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Civil Society Comes to the Soviet Union

Samodeiatel’nye obshchestvennye organizatsii SSSR: spravochnik, chast' 1 [Amateur socio-political organizations of the USSR: a directory, part 1].

Moscow: Informatsionnyi Tsentr Moskovskogo Narodnogo Fronta, 1988. Octavo (19 × 14 cm). Original side-stapled blind card wrappers: 123 pp. Wrappers lightly soiled; some rust to staples. Internally very good or better.

This samizdat directory of “amateur socio-political organizations” published by the Moscow People’s Front is a remarkable record of the burgeoning civil society in the late Soviet period, as well as such phenomena as environmentalism and urban conservation. The Moscow People’s Front (MNF) was founded in June 1988, when members of some forty amateur organizations convened to draft a ratification document and elect a governing body. According to this document, “The objective of MNF is to aid in the democratic self-organization of the masses and to fight for socialist renewal of society, for a democratic socialism.” While the group advocated democracy, “freedom of press and speech, freedom of public protest,” as well as for “a democratic planning of the economy,” they saw this reform happening within the framework of socialism and “respect for the principles of socialism” was discussed as being of key significance. MNF further advocated for all government to be given over to “democratically elected Soviets,” for labor unions to exist outside of government control, and for ecological concerns to be taken seriously in the management of country’s natural resources. The organization held weekly protests at Pushkinskaia Square in Moscow throughout the summer of 1988 to draw attention to its goals. This directory of socio-political organizations throughout the Soviet Union was created by MNF in the same year for internal use.

The first “amateur organisations” sprang up in the Soviet Union in the 1960s during the Thaw. However, these were mostly non-political in nature (cultural, literary, scientific, or sports clubs). Emboldened by Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika (Transparency and Rebuilding) the amateur organisations took on an increasingly political bent. In 1986 a new decree, "Regulations on Amateur Associations," legalised the registration and functioning of amateur or “informal” associations in the Soviet Union. Observing this movement in 1990, Lyudmila Alekseeva wrote for the Helsinky Watch Committee: “The emergence of so many spontaneous, free associations since 1986 is working a fundamental change in Soviet life. What was for so long a grey and mute mass is now speaking out in a chorus of vigorous, dissonant voices. A society that was atomized by Stalinist terror has begun to restructure itself. […] Nicknamed by the Soviet press as neformaly, or “informals,” to distingush them from participants in officially organised and controlled bodies, these millions of historic preservationists, environmentalists, political activists, nationalists, human rights campaigners, body-builders, pacifists, sports fans, Afghan war veterans, hippies, rock-music devotees, and others are the grassroots activsts and sometimes the strategists of the new social movements” (Neformaly: Civil Society in the USSR. New York: Helsinki Watch 1990). Despite the publicaton of this report, the burgeoning of civil society in the late Soviet period was quickly forgotten. It comes to light in this directory.

The directory is organized by republic and city, and each entry gives the name of the organization, the organization’s focus and objectives, as well as a brief history of its formation, closing with contact information. Nearly 200 socialist, anarchist, nature and historical preservation organizations are listed all across the country, each ranging in size from just a dozen to hundreds of members. The primary purpose of many of the associations listed in the directory is a kind of whistleblowing. For example, the Moscow based “press-club” Glasnost defined its mission as “helping the individuals whose rights are being trampled by local authorities. […] The aid is provided by publishing their story in the eponymous journal printed and distributed by the organization.” Demokraticheskii Soiuz (Democratic Union) defined its mission as “opposition to totalitarianism” by organizing events and protests “promoting pluralism.” Another Moscow based organization “Narodnyi arkhiv” (People’s Archive) was actively compiling an archive of all manner of Samizdat (self-published) materials. The Leningrad based Demokratizatsiia profsoiuzov (Democratization of Worker’s Unions) advocated “the creation of worker’s unions that would be independent from the state.” Arkhangelsk based “Ekologiia severa” (Ecology of the north) is one of many environmental organizations listed in the directory. The volume closes with organizations with a nationwide presence such as “Memorial,” а group for the “preservation of memory of victims of Stalinism” and “providing aid to the victims of Stalinism” headed by the Soviet scientist and dissident activist Andrei Sakharov. Together, the organizations in the directory provide a broad overview of the social concerns of Soviet citizens as well as the mechanisms that were available for their organizing. The volume is a remarkable time capsule of the burgeoning civil society in the last years of the Soviet state. Many of the organizations went on to achieve significant results, often on the regional level, and some of their initiators were to be elected to political positions. KVK, OCLC show various copies of the first part, suggesting that no further issues were published. Scarce in the trade.

Book ID: P6161

Price: $450.00