Philanthropy and civic activism in absence of political opposition


Inga Pagava


Inga Pagava

Russia has just re-elected Vladimir Putin for the next six years. Three months before the elections were marked by the highest wave in protest activism. Right after the Duma elections on 4 December 2011, groups of activists took to streets primarily with demands of fair elections and having Russia without Putin. The intensity of the movement was high enough to evoke in the minds of many the possibility of an ‘Arab spring’ in Russia. 

During the previous three years Russia had seen the gradual upsurge of civic activism that had not been there for the entire previous decade. Activism rose in conjunction with different issues and different problem zones, with varying degrees of personal risk for the initiators. To name only a few of them:

Blue Buckets Society and Petr Shkumatov

Perhaps the largest public movement, this grew into the largest flash mob network across the country. It registered 10,000 members over a year and a half, and has more than 300,000 supporters. Its primary goal is to stop or limit to extreme necessity the use of winking lights (flashers) by officials (a practice that is assumed to be corrupted). Because of the society’s activity, every single incident involving officials’ cars gets heightened public scrutiny, with the result that some celebrities and important public figures have had to give up their privileged traffic gadget. With law-enforcement bodies always hot on their heels, the society has been extremely successful in the media.

Bloggers Against Trash and Sergey Dolya

Dolya is among top ten most popular bloggers on, and he is a successful businessman, traveller and photographer. In 2011, over the course of a few months, he succeeded in mobilising more than 20,000 people across Russia to get rid of the trash cluttering up different corners of the country.

Alexey Navalny and Rospil

Navalny is a political and social activist who in recent years has gained great prominence amongst Russian bloggers and mass media due to his social campaigning activity. He uses his popular blog to organize large-scale petitions by Russian citizens addressing issues mainly related to heavy corruption in Russia, which appear to be widely ignored by top Russian officials and state-controlled businesses. Being a professional lawyer and minority shareholder, he reveals information about corporate abuses and corruption forcing governmental investigation of the case. Through his anti-corruption website he raised around $250,000 and has 8,500 followers on Twitter – this is unheard of for Russia. He was one of the key protest figures over the recent three months.

Old Age to Enjoy

Two young ladies (one of whom happens to be a CAF staff member) created an informal network of supporters of elderly people living in old people’s houses. Their activity was under the radar, until one day they unintentionally discovered the agonizing conditions – beyond human imagination – in which old people were kept in one of the rural state institutions up the Russian north. One regular LiveJournal post followed, asking for volunteers to mobilize; it became a top-read story literally overnight, and a scandal involving a local Governor erupted. Lives at that particular institution were saved, and soon afterwards the lives of many residents of other institutions too.

These initiatives, movements, events, etc. were indeed numerous; and definitely special in their effectiveness. As a matter of fact, they might even be viewed as a new type of civic activism not limited to protests or campaigning; this is a meaningful, well-informed, targeted and strategic activity. In some cases it yielded immediate results, in others a powerful long-term infrastructure was created to mobilize and coordinate volunteers. In most cases there was a single person behind the initiatives, and sometimes it took that person a good amount of personal courage to take the initiative to the end with the right means. At times that person was standing alone, by oneself in front of the rigid system, conventional beliefs or a personal drama. Some of the initiatives caught on across the entire country over a short period of time, and engaged dozens of thousands of supporters.

One might assume that the recent street protests were the culmination of the previous period, but that will remain just an assumption. In terms of the promise of change – social or political – the mindsets of many people have been refreshed. It seems as if society as a whole has made a tremendous leap and is entering a new era.

Needless to say, we at CAF Russia, while taking in the created civic momentum (as well as the latest street protests) with admiration, observed them through the professional angle. Who are these people? What is their prime motivation? Can their initiatives be adapted further and scaled up? Should they be institutionalized to bring greater impact? Can we be partners? Where do our paths cross or are we oceans apart? How broad should the concept of philanthropy be to contain civic activity?

We looked into the fabric of the civic activity to understand the main reasons and motivations behind it, and its potential for the Russian philanthropy in the future. The hypothesis suggested by some that we work with is as follows. At this time in history admittedly there is no systemic opposition that is strong enough.

Let’s forget the street protesters for a second and go back to the civic activism of the last two or three years – this activism was consistent in setting goals and achieving them. Behind these great initiatives stand individuals who belong to the growing class of young and middle-aged Russians who might be attributed to the middle class (with some reservations). In Russia, as recent studies indicate, attribution to the middle class happens on the basis of regular income, sustainable livelihood and higher educationor to put it more precisely, intellectuals.

In Russia, politics is not recognized as a decent career option after certain social and economic status is gained, as would be the case in a country that follows the rule of law. Successful, intelligent and actively inclined people tend to look for alternative ways to create social value. They choose direct engagement to defend their rights and freedoms, as they believe they can succeed, and they are weary of official ineffective and inefficient processes. They want to see changes coming through earlier than promised.

Civic activism and philanthropic engagement has become a trend among progressively minded individuals. Not all successful professionals, entrepreneurs and intellectuals went out on the streets or took on a philanthropic project, but the proportion is high.

Street activity, as amazing as it was, has not really generated political will and resolution, but demonstrated how segmented and politically diverse the active groups are. Incredible slogan creativity unleashed by the groups of differing political colour during the recent political season was also accompanied by unusually intense reflection. Out in the public space and in individual minds too, issues of self-identification, political attribution and correct strategy were raised and asked all over again.

Though there is no one political core or institution to harness the momentum, there is no reason why the individual spirit that fed the civic activity before all the street protests started (non-protest peaceful activism) should break down, no matter how disagreeable the presidential election results might be. Quite the opposite, I suggest – the really important phase of civic activism starts only now. The protest movement, having already peaked, has to take shape and form to really matter, to achieve tangible results, to become more capable with fundraising and advocacy. If this happens, there is potential for Russian civil society to re-emerge. Some consider the 28,000 volunteer observers of the presidential elections to be the buds of the civil society.

Street protests were not suppressed, and that proves there is an opportunity in the country. To translate that opportunity into real action, some serious and careful organizing jobs need to be done to make sure the unique spirit is not lost or stifled. My hope is in the next few years we will see more new cases of civic activity and more instances of already existing activity maturing. Perhaps we will have new civic organizations (or umbrellas?) mushrooming across Russia. And that is where philanthropy and civil society will have the moment to re-discover each other – both have things to give and take. 

Inga Pagava is a senior consultant at Charities Aid Foundation Russia.

Tagged in: Arab spring Civil activism Politics Russia Social change

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