Russian Parliament to Consider Legislation to Regulate Volunteer Activity

Facing an unprecedented surge of volunteerism that has coincided with an eruption of public political protest, the Russian parliament is weighing legislation to bring volunteer activity under the purview of the state, the Washington Post reports.

Introduced by President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, the legislation is designed to ensure that all volunteer activity conforms to the government's priorities and does not undermine Kremlin policy. According to the Post, recent months have seen a convergence of interests, fueled by social media, between the political opposition in the country and those who, fed up with a government it considers corrupt and ineffective, have decided to organize as volunteers. In 2010, for example, after the government cut funding for the forest service, volunteers tried to help put out peat fires that sent choking smoke across much of European Russia — an effort that eventually was quashed by police demanding bribes to let volunteers through.

The legislation reflects "an absolute lack of understanding of the whole nature of the social phenomenon," Yevgeny Grekov, who helps run a group of volunteer drivers called Volunteers on Wheels, told the Post. "They want volunteers to be walking in columns and support the authorities. But programs such as ours have no lists. If you want to help, well, help." Most of the pushback volunteers get from officials reportedly takes the form of bureaucratic delays or lack of cooperation. Such obstructionism is impossible to quantify, however, in part because many volunteer groups make a point of not formally organizing in order to avoid legal complications.

But Russian officials are not the only ones hostile to volunteers and volunteerism. After seventy-plus years of Soviet control, the Russian population remains comfortable with the idea that government should provide for its citizens and is suspicious of volunteer organizations. Indeed, a 2012 poll found that more than half the population disapproves of such groups, said Boris Dubin, a sociologist with the Levada Center in Moscow.

For his part, Yevgeny Grekov told the Post that Russians suffer from a lack of trust. Without such trust, he added, the country will never have a real civil society, and without civil society it will never have real democracy.

Kathy Lally. "In Russia, Volunteers Step Up." Washington Post 02/02/2013.