It seems that it has recently become a rule in Russia that any piece of news is bad news. Indeed, just about all the political developments in the second half of the last year and all the new pieces of legislation (many and wondrous) have been depressing and discouraging. Some foreign agencies have been thrown out of the country and local NGOs have been threatened with being labeled a ‘foreign agent’. Journalists and human rights activists are being intimidated by the introduction of articles on state treason and defamation in the Criminal Code. Every move of Russian civil society immediately provokes legislators to ban something. The law banning American adoption of Russian orphans has become the latest stroke in this gloomy picture.
Russians believe that despondency is a sin; I think this is particularly true for those of us who have chosen philanthropy as their work. If we lose hope we should quit. So what is the hope for Russia and Russian philanthropy now? To my mind it lies with the new generation that has stepped forward fairly recently.
Most Russian NGOs were founded around 15-20 years ago, either by people affected and united by a certain problem, or by professionals who wanted to apply their skills as they saw fit. During the last two decades, the former group of people has become professionals and the latter has started treating the problems of their target audiences as their own. Most of these people are in their forties and fifties.
Now we are welcoming a different type of person, those who have entered the philanthropic world in the last five to eight years. They are in their late twenties or early thirties, and they are promising or successful professionals, very much involved in philanthropy but as volunteers. The issues they address are often chosen randomly. A philology student visited a home for the elderly in an attempt to gather folklore of the northern regions of Russia and saw lonely miserable people in dire conditions. She soon returned with a couple of her friends and some presents for the old people. They also brought a guitar and organized a small concert right there, singing to the tenants the home songs of their youth. That was five years ago. Now it is a national movement with more than 87 branches. Activists visit homes, renovate and equip premises during summer holidays, organize cultural events, etc.
Around eight years ago, a young mother brought her small daughter to a hospital. She was shocked to find out that there were absolutely healthy babies kept there because their mothers had abandoned them at birth without signing any documents permitting adoption. Hospitals have neither means nor appropriate facilities nor professionals to attend to these babies. They might be kept there for months and months while the police are looking for their parents. The young mother came back with toys and nappies, and she talked about this situation with her friends. Pretty soon there were hundreds of volunteers who regularly deliver baby food and hygienic necessities to hospitals in Moscow and nearby regions. Now it is a big charitable foundation that implements several programs, including some very sophisticated ones, targeted at abandonment prevention, but still volunteers are their main labour force.
There are many similar examples which follow a certain pattern: young people accidentally become aware of some problem which is not being properly addressed by the state and they start working on it, using their own resources, attracting volunteers via social networks. Now there are well-known movements that help to find missing people, clean the streets of rubbish, help homeless people, etc. It doesn’t mean that traditional NGOs do not attend to these issues, because they do. But the young people think and behave differently. They don’t necessarily choose their volunteering activities as their vacation – today they can assist old people and next weekend they go to a shelter for stray dogs, because winter has arrived and the kennels have to be insulated. They don’t rely on anybody but themselves, and they act quickly.
There was a cliché during the Soviet time: ‘a person with an active life position’. Then it could be only used ironically. Today is has become a fact of life.
Last summer there was a terrible flood in the small seaside town of Crimsk. The number of victims is still unclear, but it was definitely hundreds if not thousands. When it became obvious that the authorities were unable to provide efficient help, a number of young people arranged several places in Moscow to bring food, hygienic and elementary medical supplies, cloths, shovels etc. Tons of goods were gathered and quickly delivered by private cars, vans and trucks. Hundreds of volunteers went there to help. Information was distributed via social networks – messages like ‘we have enough sleeping bags but there is a shortage of face masks and gloves; please organize drinking water delivery’. And it was organized.
Obviously not all young people are that active. But there is a clear trend. This young generation is more brave, independent and willing to change the world around them. They are well organized and know how to use modern communication methods to raise funds and to bring change fast. Sadly the state has noticed this activity and is intending to introduce legislation governing volunteerism in what seems like yet another attempt at state control. However, this generation did not live in the Soviet Union and it is not that easy to intimidate them. We can only hope that they are strong enough to sustain their beliefs and values in the face of inevitable attempts of the state to curb their enthusiasm.
Polina Philippova is director of programmes and donor relations for CAF Russia