Reimagining the role of civil society in transitional justice processes relating to soviet repressions in Russia

  • Selbi Durdiyeva

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The topic of civil society’s involvement in transitional justice (TJ) processes has received much praise in the academic literature. However, TJ scholarship on civil society tends to assume that civil society is represented by institutionalised non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and especially those which play a positive role in supporting TJ. TJ scholarship has given insufficient attention to key issues such as the definition of civil society, the types and structure of civil society, and the full scope of civil society’s involvement in TJ. Analysis of these factors is essential for a fuller understanding of such a prominent but neglected actor in TJ.

Russia is an illustrative case of when civil society is not confined to a narrow and traditional understanding of the term. Civil society’s engagement in TJ in Russia was not limited to institutionalised NGOs or to groups that played a positive role in promoting TJ, and the functions of civil society were not limited to helping the official measures. Analysing civil society’s role is essential given that the official TJ measures in Russia were limited due to the state’s reluctance to deal constructively with the past.

This thesis tackles the assumptions that the role of civil society in TJ is limited to that of assisting the state and the assumption that civil society plays a constructive role only in promoting TJ, while the cases examined demonstrate that it is more complex than that.

The thesis assesses three different types of civil society each with a diverse set of functions with respect to TJ – (1) a prominent NGO, International Memorial, which was the main actor behind truth-telling, memorialisation and reparations in Russia; (2) the centre at the mass burial and former execution site Butovo, which is administered by a parish of the Orthodox Church of Russia; and (3) an unregistered group, called Russian Spirit, from a provincial town. Thus, the work draws on three civil society groups that differ in their scope and nature, all
involved in different ways with TJ, which in turn can help explain inductively what happens when TJ is run ‘from below.’

This research aims to understand the potential of, and obstacles, facing civil society in TJ processes, when civil society took control of TJ measures, in the absence of action (or even in the face of hostility) coming from the state. The research examines the diverse set of roles and functions that civil society engagement in TJ can take.

The methodology is based on desk-based research and on an extensive review of TJ literature and civil society theory, the examination of the available documents that address the Soviet repressions in Russia, the analysis of publicly available material concerning the studied civil society groups, and semi-structured interviews with a diverse set of representatives of two civil society groups (Memorial and Butovo).

The analysis of the three different civil society groups, namely, a dissident type NGO, a religious group, and nationalistic groups, demonstrated that there is no prescribed way to engage with TJ measures. Each group relied on their own understanding of what justice entails, which resulted in different approaches to TJ. The thesis illustrated how civil society persisted and, in some instances, even thrived, despite societal amnesia, propaganda from the state, attacks from other civil society groups, and the incongruence of state approaches to the past. The analysis of the role of civil society went beyond examining the functions civil society performs when aiding the state to operate within the TJ framework. Rather, the thesis considered civil society as capable of engaging with TJ independently from the state and, where necessary, altering the TJ framework based on civil society’s needs and capacities. The approaches undertaken by civil society groups, as well as their creative ways to tackle obstacles and respond to the demand coming from the various groups of the population, could serve as useful explanations of what is to be achieved through civil society’s engagement in TJ. The thesis has also demonstrated a flipside of civil society’s engagement, arguing that civil society can also use the TJ agenda for self-serving purposes, adopt exclusionary approaches to victimhood, and can both hinder and obstruct TJ processes. The contribution of the thesis is thus intrinsic both to the case of Russia’s TJ and to TJ in general.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorRory O'Connell (Supervisor) & Thomas Hansen (Supervisor)


  • Transitional justice
  • Civil society
  • Transition from the Soviet Union
  • USSR

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