When charity should begin at home

Civil society development in Russia has been hampered by restrictive laws and apathy or suspicion on the part of the public. What is needed so it can start again? Salzburg Global Seminar is considering the issues

Alex Jackson
31 March 2014

Winston Churchill famously quipped that ‘Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. The remark was made in a different century and the intervening decades have seen massive global changes, but it still has a certain resonance: Russia remains at odds with Europe, Asia and the United States on many issues, both nationally and internationally.

Following its recent de facto annexation of Crimea, Russia’s standing in the world is perhaps at its iciest since the Cold War. The legitimacy of the Crimean referendum is questionable and there is concern about possible further Russian intervention in other Eastern European and former Soviet Bloc countries. Russian opinion, however, is that an aggressive European foreign policy and the military presence of NATO, who promised to stay out of the region, aptly justify a response; it is the Western countries that continue to escalate the crisis.

As each side accuses the other alternately of weakness and aggression, the current crisis provides for some a useful distraction from the vast number of problems facing Russia, providing further excuse to throttle attempts at dissent on any topic, related to Ukraine or otherwise. 

Civil society hopes on hold

After the Crimea referendum, the Steering Committee of EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in March stated ‘What we see these days in Russia always happens at a time of acute international confrontation and the threat of war: chauvinistic hysteria, aggressive propaganda and calling critical voices ‘enemies of the nation.’ Those who just days ago were considered an ‘opposition’ or a ‘dissent’ are becoming ‘traitors’, in the words of propagandists on television, in the internet, the State Duma and regional parliaments.’

A space where ordinary people can voice concern and access vital services not provided by the state.

In the absence of an open and transparent political sphere in Russia, the non-state, civil society sector has provided a space where ordinary people can not only voice their concerns about state actions, but also access a number of vital services so far not provided by the state.

Since the 1990s, a more active and open civil society sector has developed across the Russian Federation. While civil society institutions and civic engagement in Russia are not new, the growth of the sector in recent years created hopes that Russian civil society could become the voice for a more effective democratic system, more efficient social services, and a check against corruption and centralised power. At the same time, the increasing interconnectivity between Russian and international civil society institutions created a sense of optimism that an interconnected ‘Euro-Atlantic civil society’ could make positive contributions to difficult geo-political challenges.

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Issues such as LGBT equality do not rank highly on the public agenda in Russia. Photo cc: Nikolai Alekseev

Of late, however, these hopes have largely been put on hold.


As geo-political relations between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community have worsened, Russian civil society institutions are facing a variety of political and social pressures, and are moving away from international partners. 

A great number of civil society organisations have sprung up since 1989, but few have really taken root in Russia. Besides the increasing chilling of freedom of speech and assembly, one of the greatest hindrances to this burgeoning civil society is a lack of funding.  

Initially supported primarily by Western sources, the Russian NGO sector has become more diversified in recent years. Many provide services to vulnerable people so far largely unsupported by the state such as children and adults with disabilities. However, under continuous scrutiny, especially since the introduction of the 2012 ‘foreign agents’ law, international donors have all but dried up; there is an inherent suspicion of those groups who remain dedicated to Russian investment, with both the donor and the receiving organisations becoming the object of suspicion as instruments of external interference. 

Russia also lacks the indigenous culture of philanthropy that exists in the West, especially in the USA; this seriously hampers the growth and embedding of Russian civil society. Without any clarity as to the role and importance of civil society, there has been a general apathy amongst the public towards its growth. Talk of human rights is stifled in Russia: more immediate socio-economic concerns take precedent, so there is limited discussion in the general population on the subject of civil society and the role it can play in areas where the state does not function. This has led to a civil society not just lacking in funding, but also facing a sense of distrust from onlookers who find it difficult to understand or appreciate its role. 

Lack of clarity as to the role and importance of civil society leads to public apathy towards its growth.

This issue was addressed by Oksana Oracheva, the Executive Director of Vladimir Potanin Foundation, in a recent interview with Salzburg Global Seminar. She suggests that now, more than ever, there is a need for visibility in Russian philanthropy and the work of non-governmental organisations. 

‘It is more important to be transparent nowadays to build trust in the society for what we do: it is the only way to be a truly philanthropic organisation,’ she said.

However, this is particularly difficult when issues such as political freedoms, women’s rights, LGBT equality and environmental problems do not rank high on public agenda or consciousness as a whole. The most engaged partners in these fields are often those directly affected by family members who have met with discrimination or intimidation as a consequence. 

Indeed, people ready to help others are in the minority in Russia. Statistics from a 2011 Levada Center poll suggest that fewer than 10% of the Russian population donate on any regular basis to charitable institutions and fewer than 3% actively participate in volunteer work. 

Although social media and the internet are now being coopted into spreading ideas about the importance of this agenda for Russia, the efforts are mainly concentrated in the large cities;  social networking sites popular in Russia are not big on a global scale, which limits international cooperation between young entrepreneurs, activists and social schemes. There are obvious unifying factors and goals among these new players, but there is a continual barrier to finding allies with common languages and outlooks. 

Obstacles to development of the sector

Attempts to expand the Russian sector have spread limited funds and attention-spans very thinly over entrepreneurs, volunteers, social services, NGOs. The commitment to expand exists, but there is an increased risk that all these different forms of civil society activity become homogenised and lose public attention by eroding traditional boundaries.

‘There is still a need to develop institutional philanthropy, say in the form of foundations, and strategic things to do because there is still a lot of ad hoc development going on. Booming is nice but how many of them [philanthropic organisations] survive? There needs to be a step-by-step approach.’ argues Oracheva. She is concerned that a proliferation of these foundations may actually fail to gain trust, if too many are at loggerheads and in competition for funds.


The imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky dissuaded many potential philanthropists of becoming too active. Photo Facebook

The radical silencing of Khodorkovsky hindered philanthropic progress.

Wealth boomed in post-Soviet Russia, but the imprisonment of oligarch and philanthropist Mikhail Khodorkovsky made many potential philanthropists wary of supporting activities which could be (mis)construed as suspicious or contravening the law. Khodorkovsky’s arrest prompted the first ever closure of the Russian Stock Exchange so as to prevent a crash. Dubious fraud claims saw his multinational oil firm bankrupted in 2006; the European Court of Human Rights declared his detention unlawful and politically motivated; Amnesty International considered him a prisoner of conscience. 

The radical silencing of such an influential entrepreneur hindered philanthropic progress. Although the number of government grants has been increased, these funds are highly politicised. Few, if any, long term investments are made by the government and funding can be pulled with little notice, restricting the sense of what groups can achieve. Crowdfunding is mistrusted by most Russians and is already restricted by new legislation. As Vaclav Havel once said, ‘in an authoritarian system any civic activity, any autonomous and self-determined act becomes political and oppositional.’ 

To reduce the scope of opposition or alternative ideas, the Russian government ensures its political will is widely broadcast. ‘Putin was not going after the oligarchs to reassert the power of democratic civil society over these titans. He was doing it as part of building an authoritarian regime,’ says Chrystia Freeland, a Canadian parliament member, now barred from entering Russia as a result of the increasing sanctions.

‘Foreign agents’ and other laws

Since 2011, government legislation has increasingly marginalised NGOs and large social institutions. In the early years of this century, the sector was diversifying well; now, as investors withdraw, it is starting to fold inwards. Increasing political pressure has resulted in ‘regulation of activities of NGOs fulfilling the functions of foreign agents.’ An organisation receiving funds from abroad must register as a foreign agent ‘if it participates in the organisation and implementation of political activities which aim to influence decisions of state authorities, their policy, as well as in the formation of public opinion’. 

Oracheva reflects on the crippling impact of the implications over just a few short years: ‘There aren’t many international organisations or foundations left in Russia. They’ve left for one reason or another, some of them before changes in Russian legislation, others more recently.’

Since the introduction of this law, more than 2000 companies have been investigated by Russian authorities, who have the power to freeze assets and shut down groups for over six months at a time. This has restricted even the largest and most renowned institutions and, as their work flagged, negative reaction in the Russian media has only further deepened mistrust. Alternative opinions are discouraged and independent media, after a brief spell of independence in the 1990s, found itself under censorship once more, whether in print, video or online.  

The imprisonment of Pussy Riot and the brutal repression of protests against the so-called ‘homosexual propaganda law’ attracted western attention.  Calls for solidarity with Russian activists in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics resulted in fewer protests than expected, but a number of world leaders declined invitations to the Opening Ceremony, while global corporations and media outlets openly condemned Russia’s anti-LGBT stance. TV stations covering the Olympics incorporated rainbow flags into the décor of their studios; several documentaries highlighted the persecution of the LGBT community; and there were bold statements from multinational business - Google changed its home page to include quotes from the Olympic Charter. The success of outside engagement in Russian civil society is, however, disputed

LGBT activists weren’t the only ones disappointed with civic engagement in the Olympics. Disability campaigns had hoped that the Paralympic Games would show up the lack of infrastructure and equal rights for the community, but international attention was diverted elsewhere.

Women’s rights groups have started to make a greater impact in the past decade, but many in this patriarchal society still fail to see the problems. Violent attacks and rapes often go unrecorded; when women press the police to pursue their case, proceedings are frequently inefficiently handled. Following Russia’s ban on US adoptions in 2013, the role of the state and civil society, particularly children’s charities, in the treatment of Russia’s orphans, many of whom are sick and disabled with living parents who have abandoned them, also gained international attention.

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Activists hoped that the Paralympic Games would draw attention to the problems facing the disabled community. Photo Gael Marziou

These issues have all appeared in the international news in the past few months, but world headlines are now full of Russia’s behaviour in Crimea, diverting attention—and possible funds—away from these longstanding problems.

For the future

There is an urgent need to rebuild bridges and reestablish a serious dialogue about the role of Russian civil society and relations between diverse civic actors domestically, between Russian organisations and international partners. 

There is an urgent need to rebuild bridges and reestablish a serious dialogue about the role of Russian civil society.

At a symposium, hosted 1-4 April in Schloss Leopoldskron by Austrian NGO Salzburg Global Seminar, some 40 respected leaders and thinkers, including representatives of Russian civil society organisations (CSOs), legal experts and financial entrepreneurs, will try to start that dialogue. 

‘Russia will not soon become, if it ever becomes, a second copy of the United States or England’ declared Putin when he was first elected president in 2000. That view has certainly not altered. The symposium aims to address this head on: how to develop a Russian civil society not necessarily mirroring other countries, but able to enjoy fruitful international relationships. 

At the session Russian Civil Society Symposium: Building Bridges to the Future, participants will take stock of the current situation facing Russian civil society, considering both challenges and opportunities: what ‘game changers’ or innovations currently do, or might, have a profound effect on the development of the sector? What generational issues might need to be overcome? What indeed is intrinsic to Russian civil society? What can Russia learn—and what should it discard—from ‘Western’ models of civil society and its supporting philanthropy? And what can the West learn in turn from its Russian counterparts? 

Participants will also question the role of domestic and international donors in effecting change, which legal frameworks hamper civil society developments, and what tools and dialogue can be used to further the promotion of an environment for change. These far-reaching questions will involve considering the legal, economic, and political frameworks through which non-state actors can generate change, be it in culture, education, or social justice. 

Salzburg Global Seminar, founded in 1947 by three Harvard students, has a long history in hosting dialogue and fostering co-operation. The organisation was initially conceived as a place to draft a ‘Marshall Plan of the Mind’ to heal the wounds of world wars and exchange cultural and political thinking in post-WW2 Europe. The independent NGO’s focus has expanded beyond its original Euro-Atlantic perspective, recently hosting a similar event on transition of post-Arab Spring countries to become more inclusive and embracing of their diversity.

At the end of the session, the ‘Salzburg Global Fellows’ will produce a series of recommendations. Given the vast subject matter, they will certainly have much food for thought over the four-day programme.

You can follow the discussions from Salzburg on the Twitter hashtag #SGSrussia. A number of features and op-ed on issues pertaining to the session will be published on oDRussia and Salzburg Global Seminar’s website: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/531

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