Civic education in Russia always was and still remains a risky business

Lena Nemirovskaya

By Lena Nemirovskaya
Director of School of Civic Education
25 April 2013

Translated from the Russian by Judy Coffin

Life often turns out unexpectedly: our dreams are left unfulfilled, our ideals unrealised. But in our seemingly hopeless striving to influence reality, somehow we uncover a more humane self, and the question “what can be done or not done?” is no longer relevant.



I personally prefer to just work – while it is still possible. I say “while” because civic education in Russia always was and still remains a risky business. We began our project in one socio-political landscape and now we find ourselves in a completely different one. We are doing much the same now as we were doing then, although probably now we understand a lot more. One thing I do know is that right from the beginning when we founded the School, the young people in our seminars have always felt comfortable.

In our School, we generate something that does not exist in the wider world, something that is scarce in Russia today. Some call it “social capital”, others call it the “public good”. We are talking here of universal human values: freedom, our individual right to live and think independently for ourselves, to have our own opinions, and to learn through argument and debate to defend our understanding of life. These are values generally not questioned either by those who come to our seminars or by our speakers, both foreign and Russian.

Perhaps the secret to the atmosphere in our seminars is precisely those topics that we discuss: if we talk about freedom of speech, or the supremacy of rights or democracy, then that is exactly what we mean: freedom of speech, the supremacy of rights or democracy. It is not a cover for any substitute ideas. Honest intellectual discussion is always infectious. I would call it sheer joy at being somewhere you can think freely. Contemporary Russian society is very compartmentalised. When young people meet in the School this isolation disappears because they willingly and openly engage with the complexities of life.

The School motto is “Civic education for a civil society” because we believe that anyone who considers themselves a citizen not just because it is written in their passport, must do three things: vote in elections, pay taxes, and think independently. They must, in other words, be an enlightened, modern person, not always an easy thing to achieve.

It is impossible to force a person to become enlightened. They must decide to do it themselves. Because of this, we start by inviting those who are already involved in community work to study at the School. They understand the importance of community and in particular know that a civil society is impossible without institutions free from the powers of a corrupt bureaucracy. I repeat, free from bureaucracy, not from the state, because if we build a strong civil society, then we will get a state based on the rule of law, something quite different from power. The state is a political union of free citizens, whereas power is only the authority we endow it with at election time, and government is the manifestation of that authority within the framework of the Constitution.

Only through this can a modern civil society emerge. Or in the words of Ernest Gellner, friend and expert of the School, writing in his book “Conditions of Freedom”: “the totality of different non-governmental institutions need to be strong enough to serve as a counterbalance to the government, allowing it to fulfil its role as peacemaker and arbiter of different interest groups, but restraining any urge it may have towards domination and the atomisation of the rest of society.”