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On October 7, 2022, the Nobel Committee has awarded the Peace Prize to three human rights advocates originating from the countries involved (actively or by proxy) in the war waged by Russia in Ukraine: the Belarus human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, the Memorial, one of the oldest human rights groups in Russia, and Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties. The event was to send a message to the Russian and affiliated Belarus political regimes, as the Committee Chair, Berit Reiss-Andersen, put it, the prize honored “the united efforts of what we call civil society that can stand up against authoritarian states and, or, human rights abuses.” Even though the awarding of a Russian entity for the second consecutive year was quite extraordinary (in 2021, the Nobel peace prize was given to Dmitri Muratov, the editor-in-chief of independent media Novaya Gazeta) and reflected the international commitment to the support of civil societies in Eastern Europe, the prize could do little to reverse the current tide of political affairs. The Belarus winner is held in prison, whereas the Russian Supreme Court ordered the closure of the International Memorial.
In Memory of Memorial
Indeed, the Memorial, as well as its Ukrainian and Belarus colleagues, was a group exemplifying the values and followed the principles of open democratic societies, that is to oppose the power-holders’ unjust policies and actions or to intervene in the cases of human rights violations committed by the state or its agents. The emergence of the Memorial’s partner entities across Europe (for example, in Germany or Czech Republic) only confirms the international character of the organization and its role in the creation and promotion of the shared human rights narrative in the post-Socialist space.
According to its statute, the Memorial combined the research and public dissemination of the “information on crimes and mass human rights violations committed by totalitarian regimes in the past” with the work on “human rights violations today” and the prevention of “the restoration of totalitarianism.” Thus, it examined the crimes of the past regimes through a contemporary lens of human rights and measured the totalitarian component in present-day political structures by the experience of past repressions. Simultaneously, it collected and studied the historical evidence of the USSR’s crimes, preserved and promoted the memory of its victims, gathered the information on abuses and crimes in the recent conflict zones, and supported the people who were persecuted in Russia on political grounds. In all respects, the Memorial was an honorable member of the global community of human rights advocates and perfectly matched the UN definition of an NGO or civil society organization:
a not-for-profit, voluntary citizen’s group that is organized on a local, national or international level to address issues in support of the public good… [that] bring citizen’s concerns to Governments, monitor policy and program implementation, and encourage participation of civil society stakeholders at the community level… serve as early warning mechanisms and help monitor and implement international agreements.
That democratic civic society, exemplified by the Memorial and the Novaya Gazeta, is being systematically destroyed and criminalized by the Russian government.
The Democratic Civil Society
Since 2012, when the first version of the Law on Foreign Agents came into force, the Russian government has increasingly tightened its grip on the NGOs and activists and has progressively expanded its treatment of any public and civil activity as a political matter. Stigmatized as a “foreign agent”, NGOs and, later, natural persons, are required to label all their published texts (including social media posts) with a disclaimer; to submit regular semiannual financial statements; they are prohibited to participate in electoral or referendum campaigns, to be appointed to positions in public administration, to work in education, to organize public gatherings and to produce information products. Though seen as a breach of international laws by the Venice Commission, this discriminative policy only has expanded its scope and presently lists as foreign agents: 79 organizations, 54 media organizations, 193 individuals, and 10 unregistered organizations that are/were involved in various public spheres, such as human rights, education, ecology, LGBTQ+, public health, anticorruption, media freedoms, etc. Moreover, in the recent years, and especially after the beginning of the War in Ukraine, the Russian government has engaged in the full-scale crackdown of the remains of the civil society in the country. It established censorship through a number of peace-time laws (No.31-FZ, No.99-FZ and No.100-FZ), furthered it with war-time legislation (No.32-FZ, No.62-FZ, No.63-FZ) foreseeing administrative and criminal punishment for the criticism of the Russian government and army, and presently considers to introducing a discriminative law delegitimizing the LGBTQ+ activists and organizations completely.
Given the extreme governmental pressure, censorship, political and criminal persecution, media control and internet blockage, Russian democratic civil society has a narrow field of action. The Russian government, using the new laws on foreign agents, fake news, gay-propaganda, and “unsanctioned” rallies, as well as direct harassment, intimidation, and physical elimination of activists, closed down or silenced many of the earlier democratic initiatives, like the LGBTQ+ network Children-404, the anti-nuclear NGO EcoDefense (Ekozash’ita), or Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) of Alexei Navalny. Consequently, the majority of new Russian civil society projects emerge in the framework of the émigré communities. Some of them help Ukrainian refugees, as Russians for Ukraine in Berlin or School for Cultured Youth (Школа культурної молоді) in Prague, others propose to the émigré Russians new political, media, educational, and cultural initiatives in order to stand up against the illegal actions of the Russian state. Just a handful of groups, such as human rights media OVD-info, youth democratic movement Vesna, or the Feminist Anti-war Resistance community continue to operate semi-legally in the Russian Federation.
However, both strategies undertaken by the Russian democratic civil society have their flaws. In the case of the Russian diaspora groups, their target audience is spread across many countries (from Kyrgyzstan to the EU and the US) and, therefore, the actions requiring the physical presence of the participants are hard to implement. Addressing the people belonging to several waves of the emigration and with different degrees of integration in the host societies, these groups struggle to develop a coherent strategy of activism. Some of them propose to build the social structures, alternative to the official government, for the Russians abroad, others – to maintain the ties with the democratic actors left in the country and to initiate democratic changes when an opportunity arises. On the other hand, the in-Russia organizations have little to no means to communicate their position to the vast majority of fellow citizens (as they have no access to the mainstream media) or even to attract the like-minded public (mainly, the youth from the cities with more than a million inhabitants), due to high risks of criminal persecution.
The Non-Democratic Civil Society
If one considers a civil society to be the individuals or groups, not managed or established by a state, involved in social action, serving public interests and mediating between authorities and citizens, as the EU defines it, it is possible to find more structures and organizations in contemporary Russian society that would match this description. However, these are not the internationally recognized and state-persecuted NGOs and neither are they the underground and clandestine anti-war resistance, but rather the only form of social organization that Russian political actors are ready to recognize as the “civil society”, the pro-war or, at least, pro-Russia activist and volunteering groups. This part of the Russian population actively sympathizes with the army, invests into the desired military victory, collects donations for ammunition, equipment, food, or arms, and volunteers preparing production for the troops or assisting the “displaced” persons from the frontline territories. So, these people actively serve the war cause, both morally and materially.
Similarly to their liberal counterparts, they are able to build horizontal assistance networks and organize independent grassroots communities, primarily through Russian social media such as VKontakte, Odnoklassniki (ok.ru), and Telegram chats. Undoubtedly, seeing this prompt mobilization of the general public, usually apolitical and lethargic, the government attempted to shape its actions in the state-run environment and to capitalize on this social engagement. Thus, the regime created an online platform for the bottom-up initiatives and strove to organize the volunteer campaigns under the auspice of the Putin-ruled social movement, the so-called All-Russia National Front. Despite being used previously as a money-laundering entity, today, the National Front undertakes not only the actions helping the Russian Army, but also develops different social initiatives (such as inspections of schools’ conditions and the creation of inclusive spaces) mimicking the democratic civil rights groups.
Regardless of the attempts to centralize the administration of the new patriotic civil society, the need of Russians to solidarize continues to occur in the informal sector. Especially, the desire to establish the space for mutual support and collective actions appeared after the president announced the mobilization for the war in Ukraine. Being unified by the feeling of belonging to a greater common cause, as well as by more mundane problems such as absence of uniforms, equipment and ammunition, the soldiers’ relatives created Telegram groups (for example, the Wives of the mobilized). Other volunteers made a chat for the draftees leaving their pets, so that zoo-activists can take care of the animals or adopt them in case of the owners’ death (it is worth noting that the activists also adopt the animals left behind by the émigrés, but openly criticize these irresponsible guardians).
At the same time, these organized citizens “can limit power and hold powerful actors accountable,” which is another criterion introduced by Iris Marion Young for the definition of the civil society. In this sense, the non-democratic civil society instinctively gropes its way in the relations with the authority and starts to reproach the government for the non-fulfillment of its responsibilities. Some relatives become vocal about the absence of proper army training and equipment, others fight for receiving the promised financial compensations. However, many wives of the mobilized already demand to return their men from the war, as has happened in Voronezh, Kursk, and Vologda. There are even cases when the soldiers’ women, after hearing about the improper equipment, incapable command and mass causalities, travelled to the frontline and successfully rescued their husbands. These women, feeling entitled to address the power directly due to their sacrifices made in the name of the Russian army, insistently press the civil and military administration and achieve not only media coverage, but also personal meetings with the heads of the regions and army commanders. Moreover, neither the patriotic public, nor the regime question their right to protest and to criticize the authority.
The private war correspondents (voenkory) appeared as another phenomenon of the grassroots non-democratic communities. These bloggers (WarGonzo, VladlenTatarsky, Colonelcassad, Yuri Podolyaka, Dolgareva), directly participating in the actions of the army and actively promoting the Russian war discourse have, according to TGStat, Telegram audiences between 50k and 3.5mil and, thus, compete with the official state media. Compared to the state-run TV and social-networks, the bloggers’ narratives seem sincere and trustworthy, communicate the sense of belonging and witness events from the first person. Simultaneously, this frankness and spontaneity enable the voenkory to express opinions contrary to the official position of the Russian state. Thus, after the surrender of Herson to the Ukranian Army, several war bloggers mourned its loss and accused the Russian command of negligence and poor judgement; one of the voenkory even called it “the largest geopolitical defeat of Russia since the collapse of the USSR.” The growing influence of these kind-of-free media arises, as well as in the case of the soldiers’ relatives, from their service to the state and it worries the government. The regime tries to buy the loyalty of the mobilized with advance payments and to intimidate the war bloggers with persecution for “discrediting the Russian Army.”
In the economic equilibrium, the growing demand induces new production; societies seem to follow this model as well. When democratic civil institutions are destroyed and delegitimized and, at the same time, a confluence of existential crises threatens the public cornerstones, a society develops new, permitted ways to solidarize and unite. Only time can tell whether these non-democratic, militarized communal initiatives and warmongering independent media acquire a more liberal essence, or whether the émigré activists’ networks reconnect with the country of origin and gradually democratize it. However, the war waged by Russia and, especially, the losses consequently incurred by the country proved to the Russians a need for solidarity and for civil control over the actions of their government.