Thursday, October 9, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Not the Authorities Alone are to Blame for Lack of Civil Society in Russia, Sociologist Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, October 9 – Most people blame the failure of civil society to emerge in Russia on the actions of the authorities. That is “partially” true, but it isn’t the whole story, a St. Petersburg sociologist says. In addition, responsibility for this shortcoming lies with what he calls “’the public muteness’ and communication divides” in Russian society itself.

            This week, Boris Gladaryev, a researcher at the St. Petersburg Center for Independent Sociological Research, presented his findings on Russians’ “’public muteness’” and the Moscow weekly, “Ogonyek,” interviewed him on them and on their implications for the future development of Russia (


            For the last seven years, Gladaryev said he has been observing public meetings of all kinds and is proposing these terms in order to move beyond discussions about the development or lack of development of civic consciousness and to frame the questions about that process in more specific ways, particularly in terms of the ability or lack of ability to reach agreement.


            It is obvious to everyone that “in order to present oneself as a community, one must reach some agreement.” But “the paradox is that the majority of Russian unions almost completely lack this minimal and absolutely necessary habit.”  Thus, it is worth talking about “public muteness” or the inability to speak in ways that help create such agreement.


            Even in the smallest meetings, he continued, there seems no ability to carry out a conversation in such a way that a decision “common and useful for all can be developed.” Instead, Russians are interested and in an “aggressive” way to identify an opponent and decide first and foremost on who is to blame.


            “Sometimes this reaches the point of absurdity,” Gladaryev said.  And he gives the example of an apartment house where the water had stopped flowing.  Instead of trying to find out why and to remedy that situation, the residents became “angry with one another” and sought to find “those responsible” – as if that rather than turning the water back on was the issue.


            His research and that of others show, the St. Petersburg sociologist continued, that “practically any public assembly in Russia will not be able to have a conversation and reach an agreement.” But just why that should be the case is still unclear, although there are some suggestive findings already.


            Historians suggest, Gladaryev said, that this pattern reflects the lack of experience with holding such discussions and a lack of a sense of efficacy, of the sense that any common decision taken will have an effect.  And it is certainly true, the sociologist added, that Russians have had only a brief experience with such discussions.


            But however that may be, there are clear differences in how they as opposed to Europeans or Americans take part in public meetings.  “In Europe,” he said, “people argue in order to find some third position between two competing ones, to achieve at the end a compromise. But [among Russians], it is customary to say that ‘there are two positions: mine and an incorrect one’ or that ‘each has his own opinion’ and one can’t argue about taste.”


            In Russian culture, the sociologist said, “compromise is usually conceived as a partial loss and not a common win. And this concerns representatives across the political and ideological spectrum … [Russians] do not trust their opponents an don’t intend to listen to them seriously.”


            That reality, he continued, means that society is in a situation “when its members simply have not mastered a public language” in which disputes can be aired and a mutually agreed upon decision taken – even when that is what people say they are doing and say they want to see happen as a result.


            When people cannot in fact do that, they search for enemies, sometimes first among those they should be cooperating with and sometimes outsiders, and that search for enemies rather than a search for a solution becomes an obstacle to the emergence of the network of organizations that are included within the term civil society.


            Gladyarev said that he had encountered a few exceptions to this pattern and gave as an example a meeting of apartment owners and activists who were trying to block the tearing down of their home.  They did work together toward an agreement, and he suggested that the reasons for their success were the small number of people involved and the number who were active in business.


            Business people, he argued, have to reach agreements to achieve their goals of making a profit, and so they are more inclined to behave in that way in other parts of their lives as well.  Indeed, he said, “it is possible that they are the only ones who are able to conduct negotiations effectively.”


            That gives hope that Russians can change as more of them become involved in business activities, but the process will be slow because social change almost always is slower than political change. One way to push things forward, he suggested, is for Russians to adopt the parliamentary procedure manuals Europeans and Americans have lone employed.


            That will force them to focus on the need to find an outcome other than identifying new enemies, but unfortunately, such manuals are a rarity in Russia today.


            But even more important than those technical steps, the sociologist said, is the need for recognition that this is a problem, that “we have underestimated the complexity of organizing the public sphere. Perestroika drowned in ‘a multitude of voices.’ Even then we should have understood that discussion is not simply glasnost but a mechanism with its own rules.”

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