In Russia, well done is starting to supplant well said.by Galina Stolyarova 27 June 2013
A striking moment occurred at the 17th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum last week.
In the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, one session focused on the future of Russia’s sports infrastructure. The opening debate addressed all those facilities, stadiums, and training bases now being built for the games, and the thorny question of how to make use of them in future years. Giving their views were some of Russia’s top sports officials, entrepreneurs, and architects.
The experts sought to establish the core of the Olympic legacy in Russia: That the country would be able to rely upon these facilities after the games. It was a humdrum enough session – until, that is, an unexpected question from the audience gave a jolt to the proceedings.
A young woman who said she had applied to be a volunteer at the Sochi Winter Olympics asked: “More than 200,000 applications were submitted to the organizing committee from Russians who wanted to work as volunteers at the games; 25,000 people have been selected. And my question is, what is going to happen to all these people after the games? I mean, are they still going to be of use?”
For a moment, there was silence in the auditorium. Then Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the Sochi 2014 organizing committee, got up and replied, “In fact, this human resource, these thousands of motivated and energetic people, looks set to become the most important element of the Olympic legacy. Come to think of it, the most precious asset that Russia is going to gain after the Olympics is not the modern and expensive state-of-the-art stadiums. It is the army of dedicated volunteers.”
After the Kremlin announced that any Russian citizen could apply to be a volunteer in Sochi, the organizing committee was flooded with requests. Whoever advised President Vladimir Putin to announce a competition for would-be Olympic volunteers has surely found a seam of gold.
After all, it would have been an easy enough solution simply to invite local students to join the volunteer force. In the town of Krasnodar alone, there are more than 100,000 students, while only 25,000 volunteers will be needed in Sochi.
But the Kremlin wanted to show that being a volunteer is an honor, and the message was well-received.
One of the speakers at the St. Petersburg gathering was Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister. Now dean of the liberal arts faculty at St. Petersburg State University, he runs a foundation that is engaged in fundraising for cultural and social projects. The foundation also helps to establish volunteering initiatives in the Russian regions.
“What I have seen over the past one or two years is a fundamental change in mentality among ordinary people; I would compare this transformation to a revolution,” Kudrin said.
“Thousands of volunteer organizations, willing to carry out all sorts of projects – prestigious or obscure, cultural or medical – are emerging in the regions as we speak. My foundation helped to set up volunteer centers in 24 Russian cities in under 18 months.”
The issues of philanthropy, charity, and volunteerism are not new to the St. Petersburg economic forum.
In 2012, Russian entrepreneurs on the panel were adamant that the government needs to offer incentives for charitable giving. The hot topic this year was how to get the middle classes involved in philanthropy.
“Russia has recently seen some impressive instances of volunteer activities, such as local initiatives to help the victims of the flood in Krymsk in the summer of 2012,” Kudrin said. “However, very few schemes exist in Russia that make it easy for ordinary Russians who want to engage in philanthropy.”
In the absence of such schemes, most Russians who want to help their fellow citizens in some way simply go on the lookout for charities with a cause that they believe in.
In 2012, the Moscow-based Podari zhizn (Gift of Life) foundation, which helps children suffering from cancer and blood diseases, collected more than 800 million rubles ($24 million), with almost 70 percent of the donations coming from ordinary people.
“We encourage people not to shy away from donating even some spare change. Our charter stipulates that we accept donations starting from as little as 10 kopecks. On a global scale, every kopeck matters and our results prove it,” said actress Dina Korzun, the foundation’s co-founder.
Help often comes to those in need in forms other than a direct financial donation, and ordinary Russians are showing a rapidly growing confidence in charity at the grassroots level. Some of the newly recruited volunteers include former activists who used to participate in dissenters’ marches or other protest events.
“I stopped going to street protests after a few years because I eventually developed the feeling of being a loser,” said Olga Nikolayeva, who works at a Russian financial company. “I go, I stand there, I risk being beaten up by the police; it is all very emotional, and there is a sharp sense of social injustice in the air … and then we all go home and gloom descends. I got sick of it,” she said.
“A company where a friend of mine works recently began a small charitable initiative. They regularly collect books, colored pencils, and CDs and pass them on to a foundation that helps cancer-stricken children. I joined in and it gave me so much more meaning than the protests because I know that, however small my input, I am bringing positive change to my country.”
Indeed, the rapid growth of the volunteer movement is driven not just by people's desire to join prestigious and successful projects that raise their self-esteem, such as the Olympics. It is also rooted in the desire to do good in areas where the authorities have been failing to help, as with the 2012 floods in Krymsk, where thousands of people lost their homes.
This trend is a clear indication that the notorious apathy of the Russian people is beginning to disappear. Popular frustration and fury with corrupt or impotent authorities is being transformed into little good deeds.
With the volunteer movement suddenly becoming a hot topic at the economic forum – the subject popped up at several discussions – all sorts of people are expressing their satisfaction. The bureaucrats seem particularly pleased.
“So much better to be a volunteer than join in those rough street protests and all that empty rhetoric,” the officials intone. It's as if they'd invented a good tool to divert at least some of the dissidents from taking to the streets.
Big business is relieved as well, and entrepreneurs have reason to feel more at ease. Philanthropists in Russia used to focus on their dissatisfaction with state policies and the government’s failure to provide the right incentives and climate for making donations. Now they have moved on to discuss the boom in volunteering, and the public appears less interested in the lingering question of why Russian big business isn’t showing a greater interest in philanthropy.
The main reason for the social and political apathy of the Russian people was a lack of self-confidence. People had a feeling of worthlessness and, in the face of so much corruption, they felt impotent to change things for the better.
Many Russians felt they were not equipped to go out and do good. But now the ice has been broken on two opposite sides – the president has made volunteer work fashionable by announcing a competition for it. And ordinary people, many of them young, have put aside the anger they feel toward the authorities. They have stopped demanding that the bureaucrats become honest and they have begun to try to share what they themselves possess, even if it is only their time and energy.
The main thing now is to harness this new-found idealism and enthusiasm and to make it last beyond the climate of nationalism that will no doubt begin to envelope us during the months leading up to the Sochi Olympics.