Tuesday, October 27, 2009

From Russia, With Love - Summer 2001

When I applied last summer for a placement in Russia, the advice given was to be flexible and be prepared for basic living conditions. This was to be my fifth visit to Russia, and my fourth volunteer project, so even before I was on the train to Heathrow in mid-July I knew this to be good advice. After a short stopover in Moscow, I soon found myself with a Dutch and a Swiss volunteer on an overnight train to Ioshkar-Ola, capital of the remote Republic of Marii El, about halfway between Moscow and the Urals. On arrival we met up with our Russian counterparts and together boarded a bus bound for Elektron, a camp hosting up to around 200 children aged 8 to 15. There was no forgetting its past as a Soviet pioneer camp: the children were grouped into detachments and bedtime was known as 'retreat'. Each detachment consisted of up to forty children and was supervised by several counsellors, of which I was one. The 'pioneers' were lined up and almost marched from activity to activity, while those who lagged behind were reprimanded.

For a Western European volunteer, such discipline took some getting used to. Brought up to believe it to be polite to take time over meals, I now found myself in a country where the opposite seemed to be the case, at least as far as camp life was concerned. I had to explain to my Russian friends that in this situation, as in many others, children in our two countries were brought up in different ways. What was acceptable in one country was often unacceptable in the other. I always found it paid off to take the time to explain these differences. Nobody I met at Elektron had ever been to the West, many had never spoken to a foreigner before, so my friends realised that a British perspective would often be very different from a Russian one!

Given the poverty of the region - Marii El is one of Russia's poorest - I never ceased to admire the way in which, with so few resources, children in Elektron were looked after, entertained, and kept busy from morning to night. There were games, sports, competitions, music, drama, stage productions and, for the first week or so, swimming in the beautiful neighbouring Tair Lake. Then of course there was the weekly banya - a kind of glorified sauna - which more than made up for the lack of showers and became one of the many highlights of my stay. Two misfortunes interrupted the swimming. The first was the end of the sweltering temperatures towards the end of July. The second was the outbreak of a dysentery epidemic, caused by polluted lake water. Over several days, convoys of ambulances and medical staff arrived and took around a third of the camp's children to hospital. There was even talk of Elektron being closed, but fortunately outside polluters, not the camp, were proved to be at fault, and those of us still in good health were able to stay. Despite all that had happened, the surprises were not over yet. Within days of the dysentery outbreak, one afternoon a hurricane struck. It may only have lasted about half an hour, but it brought with it hailstones the size of golf balls, and its force tore down power cables and trees. For several hours the camp was plunged into darkness, but when power supplies were finally restored we were just relieved that no-one was hurt. By the end of that season (project), I was the only foreigner left, and was excited at the prospect of staying for the final season which, by comparison, was uneventful!

My first three weeks at Elektron had not exactly gone smoothly, but I was fascinated and full of admiration at how my Russian friends had coped with the adversity. I was convinced that if the same had happened in many other countries, there would have been a knee-jerk response and the camp would have been forced to close. This being Russia, however, only when the causes of the epidemic were fully known was a decision taken on whether the final season should go ahead. What struck me most was the maturity of the children throughout the crisis. They did not understand any more than we did what had caused their friends to be taken to hospital, but knew that life went on and kept themselves busy by playing cards, reading and often talking to me about life in the West.

My first season also included an English summer school, so many of our discussions took place in informal English lessons, where the children also played games and were shown postcards and photographs from my native United Kingdom. Many Russian children do not distinguish between different Western countries, and when occasionally I was introduced as an American, I would point out that Marii El was far closer geographically than the United States to the UK and that these Russians were no less European than I. Their culture is rich, their hospitality unrivalled by any other nationality I have encountered, and their humour and endurance in the face of discomfort and hardship humbling to the outside world. With state salaries and pensions at such a low level, those many Russians who survive only by growing fruit and vegetables in their back gardens would put many Westerners to shame.

I for one would have no hesitation in applying to a Russian volunteer project again. A sense of adventure, a fascination and tolerance of other cultures, and a knowledge of the language are all you need. If that sounds like you, then go for it. Barney Smith, barney.smith@gmx.at Û

Click here for photos of projects in Russia

Click here for a country profile of Russia

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