Civil society has returned to Poland. Russia, alas, remains in a league of its own.
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The school began to get a reputation for producing thoughtful and independent-minded “graduates”—but it also attracted the attention of the Russian authorities, and as the second post-Soviet decade wore on, the school began to run into trouble. Nemirovskaya began to receive regular visits from the FSB, the political police that replaced the KGB, and the school began to be audited by the tax and regulatory authorities. Her success in raising Western funds was considered extremely suspicious, her friendly contacts with foreign diplomats even more so. Once, her home was raided by mysterious “burglars” who stole nothing but an award she’d been given by the British government. Clearly, what had been considered a success in 2000 was, by 2008, considered by some to be a threat, even a center of espionage. Yet the school itself had not changed: It had stayed true to its original purpose— the promotion of open debate. But its values were slowly being rejected by the society around it. The school was dedicated to the promotion of individual liberty and open debate, but it was operating in a society where the very word “liberty” had begun to take on negative connotations.
AND NOT ONLY liberty: “Free markets,” “democracy,” “free speech”—all of the things that Russians had seemed to want in the early 1990s were, by 2002 or 2003, being rapidly rejected by the public at large. In part, this was because Russia’s leaders and their foreign friends—most notably the American president, Bill Clinton—had erred in telling the Russian nation repeatedly that these ideals had already been obtained. Looking around at the first fruits of what the American president was calling “freedom”—”privatized” companies that had been effectively stolen from the state, newspapers filled with libel, rampant crime and corruption, an oligarchy that had mysteriously taken control of the country’s richest assets—many Russians decided that if this was democracy, they preferred authoritarianism.
But the deeper problem lay in the nature of the people surrounding Vladimir Putin, the man who became president of Russia in 2000. Almost all of them came not just from the former Communist party, but, like Putin himself, from the former KGB. Given their education and their training, it was not surprising that the new ruling clan distrusted organizations like the Moscow School. Deep down, neither Putin nor his comrades truly believed that Russian citizens, left to their own devices, would or could make good political or economic choices. Instead, they believed that unless controlled and manipulated by the Kremlin, they would fall under the influence of foreign powers, and act under foreign orders. They did not, in other words, truly believe in the existence of individual liberty at all, let alone civil society.
With this kind of mindset, the Russian authorities perceived the Moscow School—along with human rights’ organizations, environmental groups, and of course new political parties—not as an element of nascent civil society, but as evidence of a secret network, probably involving Western spies. That view was echoed in the Russian press, which took up the theme of “foreign NGOs as Western fifth columns.” With apparent public support, the authorities began to discourage, even to threaten people like Nemirovskaya—and to encourage the development of a different sort of “civil society” altogether.
In 2005, Putin himself declared that “thousands of associations and civil unions exist and work constructively in [Russia]. However, not all of them are concerned with the real interests of the people. For some of these organizations the main objective has become to receive funds from influential foreign and domestic foundations, for others the aim is to serve dubious groups and commercial interests.” While it’s true enough that not all associations are “concerned with the real interests of the people,” who is to determine that? The Russian state solution was straightforward: instead of independent groups, initiated by private citizens and funded privately, the Russian administration created a state-financed, and state-organized, “civil society,” allegedly intended to serve the same purpose.
AS IT HAPPENS, I’ve run into this phenomenon too. In 2004, I was asked by an acquaintance to speak at a seminar on civic education for high school teachers, being held at something called the Institute for Democracy. I went, and gave a short speech on Western journalism of a kind I’d given many times at the Moscow School. Immediately, the audience attacked me. The first questioner asked me “why America supports Chechen terrorism.” Another asked me how I, a representative of the Washington Post—”widely known to be a U.S. government-controlled newspaper”—dared to speak about the free press at all.
The audience went on, parroting the most extreme version of the neo-Communist propaganda that was then beginning to appear in the Russian press. Afterwards, I asked the organizer to explain the origins of the Institute for Democracy. It was, she explained, actually an older organization, formerly known, in Soviet times, as the Institute for World Peace. Though it had a new title, it was run by the same director, and still operated according to the same principles. It “taught” students to follow whatever government line was currently in fashion. The perks proffered by the Institute for Democracy—a free trip to Moscow, free meals, probably a stipend—probably encouraged many of the participants, provincial high school teachers, to attend the seminar. But I suspect that they had made an ideological decision as well. They came from that part of society which misunderstood “liberty” as “libertinism,” which believed economic reform to be the equivalent of economic chaos, and which preferred the more orderly world of state organization and constrained individual liberty to the messy, unpredictable, liberated world of private education and civil society.
Not all of Russia shared these views: Lena Nemirovskaya is still there, and she has many colleagues. But the opponents of individual liberty are currently in power, and they are not. For those in power, the Moscow School of Political Studies was indeed a threat, even a foreign conspiracy. They welcome the Putin administration, with its increased controls on media, its dislike of democratic opposition and its threats against independent-minded organizations, as a positive force for “stability.” THOUGH PUTINISM IS the post-Communist ideology that most explicitly rejects individual liberty and civil society, it is not completely unique. Suspicion and distrust of the new liberties could be found everywhere after 1989, and are around still. In 2005, President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic voiced suspicion of Western-style NGOs because they promote agendas, of “artificial multiculturalism, of radical human right-ism, of aggressive environmentalism.” Perhaps so—but who is to determine which ones promote genuine human rights, or reasonable environmentalism? In Poland too the suspicion of liberty has been voiced. In the months following the launch of the new stock exchange in 1991, the market fluctuations were so unexpected that one exasperated investor wrote a letter to a leading newspaper, complaining: “This market goes up and down, up and down, can’t the government regulate it so that it goes up all the time?”
Nevertheless, from the very beginning, Poles most emphatically did not share Russia’s mistrust of independent organizations on principle. In large part, this was because Poles had maintained a very few independent organizations through the years of Communism, and had even, in the decade before the regime actually crumbled, developed some new ones. True, the Communist regime destroyed or absorbed all kinds of groups: the Women’s League, the Boy Scouts, the Order of Malta, the craftsmen’s guilds. But it was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to destroy the Catholic Church. As a result, the church played a role in Communist Poland that was unique in the Communist world.
This role was partly intellectual—obviously, church teachings presented a clear alternative to Marxist ideology—but partly organizational as well. When I lived in Poland in the late 1980s, I was told that if I wanted to know what was going on, I’d have to go every week to a particular Warsaw church and pick up a copy of the city’s weekly underground newspaper. Equally, if I wanted to see an exhibition of paintings that were not the work of the regime’s artists, or a play that was not approved by the regime’s censors, I could go to an exhibition or a performance in a church basement. The priests didn’t write the newspapers, paint the paintings, or act in the plays—none of which was necessarily religious at all—but they made their space and resources available for the people who did. Officially, there was no such thing as “independent,” privately organized youth groups in Communist Poland. In practice, they existed—there was even an underground, non- Communist scouting movement—often within the physical, if not the spiritual, confines of the church.
BUT IF THE CHURCH was the oldest and most enduring example of an independent, nonstate institution in Poland, the Solidarity trade union was no less important. Born in the late 1970s out of a populist workers’ revolt against poor living conditions—in large part, they were infuriated by the propaganda of the “workers’ state,” which never conformed to reality—Solidarity grew from a small organization in a single shipyard into a national movement very quickly. Along with the Flying University—history and literature courses organized in private homes, outside the confines of Communistdominated state universities—Solidarity became, for many of its ten million members, the first real experience in “self-organization” since the war. Even though it was destroyed, and its leaders jailed in 1981, the memory of that organization remained in the culture, and a small part of the underground remained active.
Finally, the fact that Poles had some freedom to travel, and therefore had some experience with trade in the 1970s and 1980s, also turned out to matter a great deal. The much-despised Polish “tourists” who streamed into Berlin in the late 1980s to sell butter, eggs, and cheap manufactured products in open-air markets collected not only capital—later invested in small shops and businesses—but the experience of engaging in productive, self-organized economic activity, unsanctioned by the state. It may not be quite the same thing as founding a software company, but there is still a world of difference between the mindset of a person who buys and sells Taiwanese computer parts at street bazaars for a living and one who works as a Communist functionary. Because there were probably as many of the former as of the latter by 1989 meant that the majority of Poles were not in principle opposed either to private shops or to private chess clubs, and indeed welcomed both when they began to appear. The post- 1989 expansion of individual liberty was unthreatening, precisely because most people understood, from the beginning, that free choices would be exercised through the sorts of institutions that Poles already understood.
In some spheres, in fact, civil society rapidly flowered. The Polish version of the charter school movement took off in the 1990s, for example, and there are now hundreds of charter schools and independent schools in a country that had none fifteen years ago. Some were formed by the “Solidarity” wing of the teachers’ union, which began founding its own schools just as soon as it became legally possible. Others formed under the aegis of the church, or of church organizations such as Opus Dei; thus did old traditions of civic engagement spawn newer ones.
OTHER KINDS of institutions took longer to get started, as people struggled to understand the new system. The fate of the Polish Women’s League is, again, instructive. By 1989 the organization was utterly moribund at the national level, and in the early 1990s it more or less collapsed altogether. No one any longer had any need for an “official” women’s group whose main function had been to echo state propaganda. But a few local chapters—of which Łódz is the most notable—felt that some of the functions they served were still necessary. In Łódz, for example, the League offered free legal clinics to women having marital or other problems that they were unable to solve alone. At first, the League petitioned the government for money to support such projects, but with only minimal success.
But over time, the League learned how to find new sources of income and support. Since Łódz is a city of textile mills, many of which have women employees, they succeeded in convincing employers that their services were necessary. Donations began to come in, and the organization stayed alive. Having lost their independence, they have now regained it. No longer a national organization, and no longer a state-run organization, the Women’s League in Łódz now had a genuine purpose, and the women who ran it once again did so out of conviction, as they had in 1945.
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