With Putin in Cc: How Pe­ti­tions Are Chang­ing Rus­sia

On­line pe­ti­tions pro­vide Rus­sians with a risk-free way to protest. But can they over­turn a long tra­di­tion of ap­peal­ing to the coun­try’s leader?

The Moscow Times - - RUSSIAN TALES - By Eva Har­tog Evgeny Tonkon­ogy

It has been more than a decade, but Olga Ry­bkovskaya’s voice still goes tense when she talks about her son’s stint in hospi­tal. He was only 10 years old when he was ad­mit­ted to an in­ten­sive care unit in the Siberian city of Omsk, where the hospi­tal had im­ple­mented a strict no-vis­i­tor pol­icy. For eight days, his in­creas­ingly des­per­ate par­ents waited out­side closed doors, won­der­ing what was go­ing on with their child.

“He was fully con­scious, and couldn’t un­der­stand why his par­ents weren’t there,” says Ry­bkovskaya. Though her son re­cov­ered, the ex­pe­ri­ence scarred the fam­ily.

By law, close rel­a­tives of in­ten­sive care pa­tients have vis­i­ta­tion rights. In prac­tice, how­ever, hos­pi­tals fre­quently refuse ac­cess even in near-death sit­u­a­tions, cit­ing hy­giene or other con­cerns.

For many Rus­sians, such lo­cal in­jus­tices are part of daily life. Com­plaints tend to go ig­nored. “Mak­ing your voice heard is al­most im­pos­si­ble and our politi­cians are com­pletely out of reach,” says Ry­bkovskaya. Mean­while, tak­ing your griev­ances to the streets can be risky. In Rus­sia, at­tend­ing an un­sanc­tioned rally more than twice can land e.har­tog@ime­dia.ru, Twit­ter: @EvaHar­tog | Il­lus­tra­tion by a per­son in jail. Faced with these prospects, most peo­ple sim­ply put up their hands and say, Chto yest, to yest — it is what it is.

But technology might pro­vide a way out of the co­nun­drum. Ear­lier this year, Ry­bkovskaya launched a pe­ti­tion on Change.org, an on­line plat­form, de­mand­ing an open­door pol­icy for close rel­a­tives of in­ten­sive care pa­tients. Within weeks, it had gath­ered more than 300,000 sig­na­tures and snow­balled into a sub­ject of na­tional de­bate in the me­dia.

Hun­dreds of sig­na­to­ries shared their own per­sonal tragedies. “We took my father to the hospi­tal with a hem­or­rhage,” one per­son wrote. “The doc­tors said: only fancy hos­pi­tals let you pay your way into IC. Here, you’re like ev­ery­one else. I waited out­side on the stairs for five hours. Then a strange woman walks out and says: What’re you sit­ting here for? Your father has been dead for ages.”

The pub­lic­ity even­tu­ally re­sulted in a writ­ten re­minder from the Rus­sian Health Min­istry to hos­pi­tals to open their doors — “a vic­tory,” in the words of the young and en­thu­si­as­tic head of the Rus­sian-lan­guage ver­sion of the Change.org website, Dmitry Savy­olov.

On av­er­age one pe­ti­tion ev­ery day in Rus­sia is marked as suc­cess­ful, the sec­ond-high­est suc­cess rate world­wide, af­ter the U.S. This is “proof that it’s work­ing,” says Savy­olov. Many Rus­sians be­lieve so, too. Change.org’s head­quar­ters in San Fran­cisco said this month its Rus­sian-lan­guage site reached 10 mil­lion users — an im­pres­sive num­ber con­sid­er­ing it only came to the coun­try in 2012.

The plat­form launched its Rus­sian ver­sion for postSoviet coun­tries dur­ing a pe­riod of mass street protests against rigged elec­tions and cor­rup­tion in the Krem­lin. It was a gam­ble, says Savy­olov: Would the com­pany’s phi­los­o­phy of grass­roots civic ac­tion trans­late to Rus­sia?

“The idea that you can com­mu­ni­cate with your neigh­bors and your com­mu­nity and come up with so­lu­tions to prob­lems your­self is en­tirely new in the former Soviet Union,” he says.

Now, an av­er­age of 3,000 new pe­ti­tions are up­loaded to Change.org in Rus­sia ev­ery month on com­plaints re­gard­ing health care, an­i­mal rights, the en­vi­ron­ment, and fed­eral poli­cies, in that or­der. Some want to clean up Lake Baikal, some want to stop a lo­cal school from be­ing shut down, oth­ers protest Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment in Syria.

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