Study Visit to Russia

Peace and disarmament, International solidarity - Europe North America Australia & Japan

VSI Volunteer took part in the SCI Study Tour to Russia during April last. The aim of the visit was to bring together activists from different parts of Europe, with different levels of experience, in order to discuss & exchange experience on our past cooperation and look for ways to improve the substantial quality of future cooperation on the topics of active European citizenship, human rights education, fight against racism and xenophobia, social inclusion and active role of young people in their communities.

The objectives were:

  • To evaluate recent cooperation between SCI & Russian partners and get to know the work of our partners at regional level
  • To discuss the concept of Active European Citizenship and how it can best be implemented, against the background of recent events in the Caucasus
  • To share experience, ideas & knowledge between Russian partners and SCI branches in order to develop quality standards and discuss best practice examples of each participating organization
  • To develop long-term plans of cooperation in the fields of Peace, Conflict Transformation and Human Rights
  • To strengthen the public profile of Russian International Voluntary Service NGOs
  • (Eventually) to help establish a new Network of International Voluntary Organizations in the Russian Federation
  • To improve communication and networking between participating organizations from EU and Russia

As intimidating as it seems, the Russian language has at least one simple word: volontёr. Volunteering isn't a new idea in Russia, but since the early 1990s, human rights workers across the former Soviet Union have sought to make the notion of voluntary work - which during the Soviet period was all too often a euphemism for forced labour of one kind or another - more attractive, especially to the youth of the country, by adopting a western-sounding vocabulary. For some people, particularly in remote parts of the countryside, the word volontёr is still a new one, but in other places the concept is already flourishing. Last April, I flew to Moscow to participate in the SCI study visit "Cooperation, not Confrontation," and learn more about the work of SCI's Russian partners.

The initial days of the study visit were spent in Moscow, where, in a series of discussions at the Andrei Sakharov Centre - a conference centre named after a famous Soviet dissident, which also contains a museum dedicated to the struggle for personal and political freedoms under Soviet rule - the Russian representatives explained to participants from the European branches the kind of work that their organisations do, as well as the social and political context in which this work is taking place. Against a background of sun and snow, of antique churches and immense fashion houses, of Moscow's famously crowded underground metro and the wide, tree-lined streets of the provincial towns we then visited, the contradictions of Russian life were laid bare to us.

One of the most striking things about SCI's Russian partners is the diversity of these organisations - they range from small, grassroots movements to well-established organisations with many international connections, and they are concentrated in different locations, from the Moscow metropolis to near the Mongolian border. Their work also varies, even within the individual groups, from ecological and restorative projects, to care for orphans, the homeless (including Russia's estimated 2 million street children), and the elderly, to human rights education in schools and universities, to the preservation of minority cultures - a difficult task in a federation which listed 22 national minorities in its last census, as well as noting 4 million citizens belonging to 'other' minority groups. And while every organisation promotes interculturalism, the difficulties of obtaining visas and the expense of travelling abroad mean that the reality for many Russians is volunteer activity at the local level only. Meanwhile, the low levels or even absence of foreign volunteers in some of these localities can lead to a sense of isolation from the international community.

For the time being, raising awareness of human rights issues and voluntary commitment in Russia itself is more important than attracting volunteers from abroad, and for many of the volunteers, community development is more important than opportunities to travel to other countries. In other words, charity begins at home. However, international involvement can help to promote new initiatives and motivate local volunteers. As in any situation, international exchange means the exchange of valuable skills, experiences and ideas on all sides. It also encourages mutual understanding, open-mindedness and the much-needed growth of fresh perspectives.

A major reason to strengthen ties between European SCI branches and Russian partner organisations is to dispel stereotypes and promote peace between countries at a time when Russia is frequently maligned in the European press. Many Russians, aware of their country's image abroad, are keen to explain that the majority of Russians have no wish to be involved in or indirectly associated with conflict with Georgia over the breakaway-regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, energy disputes with Ukraine, or other negative aspects of Russia's "managed democracy" - such as the deaths of journalists or internal political intrigues. For some SCI partners, not becoming involved in politics is a priority - they do not have the funds or legal expertise to support what could be deemed anti-government activity, and they prefer to focus on educating the community to be open-minded, creative, and to help each other where help is possible.

For example, Sodrujestvo is a relatively new organisation in Cheboksary (a city with a population of nearly half a million people). As part of the study visit I spent five days in Cheboksary, meeting local activists. Sodrujestvo, which has been an SCI partner for just a few years, is not an officially registered NGO, but it operates a growing network of mostly teenage volunteers whose aim is to make meaningful changes in the community through their activities - for example, running an environmental awareness campaign in the city's schools. They also have very strong links with the city's child rehabilitation centre, and so on Easter Sunday I found myself accompanying some of the local volunteers who were bringing a group of children - some as young as five - on a visit to the municipal museum, dedicated to the history of Chuvashia (the republic of which Cheboksary is the capital). The optimism and enthusiasm of the volunteers in Cheboksary was contagious.

On the other hand, Memorial is a registered NGO based in Perm (population: nearly one million) which openly criticises the Russian government, and is engaged in work with young men conscripted into the Russian army, and other people who are suffering as a result of harsh or undemocratic government policies. It also tackles issues of free speech, and part of its work is uncovering atrocities committed during the Stalinist period, rehabilitating the repressed, and deconstructing current Russian nationalism. For Alexander Kalikh, the director of the organisation and a man with a long memory for the Soviet era, it is important to meet the challenges presented by government policies head-on. However, many of the staff and members of other NGOs, who often have only dim memories of Communist rule or who may even have been born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are sceptical of a confrontational approach, and prefer to ignore local and national authorities as far as possible.

From the heavily politicised to the highly apolitical, SCI's Russian partners are all performing important work in their respective communities - which lie hundreds of kilometers apart. Sodrujestvo, Memorial, Siberian Creative Group, Sfera, World4u and Ecozapovedniki, who were the partner organisations represented in Moscow, all welcomed participants from the study visit to their local regions, and the participants returned from these trips with positive impressions and reports of strong volunteering communities committed to peace and development in all spheres of Russian life. No one doubted the capacity of these groups to welcome international volunteers, or that volunteering in Russia - long- or short-term - would be a valuable experience for anybody.

In such a vast country, co-ordinating the work of NGOs is a difficult prospect. However, in practice, such organisations are strengthened by their diversity, which reflects the complex make-up of the Russian population and is the only means to combat the range of problems endemic in Russian society. Although it is a country with a long and complicated history, in many ways Russia is also a young country with a fledgling democracy and a civil society struggling to mature in difficult conditions. Its rich culture, combined with its predominantly young population, including an enthusiastic voluntary sector, makes it an excellent destination for international volunteers. And whether or not you are planning on becoming a volontёr in Russia, remember: peace is built on cooperation, not confrontation!


Sinead Walsh, April 2009

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