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Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research

Laboratorium is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal produced by an international group of scholars. The bilingual journal, which comes out three times a year, publishes materials based on empirical social research in Russian and English languages.

The journal is published with the financial support of the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR), an independent nonprofit organization.*

Current Issue

NGOs under State Regulation: Strengths and Weaknesses of the Russian Civil Society

Elena Bogdanova

The publication of this issue was provoked by the international conference “‘Between the Carrot and the Stick’: Emerging Needs and Forms for Non-State Actors including NGOs and Informal Organizations in Contemporary Russia,” organized by the Centre for Independent Social Research in collaboration with colleagues from the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki on January 28–29, 2016. It was a moment when it became impossible to avoid talking about the problem of NGOs in Russia, especially for the Centre for Independent Social Research. For many years the theme of civil society and nonstate initiatives was one of the central issues of the CISR agenda. In addition, in 2014 the Centre itself went through numerous inspections and was acutely worried about the newly acquired status of a “foreign agent.” Changes in legislation regarding NGOs during the early 2000s have become a catalyst for a new wave of discussion about the relationship between state and nonstate actors, ways to understand civil society and trends in its development, and freedom and democracy in general. In the history of the development of NGOs in Russia, one period had ended and another began. The crossing of this Rubicon demonstrated eloquently a need to understand of the experience of the first post-Soviet decades, the history of successes and defeats of Russian NGOs and other nonstate initiatives. For the CISR, the conference was simultaneously a response to repression, a defensive reaction, and an invitation to colleagues to discuss the existence of NGOs and civil society in Russia from a new perspective.


Strategies of Environmental NGOs in the Context of the Law on Foreign Agents: Games with Formality

Svetlana Tulaeva, Maria Tysiachniouk, Laura Henry

This article analyzes how the law on foreign agents has been interpreted and implemented by the Russian authorities and examines NGOs’ diverse strategies of adaptation in response to the foreign agent label. We offer a typology of NGO responses to the law, illustrating how NGOs adjust to this new organizational environment. We have identified four major strategies among environmental NGOs designated as foreign agents. First, an NGO may attempt to follow the law formally, often returning foreign funding. Second, an NGO may simulate formal compliance, using informal practices to bypass the law and continue its work. Third, an NGO may adopt an exit strategy by abandoning its legal registration to operate informally. Fourth, an NGO can operate from abroad, using access to international institutions. The choice of strategy depends on the available resources, the level of involvement in international networks, the specialization of NGOs, and the configuration of forces at the regional level. Pressures from the new national laws have led NGOs to embrace informality over formal structures and rules. Informal strategies include receiving only in-kind support from abroad, not registering the organization, using nonregistered associations of NGOs to make public statements, or sharing resources between a registered NGO and a nonregistered NGO if one is in jeopardy of being declared a foreign agent. Thus, the foreign agent law can stimulate the paradoxical situation in which the state’s efforts to formalize its relationship to NGOs results the deinstitutionalization of the NGO sector, as groups increasingly use informal strategies to achieve their goals. The study is based on a combination of qualitative methods. We collected 19 interviews with experts from NGOs dealing with environmental protection. We also analyzed websites of environmental NGOs and mass-media publications concerning the problem of foreign agents. All collected materials were transcribed and analyzed using thematic and axial coding. Data triangulation was carried out by correlating information from different sources.


Russian Pension Reform: Why So Little Engagement from Below?

Aadne Aasland, Linda Cook, Daria Prisyazhnyuk

This article analyzes influences on the post-2012 Russian pension reform, focusing on influences “from below.” We identify four main controversial issues related to pension reform: changes in individual accumulative accounts, financing of the system, age of pension eligibility, and indexation of pensions to compensate for inflation. The article uses an analytical framework for understanding welfare reforms developed by Tone Fløtten that we employ to identify four sets of influences on Russian pension reform: from above (high-level decision makers), inside (state bureaucracy and professionals), outside (international organizations and policy learning), and below (civil society and public opinion). We argue that the reform has been driven by elites from above and inside who have largely protected the interests of current and near-term pensioners. Costs have been imposed mainly on current workers and future pensioners. The core of the article focuses on influence from below and presents data from public opinion polls about pension reform, the positions and influence of pensioners’ and other societal organizations, and the near absence of protest. We argue that maintenance of current pensioners’ incomes, deferral of costs into the distant future, and the complex and often obscure nature of the reforms account for the lack of pushback from below. While Russian civil society remains weak, citizens have protested loss of social rights in other arenas. Our article explains the lack of societal engagement or protest in response to this major reform. The article is based on analysis of newspaper articles, civil society organizations’ webpages, and academic and policy documents in Russian and English. The document analysis has been supplemented with 12 semistructured interviews with a range of pension reform experts.


Policy Implementation and Initiatives in Russia: A Local Perspective

Ann-Mari Sätre, Leo Holger Granberg

This article discusses the role of local initiatives in policy implementation in Russia. The question of the relationship between state and civic organizations in Russia is complex and problematic. On the local level, state programs and private charity funds offer some financing for local projects, realizing local initiatives. Such projects are often consequences of civic activity and would benefit from vital and well-functioning NGOs, which are rare in present-day Russia. This article introduces the main political instruments for local development and describes the experiences of local initiatives, understanding them as features of an emerging civil society in Russia. It also describes the relation between state and local activity, posing the question: what type of democracy do these local experiences indicate? A “project approach” on the local level can be thought of as an attempt by the Russian power hierarchy to solve local societal problems by combining hierarchic decision making and people’s participation. It leads Russian leaders to the complicated dilemma of supporting active participation while needing to maintain control over it at the same time—in spite of that control’s negative effects on local initiatives and innovation. For local citizens it creates another dilemma: they must adapt their individual agency to the social landscape of support and punishment. Finally, the article revisits James G. March and Johan P. Olsen’s two models of democracy—the “aggregative pattern” and the “integrative pattern.” The Russian political practice seems to attempt to adopt limited versions of both models at the same time, even if not in their purest form. The first model, the aggregative pattern, is adopted on the macro level with a strong authoritative element blended within interest mediation, and the integrative pattern is adopted at the local level combined with the construction of controlling mechanisms.


Socially Oriented NGOs and Local Communities in a Russian Region: Ways to Build Up Their Relationship

Nina Ivashinenko, Alla Varyzgina

This article concerns the issue of interactions between socially oriented nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and families with socially disadvantaged children whom such organizations are seeking to help. In the Russian regions, especially in rural areas, the employment of modern concepts in the investigation of NGOs as driving forces and results of social activities of the population revealed that these organizations often function quite separately from the community and maintain close links to government social services providers. We analyzed a wide range of factors that could decrease the gap between NGOs and the population. To investigate this issue, we used the results from several international research projects conducted by an international team in Nizhniy Novgorod Oblast in 2010–2015. Nizhniy Novgorod Oblast can be viewed as an average Russian region in terms of social and economic development. In our research, we invited leaders of NGOs—mainly those providing support to families—from several districts of the region and local families already in contact with NGOs. We also invited those who could potentially be interested in this cooperation, such as families with many children, families in difficult situations, and foster families. Based on our findings, we argue that relationships between NGOs and families depend on contributions from both sides. On the one hand, these relationships are shaped by the internal situations of NGOs, including the specifics of their creation, their ways of cooperation with state organizations, their funding sources, and the types of services they provide. On the other hand, the level of trust, the attitudes of people towards NGOs, the experience of engagement with particular NGOs, and the development of social networking within local communities also create some barriers and opportunities for cooperation between people and NGO s. Investigation of the mutual links between NGOs and different social groups can be helpful for understanding the development of the third sector in Russia as a whole and might provide valuable insights for NGO activists who would like to improve their activities.


The “Axial Age” of Cultural Studies: A Discussion on Cultural Populism

Boris Stepanov

This review essay examines debates on cultural populism among English-speaking cultural theorists in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s. These debates were inspired by the development of the studies of popular culture and had a significant influence on the transformation of the landscape of cultural studies in the context of their academic and public expansion. The essay analyzes, firstly, the historical conjuncture of the discussion and examines different points of view on cultural studies as a critical theory and research project. Secondly, it points out the significance of this discussion for the interpretation of the present state and perspectives of cultural studies, including such new areas as fan studies, new media studies, and the like.