Something surprising is beginning to stir in the outlook of young Russians. A pervasive cynicism about communal action that took hold after the Soviet state and its professed collective ethos collapsed may be making way for a new sensibility — the idea that citizens can organize, be responsible for one another, and ultimately have an effect on how Russia governs itself.
The evidence can be found in the number of young volunteers helping the flood-devastated town of Krymsk, and in the skittishness of some Russian officials about such volunteers.
Soon after an overnight flood destroyed the town of nearly 60,000 people in southern Russia on July 7, killing 172 by official count, perhaps many more, President Vladimir V. Putin predictably sought to play it down: “One should not exaggerate the dimensions of the tragedy,” he decreed. It was not the first time he had shown indifference to human suffering. But the response from many Russians — particularly young people — was different. From many corners of the country, groups organized humanitarian aid and descended on Krymsk to help, rather than wait for incompetent government functionaries to fail. (Local officials were already being blamed for not notifying residents about the impending consequences of an extraordinary rainstorm.)
The volunteerism in Krymsk is one signal that anti-government street protests that began last winter have helped inspire in many young Russians a consciousness of their responsibilities toward society and a desire for the government to uphold its obligations to its citizens. Buoyed by social networks and new communities, they are creating what could become a blueprint for a new form of civil society.
As has often been the case in Russia, government-controlled media still try to suppress information and diminish the dimensions of disasters like the one in Krymsk. But these days unfiltered reports make their way to the Internet and feed a sense among the young that individual lives have more worth than the state assigns to them. Asya Tsaturyan, 22, a sociologist who has volunteered on behalf of children with special needs, and has taken part in anti-government protests, put it this way in a Skype interview: “Suddenly, there is a demand for a different way of relating to other human beings.”
Demand is one thing and results are another, of course. Urban elites’ beliefs in their ability to effect democratic change have been problematic before in Russian history — most recently when the fallen Soviet Union was replaced not by full democracy but by oligarchy. Indeed, the new volunteerism may already be catching unwanted attention from Russian officials, who last week were discussing a proposed law that would require volunteer groups to register before being allowed to help in areas of humanitarian need.
Nonetheless, Ms. Tsaturyan, who considers herself a realist about this history, says that she and her peers have more access than most Russians to resources and information and therefore have a responsibility to promote values different from those of the current Russian state. And during the street demonstrations of May and June, some in the protest movement were already trying to think soberly about what a post-Putin Russia might look like.
The response to Krymsk may offer some clues to how a new society might be structured. Some elements, like social media, exist now in virtual form. Varvara Sosedova, 25, a volunteer who was on vacation nearby when the flood occurred, posted updates to VKontakte, Russia’s biggest social networking site. Within hours of her first posts, volunteers were organizing the collection of clothing, food and medicine, as others left for Krymsk.
Information reported by people like her incited action in brick-and-mortar sites, too. In Moscow, Tsiferblat, a network of coffeehouse-like meeting places where visitors work, read, talk and attend special events, and where Ms. Sosedova had been a frequent visitor, converted itself into a collection point for humanitarian aid.
Tsiferblat operates several such meeting spaces in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities, which are frequented by people in their late teens and 20s. I met many of them during a stay in Russia in May and June.
The network’s founder, Ivan Mitin, 26, began doing volunteer work when he helped put out wildfires near Moscow in 2010. He started Tsiferblat the following year, as a place where people with different interests, paying by the hour, could exchange ideas and perhaps collaborate. Since then, he said, Tsiferblat has united a group of people who have thought deeply about what it means to have an alternative cultural and social space.
Mikhail Pribylovsky, the art director at another Tsiferblat location, said participation in humanitarian relief brings together people who differ about politics. “Whether you call it civil society or something else doesn’t matter to us,” he told me in an e-mail from Moscow.
Today’s volunteers seem to be groping for a larger definition of citizenship. If some day Russia changes the way it is governed, one can only hope that whatever comes to replace Mr. Putin and his cronies will include the social consciousness of this emerging new generation.
Sasha Senderovich is a visiting assistant professor of Russian and East European studies at Lafayette College.