Russia’s Prosthetic Volunteerism

by Sean Guillory

In Russia, disaster historically strikes with such great frequency during August that much of the month is spent anticipating tragedy. But calamity visited early this year, on July 7 to be exact, when the southern town of Krymsk in Krasnodar province was pummeled with eleven inches of rain over a twenty-four-hour period, an average six months worth. People, pets, and property were swept away when a twenty-foot high wave crashed down on the town. By official accounts, 171 people perished, about 9,000 properties and apartment blocks destroyed, 5,000 left homeless, and around 34,000 people were directly affected by the flood.  It’s a heavy toll for a community in which memories of a flood in 2002 causing 100 deaths still resonate. Unlike in previous disasters, Putin quickly hopped on the plane to Krymsk and declared the following Monday, July 9, a national day of mourning. Putin, it seems, was determined that Krymsk would not become his mini-Katrina. Nevertheless, the flood threatens to further expand existing fissures between the Russian state and society. Though one of the brightest lights of this dark moment is the thousands of volunteers who mobilized to help the people of Krymsk, the Russian government remains circumspect. Instead of embracing what many identify as a Russian civil society finally coming to fore, the Russian state threatens to fall back on its deep historical tendency to view society as a mere prosthesis of its will, and display urgency to corral those who buck its restraints.

The political fallout, if any, of the Krymsk flood remain speculative.  Putin attenuated some outrage by making haste to Krymsk to perform the usual Russian man in charge rituals: wagging his finger at local officials, threatening that “heads will roll,” and demanding a minimization of “red tape” for victim relief. These moves will undoubtedly appeal to some, while others will dismiss them as overplayed theatrics of the once Teflon president. Still, the floods come at a vulnerable time for Putin and the ruling party, United Russia. The adoption of several laws targeting the tenacious street opposition represents Putin’s fortress mentality. There is never a good time for a flood, but given the overarching political context this time is worse than others. 

True to form, Russian authorities have once again proved flatfooted. Despite the 2002 flood, the Krymsk region lacks an early warning system, and it’s clear that despite knowing about the approaching storm three hours in advance the attempts authorities made to notify residents were inadequate.  “The authorities couldn’t even do a very simple thing like send a truck around with loudspeakers to warn people,” analyst Maria Lipman from the Moscow Carnegie Center told RIA Novosti. “We have again seen an inefficient, at times bungled government operation.” Now it appears that Krymsk mayor Vasily Krutko, district chair Vladimir Ulanovsky, and the acting chief of the district emergency service, Viktor Zhdanov will answer for this bungling. The Investigative Committee has detained the trio on criminal charges of “professional negligence.” 

Throwing such small fish to a bloodthirsty public, however, is unlikely to assuage the widespread view among Russians that their leaders are just detached. Or, as journalist Arkady Babchenko put it on his blog, “We have to understand one simple fact: We don't have a government. In an emergency situation, you are going to be facing a disaster on your own. No one will come to help you. The people who clawed their way to power don't give a damn about any of us.” Such sentiments aren’t surprising given Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachev’s reaction to residents skewering him for no flood warning. “What,” he retorted, “were we supposed to go around to every single person?” And Tkachev still remains in his post. It is no surprise, then, that rumors abound about duplicitous authorities intentionally opening of the Neberdzhayevskoye reservoir to protect important nearby areas—the vital port city of Novorossiysk, a nearby Rosneft industrial complex, or Putin’s palace in Gelendzhik some sixty kilometers away—or that thousands of people were killed, far more than  the 171 claimed by government. Spreading this last rumor landed four youths a fifteen day jail sentence. None of these and many other rumors are supported by evidence, but belief always trumps truth in these situations.

With the state vertically paralyzed, society revealed its horizontal flexibly as thousands of Russians - some sympathetic to Putin, others not—rapidly mobilized to Krymsk packed with supplies and the will to help. Granted, painting the Russian political and business elite with broad strokes of indifference is a misnomer.  Figures such as Mikhail Prokhorov, Anatoly Chubais, and Vladimir Kulistikov and companies like Sperbank and Supguneftegaz have donated millions of rubles. Even Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev chipped in about $6,000. The state has promised upwards of $300 million in cash handouts and reconstruction. But it's the activities of ordinary people who have deservingly made the headlines. For many, this sudden explosion of civic volunteerism signifies that especially young Russians have thrown off the yoke of cynicism, and are finally making civil society a potential social and political force. 

This surge in volunteer activity presents Putin an opportunity of rapprochement with the moderates among his foes. Though many volunteers are self-ascribed opponents to the government, a political truce was called in Krymsk for the greater good of its residents. Opposition activists ditched their white ribbons; Nashi members folded their flags, and the two adversaries worked side-by-side.  “Either you are here to work or not,” Robert Shlegel, a United Russia deputy and former Nashi commissar, told the New York Times. “I don’t see what political questions there can be if a woman needs help drying out a bed or unloading a truck.” All of this suggests that politically-minded Russians can still suspend differences and come together as a nation. Putin can take advantage of this, if he’s politically adept enough. True, segments of the urban, westernized, educated classes remain irrecoverably lost to him. No action outside of resigning will bring them back to the political fold. But Putin still has, as Kirill Rogov recently noted, substantial provisional support.  They more or less still stand with him, but too much state pressure threatens to repel them. How Putin plays things out after Krymsk dries up could sway them more solidly back to his side. One tactic could be to unlock the fortress and begin a dialogue with society at large.

But that isn’t what’s happening, and the upsurge in volunteerism seems to have redoubled, not eroded the fortress walls. Despite the gracious thanks for their efforts, the Russian government via its Public Chamber, a state body that oversees parliament and draft legislation, has proposed a law to legally formalize the relationship between volunteers and volunteer organizations. According to Darya Miloslavskaya, the author of the draft, the proposed “On Volunteerism” seeks to “regularize the concept of ‘volunteer’ and ‘volunteer activity” by requiring legal contracts between volunteer and legally registered NGOs stipulating the rights and duties of each. Such contracts are needed, the authors claim, because volunteer work has “not developed into a cohesive system” in Russia. The law, purportedly, will help support civil society and “restore trust in the government.” 

Few are buying any of it. Ilya Ponomarev, a Just Russia deputy and vocal oppositionist, who posted the text of the draft proposal on his blog, views the law as the Kremlin’s attempt to tame the “savage volunteers,” place volunteers under its direction or provide the legal means to bar those the state doesn’t like. Grigory Kuksin of Greenpeace Russia calls the draft “excessive and unnecessary” for its extra helping of red tape and charges the authorities with wanting “more control over volunteers, who are well organized and see a lot of what’s happening in the country.” In a debate on the role of government during disasters on Ekho Moskvy, Alena Popova, a civic activist, stated that coordinating volunteerism was “not the task of the state.”

Whether a pragmatic move or underhanded scheme, the proposed law reveals that Putin’s Kremlin continues to view society through cameralist-colored lenses: it is just another resource to be mobilized for the greater interests of the state. Here, the Russian state sees itself as a system divorced from its environment, and though it has eschewed the total planning of the Soviet system, it still disregards society as a separate entity that compliments its governance. Instead, the state endeavors to absorb societal initiative within its legal and bureaucratic logic. Implied in the proposed draft law, mass volunteerism will not serve as a means for the Russian government to take stock of its failure to protect and provide relief to its citizens. Rather, civic initiative will be diminished to a mere prosthetics for the state to “restore trust in the government.” Such is the inverted world of Russian politics.

Sean Guillory is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.  In addition, he is an avid “Russia Watcher” and blogs about contemporary Russian politics and society at Sean’s Russia Blog (seansrussiablog.org/) and hosts the podcast New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies (newbooksinrussianstudies.com/). You can follow him on Twitter @seansrussiablog