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Activists for Civil Society In Russia Fade Into Woodwork of Daily Life

THE images of Russia's infant democracy in 1991 are still vivid here: a head-scarved babushka feeding a soldier who had turned against the Communists; punks waving the Russian tricolor flag against the night sky; and President Boris Yeltsin rallying his backers from the top of a tank.

These days, democratic leaders are hard pressed to find the grass-roots support they enjoyed in the early days of Mr. Yeltsin's regime. A little more than 12 percent of Russians have any wish to belong to a political movement, a drop from nearly 30 percent five years ago, according to Prof. German Diligensky of Moscow's Institute of World Economics and International Relations.

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But considering that the Russian justice ministry has registered 50,000 nongovern-mental organizations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would seem unlikely that democrats have retreated en-tirely. Russia's grass roots ''just moved over from demonstrations and flag waving into everyday life,'' says Maria Slobodskaya, who heads Moscow's inde-pendent Center for Civil Society. Instead, activists now can be found behind desks and working fax machines in makeshift offices throughout the country, she says.

One such person, Ella Polyakova, heads the group ''Soldiers' Mothers,'' which defends the rights of young conscripts. She founded it in 1991 to fight dedovshchina, the hazing of newly drafted soldiers, which human rights groups say is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of young men.

Soldiers' Mothers is suing the Russian ministry of defense for violating conscription laws, and she offers families of draft-age boys copies of the laws themselves, which she rolls out on a donated photocopier.

''We want to teach [families] not to fear power,'' says Ms. Polyakova. ''We arm [them] with knowledge, skills, and love for the law.'' Still, empowering people to challenge authority is difficult. ''For 70 years they drove us away from the courts. People are used to thinking the law is useless,'' she says.

Grass-roots organizations in Russia face the same problem as their counterparts in the West - lack of money. But this constraint is especially acute here, says Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, because the key forces behind the 1991 democratic movement - such as intellectuals and urban workers - have borne the brunt of economic reform.

Even well-known organiza-tions like Amnesty International have trouble drawing volunteers, and many small-scale groups have found it nearly impossible. Local groups also can be ''very small and isolated,'' says Nina Belyayeva, head of Interlegal, a legal research foundation in Moscow.

''We had been serving Communism so long, the Great Goal. Now there are no all-Russian organizations,'' she says.

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Many democratic activists worry that the popular momen-tum in favor of democracy may have been lost. They are anxious about coming parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections next June.

But Interlegal and other groups are working on a project that Ms. Belyayeva says could be a litmus test for Russian democracy: election monitoring.

''I believe the electoral process might become a catalyst for unifying organizations into some sort of public role,'' she says.

The nuts and bolts of democracy are still a mystery to many Russians - even people like Svetlana Zhukova, a student union organizer from St. Petersburg. She and other activists agree that bringing Russians into the electoral process will require a massive effort by Russians and Westerners alike.

Ms. Zhukova recently attended a training session presented by the League of Women Voters of the United States and found that the sort of things taught in American high school civics classes can be a revelation to Russians.

''The American government is under constant citizen observation. We are just beginning to understand that we can ask where our taxes go,'' says Zhukova.

''But that is the way out of our situation.''

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