Are Russians exiting the Soviet eclipse?

For the past four years, Oksana Dubinina has been working with stray animals, particularly the estimated 30,000 homeless dogs who roam the streets of Moscow.

She’s put together a group of a few dozen volunteers, who manage to get by on crowdfunding, with which they provide shelter, training, and veterinary services for about 40 dogs annually. They have forged ties with local orphanages, schools, hospices, and nursing homes, and bring dogs to foster mutual comfort and companionship. Sometimes, a dog finds a permanent placement. Ms. Dubinina calls the project “Friend for a Friend.”

This may sound unremarkable. But in Russia, where taking any kind of grassroots initiative is a whole new thing, it is a significant accomplishment.

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Statistics show, and activists affirm, that people in their local communities are increasingly identifying problems and appointing themselves to address them – something virtually unheard of in the past. That includes raising funds and forming constructive relationships with local institutions.

To be sure, authorities in many places remain suspicious and unwelcoming of even the most apolitical activities. And the Kremlin has cracked down hard on politically active nongovernmental groups that receive foreign funding. But it also appears to be taking note of the new civic activism and creating fresh sources of funding, even for some of those it previously branded “foreign agents.”

“I am glad to say that there is a new generation emerging,” says Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a legendary Soviet-era dissident and human rights champion. She cites 19th-century writer Alexander Herzen, who argued that in order to become a free country, Russia would need at least two “un-whipped” generations. “This is the first one like that since the collapse of the USSR. In that sense, we are halfway along in our journey,” she says.

A WHOLE NEW SPHERE

The Kremlin’s war on foreign-funded groups that engage in what it deems to be political activity continues apace. About 160 NGOs remain trapped on the toxic “foreign agent” list, which makes it almost impossible to raise money or interact with the public, and 30 of them have been driven out of existence. The affected groups are disproportionately in politically sensitive fields like election monitoring, human rights, democracy activism, and environmentalism.

That picture remains dire. But Yelena Topoleva-Soldunova, head of…

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