“A Theory of Deeds” Threatens the Russian State

The web site of Togeza (Together), a Russian civil society organization.

Could helping your neighbor deem you an enemy of the state? The Duma, Russia’s legislature, is leaning that way by trying to regulate what de Tocqueville admired in early America: the “innumerable multitude of small undertakings” that constitute community, what we today call civil society.

Today’s Washington Post front page carries a story about a handful of Russians trying to do for their communities what their government and others have manifestly failed to do: caring for the sick in a remote, rural village; donating delivery services to those who can’t afford them; searching for the missing whom the police have given up on.

“This is our theory of small deeds,” said Yevgeny Grekov, the philosophically minded assistant to the delivery group. “It’s pure human energy.”

Unfortunately, these organizations and individuals have attracted the attention of the Duma as well as Vladimir Putin, who has personally harassed democratically minded non-profit organizations who monitored the last elections that made him President again. In Putin’s Russia, more control has been centralized in the Kremlin over wider aspects of human affairs.

The Washington Post places blame for this concentration and expansion of political dominion on a lack of individual trust among Russians and the reassertion of powers familiar from the Communist era. I’m more inclined to argue again that in repressive regimes the concept of civil society, civic action, and even individual initiative does not really exist — that in such a context, everything has political value as defined by the Center, and that all aspects of civic action are a means for state control over society. Therefore, anything or anyone acting independently of the state is a threat to the state, an independent and autonomous power base separate from — and necessarily opposed to –the Center.

This illuminates both Masha Gessen’s comments about the lack of “real politics” in Russia and Hannah Arendt’s definition of true and healthy politics as space, the commons.  The Duma is trying to subsume all civil society by dominating collective moral action in the same tiny, claustrophobic political box. After taking control of the Kremlin, the intelligence apparatus, the military, the parliament, the media and the church, that leaves just ordinary people working together for some common purpose.  After that, Russia will look very much like Eastern and Central Europe after World War II.

It may seem counterintuitive, despite all this I remain optimistic for Russians, mostly because in a country so large and with so many people, that noble “multitude of small undertakings” will always outstrip the ability and comprehension of the state.  Call it the power of the powerless or the weakness of strong states, but the Duma’s action against these individuals only demonstrates the fear of a sclerotic state against an increasingly confident society that has abandoned the government to take care of itself. And that, in the end, that may be the greatest threat the Kremlin faces.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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