Following the Soviet Union’s fall, Russia experienced an exciting, albeit brief, flirtation with democracy. While it lasted only a handful of years, Russia’s burgeoning civil society grew and flourished during this time. Recently, however, the iron curtain has fallen around the country again, casting a shadow across the civil sphere. With the erosion of basic rights and freedoms and President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, dominating domestic politics, it has become increasingly difficult for democratic activists and members of the opposition to find a foothold in the country.
As a result of this resurgent despotism, much of the Russian opposition’s work has moved from inside to outside the country. This has allowed advocates to more freely pursue their efforts to build a democratic Russia. On Friday, June 10, a conference titled “Ensuring a Future for Democratic Civil Society in Russia” brought together various members of this diasporic opposition as well as Russian watchers, including leading political figures, journalists, tech experts, and NGO leaders, for a day-long discussion about threats and opportunities for civil society in Putin’s Russia. The conference took place at Washington Marriott in Washington, DC. Among the conference organizers is the Free Russia Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization led by Russians in the diaspora who are amplifying the work of activists inside Russia who have been silenced by government repression.
At the conference, participants expressed concern about Putin’s success in creating obstacles for journalists and watchdogs inside the country. Russia has almost become a no-man’s land for independent media, with only a few independent outlets struggling to survive the onslaught of disinformation from government-owned media organizations. “The real unique selling point of Putin’s disinformation and propaganda is this notion that there is no such thing as empirical truth, there is no such thing as an objective fact. … There is no such thing as an honest and decent reporter,” said Michael Weiss, a senior editor at Daily Beast and editor-in-chief of The Interpreter.
In the face of government attempts to discredit objective journalism, critical Russian media outlets have been moving abroad. Meduza is perhaps the most well-known example of a media outlet that provides objective reporting on critical and important events in Russia. Based in Riga, Latvia, Meduza’s reporters and editors are able to do independent reporting in Russian and English, without interference.
David Satter, an American journalist and expert on the Soviet Union and Russia, said that “there is a large Russian diaspora which does not have to fear the consequences of speaking the truth and has ties to people in Russia, which now, as a result of historical circumstances, is the best place to raise the real issues of Russian history, to clarify what happened in the country and to create the conditions for the alternative development and an alternative media.”
The Kremlin’s crackdown on journalism is but one part of a larger strategy to infiltrate the civil sphere, transforming it from a place of free expression to a site of governmental control. Melissa Hooper, director of the Pillar Project at Human Rights First, highlighted how the government has labeled civil society actors as traitors and a fifth column. Bit by bit, the regime has worked through official and unofficial channels to vilify activists and opposition leaders, casting them as enemies of the state and agents of foreign governments. This year’s recent assault on students and organizers of the All-Russian High School Historical Research Competition, which was carried out by a group of nationalists, is just the most recent example of this trend.
The Russian government’s repressive tactics have even extended to the Russian web itself. According to Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan, co-authors of The Red Web, a book about the Russian Security Forces control of digital spaces in both the Soviet Union and modern Russia, the Kremlin has been waging an offensive against the Russian Internet since 2012. From targeted surveillance and intimidation of opposition activists online to forcing global companies, such as Google and Facebook, to move their servers to Russia, the government is trying to nationalize the Russian digital space.
Despite the overwhelming challenges that these policies might pose to tech experts and activists, Chris Doten, a senior manager for the National Democratic Institute’s Information and Communication Technologies team, said the exchange of information across the web will likely continue and could lead to social change. “We have seen around the world that you can channel things and control things, but yet mass protests leading to fundamental societal changes have taken place time and again in a very modern Internet era,” he said.
As discussed at the conference, there is a spectrum of issues affecting Russian civil society. It is this sheer number of challenges – from threats to independent media to the nationalization of the Internet – that must be understood in order to identify effective ways of addressing them and finding opportunities for civil society to grow.