A haze of organizations and information clouded by dirty, dirty melting snow

The last few days have been an overwhelming whirl of different meetings with various organizations and so many students, teachers, and leaders that its hard for me to keep track.  My phone has been my best friend, recording hours of conversations so I can decipher which organization does what, with whom, and by whom. Of course after about five minutes of discussing their own work, our conversation quickly transforms into a question-answer session on American culture, my perceptions on Russia, and whatever else floats into their minds.

Not to mention the snow is melting, and the city has transformed into one gigantic puddle. Riding in public transportation, you cannot even see out the window. Navigating the sidewalks is a maze of rocky steps, slushy dirt, puddles that cover entire intersections, and dog poop residue.

Thanks to Sasha (selfie Alexander), who has chartered me around pretty much for the past couple of days, I have been able to document my meetings. He’s extremely well-versed at social media, and has been sure to post things on vkontakte and instagram.

On Tuesday, I visited the Center for Independent Living, a center that focuses on rehabilitation of disabled persons.  We had a small circle of members of the organizations, as well as local students doing internships or working with the organization.  They ran through the primary aspects of the center: providing a place where disabled people can learn about their rights; working with lawyers to ensure their rights are protected; creating a place and space for like people to come together; and offering courses in computers, or other practical skills helpful for them to integrate into society.

We talked a lot of the services provided to disabled peoples – they have a special taxi service with access to vehicles appropriate for people in wheelchairs.  The situation in Tolyatti has also improved, but only in recent years (since 2013).  There are now more visible ramps, sidewalks, and other facilities to help them navigate the city, though they expressed that the sidewalks and roads, especially in winter and in their current condition, have remained an issue.

I then traveled to Sasha’s place of employment: “Open Alternatives”, and met the office.  The organization works with the government to improve the lives of the youth, especially in terms of alcohol and substance abuse. That morning, Sasha had a meeting at the local government regarding legislature and implementation of methods and programs to curtail underage sales. His boss  Anatoly Gennadivich Arsenihin and I had a really great conversation about a plethora of topics, comparing the Soviet Union to current Russia; recalling and exchanging stories about places we’d travelled to and our impressions, planning for the future and ways in which we could collaborate.

With the director of Open Alternatives, Arsenihin Anatoly Gennadivich.  He kept commenting on my Turkish ring with the evil eye: "That's your evil eye, and this is ours", he said, pointing to the flag behind us. "It brings us the luck we need to do our job."

With the director of Open Alternatives, Arsenihin Anatoly Gennadivich. He kept commenting on my Turkish ring with an evil eye: “That’s your evil eye, and this is ours”, he said, pointing to the flag behind us. “It brings us the luck we need to do our job.”

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On the table, there was a small bucket with change, written on it “Tolyatti”. I tossed in some of my change, then Sasha asked for a dollar. He was so excited, he had to document it. 🙂

“See, in the Soviet Union, we didn’t have these problems with the youth. There were many organizations set up for youth programs, you know like the Pioneers – do you know them? Well of course you do. And these programs helped students stay focused and participate in their community. They weren’t drinking and they weren’t smoking. But in the 90s, these programs disappeared and now we have to deal with these issues and find ways to help our youth become interested in positive things.”

This summary, this comparison of generations, is something I’ve heard at almost every organization I’ve been to. And it makes complete sense. These groups working with youth are doing so in order to inform them of ways they can participate in society; provide them with a plethora of activities to spark various interest groups; and help them stay away from substance abuse. I’d have to say it works pretty well, though there are always issues with funding, and it’s difficult to reach every teenager. Yet, there are a strong number of students who see this as a social experience, a group of belonging, and a way to actively participate in local civil society. That and it helps them gain bonus points for their university applications… sound familiar?

Sasha and I then traveled to a cafe, where we met with Igor, who heads the group, “Society for Young Scholars”. As I sipped on my latte, they explained the events they hold: from logic game nights, to musical competitions, student government, and volunteer opportunities, these kids do it all. Unlike the American system, where many of the organizations are directly associated with schools, Russian youth organizations are primarily disconnected from the schools, though they use them to recruit volunteers and participants for events.  The group at our round table consisted of 17-18 year olds from various colleges and schools throughout Tolyatti.

I really enjoyed talking to these young men. They were a passionate bunch that clearly loved what they did, loved their companions, and were excited about the future and about life in general. They asked amazing questions and we shared lots of stories.  I introduced them to SnapChat and showed them my driving license and passport. They were absolutely enthralled.

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Wednesday, I met Olga Tabunov, Sergei’s wife, and her organization – lets keep it short and sweet – Chance. Here I met all the different administrators, who all focused on different spheres of community involvement.  First, there was Masha, who worked with disabled students, and also environmental matters, such as gathering students to clean up the streets in the spring.  After talking with her for a half hour and enjoying tea and sweets, they left me in their office while they attending a meeting, which I accidentally pronounced as a “date”, eliciting a good laugh.  I sat in their office admiring all the papers, awards, books, and pictures, feeling sleepy from the cool breeze flowing in from outside and the sun beating through the windows.  In a desperate attempt to not fall asleep, I perused the immense bank of pictures and videos they had collected from their many events.

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This is Masha’s desk – look at all those awards! “These are only a few of them,” she chuckles, “You should see the other piles.”

After going to the supermarket for lunch, and browsing all the wondrous Russian dishes, I settled on a crab and mayonnaise salad with cucumbers. Zhenya takes a seat next to me.  First, came a personal story – how she met her boyfriend:  Zhenya often when to her parent’s dacha, located far from Tolaytti in some remote village, somewhere. And there she met some guy, and they kept talking, and they met again there, etc. Turns out he was also from Tolyatti, and his parents had a dacha nearby her own. Fate!

Then Zhenya turned to her work (I’m not sure what was more interesting, though I adore stores of fate).   Essentially, she hosted something like a “War Club”. Students trained in the skills that may be needed for when they are drafted in the army.  They practiced martial arts, learned how to hold a gun, how to march, and the appropriate mannerisms or habits needed in a soldier.  Additionally, there were lessons on Russian history for those students who maybe were unable to get the full historical experience in school, or maybe simply desired to learn more about Russian historical events.

This program was interesting for many reasons: the first being, Zhenya was the most girly of girls there, in a short cropped dress, with high heels; so when she began describing the club, it was a bit unexpected and for a bit I didn’t understand.  When I finally comprehended the gist of the club, I was really impressed and refreshed by her ability break so many underlying stereotypes.  Secondly, these clubs are a big deal in Russia, and Tolyatti itself has many that compete amongst themselves and then continue into national competitions.  Lastly, this is a brilliant idea when you take into consideration the social and political demands of Russia.  Here, they have a mandatory service for each male before he is able to join the working world.  Whether they like it or not, they must go and spend at least a year somewhere in Russia. While most abide by these regulations, some pay to avoid serving; others move out of the country; many continue school for eternity…

Short anecdote on this note: Valerii, Sergei’s student and my tour guide on day one, had explained the events of the draft to me.  As a 19 year old, he is soon approaching his time to serve, and is quite excited about it. They are mailed a letter from the army stating that they need to meet at Tolyatti’s bus station on a certain date.  They show up, and pile into busses that take them to a military compound somewhere else in Russia – they remain unaware to which base they’ll be going.  Once there, their skills are ‘analyzed’ and they’re sent to different places throughout Russia – again, unknown until the moment of departure.  Valerii also explained that the military and police force are slowly increasing their reputation here in Russia and thus, salaries are rising.  As I explained the benefits of serving in America, and thus no need for a mandatory draft, he agreed, stating Russia has started to move in that direction, and he might just stay in the army if he likes it. He’s really into military stuff – as he knew a ton about the military vehicles we perused at the museum and actively participates in reenactments.

Anyways, back to ‘Chance’.  Lastly, in the group with whom I talked, was Nastiya, who heads the ‘leadership’ sphere of the organization.  Within Tolyatti, there is a leadership club in each region, totalling to three. Within their own separate groups they facilitate various events in each region.  Furthermore, they run seminars on improving leadership skills, how to manage an event, advertising, and other useful skill sets (similar to what Sasha also does, and I’m sure they collaborate – everyone does here).

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Their auditorium where many “Master Classes” or events are held. I particularly enjoyed the lighting and the breeze coming in through the windows.

After all that information, Masha, two of her colleagues and I traveled to a orphanage on the edge of the city, where we were to direct a game day.  We were met there by may student volunteers, some of whom I already met at previous events or through previous organizations. The greatest part, was that I was just another member of the group. The kids didn’t even realize I was foreign (or maybe didn’t care) and I wasn’t asked any intrusive questions, or pushed to discuss America. I hung out with one of the volunteers, Elshad, who gifted me a bracelet, and we joked around, encouraging the students in our group during the event.  And while I would have enjoyed touring the orphanage and chatting with the kids, it was, nonetheless, a refreshing few hours.

Here’s a short video of the kids participating in our activities.  Elshad, the student with whom I judged, was great. They was definitely the unofficial leader of the group, due to his extremely active participation in volunteer events. We laughed a lot about the students who just gave up and ran to the finish line, while praising those students who followed the rules to the very end (the little boy with the telephone around his neck, he was my favorite) and adored the little girl in our group who participated with a enormous smile on her face.

At the end, each team was awarded with a small prize. Our team came in last.  As one of the student said

“It not important if you win; the most important thing is that you participate.”

I’ve been reminded yet again that no matter what country you’re in, or what language is the medium, teens are teens. These teenagers are just like ours.  They dress similarly, they act the same (ooo lets take one big selfie!!). They’re obsessed with social media, arts, pop music, and fashion.  They enjoy volunteering and helping their community. They’re hoping to make it into university (the volunteering helps).  They follow the NBA and know who Pavel Datsyuk is. They flirt. They get distracted by one another. They love life.

However, I did notice that teens in both Russia and Turkey seem to be more inclusive   and more diverse. Even teens who enjoy listening to metal, wearing black cuff links and military style boots, or shy girls who watch anime and doodle odd graphics interact in unison with others who fit a more “stereotypical norm” within youth societies. As I reflected on my own experiences in high school I remember how cruel those years were; how if you didn’t fit a certain mold, you were perpetually mocked until the day of graduation when you realized none of it mattered anymore. Perhaps I encountered an extreme vision of bullying; however, I have the feeling its a significant problem throughout America.  Of course there was teasing, especially in Turkey, and people cried, or occasionally stormed out of the room.. but never like I personally experienced in my years.

Needless to say, I now have significantly more followers on Instagram.. and the best part: they like EVERYTHING.

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