Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Recent Assessments of Social Organizations in Russia

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Recent Assessments of Social Organizations in Russia

Article excerpt

During the period of perestroika in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, there was a burst of optimism concerning the prospects for the emergence of a vigorous civil society in Russia and the other republics of the USSR when a large number of independent social groups suddenly appeared. By the late 1990s, however, Russian scholars who studied nongovernmental organizations had reached a consensus that the hopes for the flourishing of civil society in their country had been largely disappointed, (1) In this article I attempt to delineate the problems that are faced by organizations in the "third sector" of Russian society and to trace the causes of those problems. In doing so, I rely primarily on Russian scholarly works on social organizations in contemporary Russia, supplemented by the research findings of several Western scholars. In the concluding section of the article I seek to identify the flaws in the reasoning of earlier writings whose optimism concerning the prospects for the flourishing of social organizations in Russia proved unjustified. I argue that a significant lesson that may be learned from the experience of nongovernmental organizations in Russia since the early 1990s is that the state and the political elite can exert a powerful influence on the dynamics of social transformation in the course of a post-communist transition.

The Optimism of the Period of Perestroika

In the late 1980s changes in the Soviet Union stimulated the rise of optimism concerning the prospects for the emergence of independent social organizations where conditions had previously been unfavorable. Some Western commentators saw reason to hope for the rapid emergence of a robust civil society in Russia and some other republics of the USSR. In this article, I define the term "civil society" as the sphere of self-activating, self-governing social organizations that are largely independent of control by the state. (2) The organizations in civil society constitute the "third sector" comprising nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations, but interacts closely with, and is often influenced strongly by, the other two.

In the Soviet Union, the control of society by the Communist Party and state had precluded the development of civil society for several decades. Soon after Gorbachev came to power, however, he launched a program of reforms that represented a sharp change in the state's relationship with social organizations and thus stimulated the beginning of the growth of civil society. (3) After the unveiling of perestroika in 1986, "informal groups" that were independent of control by the party and state proliferated with astonishing rapidity. (4) The Soviet press reported that about thirty thousand informal groups had come into existence by 1988, and Geoffrey Hosking estimated that about sixty thousand such groups were present in the Soviet Union by 1990. (5) Those observers who predicted that the trends that were evident in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s would continue throughout the 1990s expected that an extensive network of nongovernmental organizations would be flourishing in Russia by the turn of the century.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a number of Western scholars published works that expressed optimism concerning the prospects for the further growth of independent social organizations in the Soviet Union and Russia. Such assessments emphasized that Soviet society had been transformed between the 1930s and the 1980s. Gall Lapidus described the way in which the Soviet Union had changed from a predominantly peasant society to an industrialized, urbanized society with a more differentiated social structure and "an increasingly articulate and assertive middle class." (6) Moshe Lewin argued that the urbanization of the Soviet Union had created a more complex society in which clusters of educated citizens coalesced to seek representation of their interests. (7) S. Frederick Starr reported that the urbanization of the USSR had produced citizens who were more independent, critical, and bold in defending their rights, and that rising levels of education had heightened the sense of personal autonomy and the capacity for individual initiative. …

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