NGOs on Russia’s Leading Edge

John A. Bernbaum

During the course of my work in Russia, a number of truths have become evident to me about the future of this long-suffering nation. First and foremost, it is clear that Russians themselves are going to be the ones to determine their future – not Americans and not Europeans, as well intentioned as they may be. Second, Russia’s future society will probably not look like those in the West. It will be distinctively Russian, with some borrowings from the West and some uniquely Russian structures. Third, any productive Western helping the rebuilding process must be through communicating experiences and lessons learned, both positive and negative. Finally, constructive, long-lasting change in Russia will only come from the bottom-up, and not from the top-down.

Russia Rebuilding

While Western media tend to focus on the negative, much good news, in fact, can be reported on the rebuilding process in Russia since 1991. It is this part of the story, the good reasons for hope for the Russian people that has not been adequately told. This good news can be highlighted with a set of statistics. Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev did not tolerate voluntary organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The state, not independent organizations of citizens, where to care for all human needs. Mikhail Gorbachev began to make changes in this policy of prohibiting popular initiatives. During perestroika and glasnost, small networks of grassroots organizations began to form. By 1987, for example, the state sanctioned the registration of 30 to 40 civic NGOs. Within a little more than ten years, approximately410,000 NGOs legally registered with the Russian Ministry of Justice. In addition, of course, many unregistered local groups came into existence as well.

It is estimated that 60 percent of these NGOs are independent civic associations; the remaining 40 percent are other types of noncommercialentities.1 These NGOs are the “seedlings” of an open, democratic society. They create the opportunity for citizens on the local level to take responsibility for their neighborhoods, for the needy around them, for the “untouchables” in their community. And the vast majority of social service NGOs are faith based. In January 2005, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the number of NGOs in the world is “increasing rapidly and has grown over 40 times over the past ten years.” He said this could mark the beginning of “the era of the NGOs. About two million people in Russia are involved in these organizations and their activities affect some 20 million, or one in seven, in our country.”2

Grassroots Initiatives

Clearly Russians on the grassroots level reorganizing themselves. In other words, for the first time in decades – maybe even centuries –the Russian people are taking the initiative to rebuild their nation, to make it a normal society.

The country may be on the brink of a transition to democracy, without change forced on people through the threat of violence and terror administered by agents of the state. Similar initiatives have emerged within the Russian Orthodox Church. Librarian ofCongress James Billington, one of America’s leading scholars of Russia, has noted that small but significant group of local clergy are focused on meeting the spiritual and physical needs of their parishioners. He calls this group “pastoralists” and has described how they reorganizing parishes as social, educational, and cultural centers. These Orthodox priests are “beginning the general process of building democracy from the bottom up,” using the same methods that Protestant churches used in nineteenth century America.3Let me share another ray of hope, this one anecdotal. In 2001, the staff of the Russian-American Christian University (RACU) was looking for a new campus facility in Moscow.

During the course of a site visit, the staff toured an unfinished four-story structure that was originally designed to be a hospital, but was never completed. The staff arrived at the site early one cold spring morning and entered the property through a broken-down barrier. As they entered the first floor of the building, they discovered a group of frightened boys, ten to thirteen years old, who had been sleeping in piles of straw and rags. As they stood watching, more than a dozen young boys fled this empty building that had become their home. They were among some 35,000 street kids reported in The Russia Journal that year who live on the streets, beg for food, and prostitute themselves to survive.4

Aiding Children at Risk

One month later, I was invited to observe conference of faith-based organizations that were committed to helping these children living on the streets. I sat at a table of Russians– Protestant and Orthodox, mostly women –who had gathered to discuss efforts by their respective organizations to respond to the crisis of homeless children in Russia. I heard story after story, shared in meek and humble tones, outlining the approaches, experiences, and lessons learned by these outreach initiatives: “In my town, we bought a small cottage and put some beds in the house.” “When we discovered this problem in our province, we renovated the local church basement so we could house a number of the kids, with beds and showers.”5It was a remarkable and moving experience for me, listening to the conviction of these Russians, hearing the passion with which they discussed the problem and what they could do to solve it. As I sat listening, I wished the Russian minister of social services had been there to hear their stories, or the American ambassador. I wanted these leaders to hear how modest Russian people were rising to meet the challenge in front of them, with meager resources, without state funding or foreign aid. As I sat observing these people of faith responding to a crisis in their society, I felt deep surge of hope.

Russians across the country are taking the initiative to deal with pressing social issues in their communities. They are no longer waiting for the government to act in their place. For example, Risk Network is a group of 69 Russian based organizations working with children atrisk.6 Another parallel network of NGOs identified on the CoMission for Children at Risk’s website gives the names of 188 groups involved with vulnerable, needy children inRussia.7

The establishment of the Russian-American Christian University in Moscow is another example of a reason for hope. It was October1990 when Russia’s minister of higher education extended an astonishing invitation to establish a faith-based Christian liberal arts university in Moscow. Only two years prior to this historic meeting, a person of faith could not even have been admitted into an institute of higher education. This new Russian leader had the vision to recognize that teaching democratic and free market values in a faith based framework could play a pivotal role in equipping Russia’s future leaders, and this is cause for great encouragement. That the Russian-American Christian University has thrived in this context sends a continuing message of great hope.

Building Civil Society in Russia

The media rarely report on these initiatives that are happening at the grassroots level in Russia. Yet these newly formed NGOs are laying the foundation for a new society in the Russian Federation. They are building private voluntary networks that can eventually develop checks and balances to reign in governmental institutions. Unlike the structure of Soviet society, or even pre-revolutionary Russia under the Romanovs, these community organizations have the potential to fence off political power from cultural power and economic advantage and prevent officeholders from enriching themselves at citizens’ expense. Over time, these NGOs can help Russia develop a free society in which elected representatives and the press restrain the state and the law restrainseveryone.8

People-to-People Diplomacy

At present, the opportunities for Americans or Europeans to partner with Russians are endless. Those of us in the West have opportunities to work with our former Cold War enemies in true partnerships that can help both societies. In a recent analysis, Dmitri renin made the following insightful observation: “The West needs to realize that its most powerful instruments with respect to Russia are not its king-making abilities at the very top, but human contacts of all kinds at all levels, especially among the youngergeneration.”9 Russian officials need to come to the same conclusion. It is people-to-people diplomacy that builds the promise of a peaceful future and that creates an environment in which both America and Russia can learn from each other.

Thomas Graham, President George W. Bush’s Senior White House Director for Russian Affairs, emphasized the same point when he stated that the United States needs “to continue to pursue policies that help integrate Russia into rules-based institutions, support civil society in Russia, and expand contacts between our two societies, particularly among youngpeople.10 This is what is happening with NGOs in the Russian Federation and that is why they really are “the leading edge” in terms of making a difference in Russia’s future development.

It is vital that the leaders of both nations get the message that people-to-people diplomacy and private sector initiatives need to be encouraged, not blocked, and that private-public partnerships need to be formed where this is mutually beneficial. Forming partnerships between Russians and Americans, building people-to-people coalitions, is of great strategic significance for both countries.