Why Russians Are Afraid of Activism and Philanthropy

A joint project between the Levada Center and ReForum.

“In the 1990s, if Petya offended you, then you could go to Kolya and sort out the issue. But today, you see Petya everywhere, no matter where you go. Everywhere – just Petya.” This was how one of our focus group participants described Russians’ lack of enthusiasm in standing up for their rights. Back in July 2020, the Levada Center, an independent pollster, conducted a study on how Russians address issues relevant to them, what they think about social and political activism, and whether or not they’re ready to stand up for their rights. For the first time, the results of this study are being published here.

How Russians solve problems

In Russia, solving problems and defending rights through official government channels is very difficult. As one participant in our focus group explained, government officials are usually indifferent to the problems that ordinary people face. Turning to officials does not always guarantee a positive response, though, it does require a significant amount of time, energy, and even money. Someone who needs to work and provide for his or her family is likely to turn to the government for help only in extreme situations. Our respondents emphasized the fact that there really isn’t a well-established, legal, or confidential way to solve problems.

According to our focus group participants, the likelihood of achieving success when addressing problems improves if you’re able to generate societal resonance and draw sufficient attention to these problems. “Both the case against [journalist] Golunov and [the construction of] the church in Ekaterinburg were resolved thanks not only to the community but also thanks to the media. Without media coverage, without drawing the public’s attention to these issues, nothing would have changed,” explained one of the respondents.

However, Russians consider the likelihood of success in seeking social justice to be relatively low. “It’s difficult, but it can be done” was the wording suggested in one survey. Help in the fight for justice, be it from the government or private entities, is looked upon with a great deal of suspicion. Russians believe that the authorities offer assistance in solving difficult issues only if they stand to benefit, or if they can use the situation as a PR opportunity. Many believe that the period during election campaigns is the best time for turning to the state for help. “We managed to have the government build an asphalt road leading into our village. This was possible because elections were being held, and the situation was used to show off what was being done for us. Local television stations came, and officials made it out to seem that it was some kind of really expensive project,” recounted one respondent.

The answers from our respondents can be summarized as the following: in order to solve problems or raise awareness about civil rights violations, the average Russian doesn’t have access to legal channels, but instead can turn to “information channels.” Nevertheless, respondents think that even broad media coverage of political issues is unlikely to produce results.

Problems which unite Russians

The goal of our research wasn’t to learn what kind of issues Russians focus on and consider serious. Instead, we wanted to find out what issues are capable of uniting Russians, and which issues they’re ready to take an active role in addressing.

In July 2020, people most often expressed concern about potential economic problems resulting from the coronavirus epidemic. During the epidemic, Russians were less satisfied with the government’s actions and policy-making.

But if we set aside the pandemic for just a moment, then Russians indicate most often that they’re ready to unite around environmental issues, as well as local problems, such as those connected to public property (apartment block parking lots and other issues concerning everyday life in residential areas).

What activism and taking an active political stance means for Russians

Most respondents indicated that government institutions oriented towards protecting human rights either don’t work or work poorly. Respondents also indicated negative attitudes towards activists and human rights initiatives.

Respondents have mixed views on the very word “activist,” even among those who could be considered activists themselves. The word “activist” is often associated with people who complain about everything and crazy urbanites with whom people don’t wish to be associated. Respondents imagine activists as those who’ve made defending civil rights their main purpose in life, and therefore, engage in activism “professionally.” These people are either “fanatics” or “have nothing better to do.” For this reason, activists are not like ordinary people, and respondents sometimes suspect whether activists aren’t being paid to do the work that they do.

Activists can be divided into two groups. There are those who believe that positivity prevails in society, and so they usually focus on apolitical issues like helping sick children or animals. Political activists, on the other hand, lament the fact that most of their fellow citizens have a negative view towards them.

Participants in our focus group also expressed skepticism about charities and non-profit organizations. While respondents generally recognized the importance of these kinds of organizations, they nevertheless suspect the management of charities to be corrupt and ineffective in spending donations.

Feelings towards public figures involved in charity work were also found to be mixed. While many Russians have a positive opinion of the work of actors like Chulpan Khamatova and Konstantin Khabensky, far from everyone is willing to completely believe that their intentions are purely genuine and selfless “You understand that Khabensky doesn’t go on television for free. And for some reason you’re supposed to give him money so that he can then give money to some organization. I don’t understand that logic at all,” said one respondent.

It’s worth mentioning that respondents from focus groups in Moscow and other Russian cities expressed the opinion that collecting money for charity is “shameful.” Charity is often seen not as a sign of civil society’s strength, but as a weakness of government institutions incapable of fulfilling their duties. Focus group participants repeated on several occasions that the government should fulfill its social obligations and not shift the work onto ordinary citizens. 

In conclusion, our study with the Levada Center reveals a contradiction in Russians’ attitudes. On the one hand, they believe that the government doesn’t fulfill its obligation to help ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, addressing issues and defending civil rights in Russia is difficult. Yet, on the other hand, respondents view activists and non-profit organizations, which are ready to lend assistance in difficult times, in negative a light.“A significant number of our fellow citizens are suspicious of activism, especially the political kind. In my view, this attitude has its roots in the general belief that changing the status quo is impossible no matter what you do. As our respondents often expressed, ‘there’s no use in bringing a knife to a gunfight.’ Psychologists refer to this as a condition of learned helplessness, where people don’t see the connections between expended energy and results, and so they just give up and put up with things as they are. Whereas those who don’t agree with the order of things and attempt to change it are met with mixed feelings, from skepticism to annoyance. Plus, the government often dismisses political activism as ‘paid for’ and ‘pro-West,’” explains Denis Volkov, a sociologist from the Levada Center.

This study was prepared with findings from two online focus groups held in July 2020. Each focus group was made up of eight participants. The main part of the study on activism was conducted in February and March 2020 in the form of a public opinion survey. The study’s results are published on the official website of the Levada Center.