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.