Problems of Civil Society Formation in Russia

Maria Y. Vlasenko, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University


The article is devoted to the problems of civil society formation in the Russian Federation. The author believes that since Russia is still in transition to a democratic system, the institutions of civil society in this country are not as developed as in the countries with consolidated democracy. Based on the analysis of Russian academic literature on the subject and legislation regulating the activities of non-profit organizations, the article tries to identify the main difficulties in the formation of civil society in Russia and suggest possible ways to overcome them. As the result, the author identifies three main problems that hinder harmonious development of civil society in Russia: firstly, high level of conflict in society resulting from heterogeneity of Russian population; secondly, discordant government policy regarding non-profit organizations; thirdly, unwillingness of business sector to actively involve in corporate social responsibility initiatives. According to the article these problems can be overcome if the government adopts policies that would allow institutes of civil society to flourish, such as adequate and clear legal regulation of this sphere, promotion of the positive image of civil society organisations and activities in media, and providing financial incentives for civil initiatives both for citizens and corporate entities.

Key words: civil society, civil society institutions, problems, non-profit organizations, public policy

Main body

Despite the fact that nowadays democracy is in turmoil even in the most politically stable countries, it still remains the most desirable political regime, as it provides the conditions for human dignity protection and the opportunities for individuals to thrive. The Russian Federation has been undergoing profound political and economic changes since its establishment to the present day that are also aimed at democratization. Undoubtedly, the formation of an effective civil society is an integral part of this process, as it constitutes the basis of any democratic regime. Analysis of the conditions of its formation in Russia is relevant nowadays, as there is a demand for strengthening the institutions of civil society in this country.

In effect, a study conducted by The Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2017 indicates that the democratic project enjoys great support among the population (Gorshkov, 2017). The researchers explain this tendency by a number of factors: firstly, civil society in Russia retains its autonomy, since control over it in such a large and complex country as Russia would imply great costs for the government; secondly, in this country democratic institutions already exist and provide citizens with an opportunity to realize their political and civil rights; thirdly, there is a growing number of social activists who are aware of their civil role and want to participate in political life more actively. Therefore, it can be assumed that on this stage of democratic transition Russia is expected to take into account the interests of civil society that has begun to regain confidence in its ability to influence state of the affairs in the country.

However, the process of forming a civil society in countries with a transitional regime, such as Russia, is always fraught with a number of difficulties. The purpose of this article is to identify the problems of civil society formation in Russia. For this purpose, the following tasks were performed: analysis of theoretical works and empirical studies on the formation of civil society in Russia and the study of the regulatory framework for the NGOs’ activities. 

To start with, it is necessary to specify what is understood as "civil society" in the article. The category of civil society has attracted attention of prominent thinkers since the XVII century. S. Montesquieu, J. Rousseau, T. Locke, I. Kant and other well-known Western philosophers made a great contribution to the development of the theory of civil society. To date, foreign and Russian researchers continue to develop theoretical approaches to the understanding of this multifaceted social phenomenon, which leads to the broad interpretation of the term "civil society". In this article we use the definition given by the American political scientist F. Schmitter that is considered to be more or less comprehensive : “civil society” is defined as a set or system of selforganized intermediary groups: 1) that are relatively independent of both public authorities and private units of production and reproduction, i.e. of firms and families; 2) that are capable of deliberating about and taking collective actions in defence/promotion of their interests/passions; 3) but do not seek to replace either state agents or private (re)producers or to accept responsibility for governing the polity as a whole; 4) but do agree to act within pre-established rules of a “civil” or legal nature (Schmitter, 1996).

Problems of civil society formation in post-Soviet Russia

Based on careful analysis of civil society related research several problems of civil society formation in post-Soviet Russia can be identified. O.P. Alekseeva points out that in the process of economic and political reforms of the 1990s, political leaders did not consider the population of the country as a basic resource for achieving political and economic stabilization. In her opinion, this was the reason for the failure of many reforms, since the majority of Russian citizens did not get compensation for the loss of social status and confidence in the future and felt abandoned by the government (Alekseeva, 2005). Only a minority of citizens has been able to take an active civil position in the new environment, creating various associations and organizations of civil society. Such initiatives, which were few in number at the beginning, paved the way for the so-called third sector in Russia, within the framework of which citizens were able to implement their projects aimed at strengthening democracy, promoting the principles of the rule of law and corporate social responsibility, as well as at achieving socially significant goals.

Over the past two decades, Russia has advanced quite far on the path of building a civil society. Many public organizations have appeared in the country – today according to the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation there are more than 200,000 registered non-profit organizations (NGOs) in Russia.[1] Such organizations constitute one of the most important institutions of civil society in modern realities. In accordance with the Civil code of the Russian Federation, a non-profit organization (NGO) is a legal entity that does not have profit as the main purpose of its activities and does not distribute the profit among the participants.[2] Such a definition, however, is rather vague, which causes criticism from both experts and members of civil society.

There is a number of other problems that NGOs face in Russia. Firstly, the activities of such organizations are complicated by the fact that the Russian Federation is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state with many cleavages in society. This fact is compounded by a significant gap in the socio-economic development of the regions, which leads to the uneven development of civil society in different parts of the country. These two factors result in a fairly high level of conflict in civil society in Russia, which hinders its consolidation. Conflict nature is also manifested at the level of public organizations themselves. For instance, the leaders of some NGOs are not ready to make any compromises and take an irreconcilable stance towards the political establishment. The politicization of some civil society leaders, especially of the representatives of the liberal opposition, prevents them from making concessions for the common good and achieving the goals of civil society.

However, the oppositional institutes of civil society in modern Russia represent only the minority, while the majority of non-profit organizations either take a loyal position towards the authorities or distance themselves from politics (Treskov, 2014). This should not be considered a negative trend since it is the support of the state that determines the possibility of forming a sustainable and effective civil society in a transitional regime. There is an opinion that it is the state that should create the legal and institutional prerequisites for civil society and the civil society formation depends on the willingness of the state to cooperate constructively and provide with financial assistance (Golovistikova, Dmitriev, 2005).

The Russian government has been successful in this field. Over the past ten years, it has devoted great attention to the development and support of NGOs. Thus, in 2006 the “Public chamber” of the Russian Federation was established, which became a platform for dialogue between citizens and state bodies and for exercising public control over the activities of authorities of all levels. Due to the active promotion of NGOs interests by the Chamber public organizations of the country received significant financial support from the government. In addition, in 2011 "The Council of Civic Chambers of Russia" was established aiming at the establishment of effective communication between the different civil society organizations on the local and regional level.

There is no denying that they are several problems in the relations between the state and civil society in Russia. In this regard, A.P. Treskov claims that there are two contradictory trends inherent to this relationship that were noticeably present in the 1990-es and still relevant today to some extent. First, the government in Russia tends to support those structures of civil society with which it is advantageous to cooperate at a certain time and on certain issues. Striking examples of this approach are the legal acts adopted in the 1990s with respect to a number of non-profit organizations: the Federal law "On State Support of Youth and Children's Public Associations"; the decree of the President of the Russian Federation of December 22, 1993 №2254 "On Measures of State Support for the Activities of National Associations of Persons With Disabilities"; the presidential Decree of may 16, 1996. №727 "On Measures of Governmental Support of Public Associations Working on Patriotic Education of the Youth". This attitude towards NGOs in the 1990s often led to corruption. Secondly, according to A. P. Treskov, there is a tendency to represent the activities of civil society structures in the media in a negative way and promote their negative image, which complicates the work of many NGOs greatly (Treskov, 2014). One of the most recent examples is the federal law "On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation Regarding the Regulation of Non-Profit Organizations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent", which came into force on November 20, 2012. The information campaign in support of this law has led to a decrease in the trust of citizens not only in the NGOs that receive foreign funding but also in the activities of non-profit organizations in general.

This trend also proves that the government still has a paternalistic attitude towards civil society institutes, which could lead to stagnation of the civil society and reduce its effectiveness in the foreseeable future. To solve this problem, the government should adopt new policies, which should involve a clearer legal regulation of the NGOs activities, the active promotion of a positive image of the civil society institutions in the media and more significant financial support for civil initiatives. An example of a successful step in this direction is the comprehensive state support of the volunteer movement: 2018 was declared “The Year of Volunteer” and a number of events for volunteers were held with the participation of the highest state officials. Such events demonstrate active citizens that the government is ready to support their activities and create more favourable conditions for their work.

Moreover, there are problems in the relations between civil society and business in Russia. Thus, the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) actively promoted in the Western democracies, which implies the involvement of corporations in different social activities, is just beginning to take root in Russia. Political scientist S. P. Peregudov believes that many representatives of the Russian business community are still convinced that domestic business, unlike the Western ones, has not yet reached the degree of maturity and independence that would allow it to join such initiatives (Peregudov, 2006). Despite some positive progress in this regard, the process of contact establishment between civil society and business in Russia is very slow. To accumulate this process the government could more actively encourage business interaction with civil society by providing tax incentives or other legal privileges to the companies adopting CSR strategies.


Thus, it can be concluded that civil society in Russia faces certain difficulties, such as a fairly high level of conflict in society, the government’s double standards approach and the unwillingness of Russian corporate sector to be actively involved in the development and promotion of civil initiatives. Despite all this, Russian institutions of civil society continue to gradually strengthen and develop and can reach the level of development of institutions in consolidated democracies in the foreseeable future, if the government adopts adequate and non-contractive policies and regulations regarding non-profit organizations and other civil society activities.


Alekseeva O. P. (2005) Analysis of the state policy in the field of assistance to civil initiatives with the description of possible scenarios of development. // Non-profit organizations in Russia. №6. (In Russ.)

Golovistikova A. N., Dmitriev Y. (2005) Problems of the theory of state and law. – Moscow: EKSMO. (In Russ.)

Peregudov S. P. (2006) Civil society as a subject of public policy. // Polis. Political research. №2. P. 139-150 (In Russ.)

Russian society and challenges of the time. Book fifth / [M. K. Gorshkov et al.] (2017); ed. M. K. Gorshkov, V. V. Petukhov. Moscow: The Whole World. (In Russ.)

Schmitter, P. C. (1996) Some propositions about civil society and the consolidation of democracy. Wien: Institut für Höhere Studien (IHS), Wien.

Treskov A. P. (2014) The development of a conceptual model of civil society in the context of the experience of Russia. Belgorod. (In Russ.)

[1] The Ministry of Justice website. URL:

[2] Civil code of the Russian Federation. Article 50.