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

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.

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

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