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Russia: Expressions Of Civil Society Gain Ground

In Russia, a network of non-governmental organizations and associations is beginning to provide aid locally to fill in gaps in the national social safety net. This expression of civil society is so far quite small. But RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini spoke with a number of informed Russians who say it is growing.

Moscow, 30 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- There is a widely accepted idea in Russia that the rigors of post-communist life -- including the non-payment of salaries and pensions, inadequate social care, sluggish courts and corrupt police -- have taught the already collectivist-shy Russians to rely only on themselves. But some Russians say the idea that Russians reject all community action is no longer true.

Ella Pamfilova is a former Russian minister of health and social affairs. She acknowledges that after communism collapsed in 1991, most Russians felt themselves to be on their own. But she tells RFE/RL that the rejection of collective action is fading.

"I think that period is coming to an end. There always was our tradition, our mentality, pulling us towards compassion and sympathy. [We Russians] remain drawn to the idea of overcoming a difficult situation together. And this mentality is now breaking through."

Many analysts believe that, traditionally, a Russian will rely first on pulling strings or giving bribes to overcome a bureaucratic hurdle. They say Russians will turn to public initiatives -- through courts or an association -- only as a last resort. But for Pamfilova, the key question is understanding that, in the long run, collective action can be more effective than individual solutions.

Pamfilova thinks that positive models for action such as the success of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee have encouraged Russians to turn to collective solutions. That group first successfully lobbied then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to exempt students from the obligatory two years of military service. Then, under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the committee campaigned against the first war in Chechnya (1994 to 1996), and acted as a mediator for the exchange of Russian and Chechen prisoners of war. It also denounced Russia's drug- and violence-ridden armed forces, counseling 18-year-olds on how to dodge the draft.

Valentina Melnikova, one of the committee's leaders, says that over the years "the Mothers" -- as the group is often called in Russia -- even won support inside the army. She says that some officers came to understand that the committee was not set on working against the military, but rather pursued a cooperative effort to turn the Russian army into a "real army that does not murder its own soldiers." Pamfilova points out, however, that -- unlike the Mothers -- most of Russian collective initiatives today play a local or regional role, not a national one.

"I know of a lot of examples of [collective] influence on local authorities in sectors like [social] rehabilitation or the environment. So there is some effect on a local level. But nationwide, [collective initiatives are] not significant. For the moment, our authorities, our elite neglect public opinion."

In Moscow, non-governmental organizations greatly contributed to breaking the Soviet mind-set on ostracizing mentally and physically disabled youngsters. The communist system rejected such children, who were often locked away at home or in far-away institutions.

One parent, Galina Khokhlova, has a 21-year-old daughter, Sveta, who has severe motor deficiencies. Before perestroika, Khokhlova told our correspondent, many parents did not know what to do with their disabled children and simply kept them locked up at home. She says it is thanks to non-governmental organizations that many parents have learned that their disabled children could still learn, develop, and enjoy life.

In Moscow, one of the first such organizations for disabled children was The Circle, which is run by Natalia Popova. Ten years ago, dissatisfied with the rehabilitation and education that state institutions offered such children, Popova began her own classes. Today, she teaches music, dance, and theater to some 110 disabled children. She says there are more than 30 organizations doing the same sort of work in the Russian capital.

Popova is convinced that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have a real impact on Russian society. In her words: "NGOs have the advantage of being more flexible, more adaptable and more sensitive to people's needs than the state. They manage to slip by bureaucratic hurdles and can establish contact more easily with the West." She also believes that some official Russian bodies have ceased to regard NGOs as an enemy that exists to expose the state's failings. "The authorities take us into account," Popova says. "They even send us specialists for training."

Former Health Minister Pamfilova feels that achieving such cooperation between individuals and government is the most difficult hurdle to overcome. That's because, she says, of Russia's long history as a state conceived to use, but not to serve, its citizens:

"From a state which is an enemy, we have to make a state which is a friend. It's not so easy, you have to understand that -- getting rid of the fear inside us. Because for many years, the state nourished this fear by its harshness. It wasn't only in Soviet times. Things were the same before the (1917) revolution, and probably go back to the time of serfdom."

Pamfilova keeps coming back to "that fear, the fear of anyone who is stronger than you, which can last for years." That's why, she says, her organization's objective is to revive a desire for civic dignity. She concludes -- in Russia's new collectivist mode -- that "one person's efforts are fine, but they're not enough."