Russia's Civil Society

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Civil Society
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
In Russia’s recent history, the definition and existence of democracy has been questioned. In light of recent events in the news regarding governmental control and its leaders, observers examine whether or not Russian civil society can exist with such extensive restrictions from the state. Despite the lack of support by the government, the nonprofit sector has had some success.

Written by Bethany Hansen with some content from an earlier edition by


Several definitions exist, but most seem to agree that civil society is the “sum of institutions, organizations, and individuals located between the family, the state, and the market, in which people associate voluntarily to advance common interests” (Anheier 9). One of the most important facets of civil society is the fact that its intention is to be separate from the state or government in which it exists. Though civil society and the government certainly overlap and cooperate, the purpose of civil society is to exist outside of governmental influence so that it may truly serve the common interests of the individuals and organizations involved. Civil society often acts as a channel between institutions and the government so that the interests of the individuals are affectively communicated. With the example of Russia, the relationship between its civil society and state has constantly been unstable due to strong governmental control. As more instances come to light of governmental control over the philanthropic sector, one should question whether Russia’s system currently aligns with the definition of civil society.


Historic Roots

Because of its history with Communism, Russia’s attempts to build a strong civil society have been strained. The definition of Communism ultimately cancels the idea of a civil society. Under the system of Communism, everything is controlled and owned by the state, and the government becomes an autonomous entity. There is no force that exists outside of the state; therefore, there is no opportunity for institutions and associations to form outside of state interests. The era of Imperialist Russia existed for a majority of the 20th century, and while a sliver of civil society existed, it was domineered by an intrusive and antiquated government. Since the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union in the 1990s, this allowed the chance for a true civil society and ultimately a democracy to exist (Conroy 11). Since everything was not property of the state, individuals and organizations were able to meet with other like-minded people for the purpose of furthering common interests. . 

In Russia’s recent history, the definition and existence of democracy has been questioned. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current leader, has been scrutinized by Russians who want to make a difference through non-profit organizations to improve their civil society.  “Civil society is alive in Russia, but that is despite the efforts of the state, not thanks to them”, says Boris Makarenko (Weir 2002, 1).

Russians believe that Putin has created road blocks for nonprofit organizations in order to manage where the money goes in Russia.  Within the last few years, Putin has been criticized for openly sympathizing with Communist ideals and practices. During the era of the USSR, Putin was a prominent member of the Communist Party and has even been quoted saying he believed the Soviet Union should have been granted even more autonomy than it received (Sharkov 2016).  Recent articles about Russia’s society claim Russia has a “managed democracy” in which Putin controls the laws and constitution by manipulating the laws to benefit himself and the business owners in Russia while diminishing the non-profit organizations that are established (Glasser 2004). Putin has even interfered with the current political climate of Ukraine and Crimea. With Ukraine, a previous member of the USSR, Putin has made several attempts to regain Russian control over the country, almost to the point of war. The Russian government has even supported Russian separatists who have attacked Ukrainian forces with armed attempts. For the sake of benefit and control, Putin has taken several steps to threatening the independence of both Ukraine and the new state of Crimea (CNN).



Russia has had a long fight to create a civil society that operates from within its own country.  Individuals and businesses have funded nonprofit organizations in hopes to encourage Russians to participate in their own philanthropic endeavors.  However, “the bottom line, according to activists and their international funders, is that Russians simply haven’t stepped in to foster major philanthropic and activist work and are almost certain not to do so in the wake of Khodorkovsky’s arrest, which was interpreted here as a warning to avoid politicized activities” (Glasser 2004, 1).

Many Russians are aware of Putin’s advances to demolish their civil society.  “Putin declared war on Russia’s civil society.  Our duty is to give it resources for self-defense”, states Berezovsky (Glasser 2004, 1).  Arseny Roginski claims “the government has already taken under control the mass media, parliament and many other independent structures, and this is a step to attack our independence and a desire to take us under control” (Glasser 2004, 1).  Examples such as these are the very reasons for questioning whether or not Russia is truly a civil society. 


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Some have declared that the nonprofit sector in Russia has rapidly become an active part of society (Allavida 2002).  The governmental books show growth in this area, while Russian locals profess the truth is hidden from the public through Putin’s push for his own agenda to increase business and profit behind the scenes.

Philanthropy in Russia has had some success regardless of Putin’s extended efforts to stop any groups from receiving money or aide from Russians or any other group outside of Russia.  Depending on who is asked, philanthropy is mostly supported by business adventures.  However, activists are still struggling to compete with businesses to participate in philanthropic acts and other obstacles presented by the state. For example, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office publicly announced the Russian government’s stance towards the Open Society Foundation (a prominent global organization dedicated to strengthening fields such as education, health, science and civil society overall for Russia) as an “undesirable” organization. This public announcement was an example of Russian executives attempting to stop nonprofit organizations from receiving grants from outside organizations. Such instances continue to pronounce the state’s distaste for any entity outside of governmental influence and further the attitude of promoting business over philanthropy. The philanthropic sector continues to face similar issues of disapproval, but dedicated organizations continue to promote their mission and establish a strong presence outside the state and market sectors. Such dedicated citizens also persevere to make known the interests of the average individual (Open Society Foundations).


Key Related Ideas

  • Business giving is the main source of giving in Russia.  Businesses provide money through grant programs, competition for funding, and corporate foundations.  Examples of these groups include Gasprom and Lukoil.
  • Civil Society: Rebuilding Civil Society, is a Ted Talk by Ted O’Brien regarding civil society and a close inspection of the way it works and ways it could be improved.
  • The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is the formation of independent states after the fall of the Soviet Union. Members include Armenia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine and several more. At the Commonwealth of Independent States Web site, you can find statistical information on the social and economic situation of these countries (
  • Individual donations are considered to be one of the smallest percentages of philanthropy in Russia.  Due to the economic situation, tax benefits, and the lack of understanding, Russians have not expanded on this form of giving. 
  • Foundations, also known as charitable foundations, are permitted in the Russian society.  There are not many rules for setting up a foundation, although there must be some type of capital. 
  • Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's), are typically international nonprofit organizations independent of governmental influences. The Agency of Social Information Web site, provides information on non-governmental organizations in Russia as well as socially significant subjects (
  • Russia: you can find information on Russia’s history, culture, language, and much more through the Bucknell Russian Program at Bucknell University ( You can also find a complete country profile of Russia through World Factbook (


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Vladimir Potanin (1961–present):  Potanin is the creator of Interross Holding  and founder of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation which provides scholarships for Russian students who are interested in becoming leaders in Russia.
  • Vladimir Putin (1952–present):  Putin is Russia’s leader who has been involved in the future of civil society in Russia.  He has recently been under scrutiny for controlling facets of the government and attempting to lessen Russia’s civil society for his own personal gain.
  • Irina Yasina (?–present):  Yasina is the founder of Open Russia, an organization that provides funds to aide others in human rights and civil society.  Her work is known around the world, and she is invested in creating a better society.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Council on Foundations is a source for the various types of philanthropic organizations as well as tax, legal, and benefit information (
  • Open Russia is an organization headed by activist, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and whose mission is to “connect and unite Russian citizens who seek a state governed by the rule of law, with a strong civil society, regular free and fair elections, and the promotion of democratic values” (
  • Open Society Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose work reaches out to over 100 countries. Their mission is to promote strong democracies and civil society and to create healthy governments open to the interests and opinions of its citizens (


Reflection Questions - Why is civil society important for maintaining a strong philanthropic sector? How does this example of Russia compare to the philanthropic example of the U.S.?


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Allavida.  An Introduction to the Non-Profit Sector in Russia.  Allavida, 2002.  ISBN:1-904167-02-0.
  • Anheier, Helmut K. 2010. Nonprofit organizations: theory, management, policy. Routledge: London, 2014.
  • Civil Society: Rebuilding Civil Society. Accessed 2 October 2004.
  • CNN. Ukraine Fast Facts.
  • Conroy, Mary. “Civil Society in Late Imperial Russia.” In Russia Civil Society: A Critical Assessment, edited by Alfred B. Evans, Laura A. Henry, and Lisa Sundstrom, 11-13. New York and London: Routledge 2006. 
  • Glasser, S.  “Putin Talk Worries Independent Groups”.  1 June (2004) Washington Post.  Accessed 2 October 2004.
  • Open Society Foundations. Russia Cracks Down on Open Society.
  • Richter, James.  “Promoting Activism or Professionalism in Russia’s Civil Society.” Bates College’s PONARS Policy Memo 51. November 1998.
  • Sharkov, Damien. “Russia’s Putin: I’ve Always Liked Communist and Socialist ‘Ideas’.” Newsweek. January 1, 2016.
  • Weir, F.  “Russia’s fledgling civil society.”  The Christian Science Monitor.  30 July 2002.  Accessed 2 October 2004.


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.