The US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange program (SEE), under the auspices of the Eurasia Foundation, facilitates an exchange of knowledge, professionalism, and experience between the US and Russia, two countries with much to gain from one another. Through nine working groups, emerging professionals and advanced practitioners come together to create solutions to pertinent issues in both civil societies. Through exchange, we are better able to learn about practices in the other country, to gain insight into issues on a global perspective, and to establish meaningful relationships in trying times.
I applied for a fellowship through this program after spending four years teaching English in Russia and Turkey. After a lengthy application and brief Russian-English interview, I was selected as a member of the Education & Youth working group. In February 2015, all participants in the fellowship gathered in Washington DC to attend a brief orientation with SEE and brainstorm in our working groups. We were equipped with information on our organization and many ideas on future collaboration and programming.
I arrived in Russia with few expectations, but ready to actively investigate Russia’s educational system in depth. I spent two weeks in the Volga city of Tolyatti and then headed to one of Russia’s northern nature hot spots – Petrozavodsk. Rather than spending all my time at various schools, which I had believed would be the case, I lavishly spent my days in the company of strong leaders, drinking tea and talking about Russia’s youth policy, or playing games in Khrushchev-style buildings with the city’s young leaders, or visiting old houses and hosting round-table discussions with students with disabilities. What I discovered, through direct participation and passive observation, was an intricate network of organizations, people, and energies that invested all their zeal into the development of the local community and the local youth.
As a teacher of English as a Foreign Language for many years, and myself a facilitator of extra-curricular activities and education, I was eager to witness firsthand how the Russian education system supported youth development. My personal observations at each organization and conversations with students and leaders alike provided many new perspectives and a great window into what truly constitutes Russian youth volunteerism and activism.
The volunteer communities in Tolyatti and Petrozavodsk date back years, with 2015 marking the 20th anniversary of the Petrozavodsk-based organization Doroga. Founded in 1995, Doroga is predominantly involved in managing extra-curricular activities in Petrozavodsk geared towards school children as participants and young adults as youth volunteers. Though funded by the local municipality, Doroga operates as a separate entity, independently developing its own curriculum. During my time there, this included short seminars on nanotechnology, a club for young journalists, and, arguably their most popular program, Perviy shag v obshchestvo and its sister program, My i obshchestvo. The former program, whose name translates to “First Step into Society,” aims to integrate young students into modern society by teaching them ideals such as ecological awareness, general fiscal skills, and concepts such as teamwork. For this particular program, Doroga’s teachers travel to local schools and hold weekly classes on various topics. Through participation in these seminars, the kids earn a type of “money” that can be sent at an auction, held as a final event, where the students can buy various prizes, such as candy, games, or puzzles.
After completing Perviy shag v obshchestvo, students in grades 5-7 transition into My i obshchestvo, which means “Us and Society,” through which they continue to build on previous concepts through experimental learning: field trips to eco-bases, volunteering in the community, and helping with Perviy shag v obshchestvo curriculum development. Doroga also works in close coordination with other youth-related organizations throughout the city to help support youth programming.
Twenty-seven year old Sasha, one of Doroga’s prominent leaders, is a staple of its volunteering programs and additionally a successful archetype of how such programs facilitate the transformation of students into community leaders. Sasha considers his childhood “troubled;” at a young age his parents sent him to an after-school theater program, in hopes of keeping him out of trouble, and perhaps out of the house. Seventeen years later, I personally witnessed Sasha entering the stage with the youth as the leader of the pack. Together, the students and adults, dressed in modest animal costumes, illuminate moral stories through improvisation. With understanding, patience, and ardor Sasha endeavors to provide a constructive atmosphere for kids, whose lifestyles resemble Sasha’s childhood. Sasha attempts to instill a sense of involvement and worth in the youth, giving them a place in the community. After the play, students asking questions such as “Did I do alright?” or simply standing nearby to overhear his conversations, surround Sasha and follow him out the door. He is well liked, and it is obvious that these children see him as a role model and also look to him for guidance.
Many students discover extra-curricular programming as Sasha did – as an outlet sought out by parents or relatives to abate behavioral problems or to overcome learning impediments; other youth are recommended for programs by teachers or mentors; many come on the recommendation of their peers. Regardless of the path the students took to arrive at the organization, participation appears to be entirely voluntary and generally enjoyed. Additionally, with participation in these organizations comes a sort of prestige and, likewise, community: these students become friends, spend time together outside of volunteer activities, and support one another in different endeavors. Volunteers become youth stars in the community, well known amongst their peers and adult leaders who see trends in volunteer development in the form of leadership skills, empathy, and community awareness, amongst others.
Recently, Russian universities have enacted a new system for extracurricular activities, promoting higher participation in after school clubs during their high school years. This development, coupled with a government mandate to improve extracurricular pedagogy, stresses a new importance in youth activism. As a volunteer, each individual receives a “Personal Volunteer Book” distributed by the Russian Ministry of Sports, Tourism, and Youth Politics. For each event in which one participates as a volunteer, they receive a stamp and signature from the appropriate leader with a description of the activity, along with the location and duration. Some students already have more than one full book. These books serve as documentation of their participation as a volunteer and show how they have interacted with their local communities. When these students apply for university, they are able to provide this documentation, which can give extra weight to their application for admission. Thus, many students now perceive volunteering as a gateway into university when coupled with good grades and high test scores. Thus, volunteerism is increasingly prevalent among high-school aged students.
Similar to the Petrozavodsk organization Doroga, there is the Tolyatti-based Shans. At a regional level, Shans aims to support youth social societies and promotes the development of leaders within the youth community; locally, the organization works to develop youth volunteerism, facilitate youth participation in socially positive activities, and encourage youth to actively strive to solve important societal problems, amongst other goals. At one Shansevent in Tolyatti, I met Elshad, a charming young volunteer with whom I assisted in facilitating a game day at a local orphanage. Elshad was charismatic and a strong leader – he promptly organized the kids, as well as the volunteers, and was the first to help when called for. At the end of the event, as the students handed over their volunteer books to the director for a signature I noticed that Elshad’s was brimming with stamps, signatures, and events. “Oh, this is my second book,” he chimed in. His Instagram is overloaded with pictures of volunteer events and awards he has won; every leader I ask has heard of him and worked with him in some way.
Although Elshad’s new fame and prestige exemplify an excellent opportunity for the youth to branch out in the community, a more important benefit is the valuable respect and understanding these young leaders gain for one another. The borders that separate class are abolished and commonplace youth stereotypes are forgotten; these individuals are all working towards one cause.
Social media also helps facilitate the recruitment of volunteers. Each working organization such as Doroga and Shans, has a group page on VKontakte. Students associated with the organization have liked their page and thus receive news on events and requests for volunteers on their feeds. Students then leave comments with plus or minus signs signaling their availability to assist. On occasion, they may list a friend who is not directly related to the group, as the host organization is open to any helping hand. Furthermore, organizations assist one another by posting information about other events. Doing so facilitates diversification of volunteers and ensures that the organizations are reaching as large of an audience as possible.
Similarly, students and volunteers use social media to document their participation. They post pictures, pages, and links related to the events they volunteer at; many are followed by the tag #волонтеры. In Tolyatti, they also have specific banners made for volunteers to post to associate them with volunteerism and simultaneously promote specific events: one banner put the line “Volontyerskii Korpus 70-letiya pobedyi,” on Tolyatti volunteers’ accounts as part of a Russian-wide promotion of volunteerism in celebration of the 70-year anniversary of “Victory Day,” a holiday celebrated in Russia that commemorates the end of WWII. This program also promoted fundraising for veterans of the war. Additionally, at volunteer events the students are given t-shirts that represent the organization and promote volunteerism. Badges, pins, bracelets, and stickers are also extremely popular and are often fixed to bags or jackets amongst volunteers and leaders alike.
It is interesting to note that the age for “youth” in Russia includes most twenty-somethings and even stretches to include people in their early thirties. However, during my travels and meetings, I mainly met students aged 15-19. It seemingly works well for collaboration, as the students can more easily relate to one another: they are busy – studying for university entry examinations, playing sports, and attempting to volunteer as much as possible. The Russian education system also contributes to the mix, as in Russia the twelfth grade does not exist and many students graduate at 17 years of age. Many transition into university life, while others attend vocational colleges and volunteering plays a role in their transition between educational institutions.
As evident through examples such as Sasha and Elshad, participation in these volunteer societies facilities the transformation of students into key members of society and future leaders within their local communities, as well as the greater oblast, or even all of Russia. First and foremost, these volunteers gain insight into key issues within their community. Many have become aware of problems related to homelessness and have thus volunteered at organizations that help the homeless, as well as helped collect goods to provide to the homeless throughout the community. Another prevalent issue within many communities is veterans’ benefits, with many veterans living below average living standards. Volunteers have helped raise awareness, money, and support for these individuals.
In addition to these issues, many of the organizations facilitate conferences, lectures, and workshops that aid in the development of youth as leaders. The Tolyatti-based organization Otkritiya Al’ternativa helps involve youth in politics by hosting forums between Duma leaders and youth interested in the workings of the government. Such forums and conferences teach young people skills such as leadership, management, event planning, and finance. The students, in return, practice these skills in the field, helping to lead, plan, and organize volunteer events within the community. In both cities it is common for older volunteers in their late teens or early twenties to return back to the organizations as leaders and organizers helping collaboration between young students, or assisting in the technical aspects of event planning.
In this way, volunteers give back to their community at every event in which they participate. Furthermore, their constant participation in and publication on social media work as outlets to further recruit new volunteers. The cycle is reciprocal: by participation, the students gain a network of adults in their community who understand and acknowledge their work ethic, zeal, and constant interest in volunteerism.
Volunteer organizations thus act as bodies of extracurricular education. By teaching useful life skills, they provide students with safe and meaningful outlets for their time and energy. Therefore, these programs simultaneously aim to keep young people away from substance abuse or other harmful past times. It also helps alleviate problems that may arise due to ailing family atmospheres or lack of social support by giving the young people a community to rely on. For example, Otkritiya Al’ternativa develops significant programming aimed at reducing substance abuse amongst youth, implementing stings on vendors known to have sold tobacco or alcohol to minors, and campaigning on the negative effects substances have on development.
Additionally, some volunteers I met were socially awkward or had underdeveloped social skills; therefore, such networks present them with opportunities to build social skills. Often unexpected leaders emerge from the woodwork, and supporting adults in the upper-tiers of these organizations further develop these fledgling leaders.
Thus, volunteerism in Russia plays a multi-faceted role in community and youth development. While creating events that educate society on key issues in the community, volunteer organizations recruit youth to help develop their programs. Simultaneously, through volunteering the students gain key skills needed for their professional and academic future, while also keeping away from negative habits and pastimes. The volunteers become socially informed and disseminate their knowledge to their peers, continuing the cycle of giving.
Danilova, Natalia. “Veterans’ Policy in Russia: a Puzzle of Creation”, The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies. Issue 6/7 (2007). Web. April 22, 2015. Web.
Otkritiya Al’ternativa. Web. April 24, 2015.
Ofitsial’niyi sayt Vcyerossiyiskogo volontyerskogo korpusa 70-letiya Pobedi v Velikoy Otechestvinnoy Voyne 1941-1945 godov. 2015. Web. April 22, 2015.
Panov, Pavel. Izvestiya. “Volontyerstvo pomozhet postupit’ v vuz”. May 14, 2014. Web. April 22, 2015.
The Press Secretary. News.“Finansirovaniye sistemi dopolnitel’novo obrazovaniye v Rossii uvelichitsya, a vozmozhnost’ obucheniya ostanetsya bisplatnoy”. The Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, May 14, 2014. Web. April 22, 2015.
Rogatkin, D.V. Programya Myi i obshchestvo: metodicheskoye rukavodstva. Petrozavodskaya gorodskaya detskaya obshestvennaya organizatsiya Yuniorskiyi soyuz “Doroga”. Petrozavodsk. Print. 2015
Rogatkin, D.V. Programya Perviy Shag v Obshchestvo: metodicheskoye rukavodstva. Petrozavodskaya gorodskaya detskaya obshestvennaya organizatsiya Yuniorskiyi soyuz “Doroga”. Petrozavodsk. Print. 2015
Tabunov, Sergei. Molodezhnoye obshestvennoye obyedineniye “Dobrovol’cheskoye dvizheniye Tol’yatti” na baze munitsipal’nogo byudzhetnogo uchrezhdeniya gorodskogo okruga Tol’yatti “Dom molodyezhniyk ogranizatsii Shans”. Print. 2015
U.S-Russia Social Expertise Exchange. Eurasia Foundation. Web. April 20, 2015.