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Russia’s seeds of change

Anna Sevortian
20 November 2007

The campaign for the elections to the Duma (parliament) in Russia on 2 December 2007 is being conducted amid what looks like a wall of popular indifference.This should in principle be the moment when Russians recover their passion for politics; yet it often seems that those most concerned about the fate of democracy in Russia are non-Russians.

Anna Sevortian works at the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Moscow

But look below the surface and something else is visible - something that should perhaps provoke less despair and more curiosity among western observers. For it's not that Russians do not care. It's just that they are engaged in influencing the future of their country in a different way than many outsiders expect or some of their own political leaders would like.

This turning away from official, formal politics could be seen as an echo of the Soviet period, when citizens were encouraged to "enjoy their private lives" and leave the running of the country to leaders and bureaucrats. But what is happening in Russia today is more than just a retreat into the private sphere; there is also a new level of awareness and involvement in social issues (themselves often "personal" ones in another dimension). And this can also be understood - if "democracy" is more than just a convenient political label - as politics on another level.

Clear examples of this trend in Russia today are to be found in the areas of public health and medical care, and education.

A positive turn

The prevalence of HIV in Russia is higher than in any other G8 nation. The most authoritative estimate from international experts is that 1.2 million Russians are already infected with HIV, and a 30% increase in this number by 2010 is likely if current trends persist. Most HIV-positive Russians are intravenous-drug users, but the virus is also spreading into the general population through heterosexual contacts. The HIV/Aids epidemic has had especially damaging effects in remote oil-producing regions and among large- scale energy businesses.

It is a curse, but the reaction to it can also make it appear a blessing. For HIV activists are one of the most energetic groups in Russian society, gathering people who have developed a growing sense of solidarity and vision in coping with this affliction. Their impressive qualities become evident as the personal stories of people joining the HIV-service community are accumulated and shared.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Russia society and politics:

Christoph Neidhart, "Vladimir Putin, ‘Soviet man' who missed class" (24 October 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Russia's immigration challenge" (15 June 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Tatyana Zaslavskaya's moment" (20 July 2007)

Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement" (30 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars" (5 September 2007)

Andrei, who is now 34, is one of them. I met him in 2004 at a training course on advocacy and remembered him as an open-minded, laughing person, willing to learn. He told me that he was HIV-positive, and involved in the local self-support group in a small city in central Russia. I saw again him recently. The same charming personality, but he's no longer an activist - he is a professional in policy-making, who had completed a master's degree, and now coordinates advocacy programmes for a well-known international NGO in Moscow. He looks and sounds confident and purposeful. The only thing he prays for is that his small daughter's HIV-test will prove negative.

It may seem a paradox, but in Russia you won't find such rapid development and individual empowerment in any other field. In a quite natural way, the agenda of the HIV-community has within five years been transformed into a broad platform which addresses issues important to society as a whole. This group, which has never been remotely close to the human-rights movement, is now debating and taking action on such issues as discrimination, strategic litigation, and reform of the healthcare system. Moreover, many HIV-positive Russians have worked their way through special training courses to be able to perform better in dealing with judiciary and governmental agencies, and in attempting to shape policy-making.

A light in the head

Throughout several changes of political regime, education has remained a "big idea" in Russia for more than a century. Today, teenagers and young adults recognise how essential knowledge of foreign languages has become. Many of them will be learning English at least, as a minimum requirement for a job with their preferred employer. There is no doubt at all - notwithstanding laments that life in Soviet times was more sustainable, predictable or basically good than today's - that over the last twenty years Russians have made great progress in their linguistic abilities.

This deepening of expertise means that education is another area where people "outside" the political process (in the broad meaning indicated above) can find a place to be active and purposive.

There are several visible indicators of this. The enforced paralysis of Russia's leading TV journalism training-provider Internews in 2007 is one example; when this happened, some of the training streams were able immediately to transfer to the prestigious Higher School of Economics (Russia's equivalent of the LSE).

More evidence of this trend is found in Moscow's central bookshop Moskva, which stays open until 1 am (or 3 am when a new Harry Potter volume arrives). One of the bestselling books of 2007 is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, translated and published by the Dynasty Foundation. This is just one of the publications the foundation has promoted as part of its ambitious project to create a library of the books most capable of spreading knowledge of the natural sciences and humanities to a wide, popular readership.

Dynasty's core purpose is to develop science and education in Russia, and prevent a brain-drain. It is the only institution providing fellowships to prospective PhD students in Russia and one of the country's first private "family funds".

Dmitry Zimin, the founder of Dynasty (and of the country's leading communications corporation, Vympelcom), says:

"I would be happy if Dynasty's activities could in any way contribute to developing conditions for healthy and continuous competition of human talents in Russian science, business and politics. We should create a certain legal and moral environment, a platform where such a competition might take place. The name of this platform is a ‘liberal democratic society'."

A comparable, creative and non-official, approach can be found in a number of Moscow and St Petersburg cafes and clubs where young intellectuals routinely gather. Moscow's best known is Bilingua, which hosts discussions "on nearly everything" - from Novgorod's medieval manuscripts written on birch-tree bark to modern Latin American politics. In St Petersburg there are similar spots concentrating talent, arts and thought at Pushkinskaya, 10 or Borei art gallery (whose owner-director Tatiana hosts a small café where impecunious artists and writers can dine almost for free).

The city of Vladimir's equivalent "hot spot" of alternative thinking is Politekhnik - a small club set within university precincts which shows "art-house" films and the classics of world cinema. Politekhnik revives the tradition of the Soviet-era kinokluby, which by the 1990s had shrunk to around twenty or thirty independent institutions run by true "cinemaholics". In the last decade, this club has been one stem from which a generation of young leaders and human-rights activists now working all across Russia has developed.

Despite all the setbacks to democratisation experienced in the last three years, the same timespan has also witnessed the emergence of a range of promising grassroots initiatives. These are local groups fighting for their housing rights, massive protests against the new oil pipeline on the shore of Lake Baikal, and extensive blogging networks. Wherever Russia's problems become most acute, such centres of passionate local activity are likely to emerge. There is a certain prudence in the face of official politics, but there is also a certain responsiveness among many of its citizens.

Russia is a living contradiction. From the outside and from the top, it can look controlled (and therefore comforting or disenchanting, as the case may be). But look below, and the perspective changes. Election or no election, what passes for "politics" does not tell anywhere near the whole story.

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