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The difficulties of democratic transition in Russia, as compared to Latin America, are often explained with reference to the weakness of civil society. This article tries to explain why non-governmental organizations have not been able to institutionalize the principle of government accountability, and why civil society has not become an effective political opposition. Focusing on the human rights movement, the paper shows that the creation of NGOs in the late 1980s was based on ties of friendship and personal trust that implied a rejection of overt political engagement. The movement had some initial successes because it had supporters in the Duma and other political institutions. Yet when the Putin administration began to curtail NGO activities and replace civil society with state-ordained patriotism, it was too late for civic activists to return to politics in order to resist authoritarian tendencies. Human rights activists now find themselves in a situation reminiscent of Soviet dissidents, who rejected any cooperation with the Communist Party. In English, extensive summary in Russian.