Civil society

Civil society
   Due to Russia’s status as an autocratic state under the Romanovs and decades of totalitarianism under Joseph Stalin, the country did not develop the overlapping and interlinking networks of civic associations that characterized many countries in Europe and the Western Hemisphere during the 20th century. Even societal organizations that resembled Western-style civic groups, such as the Pioneers and Komsomol youth organizations and volunteerism initiatives such as the subbotniki (weekend labor programs), were controlled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and thus not autonomous from the state. At the same time, Soviet citizens engaged in a number of unofficial, underground networks that often resulted in political and/or criminal persecution. Furthermore, philanthropy in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was anemic, thus explaining the historical weakness and small numbers of charitable and nonprofit organizations.
   During the 1990s, the country entered a new era in which many hoped for the birth of a genuine civil society (grazhdanskoie obshchestvo). Such expectations stemmed from the proliferation of “informal,” horizontal organizations under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. During this period, three principal categories of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) flourished: cultural organizations dedicated to the revival and preservation of minority languages, religions, and identities; special-interest groups comprised of individuals with a common cause, such as Pamyat, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, the Association of Private Family Farmers and Agricultural Cooperative Enterprises of Russia (AKKOR), Russian Orthodox associations, and women’s groups; and ecological and environmental organizations, particularly in the wake of Chernobyl. Regarding the latter, Moscow’s decision to abandon its plans to divert some Siberian rivers as part of Central Asian irrigation schemes is seen as the first great victory for a Soviet grassroots movement.
   However, the social disruption caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union wreaked havoc on many voluntary organizations, eliminated the need for some, and resulted in the co-optation of others by the state or political parties. During Boris Yeltsin’s administration, many new civic groups formed, but most were unable to sustain themselves in the chaotic economic and social environment due to a general lack of professionalization of their leadership and difficulty in securing funding. The latter problem was, to some extent, ameliorated by wealthy foreign donors such as the Ford Foundation and George Soros and financing by Western governments, particularly the European Union, United States, and Great Britain. Today, more than half of all Russian NGOs receive some foreign funding. However, lingering mistrust of organizations stemming from their compulsory nature under the Soviets, both among high-profile dissidents and the average citizen, has kept participation in civic organizations low.
   The Soviet state’s co-optation of trade unions and Russian society’s comparative classlessness also hampered the post-Soviet development of its civil society, especially given that Russia’s professional classes (doctors, academics, engineers, etc.) suffered most under shock therapy, thus limiting their ability to support the growth of citizen associations. During the late 1990s, a number of oligarchs began funding their own pet projects through philanthropy, which helped some hand-picked NGOs including Jewish groups, educational foundations, and charitable organizations.
   With the rise of Vladimir Putin, the status of Russia’s NGOs has become more uncertain. New legislation made the registration of civic organizations more difficult and expensive; critics suggest that corporate and government interests are colluding to prevent citizens’ organizations from making their voices heard. The funding of government-organized civic organizations, particularly patriotic youth groups, served to undermine the allure of genuine grassroots organizations. Many civic organizations took the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky as an ominous sign that anti-Kremlin activism was becoming increasingly dangerous. In recent years, attempts at strengthening Russia’s “sovereign democracy” have led to the government shutting down or harassing human rights activists, Westernfunded NGOs, and pro-democracy groups.
   In recent years, migrant support groups as well as anti-immigration organizations have flourished in the Russian Federation. The taming of the Russian media under Putin has also negatively impacted the country’s civic commitment, as television programming has turned from a focus on hard news and social problems toward “infotainment.” At the same time, the rapid development of Russian cyberspace has supported the growth of virtual advocacy groups across the Russian Federation. In a number of cases, Runet-based activism has resulted in legislative reform and policy changes. In 2009, President Dmitry Medvyedev called on Russians to join civic organizations, arguing that they were essential to the fabric of society. In part, he was responding to new demands placed on the government as a result of the 2008–2009 global financial crisis, suggesting that NGOs could shoulder some of the burdens on the country’s educational and health care systems. In an implicit criticism of his predecessor’s restrictions on NGOs, he condemned the attempt by those in power to maintain “total control.” Izvestiya> estimates that there are about 70,000 civic organizations operating in Russia at present.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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