On the good side. In modern Russia
At first glance, Putin’s Russia might give one an erroneous impression that the majority of active citizens have already left the country, and those who stayed behind are all packed and ready to go anywhere at a moment’s notice.
However, this is not true. Despite overwhelming pressure, many genuine citizens keep trying to do something useful for their country.
For instance, Alexei Navalny, a blogger and head of the Anticorruption Foundation, has been promoting the idea of anticorruption investigations. He demonstrated by personal example that any Russian citizen can control officials and legislators through the use of simple procedures and basic skills. This is why volunteers have taken such a liking to the state procurement (government purchases) website.
The practice of election observation—that is, the struggle for the key right to the freedom of choice—was brought into fashion by Alexandra Krylenkova’s St. Petersburg Observers. Activists from this movement virtually went through the school of life by first memorizing laws and becoming familiar with corrupt and unfair practices often used by chairmen of election commissions, after which they were thrown to the wolves, that is, sent to polling places.
The May 6 Committee, created to support people arrested and later convicted for their involvement in the so-called riots that took place on May 6, 2012 on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow (when in fact it was a large-scale peaceful demonstration against the aforementioned election fraud at polling places) showed the opposition’s willingness and capability to defend its fellow citizens. Civic activists provide moral, legal, and informational support to those opposed to the regime and its practices. RosUznik (Russian Prisoner,) a nonprofit organization offering support and assistance to people detained during civic and political protests, is involved in similar activities. This organization’s website can be used, for instance, to send messages of encouragement to political prisoners.
All in all, projects directed at providing help to prisoners are in high demand in Russia because Russian citizens, who are already very often subjected to abuse by the authorities, become completely deprived of any rights behind bars. And this is not only a question of politics.
The MediaZona (Media Penal Colony) website, for instance, covers the cases of human rights abuse in Russian prisons. This site was launched by a nongovernmental human rights organization, Zona Prava (Justice Zone,) founded by members of the notorious punk group Pussy Riot immediately following their release after a prison sentence for their performance of an anti-Putin “punk prayer.” Olga Romanova, a renowned Russian journalist, and her civil rights movement Rus Sidyaschaya (Russia Behind Bars,) whose goal is to provide support to many wrongfully convicted people in Russia, are involved in similar activities.
Maria Berezina, founder of the Russian Ebola project, works closely with MediaZona. The 26-year-old Maria was the first human rights activist in Russia to gather statistics from public sources relating to deaths in police custody, pretrial detention, and police cars. The young woman admits that doing this kind of work is morally difficult, since behind each death, there is a real person, who had a family and friends. She says, however, that such monitoring is vitally important, because in order to treat a disease, one first has to make a correct diagnosis.
As for humanitarian projects, media resources are being created to promote charity work. Such projects include, for instance, the Takie Dela (So It Goes) website, which is an online resource of the Nuzhna Pomosch (Help Needed) charity foundation established by well-known photographer and volunteer Mitya Aleshkovsky.
“We focus on people and their lives in the midst of events. Our project promotes the idea of mutual aid and self-organization. We develop the projects of charity foundations throughout the country by raising awareness and seeking public financing for these initiatives,” is how the creators of Takie Dela describe their information resource. Journalist Andrei Loshak is chief editor of the Takie Dela online outlet.
It has to be said that charity in Russia is rather poorly developed. According to the World Giving Index produced by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF,) Russia ranks 129th on the list of 145 countries surveyed.
However, this fact did not deter activists from the St. Petersburg organization Nochlezhka (Flophouse) that helps the homeless from unfolding truly large-scale activities with the help of Yulia Titova, owner of a chain of charity shops Spasibo! (Thank you!)
“The main common task of charity shops is to turn good but unwanted items into a useful resource for other people,” Titova explains. “Charity shops in different countries have similar purposes but slightly different routines. The work of the Spasibo! chain is organized as follows: City residents bring in unwanted items in perfect condition. These items are then sorted. Ninety percent go to various charitable organizations and are distributed among those in need, and 10 percent go to Spasibo! stores, where these items are later sold. The money left over after all expenses have been met is then donated to charity. Unusable clothing items are recycled.”
As for Nochlezhka itself, this project is quite unique for Russia, if only because activists come up with all sorts of outside-the-box solutions in order to involve as many people as they can in their activities. It is considered proper among Russian Facebook users to support at least one of their initiatives. For example, on a particular day, people are invited to get a cup of coffee in cafes and restaurants participating in the Express-Help event launched by Nochlezhka. All proceeds from selling coffee that day are later transferred into the organization’s account. In late 2014, renowned Russian rock-musicians, including Yuri Shevchuk, Maxim Pokrovsky, and Sergei Shnurov recorded a cover version of a Russian folk song Oy, Moroz, Moroz calling on their fans not to be indifferent but to help people who “have no home and no one to wait for them.” Nochlezhka provides those in need with food, warming centers, and shelters.
Liza Alert, a nonprofit search-and-rescue volunteer organization, is yet another project pursuing a humanitarian purpose. This volunteer group that dedicates itself to preventing child deaths was founded by ordinary Muscovites. Liza Alert was launched in 2010, when volunteers—just ordinary Moscow residents at the time—failed to find in time the 5-year-old Liza Fomkina, who had gotten lost in the woods. The group’s founders admit that had they been better coordinated and begun the search earlier, they could have possibly saved the child.
Yet another volunteer-based NGO operating in Russia’s second-largest city, Deti Peterburga (Children of St. Petersburg,) is worth mentioning when speaking about children-oriented nonprofit organizations. It offers assistance to the children of immigrants, for example, by providing free Russian-language education. “All our lessons and activities are free for children of any nationality and social status,” the Deti Peterburga website emphasizes.
Some liberal activists, disenchanted with politics and trying to focus on smaller-scale goals, are now teaching at the Deti Peterburga school. Sisters Katya and Yulia Alimov are playing a leading role in the organization. The young women devote all of their free time to children because all St. Petersburg residents “should communicate and find common ground.”
Lessons take place in libraries. Children were almost thrown out of a library once because its director turned out to be a racist who believed that people should “take care of their own children—not burden everyone with somebody else’s.” Activists retorted that you cannot divide kids into “ours and somebody else’s.”
The staff of the educational and social habilitation center Anton Tut Ryadom (Anton is Right Here) helps adults with autism to socialize. The idea of this foundation belongs to renowned Russian film director Lyubov Arkus, who noticed that society is trying to wall off people with special needs. However, contact could probably be established, if people with autism received appropriate training and assistance in finding the right job, and if society were better educated about autism. Many Russian show business and movie stars, such as Danila Kozlovsky, one of the most popular Russian actors, support the organization. However, Russian businessmen have not been showing much enthusiasm in supporting Anton Tut Ryadom, because people with autism cannot be cured, and thus there is “no point in getting involved.”
The founders of Otkrytaya Biblioteka (Open Library) also consider it their goal to educate and raise awareness. On the last Saturday of every month, they invite St.Petersburg residents to one of the libraries downtown, where they get to meet Russia’s best-known people, including filmmakers, actors, writers, journalists, legislators, musicians, officials, and scientists, and pose them questions, for example, about the country’s future. Despite the claims by government propaganda, judging by the number of participants, who usually barely fit in the auditorium, the public shows definite interest in such discussions.
The initiators of yet another project called Dissernet also focus on “informed exposures.” Experts who launched this initiative check Russians’ master’s theses and Ph.D. dissertations for plagiarism. Unfortunately, in Russia, academic credentials do not necessarily guarantee that people actually wrote their dissertations or theses themselves. Politicians and businessmen often defend theses or dissertations containing extensive plagiarism just to make their resumes look more attractive. Journalists once witnessed a comical scene that took place in Russia’s Constitutional Court. State Duma Member Dmitri Vyatkin was trying to lose a tail in the person of Dissernet founder Andrei Zayakin, who was following him and reading aloud extracts from Vyatkin’s thesis that the legislator had stolen from different authors, and demanding that Vyatkin accept responsibility for theft. Dissernet creators highlight an old problem. Unscrupulous Russian officials and legislators do not consider it a crime to steal not only money from the country’s budget, but also other people’s intellectual property.
One of Dissernet’s cofounders, journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, reminds his fellow citizens of the country’s history by installing, together with the Memorial society, plaques on buildings known as the Last Addresses of people who were murdered or left to rot in prison camps by Stalin’s regime. Such commemorative plaques stating names, professions, and the dates of birth, execution, and rehabilitation of those arrested can be seen in Moscow, St.Petersburg, Tver, Perm, Taganrog, and other Russian cities.
“Maybe around 10,000 people walk through Myasnitskaya Street or Pokrovka [Street] in one day,” Parkhomenko says. “One person, then maybe another one and yet another one will stop and read the name on the plaque, then maybe search for it online and pause to think that there is nothing more precious than life. This idea somehow fails to take root [in our country]. Thus, the concept of our project: One name, one life, one sign.”
Outside of the educational format, a few initiatives directed at preserving the environment are worth mentioning. The aforementioned sisters Alimov coordinate the RazDelni Zbor (Separate Collection) campaign in one of St. Petersburg’s districts. Once a month, ordinary city residents take recyclable paper, used batteries and plastic to collection stations. For a country that has no culture of separate waste collection, this initiative directed at encouraging environmental responsibility is a very important step forward. Ecologists working at collection stations accept recyclable material no matter the weather. Former opposition municipal legislator Alexander Shurshev is an active supporter of the initiative. Some believed that after his term in office expired, and election fraud prevented him from being reelected, Shurshev, having no more need for PR, would abandon the campaign. The young man, however, continues to support the waste collection initiative, since this is “truly important for our city.”
Despite deteriorating conditions, propaganda, and increasing censorship, media managers and journalists are striving to deliver quality products. While the aforementioned Takie Dela project covers issues faced by ordinary people, the relatively recently created Meduza website discusses politics and the economy. The core team of this independent media organization is composed of staff members from the once-popular Lenta.ru website, who left that media outlet in protest against the dismissal of its chief editor, Galina Timchenko. Meduza is based in Riga, Latvia.
Thus, one may conclude that there are tens of thousands of people in Russia who remain involved in public life and are willing to contribute to making their country a better place because, as they say, Russia is their home and “why should I move away and leave my home for crooks and thieves to pillage?”
by Aleksandra Garmazhapova
columnist of Free Russia Foundation