Here’s this week’s crash course in the politics of Putinism. Meduza reports on draft legislation in the State Duma which, if passed without any change to the text, might conceivably make it possible to label any non-profit organization, including charities, as “foreign agents.” That’s right- organizations dealing with issues like cancer treatment or hospice care could one day be labeled as foreign agents and face the consequences associated with that label.
This might seem confusing to some outside observers, seeing that such organizations are not only obviously apolitical, but entirely dedicated to improving the lives of Russian citizens. Alas, my confused reader, you do not know the Kremlin’s ways.
Recently I’ve been reading Marc Bennetts’ book I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition. I’m going to write a full review later, but suffice to say for now that I am quite pleased with what I’ve read so far. In one part of the book, Bennetts calls attention to the way the Kremlin tightened the rules on volunteer organizations after 2010, even those that were not political at all. Again it might seem confusing, but it makes perfect sense from the point of view of Russia’s leadership. In order to understand why, you have to come back with me to the good old days of the mid-2000’s, right around the time I showed up.
This was the heyday of Putin’s unique social contract with his people, written oil that was fetching lofty prices. The deal was simple- go and enrich yourselves however you can, but don’t rock the boat or question the system. Consumer goods for political freedom. When I arrived, it appeared the system worked. Anyone you talked to would tell you about the corruption and other political problems of the country, but only if you pressed, because in truth nobody wanted to discuss politics. They had come to see is as nothing but a circus, and in the meantime why bother with politics when you can own foreign products and vacation in Turkey, Egypt, or in those days, Europe and the United States? The consumerist 90’s mentality was alive and well, but it worked out for Putin and the elite because more people could take part. As long as the people were obsessed with BMW, Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, and other luxuries, and insofar as they had some hope of acquiring these treasures, they weren’t interested in higher values or the future sustainability of the system.
The stereotype about Russia is that it is a very “collectivist” society, but in truth it is the opposite- it is highly atomized.I also wouldn’t necessarily say this started with the fall of the Soviet Union or even the era of perestroika. Whatever the case, an atomized society is very beneficial for a dictator wishing to remain in power. The more people come to see each other as competitors and potential marks to take advantage of, the less likely they are to find common interests and unite to stand up for them. It also becomes easy for those in power to divide any movements that do start to form, or to find spies among them. This is also helped by relative poverty- the price of betrayal is much lower in poorer countries.
Volunteer organizations are dangerous to the authorities for several reasons, even if they are supposedly apolitical. First of all, remaining apolitical is actually more difficult than it looks, as I learned when I attempted to do some volunteer work for a Russian organization that fights women trafficking. Or I should say “fought” against women trafficking, seeing as how I notice their site is now defunct and might have been so for several years. I say this because one thing I immediately learned upon talking to some of the group’s employees was that they received virtually no help or funding from the state, even though they worked with local law enforcement. I was told that they once operated nine shelters for rescued women and girls, but that they would soon have to close a number of them (as many as six if I remember correctly). Here we see that in spite of the group’s insistence that it was non-political, the governments lack of concern and cooperation automatically raised a political issue. This can also happen when a non-profit’s activities step on the toes of corrupt bureaucrats, officials, or just businessmen with close ties to either. If we are speaking of women trafficking and prostitution, for example, one may easily run afoul of club owners and other businessmen, corrupt law enforcement officials, and local politicians who might have a hand in the business or at least have friends or family members that do.
Well then what about those charities that deal with cancer patients? That can’t possibly be political, right? Wrong. When you look at the problems cancer patients face in Russia, the questions become political. Why are the hospitals so backward or poorly equipped? Why does the state make it so hard for cancer patients to obtain much-needed painkillers? Where did all this money from roughly 15 years of high oil prices go? If you follow the question to its logical conclusion, you’re going to end up looking at the state, i.e. the political system. Even by simply highlighting the problems of cancer patients or exploited children without any reference to the government can still be an embarrassment to the state, which would prefer to keep its skeletons safely locked in the closet.
The other reason why volunteer organizations represent a threat to the state is because you have people organizing on their own, usually out of belief in some abstract values as opposed to little handouts of money. Once again, non-political organizations can turn political within a short time. First the organization is dedicated to solving some ordinary social problem. Then after a while members of the group stop and ask why they need to organize an sacrifice their time, effort, and money for something that is traditionally the responsibility of the state. The state’s supposed to have more resources anyway- why isn’t it doing its job? At this point the organization becomes less about fixing that apolitical problem and more about demanding that the state live up to its social obligations. The practical becomes something higher, overarching.
It would seem that from the point of view of Putin and his cronies, self-organization and civil society inevitably lead to the dreaded “color revolutions.” They’re not entirely wrong either. When people start caring about society as a whole and not simply their personal well-being or enrichment, when they start to acquire a measure of dignity, they become less pliant, less willing to put up with poor treatment. And unfortunately for Putin, “just shut up and buy shit” is no longer a viable policy.
This being the case, the system has to turn to other methods to keep people divided. Demonizing LGBT people, “liberals,” atheists, foreigners or those with ties to foreigners, and anyone else who questions the system seems to be the replacement tactic as of late. It has been more or less effective so far, but who can say how long it will last? After all, if you rely on an atomized society, it can be hard to unite people behind something when their support is needed. So far the Russian government covers that by paying people to protest, to troll the internet, and to write poorly fabricated news. Yet almost every time we see people abandon their pre-prepared placards as soon as its time to pick up their 350 rubles to participate in a pro-government march. We see more and more people becoming aware of the comment trolls and taking measures against them. And the staggering lack of quality in some Kremlin propaganda in recent months seriously suggests that internal, deliberate sabotage might be taking place.
There’s a lot you can do with money, and when people are in dire straits money can make them dance to your tune. But sooner or later you need higher ideals, and the Kremlin cannot manufacture these simply because it is filled with career criminals and thieves who have no ideals or morals of their own. What is more, they look upon those with ideals, such as the people who dedicate their lives to charity and helping their fellow human beings, with great suspicion and mistrust. And once you come to understand this, you’ll understand why the government may very well seek to hamper if not destroy all non-profit organizations in Russia, including charities.