The past year or so has seen an upwelling of a trend unprecedented in Russia — people getting together on their own to help others in need. Personal initiative, always suspect here, is suddenly taking off. Drivers deliver medicine to shut-ins. Women cook meals for hospitals. Volunteers use rubles and hammers to renovate shelters for battered women, teenage orphans and abandoned pets.
And here in Itomlya, a decaying farm village a five-hour drive west of Moscow, a group of young men led by Dmitry Aleshkovsky, a former news photographer, is trying to help save a 15-bed hospital.
“If I can help, it will show people they can help, too — that it’s time to stop sitting around and doing nothing,” he said. “I put my little brick in the wall.”
The rapid emergence of volunteer efforts, fueled in large part by social media, coincides with the eruption of public political protest — and that’s not by happenstance. There is an overlap between the political opposition and those who have become fed up with a corrupt government that delivers little and who have decided to take matters into their own hands.
Legislation to regulate volunteers has been introduced in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, by President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. Backers say it will ensure that volunteer activity conforms to the government’s priorities and doesn’t conflict with Kremlin policy.
Officials aren’t the only ones hostile to volunteerism. Russia’s Soviet past, when the government controlled all aspects of life, has left it with a population that is accustomed to the idea that the government should provide for its citizens and that is suspicious of volunteer organizations. A 2012 poll found that more than half the population disapproves of them, said Boris Dubin, a sociologist with the Levada Center in Moscow.
The legislation reflects “an absolute lack of understanding of the whole nature of the social phenomenon,” said Yevgeny Grekov, who helps run a drivers group called Volunteers on Wheels. It’s a Facebook community where people with needs and drivers who want to help can find one another.
“They want volunteers to be walking in columns and support the authorities,” Grekov said. “But programs such as ours have no lists. If you want to help, well, help.”
The drivers help all kinds of people. Say a group has gathered toys and equipment for an orphanage but has no transportation. Volunteers deliver the items.
Periodically, someone will drive a doctor to Kaluga, three hours south of Moscow, to see a patient who requires a specialist’s attention. A babushka has to come to Moscow for surgery: They’ll pick her up at the airport or train station. Actors need scenery transported for a charity performance.