I have a piece out in Foreign Policy today about FAR, an automotive rights group in Russia that has become a model for how civil society could work here.
Traveling through early 19th-century America, French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or applied to a greater multitude of objects, than in America.” If something went amiss, like a traffic jam, Americans would band together into street-level groups and fix it themselves. “If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare, and the circulation of vehicles is hindered,” de Tocqueville explained, “the neighbors immediately form themselves into a deliberative body; and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power, which remedies the inconvenience.”
It won’t come as a surprise to hear that Russians are the polar opposite of those early-19th-century Americans. Seventy years of collectivism have, paradoxically, served as a potent atomizer, and a decade of Putinism has only reinforced the tendency. It’s not that protest doesn’t occur or that it’s not useful — more that Russian protest movements tend to be highly specific and localized, with little ambition of existing beyond the lifetime of the small-bore issue at hand. In the best-case scenario, a protest — against a new tariff or a delayed raise in pension, say — gets attention, the authorities back down, and then the organization, having fulfilled its purpose, inevitably dissolves.
Unless there’s a stoppage in the thoroughfare. When it comes to anything automotive, Russians have shown signs of a genuinely Tocquevillian character, and the momentum has been picked up by a young organization called the Federation of Russian Car Owners, or FAR in Russian. The group has only existed since 2006, but its longevity, unique structure, and genuinely grassroots-level organization make it a standout in a civic wasteland. FAR’s leaders, tightly focused on automotive policy, haven’t quite realized their own significance: that their organization model is about the only effective, sustainable way to challenge the Russian government. In a place with zero civil society — but 42 percent car ownership — FAR is as good as it gets.
Read the rest here.