Over the last few years, many new forms of unofficial civil activism have emerged in Russia. This activity focuses on the struggle for something, and it is carried out in the public space. Activists have set a wide range of goals. They can help the homeless, protect the interests of different social groups, safeguard the environment, and also make leisure activity more effective. Forest fires in summer 2010, the flood in Krymsk in summer 2012, and political protests in the winter and spring of 2011-1012 have all greatly affected the practices of activism. Debates on natural disasters and the election results provoked mobilizing spirits among Russian citizens, who may not have thought about any social activity before.
Experts from the Centre for Civic Analysis and Independent Research (GRANI) in Perm in collaboration with Charles Stewart Mott Foundation studied the characteristics of the informal activism in Russia. The results were unveiled at the workshop of the HSE Centre for Studies of Civil Society and the Nonprofit Sector. The first stage of the research was carried out between March and November 2012. The experts studied about 150 informal activist practices, both urban and rural, in twenty regions of Russia.
They are not members of any nonprofit organizations, they don’t get grants or use any traditional PR techniques. It is usually difficult to identify them as activists because of their informal and sometimes extraordinary activity. They don’t often call themselves ‘activists’. The term ‘activism’ sounds usual for society, though it implies quite understandable phenomenon of social activity. So what is the specific nature of this social activity?
Informal activists, as well as their activity in Russian regions, are varied and diverse, and that’s the main identifying factor, says Svetlana Makovetskaya, Director of the Centre for Civic Analysis and Independent Research. Their projects as well as the views of their life and activity can hardly be systematized. Anyway, the activists are urban and rural residents, who care passionately about what is happening around them, and who are ready to spend their time and energy for the struggle, creation or destruction of things they consider unfair or wrong in their life.
Their activity can be either typical or wildly innovative. Activists look for missing children, struggle against dense construction, save rural cemeteries, protect stray animals, and create civic artworks. The researchers classified civic art as ‘free departments of civil arts’, which include social street art (graffiti, street parties, plays, city art spaces, city work out, guerilla activity such as night repair works or unauthorized creation of new street design). As an example, the researchers mentioned the creative house ‘FreeLabs’ in Moscow, an eco-club ‘Utopia’ in Perm, a landing-stage in Volgograd, and a music project ‘Podpolny Front’ (Clandestine Front) against the construction of a skyscraper in Saint Petersburg.
What motivates informal activists in Russia, and where do they come from? Under the aim of struggling for rights, justice and order one can discover different reasons for people’s social activity. City residents look forward to organizing a more comfortable city space. People living in small towns look for places where they can do something interesting or useful, and feel happier outside their homes and offices.
The motives of rural activists are also worthy of attention. They can join in with informal activity even if their beliefs don’t correspond exactly to the goals and spirits of spontaneous projects. These people can be former labor activists or party workers, who have no place to work and to fulfill their potential. It is the tragedy of rural intellectuals, explained Svetlana Makovetskaya.
The experts also emphasised that usually people join with activists when they face a problem, either real or existential, for example an inability to tolerate something.
A widespread tendency to divide people into ‘friends’ and ‘strangers’ also can be a motivation for activism. For some people this intention is really important, as the awareness of a stranger danger can get people onto the streets. This is particularly relevant for nationalists, explained the expert. On the other hand, if we don’t speak about extremism, a new social capital can arise from this phenomenon. Very often people sacrifice their privacy in order to express their civil standpoint, and to protect the interests of the group, added the expert.
Informal activism can inspire enthusiasm during its early life. We see the demonstration of a new resource on state and social levels. It is the resource ofdeprovincialization, the new belief in an individual, and his opportunities, notes Makovetskaya.
But at the same time, there are a lot of problems connected with activism. One of the main problems is institutionalization. Informal activist groups don’t tend to cooperate with nonprofit organisations and other public institutions, which in turn, close their eyes to activism. Is it possible to create a healthy civil society, or will it turn out to be a crowd of marginal and easy manageable groups during a time of political and financial crisis? A lot of activist-led initiatives enter the public domain every single daySome of them are overtly cruel, such as those people who hunt stray dogs, and yet there is no consolidated policy of interacting with these groups, either positive and negative.
If society doesn’t use it’s inner resource for its development, revanchism could easily replace politicized and civil oriented activity, according to Makovetskaya.