Staunton, April 21 – The West and Russia’s liberal intelligentsia equate civil society with the liberal opposition, but this is a serious error, two Russian analysts say. Instead, civil society need not be an opponent of the authorities but “yet another ‘branch of power’” that can take on itself things that “other branches for one or another reason cannot.”
In a commentary on Beregrus.ru, Stanislav Smagin and Natalya Smagina say that a conservative Russian civil society is already on the scene as shown by protests against anti-government broadcasters, the boycott of pro-Ukrainian musicians, and the closing of the production of Tannhauser (beregrus.ru/?p=4201).
“The formation of a civil society,” the two Rostov-based analysts write, “is an aspect of a still larger and more serious problem connected with overcoming the atomization of [Russian society] which has taken place in recent decades,” an atomization promoted by liberalism which “became from the beginning of the 1990s, the official doctrine of the Russian authorities.”
Atomization is just one of “the destructive Western theories” with which Russians must now struggle, the two analysts continue. And to that end, they say, Russians must focus again on common themes and “mutual support at all horizontal and vertical levels of the society, from the family and nation down” the latter to the neighborhood, workplace and so on.
If Russians organize themselves to express their feelings, they will be in a position to insist on “a decisive and harsh revision of newspapers, journals and television” and of the Russian stage,” where “at times” writers and actors promote “the position of Ukraine on the Crimean issue.”
Civil society rightly understood, they suggest, can play a key role in changing this situation and thus do what the state in some cases is unable to.
The Smagins argue that two key institutions not typically included in the liberal enumeration of civil society organizations can play a key role: the Russian Orthodox Church which they say must be made the state religion and the Russian nation which they argue must be declared the “state-forming” people.
Only by so doing can Russians fight atomization and help the government, the two commentators suggest.
There are three reasons why the article by the Smaginas is important. First, it is a reminder to everyone that civil society is a place of struggle rather than the institutionalization of liberal values. Too many in both Russia and the West have assumed that if there are enough NGOs and thus civil society, there will be a liberal state. That simply isn’t true.
Second, their argument that the church and the nation are civil society organizations, a point of view many liberals would object to, is worth noting, especially given that both the church and the nation help shape opinion in ways even more politically effective than groups which are normally classed as being part of civil society.
And third, the Smaginas’ argument that civil society can be an ally of the state is important should not be ignored because, on the one hand, many who have a liberal understanding of civil society assume that it will work with the state too; and on the other, many groups the Smaginas would like to see in play will work with the state for other ends.
Looming behind all this, of course, are two other factors both of which deserve attention even if the Smaginas do not address them. What they are talking about could be the first stage of a new mobilization society, one in which the individual’s atomized position would be replaced by membership in a corporate-style group.
And it could also point to something else: Such groups in an illiberal civil society could become powerful players in politics, pushing the Russian authorities in directions ever further from the liberal democracy in which so many have placed so much hope. In that event, their form of civil society could prove to be the death of the other one, yet another Russian tragedy.