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'Urban Movements and Local Civic Activism are the Most Flourishing and Productive Sides of Contemporary Russian Society'

Christian Frohlich has been a Research Fellow at the Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Non-Profit Sector since 2014. This year he is being fast tracked for tenure in the HSE Faculty of Social Sciences in the School of Sociology. Dr Frohlich has a DPhil in Sociology from Leipzig University, Germany. He spoke to HSE English News about his research into civic activism in Russia and about why he likes living and working in Moscow.

— You studied Sociology and Cultural Studies at the University of Leipzig and completed a one-year study abroad exchange programme at the State University, St. Petersburg. The development of Russian civil society has been the focus of your attention for a couple of years. Could you please share your ideas and findings on your project on urban social movements and local activism in Moscow?

— During my university studies and research for my PhD I was mainly interested in the more formal side of Russian civil society. I studied disability and how Russian NGOs try to enhance the life of the disabled while navigating between domestic and international opportunity structures and demands. Later I began to study urban movements in Russia and realized that this is a more informal sphere of civic activism without institutionalized organizational structures, but based on liquid, often temporary, initiative groups of people which came together spontaneously and by chance. This is especially true for Moscow, where the institutional structures of local self-management of housing are much weaker than in Russia’s regions. These people encounter one another on a very apolitical basis, because they want to solve problems in their immediate living environment. But the way city officials and bureaucrats meet their attempts to engage in urban policy quite often politicize their demands and behavior. In general, urban movements and local civic activism are the most flourishing and productive sides of contemporary Russian society. In the aftermath of the (for many people) very disappointing protests against election fraud in 2011-13, which are often considered as urban movements, and in times of limited access to policy and highly normative domestic and foreign politics, Russian citizens very actively turn to their immediate urban environment, and have been doing so for more than 20 years.

Urban movements in Russia is a more informal sphere of civic activism without institutionalized organizational structures, but based on liquid, often temporary, initiative groups of people which came together spontaneously and by chance

— What is your area of research interest now?

— I mostly continue along the lines of my previous research. I am interested in how both parts of civil society, the formal and the informal, co-exist and co-operate and how this affects the mediation function of civil society as a whole between the state and citizens´ interests. Moreover, I will engage more into both spheres, by asking, on the one hand, how alternative approaches to society by radical social movements survive in Russia despite their little success. On the other hand, I will deepen my research into NGOs by researching the professional identities of NGO leaders and how these identities are influenced by big social changes, such as Perestroika, capitalist restructuring during the 1990s or the re-nationalization and re-centralization of society since the 2000s.

— What will be the focus of your work at HSE?

— The upcoming months will be occupied mostly by writing papers and publishing my research. But I am very happy to teach again, since I missed this for a rather long time. In addition, I will be heading the international Master’s programme in Comparative Social Research, which is very exciting.

I am German, I have studied in Germany, but I have worked for the last four years for a Swedish university. Therefore, another focus will be connecting my German and Swedish colleagues with HSE. As a first step we will organize a line of German-Russian networking workshops in 2016 and 2017 in Moscow and Chemnitz in order to discuss the development of post-socialist civil societies in a comparative perspective.

The exciting part of living in Russia is probably the chance to witness and experience constant and profound change

— What do you find challenging and what excites you about living and working in Russia?

— The huge distances you have to overcome in Moscow and in Russia make your life surely more difficult than in Western Europe. And there are some cultural differences how to behave yourself in public which can make the life of a foreigner quite exhausting. To some extent, limited knowledge of Russian can also be a problem.

The exciting part of living in Russia is probably the chance to witness and experience constant and profound change. Despite all the worrying developments with new laws and restrictions of public and private space, it is still true: Nothing is impossible in Russia!

— What is attractive for a young professional expat these days in Moscow?

— In times of increasing conflicts and confrontations on the geo-political level, professional expats are an important axis for international contact and cooperation, for “keeping the door open”. Moscow as a global megapolis is very open for international dialogue, it offers expats a lot of opportunities and takes their interests seriously. In turn, expats have the chance to meet open-minded young Russian professionals and engage with them in highly fruitful discussions and projects.

On a more profane level, Moscow is, of course, a very exciting big city. As foreigner you can constantly explore and never be bored. The city offers all features of its western counterparts, but still adds a unique flavor to it.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE news service


See also:

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