relationship between the civil society represented by NGOs and real society is the same as the relationship of the Soviet Communist Party to the working class," says Kagarlitsky.

People tend to view traditional NGOs with suspicion because of their ties to foreign organizations. It’s a sentiment enthusiastically fanned by the government, which in 2006 passed a controversial law to monitor and restrict foreign support for NGOs following allegations of covert British funding of the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Eurasia Foundation. "We don’t want them led by puppeteers from abroad," said Putin, who was president at the time. By contrast, a neighborhood group protesting road construction is more often seen as voicing legitimate concerns without ulterior motives, says Lisa Sundstrom, an expert on Russian civil society at the University of British Columbia.

Moreover, targeted and localized actions can also be more inclusive than abstract political campaigns. "We are fighting for something very accessible and understandable to ordinary people," Chirikova says. "A babushka will not understand what Article 31 is, but she knows what a forest is."

Equally crucial, the Khimki model of activism can help build social capital in a country rife with political apathy and personal mistrust—among people and also between the government and the population. In fact, indifference and suspicion of collective action might be as important as authoritarianism in explaining Russia’s lack of democracy.

"Even if there were completely free and open elections and a completely free right of assembly," says Sundstrom, "I don’t think you would see large amounts of public activism." She argues that public disinterest, not repression, is the number-one problem facing civil society movements. That is exactly the kind of anomie that Chirikova is crusading against. "Our population either patiently endures any humiliations to the last or explodes into civil violence," she says. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently sounded a similar warning, saying, "The most dangerous thing is if the tension building up in society suddenly bursts onto the street with such a force that we’ll all be in trouble."

Adds Chirikova, "People here are not used to working systematically for their own interests. Yes, that means attending pickets instead of spending the summers barbecuing sausages. It’s hard work." And dangerous: after a run-in between Khimki activists and riot police in July, two protesters, Alexei Gaskarov and Maxim Solopov, were detained on suspicion of vandalizing a government building. Kept in pretrial detention without charge for more than two months despite an international campaign for their release, Solopov was conditionally released on October 18 while Gaskarov remains behind bars pending review.

But will these newly energized citizens eventually translate their civic engagement into political demands? "I don’t think the Khimki protesters are going to suddenly start supporting the opposition parties and demanding political liberalization," says Sundstrom. According to Harvard’s Marshall Goldman, while ecological protests have historically foreshadowed political change, playing a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the enduring strength and popularity of the Putin/Medvedev government would make that transition unlikely in the near future. What’s more, the government may even try to quietly resume road construction in Khimki once the dust settles and the foreign journalists go home.

However, Khimki was always meant to achieve specific, practical goals, not broad sociopolitical reform. Given the failure of the liberal opposition during the past decade, perhaps it’s time to try bringing democracy in through the backdoor.

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