Democracy Dies in Darkness

In Sight | Perspective

In a country that often isolates the disabled, this village offers a sense of community

April 23, 2018 at 6:00 AM

Amir relaxes in a field near Svetlana Village. It is not acceptable to discuss diagnoses of the residents of the village. (Mary Gelman/)
Vika is an adopted daughter of Sarah and Boris. She has Down syndrome. Vika is not the only child in the village, but most of the residents are adults. (Mary Gelman/)

In Russia, people with developmental disabilities usually live isolated lives, unable to study, work or socialize. They encounter widespread discrimination, and families often keep the disabled out of sight, made to feel shame about their circumstances. Few services are available for them.

But there is a place where everything is different.

Svetlana Village is an unusual community near Lake Ladoga, east of St. Petersburg, where about 40 people live in four large houses on a sprawling farm. About half of the residents are disabled, and the other half are volunteers, living and working together in a relationship that resembles a large extended family.

The residents grow their own vegetables and fruit, raise cows, chickens and pigs, bake bread, and make cheese and yogurt to feed themselves, with some leftovers to sell. They cook for one another: blinis, the Russian pancake; soup, the heart of the afternoon meal; and other favorites. Twice a day, they have a break in the bakery to drink tea together and eat cakes or other sweets.

The community is part of the worldwide Camphill Movement, which emphasizes developing potential through community, arts and working on the land. It was started in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1939 by Karl König, an Austrian doctor and writer who had fled the Nazis. He was inspired by the spiritually oriented philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian social reformer who started the first Waldorf School.

Today, there are 100 Camphill communities in 20 countries.

Svetlana was started with financial help from the Norwegian Camphill Movement, which was inspired by a Russian mother named Svetlana who had a child with special needs. The mother died in 1991, the year before the village was started, and the community was named in her honor.

The village gives its residents with disabilities the opportunity to learn and work freely. Volunteers, from Russia and Europe, live and work with them. Financial assistance comes from other Camphill communities, grants and donations from family members.

Life follows the seasons, revolving around agriculture in the warm months and carpentry and other activities in the winter. The villagers have a sauna for weekends, and they produce plays on holidays.

Diagnoses are not discussed; residents are not classified as “healthy” or “unhealthy,” “normal” or “abnormal.” They are all individuals, working to their potential.

Minya celebrates his 50th birthday with the villagers. He considers himself deputy director of the village. (Mary Gelman/)
Julia walks around the village in the evening. There are four large houses, built by the residents. Each house has a name — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Larsh Henrik, Seraphim of Sarov, Fridtjof Nanson — and its own atmosphere and household ways. Each resident has a private room. (Mary Gelman/)
Vegetables grown by the villagers sustain the community. Residents work a lot during summertime so there can be enough food before the winter. The residents also produce cheese, cottage cheese and milk for themselves and to sell to their neighbors. (Mary Gelman/)
Tatiana and Minya are residents with Down syndrome. They met in the village and fell in love. They call each other husband and wife. (Mary Gelman/)
Raya, left, and Julia walk through the woods. When it’s free time, they listen to music, explore, talk to each other about their problems and have fun. (Mary Gelman/)
Two men watch the village goats. (Mary Gelman/)
Julia often tells stories about her relationship with another villager, though it’s only her illusion. (Mary Gelman/)
Lisa, a volunteer, with a donkey on a walk. She has been at Svetlana Village for nearly two years. She worked in the bakery, took care of the donkey and now is working on the farm. Young people from different countries often come to live and work in the village. (Mary Gelman/)
The Lars Henrik house during a blizzard. (Mary Gelman/)
Raya works in a bakery and loves to sit by the window watching what’s going on. She also likes dressing up and trying cosmetics. (Mary Gelman/)
The village is in the Volkhovsky District in Leningrad Oblast on the River Syas. (Mary Gelman/)

Mary Gelman is a documentary photographer and sociologist from St. Petersburg.

More on In Sight:

In this unrecognized republic, it’s not a matter of if the children leave, it’s when

Kosovo marks 10 years of independence, but its people remain divided

A voyage along Congo’s rivers in search of a virus

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.


Chloe Coleman is a photo editor at The Washington Post working in Outlook and Foreign news focusing on The Americas, Europe and Russia. She is regular contributor to the In Sight blog. She joined the Post in 2014.

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