“Think about yourself! If you die of overwork today, there will be no one to help others tomorrow!” It’s hard to recall how many times I have said this to the human rights defenders and other activists I work with over the past five years.
One year ago, our activist support hub, Open Space, launched a call centre where dozens of psychologists give free advice and support to people working or volunteering in Russian politics and civil society. Most requests for help refer to two types of trauma: encounters with the Russian police state, whether law enforcement directly or the civilian bureaucracy; or burnout and a lack of support within the country’s non-profit sector itself.
Indeed, just as the Russian state has ramped up pressure on society in recent years, so civil society has faced its own internal problems. Several scandals have erupted at non-profit organisations and liberal media outlets, some of them beginning with accusations of sexual harassment. But as details emerged, it turned out that these cases also involved exploitative labour practices, authoritarian management and unhealthy working environments.
While people entering Russia’s non-profit sector or politics generally expect to deal with threats from the state, facing toxic relationships and abuses of power within a group of colleagues – indeed, comrades – is more surprising, and leads to an even greater feeling of pressure. But what place do possible responses to this – safe spaces, self-care, personal boundaries – have in an authoritarian state like Russia, where the risks of political struggle and civic activity are so high?
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
“My employees shouldn’t have time for a bath”
I cut my teeth among Russia’s older generation of human rights defenders, people who by the age of 50 had personal graveyards of friends to match any Vietnam War veteran. They had also completely ruined their health, and any spark in their eyes and other familiar attributes of a living person were long gone. I still remember my former boss in a human rights organisation proudly talking about why his employees had showers, rather than baths installed at their apartments. “My employees should not have time for a bath,” he quipped.
I observed a whole team of bright-eyed young people who came to work in Russia’s non-profit sector in the early 1990s. Many of them burned out without seeing any return for or meaning in their work. I wanted to see healthy, beautiful, happy people around me, trying to make life better together. And so I adopted the principle of “save yourself first, then others”, with my usual enthusiasm. It was a principle that began to gain more and more weight in public discourse.
But over time, I increasingly understood the ambiguity of the situation. After all, I have never managed to do anything beautiful, strong or important in my life without pushing myself to the extreme, without overcoming my own internal voice saying “I cannot do this” and “I am scared”, without sleepless nights and, ultimately, without losing a piece of myself in the process.
It is hard to say whether demands for respect, care and consent are now commonplace in Russian civil society organisations, but it’s a fact that these demands have grown considerably in recent years
I faced this conflict of values – between self-care and self-sacrifice – sharply for the first time in August last year. In the wake of the Belarusian presidential elections, security forces brutally suppressed protesters across the country, beating, torturing and detaining thousands. On social media, a call for volunteers went out, to help Belarusian colleagues record and process interviews with those who had been tortured at the now infamous Akrestsina Street detention centre in Minsk.
One commentator described this call for volunteers as “exploiting inexperienced, innocent young people”. Over time, the questions raised by this statement increasingly began to dominate my thoughts.
A particularly heated discussion emerged over Russia’s 2019-2021 protest rallies, which have been met with mass prosecutions and police violence. I met young people who complained that they had not been warned that they could face prosecution for throwing a plastic bottle at the police during a protest. Meanwhile, Russian Facebook users were discussing whether it was right to “call people out to face the police batons”.
In the spring of 2021, at the opening of a new activist hub for Open Space in Moscow, psychologist Zara Harutyunyan told the audience that they needed to take care of themselves, and not risk their lives for other people’s political ambitions. Her statement created a very uncomfortable feeling in the room; it felt as if you could reach out and touch the wall that was dividing the audience in half. At the end of her speech, some came up to Zara and thanked her; but it seemed as if others regretted that they didn’t have any tomatoes to throw at her.
Burnout on a parched field
It is hard to say whether demands for respect, care and consent are now commonplace in Russian civil society organisations, but it’s a fact that these demands have grown considerably in recent years.
People’s attitudes towards work – including work in civil society and politics – depends on their generation. For example, a 2019 study by an international recruiting agency in Russia, Kontakt InterSearch, highlighted the growing importance of work-life balance for the younger generation. Yekaterina Shulman, a prominent Russian political scientist, often speaks about how sensitive ‘Zoomers’ are to the level of violence acceptable in society – and to the very definition of what violence is.
One gets the impression that along with a decrease in motivation to work, the erosion of ideological values and the increasing value placed on psychological comfort relative to success, the new generation is characterised by another feature: it perceives any need to push itself as violence.
Indeed, if we look at the problem exclusively in terms of generations, then we get something like the following: the older generation works 15 hours a day, sacrificing their personal life and health, getting results and then burning out completely after 20-25 years of work. But during these 20 years they are very productive and much more competitive than those who are trying to take care of themselves. However, when they burn out they leave a scorched field behind them, having created neither space nor resources for future work.
We leave work at 6pm, plan vacations and build our personal boundaries as if it were a normal job or volunteering in peacetime, and not a struggle for survival that requires every last resource you have
This picture can be observed in many civil society organisations created in the 1990s, where a leader, or a group of leaders, still sits permanently at the helm, working 20 hours a day without personal life, weekends and vacations, building essentially authoritarian structures which have no room for other people, who may be capable of working more efficiently.
At the same time, both sides make a number of claims. The older generation believes that young people do nothing, and are exclusively engaged in “finding themselves” and self-preservation. And the younger side perceives demands for results as violence. All this is aggravated by a constantly changing and extremely aggressive environment, which, firstly, deprives both sides of the chance to agree on the risks and volumes of proposed work and, secondly, requires everyone to constantly defend their personal boundaries.
Thus, we see a growing demand for transparent agreements on working hours, salaries and risks in jobs in Russian civil society organisations. However, these demands are made in a constantly changing environment, where in a single day a completely respectable public organisation can become a “foreign agent” or an “undesirable organisation”, or be liquidated, or find all its bank accounts blocked. The form, method and volume of work can change at the drop of a hat, not only because of poor planning, but also due to the absolute unpredictability of the situation we are working in.
Is caring a privilege or a necessity?
There are clearly other elements at play when it comes to issues of respect and consent. Some types of activity – like professional sport or dancing – feature few elements of self-preservation. Both are all about pushing yourself to the point of trauma and pain. Dancers stretch until they cry, bruise themselves every day, tear muscles, starve themselves and train to exhaustion.
Of course, a huge number of people who are not professional sports players or dancers find themselves stretched to their limits too. For many, poverty and circumstances make this happen. For them, self-care is the privilege of the rich, and they’ll never get to enjoy it.
Friends who work as cleaners climb out windows on the 20th floor, have to use dangerous cleaning products and, of course, work around the clock. The woman who sells fruit in a shop near my house works 12-14 hour shifts a day, with weekends off “when she can”. And the girls in the nail salon on the ground floor work 13 hours a day, five or six days a week. On their days off, they take care of their house and kids. These people are not talking about self care. They talk mainly about how to improve efficiency, get more things done, and have more time. Words like “burnout” or phrases like “work-life balance” simply do not exist for them.
From the point of view of class, it is clear that at a certain level of poverty, there are no opportunities to take care of oneself, and the question does not even arise. But for the class of Russian citizens with more resources, a tension related to the goal of self-sacrifice emerges: the idea that for the sake of some goals (for example, achievements in sport) you can push yourself to breaking point, but for the sake of other goals, you cannot.
The tension here lies in who gets to appropriate the results of the efforts: if the result or potential success belongs to the one who makes the effort, then pushing yourself is acceptable. But if the beneficiary is unclear, then the value of self-sacrifice and pushing oneself is not clear either.
When it comes to civil and political resistance, this tension about who benefits raises two main questions: “Who needs change?” and “Who will implement it?” Athletes, dancers, cleaners and the woman from the store down the road are all very unhappy with what is happening in Russia. They want change, but they don’t want to change anything. The reasons are different for everyone: fear, or a lack of understanding about how and why.
Many Russians want a comfortable, fair and safe world for themselves, and then for others. But police officers backed up with riot sticks, money and dishonest methods stand in their way. In order to at least try and overcome them, you need to put yourself into an extremely uncomfortable and unsafe environment of arbitrary detention, riot sticks and police pressure.
It seems that part of Russian civil society, as it tries to resist the growing repressions, is simultaneously trying with all its might to pretend that prisons, repressions, batons and beds in police station jails are not going to affect them directly. It looks like a desire to protect others, to express solidarity with them – all the while remaining in security and comfort, in the same way as Western liberals defend the citizens of those countries where the rule of law and respect for man has not been established.
But unlike Western European human rights defenders, we are not outside these countries, but inside them, and all this talk of “safe spaces”, “basic feelings of security” and “therapeutic conversations” create a dangerous illusion that only increases the experience of dissonance for those working in politics, human rights, civil society and media.
We pretend that we work in a safe environment: we leave work at 6pm, plan vacations and build our personal boundaries as if it were a normal job or volunteering in peacetime, and not a struggle for survival that requires every last resource you have. This contradiction saps our strength and makes our struggle barely possible.
Agents of change have always been people who either had nothing to lose or were able to save others through self-sacrifice. This self-sacrifice has another name – heroism. But heroism has become more and more difficult of late. The idea of heroic deeds is associated with the Soviet Union, and false rhetoric from the party machine.
For 70 years, the Soviet Union was built on the glorification of heroism, which was later devalued, when the true goals and ultimate beneficiaries were revealed.The Bolsheviks appropriated the feats of Russia’s popular revolutionaries and socialist revolutionaries; Stalin appropriated the heroism of those who fought in the Second World War; and in the late Soviet era, the party elite appropriated the labour exploits of Soviet workers. Russia’s revolutionaries of the 19th century were also able to “appropriate” the future result of their work, saying: “We will make the revolution happen, and although we will not be around, the victory will be ours.” However, after years of the results of our heroism being taken away from us, we have lost the ability to be heroic. Instead, today we need to see very simple results that demonstrate movement towards a goal.
After all, struggle is about overcoming pain and trauma. It is about self-sacrifice and the willingness to give of yourself for something bigger. Perhaps, as we continue to talk about respectful attitudes and boundaries, we will find the ideal formula for “conscious heroism” – heroism that is pursued with full awareness of the risks and goals, and which will not require sacrifices by others.
Get our weekly email