The life stories of the human rights NGO activists and (g)local public spaces in post-Soviet Russia
Moving from 'personal' to 'political'

Zaira Jagudina

Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002 and at The Presence of the Past, Berlin, Germany, May 24-26 2002
By Zaira Jagudina, Ph.D-student Department of Sociology, University of Göteborg

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Table of contents

Collective identity and public as types of solidarity
'Civil society' in the context of post-Soviet Russia
Notes on the methodology
Settings and actors
Making 'personal' into 'political'
Image-making around 'human rights' discourse: key topics in the life stories

In classic Russian culture, the concept of the law was approached with deep mistrust, therefore many attempts were undertaken to build a just society beyond the law and even against the law. In the 1960s, a profound shift occurred in the Russian culture, when in a highly specific way a traditional Russian idea of justice was combined with the Western idea of law. However, it happened in the autochthonous way, as the Iron Curtain still was solid. The human rights ideology came forth as a combination of the idea of law and the dreadful experiences of Soviet history. (Alexander Daniel, Memorial, 2001-11-03)


An almost total unanimity(1) in a public sphere of the Soviet Union constituted by the dominance of the hegemonic party-state narratives was terminated in the late 1980s. Pluralism became the catchword of the 1990s while a public space turned into arena of confrontation, ambiguity, and manipulation by means of the new 'informational technologies' (Langenohl 2002, Zasurskii 2001). Politics became reconstituted in Russia formally as a public sphere of policy debate and informally as a realm of limited choices constraint by the imperatives of capitalist democracy (Sakwa 1995). How a public sphere in post-Soviet Russia has become more or less inclusive for distinct groups, interests, and identities, is the main concern in my Ph D dissertation project. Its empirical core is constituted by a case study of the communicative practices and political actions of the human rights NGO movement and of its positioning in the dominant public sphere.

This paper focuses on the framing processes of interaction and communication within the network of the human rights NGOs activists. In more specific terms, the life stories of the activists are analytically re-constructed and interpreted with a purpose to understand the process of the emergence of the "collective identity" of this distinct public organised around a discourse on the human rights.

In the course of semi-structured qualitative interviews in Moscow and St Petersburg during 2000-2001, more than thirty human rights activists were asked to talk about their biographical paths into involvement in the voluntary organisations. Other methods used were participant observation, study of the organisations' documents, and representations in the mass/alternative media. In this paper I analyse a selection of the interviews with members of the NGOs Soldiers' Mothers, Memorial, and Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights. My purpose is to present an analytical re-construction of the activists' life stories.

Biographies consist of layers, in which past appears in three forms: individual life history, intergenerational life history, and collective life history (Hoerning 1991). Self-images and strategies of the Russian human rights activists are inscribed into the history of the Russian and Soviet intelligentsia's political and symbolic struggles. This group represents at least three generations of critical intelligentsia, the Soviet dissidents of the 1960s-70s, so called 'informals' of the 1980s, and human rights NGOs of the 1990s. Thus, their self-images and collective story emerge through the intergenerational history of resistance. On the one side, the respondents narrated about their individual life projects, on the other side, they told their stories with help of the movement's collective story, with its distinct frames of meaning. That is to say, the individual stories are part of a common 'identity narrative'.

Collective identity and public as types of solidarity

Collective identity is a shared definition of a group that derives from members' common interests, experiences, and solidarity. Collective identity is constructed through interaction in the social movement communities. It is also shaped by factors of political opportunity structure, available resources, and organisational strength, that is, matters of power and resources (Melucci 1996, Taylor and Whittier 1995). The story of a movement is the story of the ability of its members to impose certain images of themselves and to counter attempts by the dominant groups to denigrate their aspirations to be recognised as different (della Porta & Diani 1999, Pile & Keith 1997). The concept of the collective action frames (Snow et al. 1986), drawing on the social sciences concern with experience and its interpretation(2), stresses different ways, in which grievances might be interpreted, norms re-defined, values and beliefs constructed by members of social movements.

Public has been conceptualised as a specific type of solidarity by choice, which is constituted through talk and discourse widely accessible as an open relation among strangers (Calhoune 2002, Warner 2002). The concept of the public sphere has been considered as 'both unacceptable and necessary' (Robbins 1993). Calhoun (2002) stresses, "the virtue of the rational-critical discourse is the capacity to challenge and potentially to improve the existing culture, products of social imagination, and social relations. But among its limits is the fact that in itself it cannot create them." The importance of the public sphere lies not only in the achieving agreement on legal forms and political identity but in achieving social solidarity as such.

The idea of democracy, which underpins theories of democratisation, conveys a form of governance drawn on the image of 'sovereign people'. An important issue of research on the processes of political transformation in the communities who declared their commitment to the ideal of democracy is the concrete practices of interaction and communication, in which population acquires a quality of turning into 'people'. In the Western modern societies 'democratic' also has a connotation of being a matter of choice. Thus, solidarities in the modern democratic societies in the broad sense are organised via constitutions.

Calhoun (2002) suggests a typology of four types of solidarity elaborating on Durkheim's model of mechanical and organic solidarity. The main criterion of classification of various kinds of social integration is a possibility of choice made by individuals themselves. Thus, the functional interdependence based on the flows (for example, of goods) works behind their backs. Categorical identities, including nation, race, class, and others, integrate individuals who share a category of similarity. While there might be some element of choice, much identification happens outside conscious choice or recognition. Direct social relations refer to networks of actual connections. While social structures and other external conditions shape patterns of direct relations, there is also room for choice. The fourth form, publics, are self-organising fields of discourse in which participation is not based primarily on personal connections and is always in principle open to strangers. A public sphere comprises an indefinite number of more or less overlapping publics, some ephemeral, some enduring, and some shaped by struggle against the dominant organisation of others. This engagement includes, but is not limited to, rational-critical discourse about affairs of common concern. Communication in public also informs the sharing of social imaginaries, ways of understanding social life that are themselves constitutive of it.

I draw on the theoretical assumptions outlined by the concepts of democracy, public sphere, and social movements as starting point in my discussion of the emergence of a distinct public organised around a discourse on the human rights in the context of post-communist democracy. The symbols and images of this discourse are constructed and culturally reproduced via concrete interactions and communication within the activists' community. They also are in a complex way intertwined with broader structural and cultural mechanisms of imaginative social integration in Russia. The institutional framework and the transformation of values, attitudes and norms has been examined in many studies of democratisation processes in post-Soviet Russia.

'Civil society' in the context of post-Soviet Russia

There is a rich amount of survey studies on (as well as a vigorous theoretical debate concerning the applicability of the concept of) the civil society in the post-communist societies, which I am not going to discuss here (see Kukathas et al. 1991, Levada 2000). I refer here only to two concepts - about the 'doubled' character of the Soviet public sphere and about solidarity through exchange of favours - which are essential for the purposes of the empirical analysis undertaken in this paper.

The 'doubled' system and a complex subjectivity

The institutional and imaginative patterns of the Soviet political order have been informed under Stalin regime during the 1930s. Institutions and areas for public communication, independent from the state surveillance, were eradicated (Shlapentokh 1991). The aim was to create a Homo Soveticus, a peculiar kind of Soviet subjectivity, socialised into a mass public inclined to believe that 'newspapers do not lie' Volkov (1994). Since Krushchev's thaw in the late 1950s, informal and underground spheres of publicity started to appear, unofficial gatherings of intellectuals, samizdat publications, tapes of the bards, an oral tradition of political joke. Although these spaces were circumscribed by primitive and laborious technologies of distribution, they constitute small islands of spontaneous communication. But the scope of critique was limited because of a great danger of persecution and suppression by the state, a risk that was taken only by a small group of political dissidents. The majority of population, was dissimulating (Kharkhordin 1999) or cynical (Yurchak 1997) in their public behaviour. A public sphere was constituted by the realm of work, routine administration, and officially sanctioned and supervised association life (Garcelon 1997) and not politicised overtly.

Instead, the Soviet public sphere had a 'double' character. As Roos and Rotkirch (1998) demonstrate, from the mid-1970s, in the shadow of rigidly regulated economic and social framework, existed dynamic disparate networks and local environments. Networks of family, friendship, neighbours, or colleagues, built enclaves of reference point and information circulation, which became more important than space of the official mass media and professional associations. These enclaves in the shadow of the established and controlled public sphere made up economy of favour exchanges and half-independent half-legitimate professional fields of philosophers, or psychologists. During different phases of life a person could choose to communicate and accumulate cultural capital in the dominant symbolic field or in the shadow field. Ledeneva (2001) argues that in post-Soviet Russia exchange of favours and the institution of the 'people of the circle' is the main obstacle in creating a modern democratic civic culture.

Political scientist Sakwa (1995) points out that the Soviet regime's legacy is a tripartite structure of subjectivity. Its project demanded elements of modernity like scientific rationality and legality while sustaining pre-modern responses such as enforced political infantilism and dependency, resulting in the emergence of an asocial worldview. Patterns of daily life were marked by series of dualisms, such as when individuals turned one face towards family and friends in the "communities of kindness" while they otherwise existed in a culture of fear, subordination and (mis)appropriation of state resources (which was not considered theft). Thus at the same level there is a simple contrast between a public and a private face, while at the other level there is a politically oppressed and infantilised character that paradoxically gives rise to an unalienated and remarkably free person, unconstrained by the normal bonds of modernity. Sakwa (1995) stresses that Soviet values were marked by dualities: a syncretic, premodern personal freedom based on irresponsibility was combined with latent civic awareness; a belief in the power of science was marred by the subjection of scientific truth to immediate political necessity; participation was combined with deference; internationalism was marked by xenophobia and parochialism; and legitimation based on democratic principles ruled out democratic proceduralism.

Notes on the methodology

Following the biographical approach (Bertaux 1997, Roos 1991), I interpret the respondents' accounts sociologically, i.e., as evidence of what persons have done, in which local contexts, with which results as well of what have been done to them. I present my analytical re-constructions of the respondents' life stories following Bourdieu's (1999) methodological insights. I try to give a comprehension of who these individuals are, based on grasp of the circumstances of life and the social mechanisms that affect the entire category to which the individual belongs. According to Bourdieu (1999), inseparable psychological and social conditions are associated with a given position and trajectory in social space. The local histories of social self-organisation and political resistance convey multiplicity of standpoints. As Bourdieu (1999:621) points out, the role of sociologist is "to bring to light the things buried deep within the people who experience them - people who are both unaware of these things and, in another sense, know them better than anyone". It is possible if the sociologist has a deeper understanding both of the conditions of existence of the respondents and of the social effects that can be exercised by the research relationship.

As the respondents themselves do not necessarily have access to the principles of their anxieties and problems, we need prior knowledge of the realities concerned. At the same time, we need to escape objectification of the respondents. By offering the respondent a possibility to construct their point of view, through an interview we might open up alternatives, which authorise the articulation of worries, needs or wishes discovered through this very articulation (Bourdieu 1999). The relationship researcher and respondent can imply intrusion of legitimate speech, which might affect responses. Being aware of the possibility of such distortions in the singularities of the respondents' experiences and narratives, I tried to adopt the interviewees' languages, feelings, views and thoughts, while doing the interviews.

Moreover, we have to keep in mind that the unique value of the oral sources is that they tell us mainly not about events but about subjective meaning and about the psychological costs of the experiences. By writing up the tape-recorded conversations between a respondent and an interviewer, we risk to gloss over, to cover idiosyncratic elements, rhythms and pauses of the speaking subject (Portelli 1998). While working with analytical reconstruction of the respondents' life stories, we need, firstly, to gain knowledge about history and conditions of political opposition and resistance in Russia, secondly, to consider the emotional and non-verbal aspects of communication during the interview. I try to synthesise the results of the participant observation, open-ended interviews and an extensive reading about the human rights movement in the earlier research, in the contemporary press and on the Internet.

Settings and actors

The human rights NGOs in post-Soviet Russia

Today, in the early 2000s, the Russian human rights NGOs, comprising approximately 250-300 organisations (Dzhibladze 1997, Kevorkova 2001)(3), perceive themselves as 'sprouts of civil society', positioned in the intermediate sphere between 'society' and 'power'. Among the large number of officially registered voluntary associations in Russia, the human rights NGOs distinguish themselves by their explicit political character(4). A network of these individuals, groups and organisations is more or less an outcome of a previously much wider democratic movement, which between 1987 and 1991 united many individuals, who 'went public' and expressed strong anti-establishment beliefs and attitudes (Alexeyeva & Fitzpatrick 1990). This nation-wide movement was rooted in the political underground of the 1960-70s, which pursued broad democratic values of European and native Russian origin, with ideals of 'people rule' in national and local government, more just and equal society, politics without rigid divisions between rulers and ruled. This movement never could achieve any administrative power or influence on the program of the reforms (Reddaway & Glinski 2001, Shevtsova 1999). Nonetheless, even today the human rights activists represent a critical voice, which articulate grievances of broad population, which is daily paying high price for the 'uncertain transformation'. Even the activists themselves are forced to realise the limits of their influence both on the official policy-making and on the public opinion. They see the main drawbacks in the non-supportive mass media, non-responsive state authorities, population's mistrust towards public activity, and financial impediments (see Dzhibladze 1997, Kevorkova 2001, Kolesnikov 2001).

However, the activists are vigorous and effective in their everyday work, striving through ardent and persistent efforts to challenge and resist authoritative mentalities in the state and society. Not numerous in numbers, volunteers, part-time or full-time employees, carry on with their sometimes extremely frustrating but also gratifying job. The area of the human rights NGOs activity is vast and variable. Free juridical consultation, assistance in the legal proceeding, interceding with official instances on behalf of poor and powerless, are combined with disseminating of ideas and concrete 'empowerment' techniques of human rights protection during open seminars and work-shops. Elaborate strategies, designed in order to try to influence political elite, legislative and policy decisions, include tools for lobbying and staged public political actions. Informational networks and resources are created through edition of own print periodicals, brochures, Web sites in the Internet. Newspapers, analytical reports, conference papers, as well as self-help instructions directed to conscript soldiers, prisoners, and other groups of population, are published. International contacts and links are another important area. A lot of joint projects, actions, seminars, and conferences are organised in co-operation with women, peace, and religious movements, and human rights organisations. Hearings on human rights issues organised in the framework of the United Nations and European Union are attended.

One example of the human rights NGOs' position on the political scene in Russia is a story about preparations for the Kremlin-sponsored NGO congress, called Civic Forum in summer and fall 2001. Initiative of the event was said to come up during a meeting between non-profit organisations and president Putin, and to be aimed at bringing closer the Kremlin and representatives of civil society. The idea was further developed by Kremlin-connected groups, including the Public Opinion fund, Gleb Pavlovsky's Effective Policy Fund, as well as recently formed Media Soyuz and about two hundred fifty regional NGOs (Alexeeva 2001, Uzelak 2001). From the very beginning, the large-scope human rights NGOs were not invited to participate, but when the leaders of some prominent organisations, like Memorial, Social Ecological Union, Confederation of Consumers' Societies, have addressed the president administration, the organisational structure of the congress was changed. As a result, the twenty-one-member organising committee included seven members from government officials, seven members of pro-Kremlin NGOs, and seven members of "opposition" NGOs(5). This example illustrates dramatic struggles for dominance over the channels through which public opinion can be formulated. It demonstrates that the human rights NGOs acquire still somehow dubious but respected status in the officially legitimated spheres of public activity. A symbolic three-parted composition of Civic Forum's organising committee, in which the main figures are 'state', 'pro-state associations' and 'pro-society associations', can serve as a metaphor of contests and clashes between different groups and actors in the political struggles within the public spheres in post-Soviet Russia.

The human rights NGOs relate to the state in ambiguous way: they both strive to preserve an autonomous status and to co-operate. In a sense, they differ from 'third sector' or the so-called 'social problem-oriented' NGOs(6), primarily on the principle matter of financial independence from the state authorities. The economic resources have to be searched elsewhere: grants from international foundations and organisations, through partnership in joint projects, like TACIS, or by running parallel projects in the private sector. Dependence on the foreign sources of financial support becomes often an occasion for reprehensions of the human rights activists in the mass media. Still, even the newer types of funding, such as foundation of the business oligarch Berezovsky announced in the fall 2001 (see Glasser 2001), are neither available for nor perceived as acceptable by most human rights organisations.

One of the consequences of the Soviet Union's dissolution has been that Russia became inscribed in the globalisation processes (Castells & Kiseleva 2000, Segbers 2001). According to Meyer et al (1997), contemporary nation-states exhibit a certain isomorphism in their structures and policies. From this viewpoint, nation-states are understood as in part constructions of a common wider culture, rather than actors responding rationally to internal and external circumstances. As result of diffusion processes, nation-states are modelled on an external culture: expanded human rights is one of such models (along with formally equalised female status, environmental policies, etc.) States make efforts to live up to the model of rational actorhood, as well as they are marked by considerable de-coupling between purposes and structure, intentions and results. In contemporary Russia, principles of human rights have been included in the constitution adopted in 1993. In addition, new institution of human rights committee has been established on the central presidential and parliament levels and in the regions. Non-governmental organisations or 'third sector' has been also to a large extent shaped after the West European and American models of socio-political development. It occurred due to the active role of the international foundations and humanitarian programs, such as Soros Foundation or TACIS program.(7)

Human rights activism as commitment and as occupation

The respondents in my study represent activists as a group with variations in gender, age, profession, occupation, and gender. Among 36 respondents, there were 20 female and 16 male representatives in ages from 22 to 60 years old. Before becoming volunteers or full-time workers in the NGOs, they were (some of them still are) employed as jurists, teachers, lectures, social/technical scientists, translator, editor, physician, educator in the kindergarten, film producer, and journalist. During perestroika, some of them were elected as deputies in the local legislature. In terms of social strata, they represent intellectuals of different layers of old Soviet middle class. At the same time, they consider themselves as representatives for emerging new kind of occupation: employee in the non-governmental/voluntary organisation. Although, most activists are being educated through seminars, organised by NGO experts, both from Russian and from abroad, some of them attended special course in the subject of human rights in the universities of USA and Great Britain, still a new occupational identity is build up through fulfilling everyday tasks(8)

Making 'personal' into 'political'

In the following analytical reconstruction of four life stories, I use fictive names and do not reveal organisational membership and geographical location of the interviewees in order to preserve anonymity of the respondents.

"We live as if placed between a Moloch and the barbed wire"(9)

Tatiana, 42, is highly educated teacher, she worked fifteen years in the kindergarten. She has two sons, whom she raised alone since ten years ago. Her first contact with NGO in 1999 has been one of most overwhelming experiences in her life(10). She started to work in the organisation as volunteer and now is employed as full-time worker. The main stimuli was a crucial past experience of powerlessness, when she saw that her son has been abused while doing military service. She found it very humiliating when the only outcome seemed to be to bribe. She also could not afford to prove that her younger son was medically unfit for making service in the army. After her visit to the NGO, she realised that she did not need to be afraid for the authorities, that her demands were not contradicting to the law. Moreover, she received financial support in order to let her son to be examined in the private medical facility, which was 'independent' from the state-subsided military hospital, and to gain the adequate documentation on the health condition of her son.

She became member of pacifist organisation working with a highly politicised in today's Russia social issue of enrolling in the armed forces. The army has been drawn into ethnic conflicts, wars, plagued with economic hardships and legal uncertainty(11). Her task is to deal with cases of soldiers, who were harassed in the army, or enlisted against the law. She works long days in the organisation, sometimes from eight a.m. to eleven p.m. Even if she would like to believe in the force of law and legality as tool of order and justice, she knew out of experience that "it is not possible to prove and to prosecute the crimes, which were committed against the conscripts in the army". Her protect the 'runners' (begunki, as the activists call them with pity and affection), soldiers who flee from their places of military service and risk to be caught by police as deserters, by applying to the official authorities for their retirement on the medical grounds.

Tatiana is aware of the vulnerable position of pacifists in the country, where military solutions are justified in the official rhetoric: "they call us a fifth column". The task of the organisation, to nurture the civic attitudes among the population and the officials, is painstaking, because the activists do not gain support from other voluntary organisations, church, political parties, or trade unions. However, Tatiana strives not only help persons in trouble, but also to share a sense of 'empowerment' and to encourage them to 'go beyond their own little problem'. "I see it like a picture: there is a Moloch, which devours our dear children, and people like obeying cattle is moving right into the jaws of this monster. I perceive myself as guide. I tell them, do not go there, go here. Actually, to help a conscript not to be enrolled is a matter of know-how. Many people are satisfied when they got freed. Only a few can embrace philosophy [of human rights] and to move further. We live as if placed between a Moloch and the barbed wire. If you dare to take a step aside and to say something openly, in our country, they will shut you up immediately". For Tatiana, work in the organisation is both gratifying in the moral sense, yet often it can get very frustrating(12). She expresses her disappointment with the majority people's lack of civil engagement. The co-activists commitment to the common endeavour as well as deep religious faith(13), are the most important sources of strength for her.

One of Tatiana's most bright memories is her visit to the human rights school in Poland, which is regularly organised by the Helsinki Group NGO. It was the first trip abroad in her life. She was surprised and happy to see with her own eyes how the ideas of 'human dignity' and respect to the 'rights' are, according to her impression, realised in Poland, which can serve as en example to learn from for Russia. She is full of doubt if she herself is a sufficiently devoted human rights champion. She feels that "as I came here from the practical life, from solution of my own problems, I need to get more theoretical knowledge". Still, she does not have time for theoretical studies. Tatiana came to the organisation as any other 'little mother', as she call them. She sees this recent past with irony and distance from her present position of human rights activist. For Tatiana, her membership and work in the organisation is a way of economic and moral survival. Although she did not have previously any direct contact with the Soviet dissidents, she absorbs eagerly their ideas and values as she needs to have soaring goals to strive for, in order to overcome the feelings of anxiety and powerlessness in her daily life.

"I do it for my own conscience"

Svetlana is 45, highly educated teacher with specialisation in the field of foreign languages. Because of her Jewish background, she could never study at the university, as she wished. After graduation she was send to obligatory work in the kindergarten, then worked some time at secondary school, and at the scientific institution as technical translator. She comes from middle class family, her father was military-technical academician, mother worked as engineer. Politically, her parents were not 'very brave, but understood everything'. At home they listened to the forbidden foreign radio stations and cassettes of bard Galich. Her father had a near friend whose niece was member in the Yakir's group of young dissidents, who organised protest against entrance of the Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968. Her parents were persecuted in 1937, her husband, a political dissident, experienced prison and mental clinics. In 1980 they were killed in the car accident, which was arranged by KGB. One of Svetlana's vivid memories is a panic fear of her mother, when they once visited them at home: "A pillow was put on the phone, all the doors were closed, we were sitting in the kitchen and whispering". Still, another picture of Svetlana's family past narrates about grandfather, who probably was member of NKVD, and grandmother, who was a communist.

As many Soviet citizens, Svetlana was an active member of Komsomol, the Young Communists' League. Now she remembers with shame, that in age of 22-23, while she knew the truth about the war in Afghanistan, she never "expressed my attitude publicly". She talks several times about need of repentance, personal and collective.

Her present position of chairwoman in the voluntary organisation is a benchmark of a profound change in her life and consciousness. She started to engage herself in the political activity in 1989. Her first experiences were participation in the election campaign with many hours standing in the streets, attending meetings and rallies, working as assistant for the parliament deputies, becoming member in Popular Front, participating in the setting up a Social Democratic party. Spatially her activities spread over local, national, and international places. She distributed underground newspapers printed in the Baltic republics, participated in the march organised in the memory of Andrei Sakharov, in the protest rallies against violent dispersal of the peaceful student demonstration in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia. In 1991, as she was fluent in English, she was delegated to the congress of the social democrats in Helsinki. In the end, Svetlana got disappointed in the hierarchical character of the new political organisations, which seemed to be long far from her conception of the truly democratic 'horizontal associations'.

One of memories from these first years of her political activism is arrest and trial in the police station for participation in the rally. She remembers that she prosecuted and the judge was extremely rude, aggressive, and furious about liberal ideas of the 'democrats'. Now, Svetlana, being aware of how legal system may be utilised for resistance to the dominant governing structures, feels quite amused by this memory. The written law became one of central symbols of the human rights NGOs movement.

Religious experience has been another important biographical turning point for Svetlana, when in 1991, she together with her colleague became an organiser of the young people's pilgrimage to Poland on the invitation of the Pope. After this trip and meeting with the Pope, she became a catholic believer. Moreover, the religious symbols and attributes as well as an active presence of a catholic priest became important part of the organisation's strategy. In 1995, the leader of the organisation took part in the anti-war march across Russia to Chechnya, initiated by the religious organisations. The local, where the organisation is sited, has been sanctified by priests of different religious confessions.

During the first four years of her involvement in the organisation, Svetlana worked as volunteer. She remembers that it was a very hard time, as the activists were volunteers, new, without experience, lacking proper office and communication equipment. The first profound change took place due to Soros Foundation, which purchased for them a computer, a copying machine and a fax machine. Svetlana could start to work as full-time employee in the NGO in 1995 when they was invited to participate in the joint project within international co-operation program TACIS. It meant that Svetlana could "start to work professionally, became aware of what I am doing, not just grasping pieces here and there". A new turning point in the work of the organisation became an introduction of techniques of personal empowerment instead of giving more practically oriented individual consultations. Meanwhile, she realises that the ideas and values of the organisation might seem distant and not intelligible for the majority of those who daily seek them up in order to resolve their urgent personal problems. Even if the things are slowly changing, many people still perceive their organisation in a paternalistic manner as an social instance that take care of their problems for them. A radical pacifism, religious character, liberal-individualistic flavour of the organisation might discourage broad population from joining its activities.

For Svetlana, stigma of her Jewish origin and a previously experienced split between loyalty to the official regime in the public places and experiences of fear, doubt, and resistance at home, could be overcome due to her involvement into the voluntary organisation. Her need for spiritual repentance, personal and on the behalf of her family could be satisfied.

"I was depressed by the servility of perestroika-intelligentsia"

Grigory, 37, is highly educated in the field of social science. He was involved in the radical alternative political movement Democratic Union during perestroika but became disillusioned by "revolutionary spirit and the kind of human relationships, which are established in consequence". Eventually, he found his way into a human rights organisation where he works with informational-analytical projects, which happens to be closely interrelated with his academic interests. Grigory still is employed in the scientific institute as researcher, but it is to a large extent a mere formality, as he receives only a 'symbolic' salary there. In the NGO he is employed on the project basis. As he says, he survives mostly thanks to his wife's salary. His self-understanding is ambiguous. As social scientist he identifies himself with the work that he fulfils in the NGO, not in the official academic institution. At the same time he does not feel himself as politically engaged pravozashchitnik(14).

What is the most important for Grigory in his social and public engagement, is to change the conventional opinion and policy on the issue of ethnic discrimination in Russia and elsewhere(15). He believes that 'ordinary racism' became part of everyday life through images in the mass media, policies of the local administration, and activity of those voluntary organisations, which co-operate with the official institutions. Thanks to financial resources he receives in the projects, supported by the Western humanitarian foundations, Grigory can write research reports, which are published in English and Russian or put out on the NGO's Web site. Being involved in the new network of Russian human rights organisations in Moscow and St Petersburg working against racism, he attends international conferences (South Africa, for example), and academic conferences of the independent sociological institutions in Russia. He is very disappointed by the new development in the social sciences, which in the long run actually encourage the 'ordinary racism' in everyday life and those processes "soft ethnic cleansing", which he can observe in the local politics of the official and non-governmental actors. "Young people come, who are interested in ethno-political science, conflict-resolution, they are thinking in absolutely different way… people are severely maligned by this education." As expert in the field of ethnic relations, he has been invited to write analytical reports for the governmental administration but he was disappointed by non-responsiveness of the officials to his ideas and work.

Grigory tries to build up a new small network of like-minded activists, who support his views and values. In more general sense, his efforts also aim at creating new material resources, which makes possible to pursue social research in the conditions when the state is not able to subsidy science. Moreover, he creates new ideational and moral grounds for development of the humanistic-oriented social science, not dependent on the governing political elite.

"There is no exactly the same word in Russian… empowerment"

Georgy is 39. His first professional occupation is in the sphere of medicine. A second education, in the sphere of international relations, human rights, and international law, he acquired at the university in USA in the mid-1990s. His involvement in the oppositional grassroots activity he explains by referring to the family background. His family was stigmatised as "people's enemies": grandfather was shot in 1938, mother was pursuit both as his daughter and as professional geneticists when genetics was labelled in the Soviet Union as a 'bourgeois science'. He was brought up with access to forbidden literature of Akhmatova, Gumilev, and Bulgakov. A lot of his friends chose to go in exile in the late 1970s.

Already in the early 1980s, before glasnost, Georgy attempted to establish direct relations with foreign public and professional organisations trying to escape the interference of the official instances. In 1984, his group was exposed and dispersed by the authorities. During period of 'neformaly' in the 1980s, while being in charge for international contacts within student Komsomol organisation, he could attend many international congresses. Georgy stresses that, on the one side, he is a patriot, yet, on the other side, he feels himself as citizen of the world, with lucid interest for different cultures and peoples. Due to contacts with European and American medical students, he became involved in the 'civil diplomacy': establishing direct contacts beyond the respective governments. Hence, a new interest in the anti-militarist, universal humanitarian, and ecological ideas emerged. In 1987 he made his first trip to USA, Boston. In 1988, he and his friends realised that they have to start their own organisation: "we need to learn ourselves and to teach other people the ideas, values and tools of social transformation and cultural change". They wanted to promote two core ideas: non-violence and something, which Georgy did not think there was an exact Russian word for, "empowerment, acquirement of power and self-confidence". In 1991, after the law on voluntary associations was adopted in 1990, Georgy and his friends registered their organisation: "for the first time there was a possibility to work independently from the state". He made a new trip to USA with purpose of fund rising. Since 1992 he ended his professional career of physician and started to work full-time in the NGO.

His organisation held seminars on the subjects of intercultural communication, ethnic discrimination, racism and xenophobia. They developed more contacts with partners from abroad. In 1992-93 he made many trips to the 'hot spots' in Northern Caucasus, Georgia, Abkhasia as analyst and mediator in the conflicts. Two years he worked as expert and consultant for foundations and non-government organisations. During the Chechen war in 1995 he co-ordinated work of anti-war committee, in which broad range of organisations were represented. In 1998 he set up a new organisation with main aim to promote 'policy discussion', Georgy pronounced these words in English. What is lacking in Russia, according to him, is a link between civic activists and political experts. The activists should have access to the expert recommendations and analyses of the current issues. His organisation is specialised on elaboration of mechanisms of the citizens' influence on the decision-making in the parliament, central government and local administrations. Georgy believes in and works for the NGO to become a tool of linking democratic institutions and human rights ideology in Russia.

Image-making around 'human rights' discourse: key topics in the life stories

As the analysis of the life stories demonstrates, the discourse on the human rights emerges through communication and interaction among the activists, between them and general public, and between them and their partners abroad. There are at least three kinds of imaginative resources. First, re-usage of the late Soviet dissident movement's symbols and tactics of resistance communicated to the general public. Second, usage of new images forged via the personal experiences of political participation during glasnost. Third, many ideas and images are appropriated through the international discourse about human rights and individual empowerment.

The results of analytical reconstruction of four life stories can be further interpreted as an emergence of collective identity of the human rights activists, imagined as 'critical intelligentsia' standing in the intermediate position between political elite ('state', 'authorities') and general population ('people'). The self-images of the activists are defined through their interactions and communication with the political establishment on the one side, and the general standby publics, who are more or less passively participating in their activities.

There are three main common themes, which constitute the plot of the stories as well as the central points of the activists' practices. First, resistance to the official public politics, which might be organised as tactics of skilful manoeuvre and deception, application of expert knowledge of international law, of post-structuralist social science, etc. Second, re-making of the lagging behind civic attitudes of the broad population in Russia, which might be raised through techniques of empowerment, enlightening about civil and human rights, about religiously inspired ideas of tolerance, mutual commitment, etc. Third, intellectuals' public identity is performed through empathy and identification with the rights and freedoms of marginalised others.

The rational construction of the movement's symbols and tactics occurs by the way of critical reasoning about certain social issues and via elaborated interaction and networking. Simultaneously, the rational-critical reasoning is in a complex way intertwined with the more slowly changing patterns of everyday common public culture, which is somehow interrelated with the Soviet legacies of the 'doubled' system and subjectivity. The activists are lifting certain elements and phenomena of common culture (such as corruption, disrespect for human life and dignity, everyday racism), into arena of public debate, even if often limited by the scope of a small-scale community. Thus, they work for raising of the civic awareness and for broadening of the democratic exclusiveness of the public sphere. However, the small public of the human rights champions is in the most cases marginalised or stigmatised in the representations of the mass media and in the politics of the post-communist democracy.


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1. It was not total if we consider such ruptures in the state censorship policy as the 'thick' magazine Novyj Mir, in which potentially subversive literature could be published, such as by Solzhenitsin, and the novels of the 'village prose' of derevenshchiki (see Petro Nicolai The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture, London: Harvard University Press, 1995).

2. see Berger & Luckmann (1966), Goffman (1974)

3. I have been in touch with organisations Soldiers' Mothers in St Petersburg, Russian Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, Memorial, Civic Watch, Moscow Helsinki Group, Independent Legal Expert Commission, Centre for Development of Democracy and Human Rights, Committee for Civil Rights, Interregional foundation 'For Civil Society', Foundation of Glasnost Defense, Young People Centre of Human Rights, Civil Assistance, Youth Centre of Human Rights and Legal Culture, Forum of Migration Organisations, all-Russian Social Movement "For Human Rights", Centre in memory of Andrei Sakharov. I would like to express my deepest gratefulness to all respondents for their kind assistance and valuable contribution to my research project.

I am also grateful to Elena Zdravomyslova and Anna Temkina in the European University of St Petersburg, who were extremely helpful during my doing fieldwork in St Petersburg.

4. At the First all-Russian urgent congress for human rights in January, 20-21, Yury Orlov, chairman of honour of the Moscow Helsinki Group, proposed to set up a party, which would work with popular mass and help people: "Neither the Union of the Right Forces (SPS) nor Yabloko are political parties, but rather clubs. If after two president terms there emerges a party grounded on human rights concept, it will be a great success." (Veretennikova 2001).

5. See more about Civic Forum in;;

6. 'sotzialshchiki', as one of the respondents called them, drawing a line between purely socially-oriented NGOs and the human rights NGOs (interview with Georgy 2001-10-05).

7. The double nature of such globalisation processes has been discussed in terms of introduction of neo-liberal political models (Pasha & Blaney 1998).

8. Castells & Kiseleva (2000) argue that post-Soviet Russia has been split into two unevenly divided parts. The majority of Russians are trying to survive in the local spaces, isolated from the global flows of capital, money, people and information, while a small group, mainly of urban wealthy population, became included in them. In Moscow and St Petersburg a new class of professionals, interrelated with global economy and private business, constitutes a local civil society, incorporated in the new informational epoch. These two parts of Russia live in different temporal regimes, in which time has different quality and value. The kind of space, in which lives are located, determines how and even how long people live. The main difference between these two kinds of space is a possibility of access to the world of new cultural meanings.

I support Håkan Thörn (2001:214) in his critique of sharp division between mobile rich 'globals' and place-bounded poor 'locals'. In application to Russia, such a dichotomy might imply a devaluation of the inventive strategies of the 'locals' or an exaggeration of the innovative roles of the 'globals'.

9. Quotes here and in the following from the interviews with Tatiana from 2000-11-10 and 2001-04-20.

10. "When I took farewell of my elder son leaving to make his service in the army, I thought that nothing could be done to help him in the honest way, legally, the only way out was to bribe [the officer]. I was very depressed that time. When later I [came here and received aid], I realised that there were other ways to act, it was like to find a new meaning of life. I wanted to share this feeling with other people, that is why I involved me so wholeheartedly into this work." (Tatiana 2000-11-20)

11. One example of the human rights NGOs prolong camp is the law on non-military option for mandatory army conscripts, which has been discussed in the Duma for eight years and finally has been adopted on 17 April, 2002 (Kovalev 2002). Before the law was adopted, those conscripts-to-be whose religious and moral convictions prevent them from serving in the regular army, tried to apply for alternative civil service with reference to the Russian Constitution, which had granted the right to serve compulsory military terms in non-military roles since 1993. Still, the absence of the law made that the young men's applications were questioned or not approved.

12. "Yesterday we were at this army location with a matter about a sick boy. But they even did not let us to come in. We got only spits and slaps in the face." (Tatiana 2000-11-20)

13. "Now I feel that God is the most important in life. I understood that I received a gift from God, to listen to people's problems, to understand them, to be an adviser" (Tatiana 2000-11-20)

14. "I do not participate very much in the life and community of the human rights organisations. I do not attend their congresses, or read their materials, I not interested in what lies beyond my narrow field of interest. On the other side, I can not consider myself as a member of the academic community…I am someone in the middle, I am by myself" (Grigory 2001-10-10)

15. "From the sociological point of view, nations do not exist in reality, they are not social bodies but imagined entities. That is why all the conflicts which emerge, in Karabakh, Chechnya, should be settled by political means, they all have an open end. That means that the rights, which are stated in the international documents, are merely a figure of speech" (Grigory 2001-10-10).