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Category: International

Russian Women Look Outward to Create Change

| September 11, 2008

The Russian conflict with Georgia may as some predict risk a return to Cold War-style relations. But from what I saw in Chuvashia, an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation, 600 kilometers east of Moscow—from the vantage point of an innovative summer camp that was nearing season’s end—changes in the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union have taken root.

Sasha Phillippova, founder of Sodrujestvo, a language, culture, ecological and human rights camp for kids, explained that her program offers an alternative to the very strict and competitive Soviet style summer camps.  Sodrujestvo, or Unity, brings children ages 6 to 15 together for two weeks on the banks of the Volga River near Cheboksary, the capital of the Chuvash Republic.

Sitting in the humid dining hall eating borscht and rye bread, Sasha, a native Chuvashian, recalled stories of growing up in the Soviet days. She also spoke of her passion for travel, bringing back what she learns about other cultures to make change in her community.  My husband Paul and I were participating through the Volunteers for Peace program, which coordinates hundreds of community projects worldwide. "Cheboksary is a provincial city, and although Chuvashia has a long and rich history, not so many foreigners come here. That's why there are not a lot of possibilities for youngsters to meet other cultures and have international friends. Sodrujestvo is trying to fill this gap," said Sasha.

The camp's international volunteers usually include Germans, Swiss, British and Belgians; we were the first Americans to participate. Camp volunteers taught languages and led "master classes" on human rights, ecology, philosophy and anything else we knew enough about. I taught one on Haiku poems and Paul led a class on Buddhism. In turn, the camp kids taught us Russian and aspects of their culture. We worked with young Russian leaders daily to adjust the program, which kept it flexible enough to let both kids and teachers make mistakes and learn from them.

Without explicitly saying it, Sasha described a feminist, community-based approach to leadership, education and power.  When I asked her what her goal was, she sighed, recognizing perhaps the enormity of her vision. “I want our kids to develop leadership skills and independent thinking,” she said, “so they can be active, not passive. We try to break down prejudices and stereotypes by living and working together with people of different backgrounds. This way, the participants can experience a world of respect and understanding, in which conflicts are solved without violence."

An overnight train ride and several cups of black tea with lemon later, and I’m meeting with other leaders who use international contacts and models to work to improve women’s lives. Elena Kalinina directs the Social and Economic Institute of St. Petersburg, which, she says, seeks to actively involve “women in political, economic, and social life” and “create an international network to support their efforts at realizing democratic reforms in Russia.” She expects to attract scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs and public figures from Europe, the former soviet republics and the Baltic states for a 15th annual conference in November, Women Who Change the World. Delivering the keynote will be St. Petersburg Governor Valentine Matviyenko, a close friend of Vladimir Putin’s and the most powerful woman politician in Russia. (Elena serves on her Committee on Women’s Equality.)

One of the institute's partners is Women's Health St. Petersburg, headed up by Lidia Simbertsiva. A major issue for Russian women, she said, along with HIV/AIDS and unemployment, is violence. “In Russia we have no laws about domestic violence and we are trying to change that." It’s not the first time she’s looked across international borders for models for change. She worked with Boston’s Our Bodies Ourselves collective to translate the group’s landmark book. Now it’s accessible over the Internet and used by women throughout Russia.

Many Russian women have been working toward equality and alternatives to Soviet-style programs for years and continue to do so. Now some are also looking outward to other countries and international projects in order to create change at home.