A quest for democratic citizenship
Agendas, practices, and ideals of six Russian grass-roots organizations and movements

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Article Highlights

  • Moral and civic education are at the core of Russia's new grass-roots revolution.

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  • Young Russian activists are looking for less government intrusion in their lives and businesses.

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  • The rise of Russia's civic society echoes U.S. civil rights movement.

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Executive Summary

A quest for democratic citizenship: Agendas, practices, and ideals of six Russian grass-roots organizations and movements

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Although limited in scope, inductive, and most decidedly qualitative, this study nevertheless suggests several important tendencies in the development of Russian civil society and its potential impact on the country’s politics. Our exploration of the agendas and ideals of the mostly young and mostly middle-class leaders and activists of six grassroots organizations and movements provides considerable evidence that a proactive civil society might be emerging.

Vastly different in the causes they advocate and activities they engage in, the groups’ leaders and activists were remarkably similar in their conviction that the meaningful and lasting liberalization of the country may be ensured only by a mature, self-aware civil society, able and willing to control the executive. The main venue for such a change would not be a political revolution in the conventional sense. Nor would it be brought “from above” by a good czar or a hero. Instead, their hopes were predicated on a deeply moral transformation “from within.” Effecting such an evolution toward enlightened and morally anchored democratic citizenship appeared to be the overarching metagoal of the organizations, above and beyond their daily agendas.

The formation of such a cohesive and effective Russian civil society will undoubtedly be a gradual and long process, overlapping with but distinct from traditional political developments. Rather, emerging from the interviews[1] was something similar to the moral sensibility of a civil rights movement. Thus, the men and women we interviewed were striving to effect vast political and social change through personal and deeply moral efforts. They established no time limits for the achievement of their goals, displaying quiet but unyielding determination and patience as long as necessary. They rejected violence in principle. Instead, their key strategy was the moral and civic education of fellow citizens as the main precondition for the emergence of a democratic state.

Although, as we discovered a few months after the interviews were conducted, key elements of the respondents’ political and moral sensibilities were echoed by the participants in the mass protests of winter 2011–spring 2012, the groups and movements under study, on the one hand, and the protesters, on the other, represent closely related, often overlapping, but distinct manifestations of the moral, civic, and political awakening of the Russian middle class in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Aimed not just, and even not so much, at the change of political regime but at the establishment of a powerful civil society capable of supervising any regime, the organizations and movements like the ones we have explored are bound to continue their work long after the Putin regime is no more.

A free, democratic, and prosperous Russia, at peace, finally, with its own people, its neighbors, and the world, is among the most important geostrategic objectives of the United States. Thus, America’s stakes in the consolidation and further expansion of a vibrant civil society, the emergence of which we may have observed and recorded in this study, are undeniable and high. Ultimately, it is the only assured way of securing the attainment of this objective, so obviously and immensely beneficial to the peoples of Russia and the United States.


1. For long excerpts from the interviews with the six leaders, see Leon Aron, "Putin Is Already Dead," Foreign Policy, January 2012, www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/02/07/putin_is_already_dead (accessed June 28, 2012).

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About the Author


  • Leon Aron is Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of three books and over 300 articles and essays. Since 1999, he has written Russian Outlook, a quarterly essay on economic, political, social and cultural aspects of Russia’s post-Soviet transition, published by the Institute. He is the author of the first full-scale scholarly biography of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Russia’s Revolution: Essays 1989-2006 (AEI Press, 2007); and, most recently, Roads to the Temple: Memory, Truth, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 (Yale University Press, 2012).

    Dr. Aron earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University, has taught a graduate seminar at Georgetown University, and was awarded the Peace Fellowship at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has co-edited and contributed the opening chapter to The Emergence of Russian Foreign Policy, published by the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1994 and contributed an opening chapter to The New Russian Foreign Policy (Council on Foreign Relations, 1998).

    Dr. Aron has contributed numerous essays and articles to newspapers andmagazines, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, theWall Street Journal Foreign Policy, The NewRepublic, Weekly Standard, Commentary, New York Times Book Review, the TimesLiterary Supplement. A frequent guest of television and radio talkshows, he has commented on Russian affairs for, among others, 60 Minutes,The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, CNN International,C-Span, and National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Talk of theNation.”

    From 1990 to 2004, he was a permanent discussant at the Voice of America’s radio and television show Gliadya iz Ameriki (“Looking from America”), which was broadcast to Russia every week.

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    Email: laron@aei.org
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