Thursday, December 24, 2020

HSE Center Studies What is Best in Russian Society, Its Director Irina Mersiyanova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 22 – Most people looking for positive stories about the situation in the Russian Federation turn to official media there which can be counted on to present the most upbeat spin on developments, while those interested in a more accurate but more negative description typically rely on academic investigations or opposition Internet portals.

            But there are exceptions to this rule. In the official media, there are enough stories about problems to make these outlets credible in the eyes of those who can see what is going on about them; and within the intellectual establishment, there are individuals and institutions which focus on the most positive aspects of the situation.

            Perhaps the most prominent of these is the Moscow Center for Research on Civil Society and the Non-Commercial Sector at the Higher School of Economics. It is headed by Irina Mersiyanova, who tells Svetlana Saltanova of HSE’s information portal about her work and that of the center (

            “I am a happy person,” Mersiyanova says, because “we study all the best that is in society: a willingness to help each other, unselfishness, altruism, responsibility and solidarity;” and consequently, for her and her colleagues, the Center is “not simply a workplace” but “a real source of happiness” because its findings provide encourage even at the darkest times.   

            The Center has been monitoring the state of civil society in Russia since 2006 and has found that when times are toughest, many people display the most positive qualities in response. They may have less money to give, but they are more prepared to volunteer and help others than in ordinary times. 

            At present, some surveys find that only a tiny fraction of Russians are engaged in volunteer work; but it includes hundreds of thousands of people who are ready to help others – and more if one includes those who don’t see what they are doing in that regard as part of some organized movement.

            “In August,” she reports, “we asked our fellow citizens how their monetary contributions had changed during the pandemic. One percent said that they now make these online. That figure would appear to be within the margin of error statistically, but in a country as large as Russia, behind this one percent stand more than a million people.”

            Her Center has determined that as many as 23 to 33 percent of Russian adults have taken part in some volunteer activities in recent years. That may seem small, but again, it includes millions of people – and what they do, Mersiyanova says, affects many millions more. Today, 20 percent of Russians say they will rely on volunteers when they need help.

            And that is affecting how people view the state as well. During the pandemic, 70 percent of Russians say that the government should be helping people but only 34 percent say they see such help in reality. With regard to volunteers, 47 percent say that volunteers should help with 45 percent saying that the volunteers in fact do so.

            The sociologist says that this is likely but not certain to carry over into the post-pandemic period. Those with experience in the volunteer sector are likely to continue, but there is a risk that the government will do more to drive out these competitors and take the country back to what it was earlier.

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