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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.