Talking to the Vanguard

Conversations with the new wave of Russia’s civil society opposition.


Evgenia Chirikova, 35, ECMO, Interviewed in Moscow.

“It seems to me that our problem is not Putin but the people. For [we should be] more demanding with respect to our own lives, with respect to what we see out of our windows, and resist every time when government functionaries offend us.” –Evgenia Chirikova, in an interview with the Echo Mosvy Radio, Aug. 10, 2010

“Dear Leon!” Evgeniya wrote me on July 17 after we left Moscow without meeting her. “I was terribly upset because I could not meet with you [and] talk. I think the most realistic way to proceed will be to question me over the phone. It’s just that I am either under bulldozer, or in negotiations. Even this I am writing you from my phone: I am almost never in front of a normal computer these days. So please call me and I will answer all your questions with great pleasure. With much respect, Zhenya.”  

Chirikova is the head of ECMO, an environmental group with a rapidly growing national and international following, is attempting to defend from destruction the Khimki forest and other areas in the path of the planned Moscow-St. Petersburg highway. Far more than all the groups and movements in our study, ECMO activists have been subjected to physical abuse. As they throw themselves in front of bulldozers and trucks and lead “unsanctioned” demonstrations in Moscow, Chirikova and her comrades are beaten by the thugs hired by the highway construction company, roughed up by police, and put in “pre-trial detention.”

Even getting her on the phone was easier said than done. A few days after she wrote this note, this mother of two young children (she also holds advanced degrees in jet-engine designs, economics, and business) led yet another rally in downtown Moscow, and was arrested as usual. After “carrying her in his arms to the detention center, the arresting policeman came to apologize saying,” according to the Interfax, “You are so young and beautiful and I am sorry to have detained you.” She was released.

When I caught up with Chirikova later, she told me the remorseful policeman’s story — with one crucial detail changed: “He did not carry me in his arms. He put his arms around my upper body and dragged me. My ribs still hurt [a week later].” Five months later, she became one of the leaders of the Russian Spring. 

* * *

“This could not be lawful!” I was pregnant with my second child and we walked in the woods every day, my husband and I, ‘walked the belly.’ So one day we walked and saw spots [of clearings] in the forest. And the struggle began right after the baby was born. Right away, I found information in the Internet about the planned highway and the decree of the governor to the effect that, instead of the forest, we will have a highway and “structures” that go with it. So we began to bombard various ministries and agencies with questions and received idiotic answers to the effect that this decision was made by [then President Vladimir] Putin himself and, as a result, it is fully lawful. This seemed totally bizarre to me because it was clear that this could not be lawful. We spoke to a lawyer, and understood that the authorities would be useless. I began to print, on the home printer, leaflets about how there are plans in existence that were absolutely monstrous, that would change our lives. Simply, they were taking away our way of life and throwing us on the side of the highway. But we wanted to live as we had lived. Afterwards, I began to leave everywhere my phone number and we began to gather as a group.

Horrible things are happening in my country.” I worked in big business for a long time, then I had a business of my own, and there was no time to look around and see what is going on in the country. I thought I would stay at home with the second child and will be taking nice walks in the woods. But the reality hit me over the head. Horrible things are happening in my country now. For the first time in our history, people came to power for whom the sole aim is to get rich from the resources of our country. And one of these resources is land.

“No a change of regime without a change in people’s mentality.” What do I understand “the change of the existing system” to mean? First and foremost, I understand it to mean the change of people’s mentality. If citizens have political will, if they are not indifferent to their fate, if they actively participate in their own life and the life of their country, then the regime, too, will be absolutely different…[Otherwise] it is useless to exchange Putin for anyone else. The change of political regime is possible only through the change in the mentality of the people.

“We make citizens out of people.” We are trying to use our own example to show that it is possible to fight for one’s own rights, despite everything. We are maintaining a resistance camp for over two months [by mid-July 2011]. Our people are taken to the hospitals [after they are beaten] and then come back. Because a citizen does not retreat! Because a citizen does not submit to a decision by a ruler, if this decision is unlawful and continues to resist…We are making a political statement because we are fighting not for the forest. This is why we publish newspapers and blanket the entire city with leaflets and constantly hold rallies. We are not turning into a tiny sect but instead, which throws itself under a bulldozer. Instead, we are popularizing our efforts. This is the foundation for long-term changes in the country. This is more important than a seizure of power. Our struggle is a struggle for people’s minds. We are trying to change the most difficult thing to change: people’s mentality. We are fighting for people’s minds. We are making citizens out of people.

“There are frightful historical parallels — but we live in different world.” I see frightful historical parallels. The government is so deaf that they are incapable of responding to people’s problems. So people may blow up, so to speak. And this would not be good for the people, or the government, or the country. Which is why I [hope] that the change in our condition would mean change of the people themselves, that the change of the regime will follow from their activity.

“We are more like Gandhi.” I think we look more like the Gandhi movement in India. He too led [his followers] to confront the British guns…We are not terrorists. We lead many regular, rank-and-file people, who understand that, to continue the Indian parallel, we are not worse than the British, we are not worse than our authorities, that we are not slaves and that despite the empire’s  humiliating us we continue to resist and do not respond with violence…We quite consciously avoid violence,  never resort to violent means in our struggle [because] when you don’t respond to violence with violence you avoid multiplying evil…If some of the people whom we support begin to resort to violence, of course we sympathize with their [personal plight] after they are repressed. But … I always tell them: ‘Guys, I am very sorry that you are being punished like this, but our way is a way of peaceful resistance — and it is the only way to change anything in the world.'”

We must be patient. “It is paramount not to relax, to understand that this struggle may last our entire life. Such changes don’t happen in five seconds. We must resolve to be patient. It’s like pregnancy. It will last nine months. No matter what you do, the baby will be born only in nine months. Laws of nature cannot be changed  – and neither can be the laws of societal development. We cannot skip over some processes; it is physically impossible.  So all these quick, enthusiasm-fuelled revolutionary transformations that many are dreaming of today – they will come to nothing. Only gradual change – and only through working with individuals at every level we can…”

Konstantin Doroshok, 42, Spravedlivost, Interviewed in Kaliningrad.

“State power has always existed and will exist. [But] which party is in power is not as important as the framework in which people put that power. The content is less important because without people’s control, those in power, even the finest men, could become scoundrels…”

Except for the 2005 pensioners’ rallies against the “monetization” of formerly in-kind benefits and until the protests of Dec. 10, 2011, the Spravedlivost-led rally of between 10,000-12,000 people on Central Square in Kaliningrad on Jan. 30, 2010, was the single largest demonstration in Putin’s Russia. Organized by Doroshok in May 2007 and officially registered in early 2008, Spravedlivost is an umbrella advocacy group that seeks honest elections and the end of economic injustice — issues like the draconian import duties on cars and the real estate piracy of the so-called “point construction” [tochechnaya zastroyka] that destroys schools, hospitals, and parks.

Indeed, at the Jan. 30 protests, people denounced the raising of the taxes on imported cars, motorcycles, and boats — and this at the time when Moscow-appointed governor Georgy Boos, rumored to be close to Putin, was said to have bought a personal plane without paying a kopeck of tax.  They also rallied against unemployment and the soaring cost of living. Many in the crowd wore surgical masks to protest the muzzling of speech. Placards called for the firing of the region’s governor and Boos — and Putin’s resignation, as well.

In a preview of the protest coalition that has formed now, every opposition  party of Kaliningrad marched under Spravedlovost’s banners: Solidarity, Yabloko, Patriots of Russia, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and A Just Russia, as well as various regional social organizations.

There followed another two historic first (for Putin’s Russia): The regional governor was soon fired in direct response to the protest; and, in March 2011, the leader of this protest, Doroshok, was elected as regional deputy of the regional Duma as an independent “self-nominating” candidate.  

At the end of the tour of Kaliningrad, Konstantin took us in his car to the empty and windswept Central Square where the fateful protest was held. “It a Saturday, very cold and windy and wet snow was falling. I had worked several nights and days, non-stop. I printed around 40,000 leaflets. I knew that people treat leaflets under the windshield wipers of their cars as spam so I distributed them deep into the night personally, by hand … telling the people: ‘Please read this. This is very important.’

The demonstration was scheduled for 2 pm. Around noon, [ national pro-democracy leader Boris] Nemtsov who flew from Moscow the night before was calling me: ‘Kostya, where the hell are the people?’

‘Don’t worry, I tell him, they will be here.’ But I was no longer sure. At the last moment, the authorities told us that we could not bring a truck with loudspeaker equipment onto the square. This was a disaster. I cajoled and threatened. In the end, the authorities relented.

It was almost 2 pm but there were only a handful of people on the square. My heart sank. Several months of around-the-clock work, sleepless nights — all wasted? Suddenly, buses started to come. One, two, five, ten, fifteen, twenty! A stream of buses, each filled to capacity. Thousands of people!”


“People’s own participation is essential.” The first rule is not to be lazy oneself. If I am representing people in the [regional] legislature, this means to struggle for them within the power [structure], so that they see that there are people who are ready to fight for them. But their own participation essential. As soon as they begin seeing some “Uncle Vasya” who will do everything for them, this society becomes stagnant. That is why if it is so important to build a self-conscious civil society [which] not only develops likes or dislikes with respect to this or that party. Party’s names do not change the nature of people in power. People must be explained the necessity of their own participation in the life of their area, their city.

“The sink full of blood and excrement.” In the beginning of 2009 I was running for the City Council…against was a United Russia candidate, a millionaire, former KGB. Later we learned that he was a protégé of the governor [who] had serious business interests involved. So it was a huge influence, huge amounts of money. So he becomes my competitor and a serious pressure was brought down on me [to withdraw]. At first, my friends began telling me that they were stopped on the street and told to tell me to withdraw my candidacy. Then I was stopped in the car by GIBDD [traffic police] and they begin to ask me questions like: ‘Where is your first-aid kit?  Where is your fire extinguisher? Why are your windows tinted? Can you open the hood? Aha, this car is listed as stolen!’ They take me to a police station. The GIBDD people leave and another team comes in, whom I did not see before, and they write a violation report to the effect that I was verbally abusing GIBDD officers.

And so for three days I was in the pre-hearing detention cell and they staged all sorts ‘concerts’ for my benefit [to intimidate me] — such as the beatings of non-Russians or sending in a tattooed thug. There were 12-15 people in our cell. And, by the way, it is -2 Celsius in the cell. You can see steam out of people’s mouths when they talked. When there are enough people in the cell, it gets a bit warmer and one can doze off a bit. I come over to the sink to have a drink but it is full of blood and excrement. And, of course, the toilet looks the same. And they [the guards] tell me: ‘Why aren’t you drinking. Aren’t you thirsty?’ Meanwhile [as I later learned] my pregnant wife was sobbing at the entrance to the police station: they told her that I was not there and they never heard of me. 

So they held me until a protest rally we organized on January 29 took place without me. At the rally, people talked about my detention and that, if they didn’t release me, people would come to the police station with posters. So they let me go that night and order to be in the court next morning.

“A Kalashnikov to the back of the head. But this was not the end of the pressure on me. Little by little, police pulled in [for questioning] all my relatives: my mother, father and finally my brother. All were called in as ‘witnesses.’ And all the while the police continued to ‘dig under me’ looking to find out how much money I had, what sort of property, what sort of property my relatives had…Until finally they got to my younger brother [who was] a co-owner of a construction company. At that point it got serious: masked police with machine guns, ordering everyone on the floor, requisitioning all the records — the whole shebang.

So my brother’s entire company came to see me at home to beg me to cancel my candidacy. Naturally, I tried to explain to them: guys you are not just with my life interfering here. If you have to, go and defend your business. If what they do to you is against the law, go and fight them and I will help you. And you should help me with my campaign instead of asking me not to run.   

But then [the police] essentially took my brother and his colleagues hostage. Everyone’s lying on the floor, with Kalashnikov barrels to the back of the head and boots on their spines. They also took them out, one by one, and beat them. So while they are held hostage, I go to the election commission and hand in a statement withdrawing my candidacy. I barely was out of the building when [my brother’s firm] called to say thank you.

“There was a lot of anger and determination.” So that time I had to withdraw. But when my brother and his friends came to see me to say thank you, I told them that I would definitely run again…. And then, I told them, go on vacation, do what you want but I would not do for you again what I just did. And, of course, there was a great deal of anger in me — anger and determination. I’d gone through all this and I was not afraid of anything anymore. And I began to think serious how to expand our ranks, how we attract and unite political parties because it would be more difficult to harass them than an individual.

“We addressed them to everyone personally…”  [Preparing for the January 30, 2010] meeting, I used something I had seen in Europe. It was commercial advertizing but I liked the way it was done. In Germany, where traffic lights turned, I saw how girls run across a giant autobahn and just stood there [with their ads] along the pedestrian crossing in view of hundreds of cars. Then lights changed and they were gone. We did the same here, in Kaliningrad. We made posters, addressed very personally to each driver: “Help us! Nothing will happen without you! The car tax has been increased six fold! Is that fair?!” So we walked onto a highway and stood there while the cars stopped for the light. And we did it for several hours until police came and took us away.

“It does not matter what party it is: is one-party monopoly that the problem.” I have been invited to join United Russia, have been offered a local leadership position. I was invited to join [the Putin-organized] Popular Front. I was against all of that…They are wrong about my being apolitical. But I could have been totally apolitical if there had not been a monopoly by one party. In that case, there would have been a healthy competition and good new ideas will emerge for the benefit of society. And then, perhaps, there won’t b a need to create new parties.

Together against “United Russia”! In March 2011 we formed a coalition of all opposition parties, except for the [Kremlin-controlled Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s] LDPR — and even in their case the regional chapter was ready but their federal leadership would not allow them to join. [Such a] coalition was without a precedent! Can you imagine how greatly effective it would be [if done throughout Russia]: here’s United Russia’s sympathizers — and here’s the rest of the society?  

Sergei Kanaev, 45, president, Federation of Automobile Owners of Russia (FAR), Interviewed in Kemerovo and Moscow. 

“If all this qualifies [FAR] as a cell of civil society, then please count us in, by all means, I’d be delighted!  I can’t say that what we’ve done so far amounts to changing the system. We have not yet reached that level. However, more and more often a situation arises when after succeeding in defending their rights in one small case people realize that they must go further.” — Sergei Kanaev, in an interview to a Russian newspaper.

Kanaev is head of what is likely the largest non-governmental organization in Russia. According to him, there are 36 million cars in Russia as of last summer and 30 million car owners. Since 2001, FAR has championed better roads, traffic safety, and lower gasoline prices. But it is far more that. “The Federation of Automobile Owners of Russia is a fellowship of free people, for whom the rule of law, justice and equality is not an empty sound but a part of the life’s path,” reads the FAR statute. “[It is an organization of those] for whom public interests are above the personal ones and who understand that the responsibility for one’s freedom rests on their own shoulders…For FAR, equality and respect on the roads is one of the key priorities of its activity, along with the lowering the cost of car ownership.” 

Accordingly, FAR’s most popular campaign has been against one of Putinism’s most offensive hallmarks: flagrant inequality before the law. In this instance, it is Article 3.1 of the Traffic Regulations Code which permits vast and ill-defined  categories of government officials to drive with blue flashing lights [migalki] and violate the rules, including driving on the wrong side of the road against the traffic. Routinely abused, the law has been blamed for many accidents, quite a few of them lethal. FAR has led the national campaign for the law’s repeal. In Sergei’s own words: “Until the law is on the books, we are saying that a government functionary has the right to kill people on the roads.”

FAR has failed in its quest to annul the law thus far, but the campaign has expanded into a broader affirmation of civic dignity. One of FAR’s most popular national campaigns has been the “blue buckets” protests: On car antennas and roofs or on the heads of the protesters throughout the country, blue buckets — no more than children’s beach toys — mock the migalki of the Russian mandarins’ corteges.  Popular bumper stickers in FAR’s headquarters in Moscow told a similar story:  “For Equality and Security,” “I don’t give bribes!” “Flashing Lights are Russia’s Shame!” Shortly before our visit, FAR had released a letter to Putin, telling him to resign if he is unable to meet FAR’s demands and to improve the country’s economic condition, in general.

Sergei’s cramped two-rooms office in central Moscow was also his apartment. With rents astronomically high and buying a place out of the question (his apartment would cost over a million dollars), that is all he and FAR can afford. Sergei’s wife and older daughter were still in Sergei’s native city of Kemerovo, in southeast Siberia. But his eight-year-old daughter, Sanechka, polite and serious, lived with her father and was reading quietly while we talked.

On the way to lunch at a huge beer house on the Novy Arbat thoroughfare a few blocks away, Sergei proudly reminded us that his neighborhood was Sivtsev Vrazhek — a place known to all literate Russians as the stage for one of greatest Russian novels of all times, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. It is here that Voland the Devil and his gang settled when then came to stay in Moscow. And it is here, in the darkness of Stalin’s purges, that Bulgakov chose to unfold his tribute to the human spirit’s innate and irrepressible thirst for freedom and dignity and its eventual triumph over totalitarian lawlessness and brutality. On Dec. 10, 2011, FAR joined the first mass protest demonstrations.

* * *

“This case has turned upside down my entire life.” Until this happened, I had not the slightest inkling of ever going into public activity. I was the director of the meat-processing plant, then I had my own business [a grocery store]. And it made no difference to me who was ruling the country. I knew that under any circumstances I would do my best to ensure that my family lived well. I had not taken part in any political or social organizations. But this case has turned my life upside down.

I had a friend, Andrei, and one day we were driving in separate cars. First, I was in front; then, at a traffic light I told him: “You drive ahead and I will follow you.” So we switched. Two traffic lights later, a drunken GIBDD [traffic police] officer drives right into him, and killed him and his daughter, Anya. This was in 2000 — after that everything has gone in a different direction for me. I then organized [a local group of automobile owners] and in 2001 we had our first protest rally in which 150 cars took part.

We are citizens!” When people see that we’ve succeeded in something, it gives them faith: why not try this and that now? Someone has to do something and to show that we are citizens here! But when we just sit and wait for civil activity to fall from the sky, it will never happen. It cannot appear out of nowhere.

“To unite like in organic chemistry.” There are people in our state that do everything to divide us so that we never unite. And we will remain stupid until we realize that we have to unite no matter what…But to unite like in organic chemistry when one atom, when it joins, brings with it more atoms…. It’s like a human DNA which in the end results in something good…It is, you see, a live, organic way. It is a chain that continues to add links ad infinitum. And what’s interesting is that a person who was a link is no longer important. If you remove him the chain [of the molecule] will still be there…It will be replaced by others…Unlike inorganic chemistry where if one atom, or one molecule, becomes ambitious and quits the entire substance falls apart.

“They can arrest us all. That’s not a problem for them. [The Great Purge of] 1937 is gone but it can return quickly and easily. But even if they arrest us, there are more people further down the line. It’s like a cancer growth, from the regime’s point of view. So they are not sure. They cannot be sure, objectively, that if they cut it out, nothing will remain. On the other hand, they are not sure that cutting is out is the best thing for them because they will be cutting out the indicator [of societal trends]. With the radicals, such as [the freedom of demonstration movement] Strategy-31, they understand that, yes, they have to cut them out, to discredit them. But with us, they don’t know if they should discredit us or not.

Natalia Vedenskaya, 29,! Interviewed in St.Petersburg.

“I will be asked: “And where were you when all of this was happening?”

Willowy and thoughtful, Vedenskaya led a movement that for several years battled the mayor’s office and Russia’s largest company, Gazprom, to thwart the construction of the natural-gas giant’s 77-story, 1,322-foot high headquarters, the so-called Okhta Center.! organized several large rallies, including one on Oct. 9, 2010, that gathered between 3,000-5,000 people — at the time, one of the largest protest gatherings in the Putin era — and collected more than 48,000 signatures on an Internet petition. In a rare outright victory for civil society, on Dec. 8, 2010, the government of St. Petersburg withdrew Gazprom’s construction permit. The plot still lies vacant.

Although! has succeeded in its key objective, posts on its website declared (and our interviews confirmed), that movement has no plans to disband. As part of the Live City [Zhvoy gorod] loose preservation coalition, they are determined to continue as a kind of permanent preservationist watchdog. The group’s website calls on its members and supporters to continue to “defend our city together!”

“The first experience of civic action.” Before “!” my first experience of civic action was the Sinyavinskie swamp not far from St.Petersburg [where they planned to build a garbage dump]. A huge number of people died there in the Great Patriotic War [World War II]. And, as regrettably often happens in our country, the bodies are still not buried. They just lie there, almost stacked, lots and lots of bodies…So our precious government thought of nothing better than to have a garbage dump there. This is truly beyond the pale. It was impossible not to get involved because this was sheer absurdity. So, for I used [Internet] social networks and wrote a text about the Sinyavinskie swamp in my blog in LiveJournal…I had a file [of documents], which my husband managed to obtain after getting in touch with a journalist. There were letters there from the survivors of the Leningrad blockade.  [Then] one of the most popular Russian bloggers…saw my writing, [got in touch with me] and I gave him the file. The case received publicity, there was lots of noise. The Mayor [of St. Petersburg] came. Then there was a protest rally in the city of Kirovsk [closest to the planned dump]. Long story short: [the authorities] shelved the idea of the dump…So perhaps now we will finally succeed in arranging the removal of the bodies and re-burial. But you know, it’s not just the re-burial! There are places where no construction may be allowed! None. Even if they take all the bodies out of there. We cannot have a dump or a garbage-processing plant there — cannot in principle! It is just not right. It is horrible. 

“The habit of submission.” When I got involved in the “!” I had a sense that it would be possible to win. But the habit of submissiveness is so [widespread] that no one resists. And for most of our compatriots, unfortunately, motivation is something like this: ‘Nothing depends on us anyway.’ It is a phrase that everyone mouths. ‘Nothing depends on us anyway. They will decide on their own. We don’t matter here.’ 

“If goodness wins, then we have a chance.”  [But] often there is a situation when people a bit outraged and this is enough. It is enough to feel dignity in oneself…Among other things, our victory is so important…because people may react differently [next time]. They see that they’ve signed [letters of protest] — and it has worked! That they’ve gone to a protest rally — and it has worked! The levers begin to work and people begin to behave differently…. I understood this. I felt the responsibility. Because [for us] it was a struggle of the cultural capital of the country with the country’s richest company [Gazprom]. It was like a model of the struggles that take place throughout the country: If the cultural capital cannot win, then [in the provinces] they don’t have a prayer. This was a battle of a dragon with a rhinoceros…But if goodness wins, then we have a chance. Which is why they followed our fight so closely in the provinces. It was a model for them.

Where were you?” I get very tired from all of this. Truth be told, I am not at all public person. It all comes from a sense of duty…I understand sufficiently clearly that for some time — perhaps a long time, perhaps as long as 20 years, and maybe longer still — all that can be preserved [of the historical and cultural legacy] is what we manage to preserve, because a normal system of cultural preservation in our country is not working and not likely to start working soon. It is understood. And that means that I personally will be asked: ‘And where were you [when all this destruction was happening]?’

“It was a visualization of coercion by brutal force” Do you know why people protested against the Tower? Because they love St. Petersburg so? Or because of something else? Most of all because [the construction] was visualization of coercion by brutal force [vizualizatsiya nasiliya]. We have corruption, of course, but it is hard to witness. How people are daily humiliated is also not always easy to see — and to become outraged from. But here, people had something onto which they can concentrate all their hatred [of the system]. And all the more so because [the culprit was] the very same company that is turning the country into a senseless oil-producing appendage [of global economy]. And this, subconsciously realized, in truth was a stronger motivation than the struggle for the purity of the skyline… 

“To outpace the regime.” Even before [I became involved with!] I understood fairly well that what is happening in the country is awful…I understood it from the moment Putin came to power. So I had no doubt about what was going on. But I had a vague hope that we would outpace the regime…I thought that the [country’s] disintegration which [the regime] was perpetrating would proceed slower than the gathering of the civil society. I very much hoped for this. I understood that everything was awful but I believed that the speed of the disintegration was slower than the speed of [civic] engagement and that in the end all would turn out well. But how to make people who can decide at least something from people who now decide nothing? This makes a huge difference! People don’t understand that it is not somebody who has to act but it is they — they must control [the affairs in the country].

“To catch the country before it falls down.” But then I began to see that we were running late. That I had not calculated correctly the speed of the disintegration. It is faster. The way they [the regime] consumes the country and decomposes [razlagauyut] its ruling structures — all this is happening much faster than the society matures and self-organizes. And that is why I stay politically active…And I see a way out in precisely these types of civil organizations, which try to interact with the authorities in order to show then that [the authorities] must give their power to those who are more competent…The authorities themselves see that they are in a stalemate, that their functionaries don’t work, that their structures don’t work. We are ready to solve this issue. We are ready to solve it within a legal framework…to catch up [podkhvatit’] with the country [before it falls].   

Maxim Vedenev, 36, TIGR, Interviewed in Vladivostok.

“The main thing is that people who come to us begin to think differently, begin to believe that everything is possible and that the most important thing is not to be afraid…When people start to self-organize, we won’t need any revolutions. When people stop submitting and begin demanding, it will be the most peaceful revolution of all.” 

“There are no mechanisms for the defense of common people in Russia,” reads a 2009 declaration of TIGR, a national movement in defense of human, economic, civil, and political rights. (The acronym stands for Fellowship of the Self-Motivated Citizens of Russia.) “We have no civil society that would keep politicians to their promises, that would force businesses to be socially responsible, and would make government functionaries remember that they are servants of people who pay their salaries. We are aware that the situation is like an illness that is not treated for many years…To create such a mechanism is precisely what constitutes our agenda. And this mechanism is called “civil society.” We are not aiming at the instant transformation of the entire society. We are beginning with the defense of our rights. We will stand up for our rights and our dignity. We will involve more and more people in this process. We want to construct a “small civil society” and gradually expand it to entire Russia. And then either the civil society will force the regime to pay heed to its demands — or it will change the irresponsible regime.”

By the time our interview was over, I felt that Maxim, the chairman of the Maritime (Far Eastern) autonomous Chapter of TIGR, was a living embodiment of this sentiment. But, once out of the hotel, he switched to a different conversation. A descendant of the Russian settlers in the Far East, he was visibly proud of the vitality and rugged beauty of this San Francisco-like city on hills. He drove us for hours through one of Russia’s largest ports, the headquarters of the Pacific Fleet and, and, during the Cold War, one of the Soviet Union’s largest submarine bases. Up and up we went on winding streets; he beckoned me to follow him on foot as he climbed to the city’s highest point, where a ten-foot Orthodox cross of steel honored his ancestors’ memory.

“Impunity is from indifference.” Where does [the authorities’] impunity come from? From our indifference.  Indifference engenders impunity; impunity breeds the everything-goes environment. The everything-goes environment destroys everything. If people respected themselves even a little bit, there would have been no impunity.

“Everyone must choose his own road.” There is a popular slogan: we [civic leaders] must lead people. I don’t want to lead anyone! I have my road and I follow it. I don’t want to drag anyone along. Do you want to come with me? Then let’s go. You don’t? Well, there are many roads, go your own way. If people want to follow you, they will. If not, it is too late [for the slogans like] “We will make your life better!” We were fed up with all this in the 20th century, as in no century before. So all these cries are about nothing.

“You can’t be half-pregnant.” People come to our organization [and ask]: ‘Can you help us?’ ‘No,’ I tell them, ‘we can’t.’ ‘What are you saying?!’ they tell me. ‘We know that you help people.’ And I say: ‘I help you to help yourself. I don’t want to chase you, to do your battles. I will explain to you what can be done and how we can help you do it. But it will have to be you who help you.’ And then I ask them: ‘Are you sure? I don’t want you to come to me and say: we don’t really want to pick a big fight, we just want you to meet [privately] with someone and to talk to him. In this case, I say good-bye. If you want to do it quietly, non-publicly, go somewhere else. You cannot be half-pregnant. Either you are pregnant, or you are not.’   

“When something changes in people.” I feel most gratified when someone begins saying things that he considered nonsense before, that he thought were impossible. He has changed. I see how he talks to others, already on his ‘how’ — how he begins to move the cause along. This is what I call moral reward.

“A new family is born.” The relationships with all those whom we helped have grown into something like a family. It is no longer formal like ‘Hello, we are an organization for the defense of human rights.’ We are a family, we are friends. We say ‘thou,’ [??] to one another regardless of age. We are a group of people [united by] a definite goal, definite tasks, and a definite idea…. Many people getting together in one place can change a great deal. I think what I do is not a public organization — it is a collection of people with a similar outlook on life, similar way of thinking. A public organization is only a tool.

“Not to be ashamed of myself.” My goal is to live in such a way as not to be ashamed of myself. And I inevitable infect others who come and stand next to me, even thought I don’t drag anyone anywhere. It is because [they see that] I really believe in my ideas and live them. Because I’ve already tested that this works for me and I resolved to live accordingly. So people close to me in spirit somehow appear next to me. Some supplement me; others are supplemented by me.

“A crystal in water.” What’s the rationale for an organization? What sense do I see in it? It is like a water-crystallization effect. One particle of dust in distilled water sharply raises the possibility of crystallization. It is a point of unity. After that, all depends on how well we proceed. We can spill the water and the crystals will dissolve. Or we can crystallize in some complex formula and will begin doing something, generate a program of action.

“To feel the misfortune of others like our own.” We don’t pull anyone into the organization. Most of our membership is from people whom we helped. Having once realized that a person alone is powerless; having satisfied themselves that no one is funding us from the outside and we don’t take anyone’s money; that we feel the misfortune of others like our own — a person inevitably decides to help others like we helped him. And those who are close to him, they, too, come to the organization. 

“When you begin to work with all this, you find more and more.” When you just ‘live’ — work, home, family, apartment, television — you don’t see much, all seems fine. But when you begin to work [in a civil society organization], you see so much more. First we worked with ‘the humiliated and the insulted.’ Then we started to learn about larger [offenses]. Now we’ve learned that the president [Dmitry Medvedev] directly violates his own laws and we are preparing a huge amount of materials to submit to the Constitutional Court.

“I would like for our organization to become a center of a healthy civil society.” A public organization must become a cell of consolidation of all people who are not indifferent to the fate of their city or their country. It is a place where one stops feeling alone, finds like-minded people and can realize his plans. Most importantly, having started to fight the boundless lawlessness [bespredel] of police, procuracies, government bureaucrats, he feels a real support. And of course, I would like for the organization to become a center in which the creation of healthy civil society will begin; a center of where civil society will begins to be manifest itself.

“To force the authorities to work for the people.” Our organization does not aim at changing the regime or those who lead the regime or at seizing power. Our aim is to make those in power work for the benefit of the people, to make it feel responsible for its actions. Our objective is to set an example, to show that an association of citizens can really influence the fate of their country, their region, their city — particularly the decisions by the authorities by making them to take into account the opinion of their people…One of the key goals of  [our] organization is the creation of a large public coalition to consolidate forces in the work  against the stranglehold [zasil’e] of corruption and the rampant lawlessness [bespredel] perpetrated by state bureaucracy.

“Just to come to a polling station and observe.” Look, we did not participate in the elections [before 2011] but we had observers in just one polling station. We just came there and stood. Do you know what the result was? The [ruling] United Russia [party] did not get even 2 percent of the vote. We just stood there all day. We prevented the paying of people 50 rubles per vote. We prevented voting by [non-citizen] guest-workers. We did not do much, we just were there! And because of our presence they were afraid to ‘throw in’ [fake] votes and other such things. If, little by little, people begin to come to polling stations and observe we will have a totally different result!

“People’s right to choose.”  We are going to participate in the [2012] elections not to gain anything [for our organization] but precisely to secure people’s right to choose and an opportunity to chose. That is, to give citizens an opportunity to vote not just for a representatives of one of the parties in the parliament — the parties which, in essence, are just a screen for the ruling, anti-people [antinarodnaya] elite — but instead to choose from among those who are like they.

A Russia of my dreams.” For Russia to become the country I dream of…the Russian people must wake up and begin to think within a different mental framework, to be guided by the criteria of the true nature of human beings, by such notions as honor, conscience, camaraderie, duty, family, and, most importantly, free will.  Don’t confuse it with freedom. Freedom can be taken away or delimited — but the free will, it either exists or not. It can be subverted only by its owner himself.  So, to sum up, my ideal is for people to remember that they are not slaves — not of God’s, not of an employer, not of society, not of material things, nor of the fear of tomorrow. 

Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.

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