Rus­sia’s ris­ing vol­un­teerism seen as threat


itomlya, rus­sia – A coun­try doc­tor, a tiny, di­lap­i­dated vil­lage hospi­tal, an in­dif­fer­ent health bu­reau­cracy — and now, coming to the res­cue, vol­un­teers from dis­tant Moscow, bring­ing fur­ni­ture, equip­ment, money and, maybe most im­por­tant, good cheer.

In the back­ground, though, is the par­lia­ment — weigh­ing a law to bring any vol­un­teer ac­tiv­ity un­der the purview of the state, on the the­ory that peo­ple who or­ga­nize them­selves to do good work are a threat to the state’s power.

The past year or so has seen an up­welling of a trend un­prece­dented in Rus­sia — peo­ple get­ting to­gether on their own to help oth­ers in need. Per­sonal ini­tia­tive, al­ways sus­pect here, is sud­denly tak­ing off. Drivers de­liver medicine to shut-ins. Women cook meals for hos­pi­tals. Vol­un­teers use rubles and ham­mers to ren­o­vate shel­ters for bat­tered women, teenage or­phans and aban­doned pets.

And here in Itomlya, a de­cay­ing farm vil­lage a five-hour drive west of Moscow, a group of young men led by Dmitry Aleshkovsky, a former news pho­tog­ra­pher, is try­ing to help save a 15-bed hospi­tal.

“If I can help, it will show peo­ple they

can help, too — that it’s time to stop sit­ting around and do­ing noth­ing,” he said. “I put my lit­tle brick in the wall.”

The rapid emer­gence of vol­un­teer ef­forts, fu­eled in large part by so­cial me­dia, co­in­cides with the erup­tion of pub­lic po­lit­i­cal protest — and that’s not by hap­pen­stance. There is an over­lap be­tween the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion and those who have be­come fed up with a cor­rupt government that de­liv­ers lit­tle and who have de­cided to take mat­ters into their own hands.

Leg­is­la­tion to reg­u­late vol­un­teers has been in­tro­duced in the State Duma, or lower house of par­lia­ment, by Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s United Rus­sia party. Back­ers say it will en­sure that vol­un­teer ac­tiv­ity con­forms to the government’s pri­or­i­ties and doesn’t con­flict with Krem­lin pol­icy.

Of­fi­cials aren’t the only ones hos­tile to vol­un­teerism. Rus­sia’s Soviet past, when the government con­trolled all as­pects of life, has left it with a pop­u­la­tion that is ac­cus­tomed to the idea that the government should pro­vide for its ci­ti­zens and that is sus­pi­cious of vol­un­teer or­ga­ni­za­tions. A 2012 poll found that more than half the pop­u­la­tion dis­ap­proves of them, said Boris Du­bin, a so­ci­ol­o­gist with the Le­vada Cen­ter in Moscow.

The leg­is­la­tion re­flects “an ab­so­lute lack of un­der­stand­ing of the whole na­ture of the so­cial phe­nom­e­non,” said Yevgeny Grekov, who helps run a drivers group called Vol­un­teers on Wheels. It’s a Face­book com­mu­nity where peo­ple with needs and drivers who want to help can find one an­other.

“They want vol­un­teers to be walking in col­umns and sup­port the au­thor­i­ties,” Grekov said. “But pro­grams such as ours have no lists. If you want to help, well, help.”

The drivers help all kinds of peo­ple. Say a group has gath­ered toys and equip­ment for an or­phan­age but has no trans­porta­tion. Vol­un­teers de­liver the items.

Pe­ri­od­i­cally, some­one will drive a doc­tor to Kaluga, three hours south of Moscow, to see a pa­tient who re­quires a spe­cial­ist’s at­ten­tion. A babushka has to come to Moscow for surgery: They’ll pick her up at the air­port or train sta­tion. Ac­tors need scenery trans- ported for a char­ity per­for­mance.

“This is our the­ory of small deeds,” Grekov said. “I’m really in love with this project. It’s pure hu­man en­ergy.”

A vol­un­teer group called Tugeza, which is an ap­prox­i­ma­tion in Rus­sian of the English word “to­gether,” has grown in two years to in­clude 3,000 mem­bers on Face­book. Ok­sana Prikhodko first got in­volved in vol­un­teer work with cys­tic fi­bro­sis pa­tients, be­cause her daugh­ter has the disease. She found she liked help­ing peo­ple so much that she has moved on to other causes.

She has worked on a sup­port group for a teenage shel­ter in Pskov, nearly 500 miles from Moscow. And, most Fri­day evenings, she gets to­gether with a dozen or so other women and cooks hearty meals for a chil­dren’s hospi­tal — which Vol­un­teers on Wheels de­liver.

“We’re peo­ple who love cook­ing,” she said. “We want to do this. So we do — to­gether.”

There’s a ten­sion, though, that won’t go away. “Why should we do the state’s job for it?” Prikhodko asked. “On the other hand, why should our chil­dren suf­fer? It’s a con­stant de­bate, and we’re al­ways on the edge.” ‘A light in the dark­ness’

Aleshkovsky, the former news pho­tog­ra­pher, heard about the hospi­tal in Itomlya from friends of friends. The Health Min­istry plans to down­grade it to a re­cov­ery cen- ter, where no treat­ment could be of­fered. The hospi­tal serves a district of 112 vil­lages, or about 3,000 res­i­dents. The next-near­est hospi­tal is 30 miles away, in the city of Rzhev. A bus goes there — on Satur­days and Sun­days.

Sergei Vish­nyakov, 55, has been the sole doc­tor in Itomlya since 1981, when he was as­signed there fresh out of med­i­cal school. Although the hospi­tal has an an­nual bud­get of about $25,000, which in­cludes his salary, Vish­nyakov has come to love his work. He knows all the fam­i­lies in Itomlya and sup­ple­ments his pay with home-grown pota­toes, pick­les and about 20 chick­ens.

The hospi­tal was set up in Soviet times to serve the huge col­lec­tive farm that in­cluded Itomlya and the sur­round­ing district. Work­ers grew flax here, but the farm has closed, the fields now full of saplings. Most of the men who haven’t taken up il­le­gal log­ging have drifted to Moscow in search of work.

Me­chan­i­cal ac­ci­dents used to be a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to Vish­nyakov’s work­load. Now it’s al­co­holism and the in­fir­mi­ties of age.

“This hospi­tal is like a light in the dark­ness for us,” said Alexan­dra Tikhomirova, 72, who had been ad­mit­ted with dizzi­ness three days ear­lier and was stay­ing on in a cramped ward be­cause a re­cent snowfall had made it too hard for her to re­turn home.

“I can’t leave my pa­tients,” Vish­nyakov said. “I know all of them. They’re like my fam­ily.”

Aleshkovsky, 27, ar­rived lead­ing a group of vol­un­teers who brought a van­load of do­nated fur­ni­ture from Moscow.

“Thank God we now have such young peo­ple in Rus­sia,” the doc­tor said. “I think they will be able to stir the so­ci­ety and make the au­thor­i­ties lis­ten to them.” A deep lack of trust

The au­thor­i­ties have been clear about their hos­til­ity to­ward vol­un­teer work. In 2010, af­ter deep cuts in the for­est ser­vice, vol­un­teers tried to help put out peat fires that sent chok­ing smoke through­out much of Euro­pean Rus­sia. Po­lice stopped them, some vol­un­teers re­ported on so­cial me­dia, de­mand­ing bribes to let them through.

A group called Liza Alert was or­ga­nized to con­duct vol­un­teer searches for miss­ing peo­ple when it be­came clear that the po­lice weren’t in­ter­ested in do­ing so. Af­ter more than a year of try­ing, the group’s lead­ers have won grudg­ing in­dif­fer­ence from the po­lice, and some­times co­op­er­a­tion, said Irina Voro­bieva, one of the or­ga­niz­ers, a change from the out­right in­ter­fer­ence they faced at first.

This month, in the town of Do- mode­dovo, just out­side Moscow, po­lice raided a group house for home­less peo­ple that had been set up by wor­shipers at St. Damian’s church in Moscow. “We’re not go­ing to have you in our com­mu­nity,” project leader Emil Sosin­sky said he was told by one of the of­fi­cers.

Res­i­dents, who must work as con­struc­tion la­bor­ers or floor-wash­ers, con­trib­ute money to­ward the house’s up­keep. Sosin­sky said he thinks au­thor­i­ties po­lice are try­ing to build a case to charge him with run­ning an il­le­gal busi­ness. Home­less peo­ple, he said, make a tempt­ing tar­get for a crack­down.

Vol­un­teer or­ga­niz­ers said most of the re­sis­tance they en­counter from of­fi­cials is more sub­tle than that, in the form of bu­reau­cratic de­lays or sim­ple lack of co­op­er­a­tion. But it’s im­pos­si­ble to quan­tify. For one thing, many vol­un­teer groups, like Grekov’s, make a point of not for­mally or­ga­niz­ing so they can avoid le­gal com­pli­ca­tions. That makes it less likely that they would report ob­struc­tion­ism — even if there were some per­son or agency to report it to.

Aleshkovsky, who has been help­ing half a dozen other wor­thy causes through a Web­site he set up, said it’s likely the Duma will pass the law on vol­un­teers. So he has been lob­by­ing to water down some of its harsh­est features. That leaves him open to crit­i­cism from the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion, which is against the bill.

“I can­not be choos­ing sides,” he said. “I will sit down with the devil to keep this hospi­tal. Look, we’re in the abyss. But to get out, we’ll have to build a stair­case. Protest­ing against Putin is not enough. Peo­ple should do some­thing, not just against Putin, but for them­selves.”

Grekov, of the drivers group, said Rus­sia suf­fers from a lack of trust among its peo­ple. It can’t have a real civil so­ci­ety with­out such trust, he said, and it can’t have true democ­racy with­out civil so­ci­ety .

He de­scribed his pro­gram as a model of civic be­hav­ior that he hopes will be in­struc­tive.

“It is sad for us, be­cause we know we could be a thou­sand times bet­ter than we are,” he said. “But we are bet­ter than we were yes­ter­day. The speed is slow.”


ABOVE: Sergei Vish­nyakov has been the sole doc­tor in Itomlya since 1981. His hospi­tal serves a ru­ral district of about 3,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing Alexan­dra Tikhomirova, 72. BE­LOW: Dmitry Aleshkovsky car­ries a do­nated cab­i­net into the hospi­tal, which is set to be­come a re­cov­ery cen­ter.


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