Jump-starting Russia's protest movement

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Image by gregorfischer.photography via Flickr

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.

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5 Responses to Jump-starting Russia's protest movement

  1. agoodtreaty says:

    I think you nailed it regarding civil society in Russia. Agreed that the Kremlin reacts harshly to “horizontal brancing out,” though I’d say the real obstacle for that kind of expansion is public disinterest and cultural history, though you acknowledge this, too, of course.

    I wonder if you’ve seen this particular recent story:

  2. Good piece Julia. One of the best I’ve read in a while regarding Russia.

  3. Julia Ioffe says:

    Thanks, guys! I am glad someone likes the dry, wonky stuff!

  4. Hey Julia,

    Have you read the news on this new law the Duma is mulling over: http://tinyurl.com/2g8uutd

  5. Pingback: Tea Party Voices on the Price of Business | Tea

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