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Analysis & Opinion
14.07.10 Grown-Up Country
By Elizabeth Shockman

While official statistics look grim for the volunteer movement in Russia, a closer look reveals some reasons for optimism. Studies and observations show that gone are the days of Soviet-era government-enforced labor, or post-Soviet Western-founded, Western-funded charity organizations. Russia’s volunteers and Russian charity organizations are growing in number, scope, and innovation. In short, Russian volunteerism is coming of age.

The numbers indeed look discouraging. The latest figures from the School of Economics at Russia’s State University show that only 3.02 percent of Russia’s economically active population currently dedicate any of their time to volunteering. In the United States, over a quarter of the population volunteers – in 2009, this number was 26.8 percent, the Corporation for National and Community Services reported. Russians, it seems, are just not willing to give any of their time to help their fellow citizens.

“Why is this number so little? Is it really possible that so few of us are charitable and kind?” wrote Anastasia Karimova, a volunteer and the coordinator of the “Dobrovolets” project, in response to the depressing statistics on the Web site.

To Russians, volunteering is not an alien activity. “To be kind, to help another person has never been outstanding in Russia. As cultural traditions, Russian volunteerism, philanthropy and charity date back to the times of ancient Rus,” said Galina Bodrenkovo, a national representative at the International Association for Volunteer Efforts (IAVE).

But regardless of how far back the tendency to volunteer may go in Russia, the country is still lacking in present-day volunteer activity. “People do really want to help,” said Elena Alshanskaya, the founder of a Russian charity and volunteer organization “Otkazniki,” which works with abandoned children. “It’s a normal human desire to help another person. Another issue altogether is that this sphere isn’t developed.”

There are various reasons for the lack of willing and eager volunteers in Russia. Alshanskaya pointed first to the years of enforced collectivism in the Soviet Union, which backfired with strong individualistic currents. “We have fewer volunteers than in the rest of the world, firstly because of enforced collectivism and secondly because there was a very strong Soviet socialist government. It took on all the functions that the community is normally responsible for. It took them all on, and then just dropped them. And people are completely unprepared to take these functions upon themselves, to set up connections on a ‘neighbor-to-neighbor’ level. We have to build this entire system from scratch. We need to learn to organize help for each other on our own, and not to wait for the government to do everything for us,” she said.

But the 20 years that the new Russian volunteer movement has so far had to develop have been propitious. Alshanskaya noted many positive trends in Russia’s volunteer movement over the past few years. The number of organizations and scope of their work has expanded. “If when we started ‘Otkazniki’ in 2004 there were very few similar organizations, now we see that more are springing up every year. Five or six years ago, the majority of organizations involved in helping children just visited orphanages – meaningless, useless help. Now more organizations are starting to do some real things – socially, educationally, in working with families.”

Furthermore, if ten to 15 years ago many organizations were incompetent and inexperienced, perceived with suspicion as “Western spies doing something with Western money,” the tables have turned. “Organizations have started to approach their work professionally – to research, to learn and to organize their work on their own. Now there’s more trust toward them in society than there was in the 1990s. But that doesn’t mean that everyone trusts or that everything is perfect. There’s just more of it,” Alshanskaya noted.

Bodrenkovo’s research has shown that Russians are now presented with an ever-increasing number of opportunities to freely donate their time and energy to non-profit organizations. Furthermore, there is obvious growth in programs and work designed to raise and support volunteers – from new volunteer centers to programs combining education with volunteer activity and prizes acknowledging and encouraging volunteerism.

Many have noted a positive shift in Russian mentality when it comes to volunteerism. “The role of volunteerism is now more often associated with opportunities for individual, leadership, career, and organizational growth,” Bodrenkovo noted. Vladimir Khromov, the head of the volunteer program at the “Podari Zhizn” foundation, put it simply: “I think that in 2005 to 2006 there was a breaking point in people’s consciousness. They understood that they need to change their lives for the better through helping their neighbors.”

The Russian government has likewise begun to recognize the vital importance of volunteerism to the development of the country. But while Bodrenkovo and others assert the importance of the state’s involvement, still others point out that Russia’s new volunteer movement has been, and still remains, a grassroots movement. “Volunteerism is clearly gaining strength,” Khromov said. “But it doesn’t depend on the government. More likely, the opposite is true: the government is trying to use this social activism to do its work.”

Alshanskaya likewise argues the need for grassroots activism. It may be that Russia’s budding volunteer movement is a sign of the country’s coming-of-age. “The government needs to leave paternalism behind,” Alshanskaya said. “It needs to stop thinking that it has to control everyone. And we need to stop waiting for it to do something for us. In a word, to do it all ourselves. And volunteers are the beginning of that movement. Of course, compared to America, unfortunately this movement is still very small. But I hope that it’s just a matter of time.”
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