Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 8

By Ilya Malyakin and Marina Konnova

Just as the former Soviet Union had no knowledge of de-monopolized political life, it had no experience of social activity free of state control. The voluntary organizations which did exist existed only as adjuncts to the state and party machine, with narrow areas of specialization. Membership was compulsory, but was only remembered when it was time to pay the subscriptions, and no one concerned themselves with where the money went. Each of these quasi-voluntary organizations had its own apparatus which used the organization to provide for its own existence; and each performed an activity which was of interest to its members only as a means to achieve personal goals, rather than as valuable in itself.

In the last years of perestroika, alongside these monsters supported by the KPSU, a new generation of organizations began to appear. Some of them split off from “official” structures; some appeared as divisions of international voluntary organizations; some were newly formed. All were suddenly made equal by the events of 1991. The old voluntary organizations had a number of advantages: facilities, wide networks and name recognition. Curiously enough, however, this inspired them to undertake commercial activities rather than social ones. For example, the branches of such a powerful organization as DOSAAF (the army, navy and air force voluntary support organization) in time turned themselves into driving schools. The new organizations also had their plus points: no burden of a discredited past, noticeably more enthusiastic members, western partners (including charities) more willing to have contact with them, and–in the spirit of the times–courtship by the state. In such a setting Russia’s current public life was created.


Every individual or group setting up a nonpolitical voluntary organization sets themselves a fairly definite aim. If we divide these aims into provisional groups, it turns out that there are not that many of them. As far as Russia is concerned, we can define just three such groups.

The “first group” is the oldest. These organizations are formed on the initiative of organs of power–either directly or through an intermediary–to solve their problems, and they usually play a cosmetic or symbolic role. Most important, their task includes simulating and ritualizing public life. These organizations serve either as a sounding board for the initiatives of the higher organ of power or as a counterweight to other voluntary structures which cause problems for the authorities or which cannot be fully controlled. They are the heirs of the quasi-voluntary organizations which existed before perestroika, and they continue to exist today almost by the same rules, although most of them are not identical to their predecessors and date back only a few years. However, unlike the previous organizations, they are often very short-lived–are formed out of necessity and disappear just as quickly. Structures which form the core of various public bodies set up within the regional organs of state power should probably be ranked among these. On the one hand, their aim is to focus the attention of the authorities on the problems of voluntary organizations and on those categories of people whose interests they are supposed to represent (women’s organizations, youth groups, charities); on the other hand, because they are unable to radically influence legislation or important decisionmaking, most of these bodies acquire a ceremonial significance, embodying the legitimacy of the “agreements on public assent” in the regions.

The “second group” appeared in response to the spirit of the times. These structures are formed to provide their founders with the resources required for their existence. To all appearances, this applies to most organizations in Russia today. Only the ways in which these resources are obtained vary: Some organizations are founded on private donations (these are usually charities); some rely on state support (these often supplement the “first group,” and their leaders nearly always aim to do so); others are supported by Western foundations. Such organizations also undertake real public work, because they have to justify the money they get from their sponsors. But their activity rarely goes beyond this.

The “third group” is the clearest. These are organizations which are created purely to achieve the aims set down in their programs. Of course, this division is rather provisional. An organization set up by a group of enthusiasts to protect the environment may in time concentrate its efforts on securing western grants, and if this fails it may enter into cooperation with the local authorities and end up completely turning into an organization of the “first group.” However, at each stage of development, the priorities of the group and its leaders are very clearly defined, and in an analysis of its activities, consideration of these priorities can easily explains many facts which otherwise appear to be a mystery.

We will discuss below the activity of voluntary organizations in the Russian provinces. The three groups described above can be observed here as well, though there is a very different picture in terms of numbers. There are a particularly large number of organizations from the “first group” here, but the most numerous are the “second group” organizations relying on state support. This is not unusual: The Russian provinces suffer from a lack of rich local entrepreneurs who want to support voluntary organizations. True, not all are passive observers here. The authors are familiar with the example of the Tambov Resource Center, whose practices include public relations services for their regular sponsors emphasizing the positive characteristics of their patrons. On the other hand, in the grant market which has developed in Russia the best chances of receiving funding from foreign foundations lie with organizations which are geographically close to the foundation’s headquarters and which are able to maintain regular contact with its representatives. Few foundations have representatives outside Moscow, and provincial organizations have little chance of receiving grants. The directive on targeting grant allocation to the provinces is of little help: Moscow organizations from the “second group” have already found effective ways of getting around it.

The other aspect of the limited resources in the provinces is the low number of organizations of the “third group,” and the appearance in the “second group” of a special, purely provincial type of organization–one which relies on receiving funds from its sister structures in Moscow.

It would hardly be practical to discuss all voluntary organizations: In Saratov oblast alone more than 1,100 have been registered, but most of those have long since only existed on paper. However, there are a number of groups of organizations whose activity is of particular interest both in Moscow and beyond. The most important of these are ecological organizations, organizations with interests related to the Russian army and feminist groups.


The ecology movement was one of the first to develop in the Soviet Union, and it did so very rapidly. It can now be said that the popularity of this form of public activity has passed its peak; Russia’s Greens are experiencing a period of decline, a more pragmatic approach to their activities and a lack of clear tactics and aims. The structures themselves, which initially showed great cohesion, are now in a state of disarray because of competition amongst themselves and the desire to divide spheres of influence.

1989 can be considered the starting point for Russian ecology, when the first large demonstration was organized–the picketing of the construction site of a factory for processing toxic agents in Chapaevsk, Kuibyshev Oblast. It was successful: With no resistance from the local authorities, the Greens organized a nationwide ecological protest camp and managed to put a halt to construction. There followed a number of equally successful protests. The Greens’ tactics were always the same. Their united forces mobilized their radical supporters throughout the country, forming a core of participants in the protest camp who peacefully picketed the site for several months and then began holding demonstrations to hamper its work. All this was usually accompanied by clashes with the employees of the picketed site, but had the support from the rest of the local population. Not limiting themselves to protests, radical Greens decided to form a bank of environmentally sound technologies, created their own widespread information network based on the GlasNet computer network, and held a great number of meetings to share experience. It is easy to spot that all this is very similar to Greenpeace’s tactics. Indeed, it was Greenpeace which was the initial core, attracting the many Green groups which sprang up all across Russia from 1990–1993 (and it is not surprising that they did given the appalling state of the environment).

There was also a moderate wing concentrated around the Social Ecological Union (SOES) which leaned not so much towards organizing protests but towards holding a “constructive dialog” with the authorities, drawing up recommendations and participating in the work of official environmental protection agencies. However, this bipolar system did not survive for very long. It soon became clear that neither tactic was achieving any notable success. The toughening of the political regime in Russia after 1993, manifested in the creation of regional autocracies and an increase in the influence of governors, led to protest camps being either ignored or broken up with such violence, and with such impunity, that it became pointless to set them up. The regular lengthy sieges of environmentally harmful sites gradually degenerated into one-day demonstrations. A shift began towards prosecuting violators of environmental protection legislation, which resulted in long drawn-out trials. At the same time, SOES finally merged with the official environmental agencies, and became more and more of a symbolic organization. Right from the start it had been easier to ignore its quiet efforts than the noisy camps of the radicals, and the desire to be constructive and to make themselves heard forced its activists to make more and more concessions.

All this inevitably had a detrimental effect on the green movement, and by 1998 it had all but returned to its original diffuse state. The sphere of influence of the large organizations shifted to Moscow, while in the provinces small groups began to appear again, working on solving local problems, operating semi-spontaneously and often not attempting to obtain official registration. Most of the leaders of the first wave moved away from active involvement or openly moved their organizations from the “third group” to the “second,” gearing themselves towards obtaining grants. This trend became so widespread that it even affected a significant part of the leadership of what was once the most radical sector of the Russian Greens–the “Order of the Guardians of the Rainbow.”

The electronic information transfer network has survived from the past, as has the tradition of organizing completely fruitless and almost purely symbolic acts of protest at least once a year. However, one area of green activity where there is still a high degree of involvement has appeared recently. This is ecological education, which looks much more relevant. It is happening in several different ways at once. Ecology classes for nursery groups and schoolchildren, and adult education for those living in regions with unfavorable ecological conditions.


Apart from the Greens, there is another active group of organizations: Those whose interests are related to the Russian armed forces. This is a varied group, but three dominant areas can be seen: the struggle to make the army a voluntary one, protection of the rights of soldiers doing compulsory military service and protection of the rights of former or serving professional soldiers. The first area is almost monopolized by the Antimilitarist Radical Association (ARA). Almost all the current activities of ARA are related to handling the trials of its members who object on principle to military service and demand that it be replaced with an alternative (there is as yet no law about this in Russia, although there is a clear constitutional guarantee). However, this radical organization, though very active in Moscow and St. Petersburg, is almost unknown in the provinces. This is possibly because its access to the media is limited and it is able to showcase its activities mainly on the Internet, to which the provinces still do not have much access. There are only a handful of ARA members outside the two cities mentioned above, and even in the capital the radical stance of the organization scares off most young people, who prefer simply not to turn up at the enlistment office after receiving their call-up papers. In evaluating the success of ARA tactics, one thing that can be said is that so far not one of their members has gone to prison, even though the legal hearings certainly do not always end in their favor.

There is another network of organizations which is much better known; it also pays a great deal of attention to the rights of new conscripts, but does not limit itself to this issue. We are referring to the Committees and Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers (SSM), which are now widespread and command authority not just among the public but also among the representatives of the regional leadership and the officer corps. This state of affairs can be put down to the history of SSM, which appeared when “negative elements” in the army were first brought to light and which reached the peak of its popularity thanks to its involvement in resolving the problems engendered by the Chechen war. The unions’ first steps were taken thanks to the willingness of the mothers to influence the way their sons did their military service. SSM representatives began to pay inspection visits to army barracks and to hold dialogs with local registration and enlistment offices and representatives of the General Staff. The result was agreements on young men from specific regions serving together, the establishment of SSM patronage of military units and so on.

During the Chechen war, SSM representatives were involved in securing the release of prisoners of war and in looking for those missing in action. Recently SSM leaders have been assisting in the cases of young men demanding that they be offered a civilian alternative to military service, thus filling the role of ARA which has no presence in the provinces. SSM is one of the few voluntary organizations which has managed to become a really influential force, achieving results which the others can only dream about. Many SSM activists enjoy great support among the local population, which means, for example, that they can win election to local authorities.

It is a different picture where the rights of military professionals are concerned. Fearing that discontent among the officer corps would take the form of direct interference from the army in politics, the leaders of the Russian Federation and its subjects tried right from the start to take control of this area. To all appearances, there are simply no non-political unions of professionals and ex-servicemen in Russia which are fully independent of the state. The base structure here is the Russian Union of Reserve Officers (RSOZ), an organization which is fully controlled by the state, and whose main area of activity is monitoring of and participation in the implementation of state guarantees for officers who are discharged to the reserves: acquiring accommodation for them, finding them a civilian job, helping them open their own business. An interesting feature is that the provincial RSOZ organizations are the most active and successful. One gets the impression that there is an unspoken directive to settle the retired officers as widely as possible around the Russian Federation, but not too close to Moscow.


A completely different form of activity is found in Russian women’s rights organizations. At the risk of being reproached for a lack of objectivity, the authors would like to say that there is no real united feminist or women’s rights movement in the Russian Federation. Likewise, there are no significant nationwide mass women’s organizations. Even Ekaterina Lakhova’s purely political movement Women of Russia convincingly demonstrated its inadequacy. Having been successful at the first elections to the State Duma on a wave of interest, it then failed disastrously at the second. This result is more than an eloquent symptom of the real state of the women’s movement in Russia. Almost all the other women’s organizations, which put a great deal of effort into demonstrating that they are very active, are in fact a prime example of organizations of the “second group.” They are geared towards obtaining grants from abroad or funding from Moscow women’s associations, because it is relatively straightforward these days to receive money for projects related to women’s issues. Feminism in Russia has become a flourishing business. To convince oneself of this it is enough to familiarize oneself with the list of grants given recently by a number of charitable foundations.

Most women’s associations, it seems, are structured by profession, uniting women journalists, lawyers, economists and so on. Some of these organizations carry out some sort of activity: They offer legal and other advice, which they must do at least to give the appearance of carrying out their official functions and creating an information database on gender issues. But even the publicity for these essential services is handled very poorly by them–perhaps to leave more time for their other activities. These mainly include running joint seminars for sharing opinions on the need to protect women’s rights and to work on their organization’s image, and arranging their leaders’ participation in international feminist forums.

The “real” life of regional women’s organizations takes place, paradoxically, in the capital, under the auspices of the corresponding federal structures. In the regions their activity is not entirely cosmetic, but it certainly does not attest to the practical social usefulness of these organizations.

Given the truly onerous position of women in contemporary Russian society, the picture we have drawn may seem paradoxical, unless we remember the experience of the green movement described above. One gains the impression that Russia’s feminists took this into account right from the start. They did not bother to take steps which they knew to be futile, but became involved with things that many of the Greens came to only after a great deal of effort, when they grew disillusioned with their ability to achieve anything by committed activity. This tactic gives results, of course, but we cannot speak either of the creation of a united women’s rights movement, or of a significant improvement in the position of women in society. However, it is not at all clear how to go about achieving this aim. The tactic American feminists have of using the courts would be unlikely to have positive results in the absence of an independent legal authority in Russia capable of ensuring that its decisions are enforced. As a result, despite the widespread availability of unadapted American feminist literature, no effective practical policy for the universal protection of women’s rights has yet been fashioned.

This gloomy picture demonstrates one thing. Freed from the intrusive patronage of the state, voluntary organizations in Russia have not acquired the ability to influence the state, because Russian society has not yet managed to develop the mechanisms for pain-free modernization. The freedom gained in the realm of public works is mainly freedom from the opportunity to be heard. Voluntary organizations exist, but what they manage to achieve is achieved in spite of everything, in a dogged struggle for existence which is rather like Alice in Wonderland running on the spot.

Ilya Malyakin is editor-in-chief for the Volga Information Agency. Marina Konnova is a specialist at the Volga Information Agency.