Civic engagement in Russia: on the wane or changing format?
It has become commonplace to complain about the decrease in civic activity in today’s Russia. There are indeed fewer thousand-strong marches and rallies in downtown Moscow now than a few years ago. The reasons for this have been much written about; but it seems more interesting to us to note a completely opposite trend: people are taking part in ‘local’ action demanding the preservation and improvement of the urban milieu around them. One need but recall the fight for Torfyanka and Druzhba parks in Moscow, for Malinovka in St Petersburg, the heroic defense of the Volga by Tatar activists.


About a thousand people rallied to protect Torfyanka park. Photo courtesy of

The tension of the ‘local’ conflicts is so high that sometimes it sadly leads to violent clashes, even to shootings, as recently happened in the suburban Moscow village of Zeleny, where the local authorities had given a forest up for construction. In spite of the crackdown and outright crime – we shall remember at least the story of Mikhail Beketov and Evgeny Vitishko, the trial of a Khoper defenders, the beatings and even killings of activists – civic activism is alive and growing, such that the destruction of even a tiny green belt becomes a catalyst for protest, as happened in Khimki recently.

Most of the people who consider themselves to be part of ‘big politics’ often look down on the local protests; for them, it is like, “you know, people are still unprepared for the real stuff, that is why they cannot see beyond their yard or the park out the window.” The protesters respond to the politicians with silent mistrust, keep protecting their parks and green areas, establish ties with each other little by little, and learn to pose common demands. For example, the envirnonmental coalition of St Petersburg and its region has just recently come into being. Citizens in the Moscow region outraged by the massive destruction of the green belts and the construction work in the agricultural lands are gathering this Saturday to a rally “Against the construction mafia,” and the next day Moscow activists will convene in Druzhba park to discuss the possibility of a referendum over the ban on the construction work in parks.

So what do the activists actually want?

Of course, the perspective of big business and the caste of officials that have merged with it is that these people are the enemies of progress, ‘boors’ (Yuriy Mikhaylovich Luzhkov would say so, as Moscow’s mayor). Like-minded individuals from abroad have expressed themselves more elegantly, calling their opponents NIMBYs: “Not in My Back Yard.” “It’s like, you know, except in my back yard, you can build your skyscrapers, highways and parkng lots anywhere.” At the same time, the very relevance of all these 1970s props of ‘progress’ appear kind of out of the question. But is this how it really is?

What are the demands of the urban activists? The most common demand is to make city more livable, without dismal bedroom towns cut down from the world, without depressive and enormous industrial areas. Green belts, cafes and shops are located close to home in their dream cities. They are easily accessible by foot or bike, and if you have to go farther, you will be served by modern electric transport. This city is not dominated by the chimneys of gigantic heat and power plants; most of its energy comes from the renewables. The very need for energy has decreased: trees and bushes shelter from the summer heat and winter’s chilling winds. The dream city doesn’t need any monstrous storage terminals with parking capacities for thousands of trucks, because the major stream of produce comes from the nearby fields and farms that have not been concreted and striped with lines of towers for living.

A fantasy? An impossible dream? This is how the majority of Russia’s decision-makers see it. But not the experts who are supposed to look forward. An UN expert group has recently published IPCC‘s fifth report. It warns not just of the looming global disaster caused by climate change; it advises on how it can be avoided. And it turns out the principal recommendation for modern city planners is to make cities ‘green.’ According to the UN data, 75 percent of climate change-inducing greenhouse gas emissions originate in cities. Cities are expected to host 66 percent of the global population by 2050, and if the greenhouse emissions rise proportionately, the climate scientists’ worst nightmares will become a reality.

As it turns out, the ‘green’ city has a very specific meaning. A city is green when it leaves no dirty footprint in the environment while existing and developing successfully. This is what they call ‘sustainable development,’ as opposed to plain ‘development’ at everyone’s expense, consuming all the more fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources with sad consequences for the environment and the citizens. Medical research has shown that the greener the city is, the lower its mortality rates, and vice versa. The need to move from unsustainable to sustainable development is perhaps humankind’s principal challenge in the 21st century, when the population of our planet is supposed to top 10 bn, and the continued ‘unsustainable’ development scenario will entail an imminent disaster within a few decades.

Freiburg, the green city of the 21st century. Photo courtesy of naturalflow,

Freiburg, the green city of the 21st century. Photo courtesy of naturalflow,

The triumph of democracy

So, the urban activists have spontaneously reached the same conclusions ‘from the bottom up’ as the world’s best experts have: now, that’s a true triumph of democratic ideas! And it is not just about the conclusions, but also about the inner strength to defend their truth in spite of the last century’s agenda that is now being agressively imposed on the Russians.

Do the politicians have enough wisdom to realize that the activists are correct? Today’s Russia faces a vital necessity to transfer to sustainable development: if the opposite happens, the country will remain a hostage to the falling fossil fuel prices, concentrating nearly all of its active population in several mega cities unable to feed themselves and leaving all of its remaining territory under the authority of devastation and resource-extracting companies. Here is, by the way, ‘the unified agenda’ that should gather not only political activists but most average people: of course, if we want a normal life for ourselves and our children.

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