Young activists in Russia face an uphill fight for change

Unlike in the rest of Europe, the Russian middle class is not a motor of change, according to Russian social researchers. It has no ethics, no ideology, no political agenda. Change has to come from activists, but their numbers are small (and may be dwindling). Avraham Osipov-Gipsh contacted six young activists from all over Russia by skype and mail and asked them what problems they face and how they see society.

by Yegor Osipov-Gipsh

When in late 2011 Alexandrina Vanke, a postgraduate student at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Science, joined the crowds protesting the falsifications of the parliamentary elections, she did so not only because of her civic position. 'I wanted to know who were those people that took to the streets, what stratum, what class did they represent,' she recalls in a skype interview. Her research team, led by Alexander Bikbov, did about 500 street interviews. On the question 'in which social stratum, class or group you position yourself?' they expected mostly to meet representatives of the middle class.

However, things were different: 'Our respondents did not refer to themselves as standard middle class', says Vanke by skype. The research team concluded that it was journalists and politicians who put the middle class label on the protesters, while in reality people had a much more diverse background.

No ethics, no ideology

Vanke’s findings correspond with those of sociologist Alexey Levinson from opinion poller Levada Center. According to Levinson the stratum of the Russian population, that is described as 'middle class', has no ideology, no ethics, and no political position — characteristics that are essential for the middle class in Western countries; rather, its main common denominator, that stems from the late Soviet years, is a certain type and level of consumption. As Russia’s class categories are blurred, says Vanke, this makes the middle class ungraspable: workers and clerks can drive similar cars and go to the same cafes. The Russian middle class is not a source of political or social demands, and, consequentially, doesnot stimulate any change.

Even less enclined to change is Russian youth. Valeria Kasamara and Anna Sorokina of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics for 6 years now have been doing research on students of Moscow’s most renowned universities. 'Today’s youth is extremely pragmatic; it can be characterized as the youth of freeloaders. They often expect something from the state, but do not feel any responsibility for what’s happening,' says Kasamara by skype. The pattern is identical with youngsters who are satisfied with the current government and those who are critical. None of them is ready to become a generation of change. Indeed, even at the climax of the anti-Putin protests, student youth was no more than 10% of the crowd.

'Our young people experience a steady devaluation of democratic values because they themselves did not fight for them,' says Kasamara. In combination with their consumerism, this gives a bleak picture. Most young people go to the university in order to make money immediately after graduation. Cultural or social capital is of little value.

'When I am inviting my first year students to the theater, it’s hardly sold out,' says Kasamara. 'But when we have a visit to the Duma, the group on Vkontakte (analog of Russian Facebook) is fully booked in five minutes'. Students think that contacts with powerful people, even by means of a visit to a parliament, are good for their careers. New history books for secondary schools, printed after the annexation of Crimea, dedicate only a few lines to Stalin’s Terror, but abundantly discuss Russia’s victorious wars, including the First World War, that ended in disaster for the country. 'It’s very easy to manipulate them since they do not know anything; whatever you tell, they’re ready to believe it,' notices Kasamara. As the middle class, Russia’s youth is also an unlikely candidate for transformation of the country.

Six exceptional activists

However, there are exceptions. There is a hard core group of activists, that want to change the situation. They have a diverse economic background and are ready to forsake their generation’s dream of high incomes. They are willing to take risks. By skype and Facebook I spoke to six people, who want to be game changers.

MonaviaLidia Moniava (29) from Moscows children hospice

Lidia Moniava (29) is executive director of Moscow’s only children's hospice, A Home With a Lighthouse. To survive, in 2017 the hospice needs 8,127,000 euro; till March it collected 2,307,000 euro. This means that Lidia and her colleagues don't know if the hospice will still be up and running in late May. This is a permanent situation: 'Charity is 99.9% of our budget,' says Moniava. 'This year we received 6,500 euro from the Moscow municipality. That’s all they can provide, and it is sufficient for half a day of our work. The rest of our budget we collect through my Facebook subscribers.' The website of the hospice has a donation button.

Lidia began volunteering more than ten years ago. She used to help terminally ill children, who were sent back home to 'vacate beds for people who still can be cured'. Together with her colleagues, Lidia succeeded in starting a palliative department for terminally ill children in one of Moscow’s hospitals. But the hospital could provide only medical care, while the dying patients needed social and spiritual support; it was obvious that an independent hospice was necessary. There has been no day without financial problems.

'There is no hospice in Europe that does what we do,' says Moniava. Home With a Lighthouse provides physiotherapy, respiratory support, orders wheelchairs, distributes hundreds of parcels a day, and has an enormous network of volunteers. The Hospice’s lawyers fight for every small subsidy the government has to provide according to the law. 'Most of my colleagues are people who once had cool jobs, but then experienced a systematic shift, and now want to do something meaningful. As for the doctors we work with, they are mainly fed up with the state hospitals that are nothing more than a human conveyor'. Asked about the middle class, Lidia says she doesn’t understand what that means.

Refugee children

Olga Nikolaenko (25) is director of the Center for Adaptation and Education of Refugee Children. It is Russia’s only organization that provides psychological and social help for children of refugees, as well as legal assistance in getting access to education. 'In reality, we also deal with everything else: what to eat, what clothes to put on and how not to get into prison,' says Nikolayenko. The Center supports 83 children and has a staff of approximately 72 volonteers. Only two of them — a psychologist and an administrator — receive a salary.

NikolaenkoOlga Nikolaenko (25) works with refugee children in Moscow

'Our society is xenophobic at all levels: children, parents, leaders. The situation is most disastrous for African children,' says Nikolaenko. Despite a verdict of the Supreme Court, that all children, registered or not (most are not), must be admitted to schooling, Moscow schools continue to refuse them. The Center fights for every refused child. 'A state that is not functioning is useless; people in office have interests of their own,' says Nikolaenko. What she means is that there hardly is an evil masterplan behind barring children from schools, but local officers of all kinds might benefit.

Nikolaenko has to deal with authorities of all kinds and levels. Once she had a confrontation with a Syrian mafia boss, who owned a factory, where Syrian refugees worked. They used to send their kids to work as well. She fights with school teachers, principals and refugee parents, who have their own problems with adaptation and survival. In February 2016, Nikolaenko found the doors of the Center sealed: the authorities kicked them out of their premises, because its umbrella organization was declared a foreign agent, according to the ominous law on ngo's, that puts obstacles to receiving foreign grants. Since then the Center is moving from one location to another. When asked if she sees herself as a representative of the middle class Nikolajenko replies that 'from an economic point of view, I am at the poverty line'.

Tatar cultural revival

Artur Khaziev (27) and Airat Faizrakhmanov (31) are young activists in Tatarstan, one of Russia’s most developed regions and the country’s second biggest ethnic group. Airat is the head of the Tatar Youth Forum. His main work is dedicated to reviving Tatar culture in the cities of the republic. The activists of the Forum promote the use of the Tatar language in official documents and everyday life, try to revive Tatar culture in modern music, discuss tourism opportunities.

Xaciev Tatarstan Activist Artur Khaziev (27) is leader of political platform 'European Tatarstan'

Faizrakhmanov’s work is rather exceptional for Russia. It is only possible in regions like Tatarstan, that has a rich history and culture, but even here most of the projects are run by volunteers. 'I dream of the emergence of a real Tatar-language culture, which is interesting to all citizens of our republic,' says Airat.

Artur is the leader of 'European Tatarstan', a small political platform. 'European' here stands for basic principles like rule of law, democracy and an independent legal system. Its work concentrates on renewal of a unique agreement between Moscow and Tatarstan (the only of its kind in Russia), which stipulates that Tatarstan’s resources form 'the basis of life and activities of its multinational people'. This gives the region more political and economic power. However, today all of the region's financial budgets are managed by Moscow, and Khaziev cautiously calls for more freedom in managing its resources. One day he would like to see Tatarstan having its own immigration program, like Canada. Sofar, European Tatarstan has had no significant problems with the authorities.

Asked about the middle class, Airat says that financially speaking he probably belongs to its lowest stratum, while his demands of consumption are definitely of the middle-class level. Artur considers himselve as a member of the middle class, especially since his relatives always have been entrepreneurs.

FaizrakhmanAirat Faizrakhmanov (31) is head of the Tatar Youth Movement

Fight for animal rights

For Marina Sedova (28) from Syktyvkar, the capital of the arctic Komi republic, 1.200 kilometers north-east of Moscow, activism started with a fight against animal knackers: in 2008, the local authorities issued a permit for catching animals to a company that started to slaughter stray dogs. She managed to get the permit returned to a local animal shelter.

Next came a fight on the lack of bus services in a city with more than 245,000 inhabitants. The municipality supplied licenses to two companies, that totally disregarded passenger’s comfort. There were no fixed timetables. After numerous requests to the authorities, Sedova started receiving anonymous threats. 'I reported to the police, but they didn’t care,' she says. In the end, timetables appeared, but were removed again in January 2017, since there is now only one transport company that manages all bus services of the city.

Then she had a fight with the municipality for the right to demonstrate on Syktyvkar’s main square. The authorities banned all demonstrations, including individual pickets that, according to federal law, do not require a permit. In one of her numerous pickets at the square Sedova chained herself to a lamp post. Soon after that, she had 'a talk' with FSB officers, but continued her activism.

Sedova Marina Sedova (28) from Syktyvkar has lost hope in her fight with authorities.

But the prospects are rather grim. Marina wants to move to Eastern Europe. 'In recent years, Russia’s activism is in total decline,' she says. 'I am exhausted'. For a living Sedova works at a local cancer department, a tough job. 'I won’t be too sad if I loose it,' she says. 'I am already 28, and I have no sense of future whatsoever.' When asked about the middle class, Sedova replied that she is pennyless. 

Fight with stalinism

Aleksey Makarov (32) works for Memorial, a civil rights group established by former dissident Andrei Sakharov. It collects information and archives on Stalinist crimes and repression. 'My grandmother started working for Memorial in 1989 and it was my youth dream to join,' he says. 'One of the main difficulties for us is the abyss between the society’s urge for our information and the limited possibilities we have to provide that information to the people,' he says.  In a country that almost openly whitewashes the crimes of Stalinism, this is a tricky matter.

Makarov 1Aleksey Makarov (32) works for Memorial

After the Yeltsin years, under Putin, working in the archives became more tough. Some materials are being re-classified (after being declassified in the 1990s), many others are available only to the relatives of victims. 'In recent years, they’ve also started censoring names of investigators and witnesses,' notices Makarov. Not only the law on archives and the system have to be changed, it is also crucial that organisations that in Soviet times committed crimes have to admit their wrongdoings and clean up. That accounts for the Russian Orthodox Church and the community of psychiatrists, that misused psychiatry for political purposes. 'The idea that reputation is important has to become more important,' says Makarov.

In 2015, Memorial was labeled a 'foreign agent', and this stigma severly limits the work of the non-governmental organisations in the regions. It also diminished the list of possible donors (foreign grants are considered suspicious). But Alexey is modestly hopeful about the future: 'There are ever more people that are questioning the past,' he thinks. His income is 'in the lower part of the middle class', but he prefers to label himself as part of the intelligentsia. 'It’s important how one reacts to current events, what one reads, how one builds up one’s biography. Your level of income can  vary greatly.'

Political activism in Novosibirsk

Egor Savin (30) is leader of the political party Solidarity in Novosibirsk, a city four hours flying east of Moscow. After graduation in physics, he earned good money in a company. Shortly after he started a regional branch of the political party, however, he was fired. 'An FSB officer came to my work, and told me and my boss: either you don’t meddle with politics, or you leave this job,' recalls Egor. Het resigned immediately.

While building up a local party office, Egor succeeded in solving the problem of the gigantic waiting lists for children willing to go to to kindergarten. His movement is now working all over Russia. He monitored corruption of local road construction companies (a few firms were even shut down). Savin was also fighting the local mafia in his parents’ village, where a police officer was a relative of a mafia boss. The Savin's had their house set on fire, the water supply was cut, things were stolen from the house. In the end, Savin  put so much pressure on the regional authorities that he was succesful. The entire criminal gang was arrested, and the local policeman was fired. The court, however, sentenced the gang leader to a slight 2 years probation.

Twice Savin ran in the local and federal elections, but they were a fraud. Twice he had his entire business ruined (first the building was burnt down, then all his machinery was stolen). 'Now I am trying to restart, as nobody would ever give me a job,' he says. Despite threats to his wife (her car was covered with blood) and children (unknown people tried to abduct them from kindergarten), Egor doesn’t plan to leave Russia. He does consider himself as 'too poor' to be a member of the middle class. 'Also I can’t afford myself to make any plans for the future.'

SavinEgor Savin (30) leads political party Solidarity in Novosibirsk. Twice his business has been burned down.

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