How surviving Russian CSOs have coped with a year of self-isolation

A year of self-isolating: How CSOs that managed to survive are feeling


How many volunteers won’t be returning to work; terrible numbers recorded in Perm; and how the pandemic became a five-year event in three years.

Exactly one year ago, on 30 March 2020, the first non-working week of future Covid isolation began with an instruction from Vladimir Putin for people to stay indoors and for institutions to close. What were CSOs thinking at the time and did the year of lockdown meet their expectations?

The ship of volunteers on ice

Yuri Belanovsky, head of the Danilovtsy volunteer movement

During the initial lockdown, everyone’s attitude was “let’s think about this tomorrow”. After a few weeks we suddenly realised that our main task was to keep the volunteer community alive, which was likely to take some time. So the question was: what to do with volunteers if there was no work?

So I wrote a long letter to all our staff, coordinators and volunteers saying that we were having an unexpected winter on a ship that’s sailed a great distance but is now stuck in the ice. The crew’s OK but we’re not able to sail.

Secondly, we had to accept that we were living in unprecedented times. I imagined we were playing a game of strategy where there’s a dark zone around a person who, wherever he or she sticks their nose, brings a little light to the area around them. And from where there could be

something risky, difficult yet wonderful that could help us. That’s how we felt during those first few months.

(Buying a ticket to Budapest and lying on the grass: What CSOs will be doing. Read more on the ASI website).

We had internal expectations for the year ahead but were beating ourselves up, forcing ourselves to live for today as making predictions at times of great uncertainty is always a risky business. We had hopes that the restrictions and closures of institutions, not the pandemic itself, would be over in less than a year but these were soon dashed. The prediction that some volunteers would not make it to the end was justified.

So more than one year on, institutions are still closed and despite the easing of restrictions for which we are grateful, the situation hasn’t dramatically changed These past twelve months of lockdown have been quite unbearable.

Yuri Belanovsky

In my opinion, social volunteering has been set back five years. There has been an approximately 70% drop in the number of active volunteers. No-one can really confirm or deny this figure – I guess the only way we’ll find out is to see how many volunteers report for work when everything opens up again. On the other hand, losses can be made up by those willing to help but we are stuck in a situation we could never have imagined.

The hope was that everyone would be prepared to be vaccinated, thereby enabling us to go out and volunteer – no such luck. Only 5-10% of volunteers are willing to be vaccinated. I’ve heard experts say that vaccinations are not happening in the country. This isn’t to say that the State is doing a bad job but more a case that people don’t want to be vaccinated. We’re part of a vicious circle. Volunteers have no personal desire to get vaccinated. But they might have had the vaccine if Kolya, Masha, Dasha, Andryusha and other people in their care, children and adults had been expecting a visit from them in hospitals tomorrow. But they are not expecting them because the hospital doors are closed due to lockdown restrictions.

But the year hasn’t totally been wasted. We have benefitted from the experience and mastered the art of online working.

Big-hearted Penza and terrible figures

Oleg Sharipkov, Executive Director of Penza’s Civic Union Foundation (which is included on the CSOs’ foreign agents register)

We held our last major event on 23 March last year – the Activity in Old Age Forum. We encountered problems straight away in that we had to replace one of our speakers four times, with people either afraid or unable to attend.

Among those invited was an epidemiologist. While he was telling us all what to expect, I whispered to my colleagues “He’s giving us quite a fright – why is he scaring us so much?”. And as the forum was coming to an end, I jokingly said that this was probably going to be the last big event of the year. Everyone laughed but just one week later everything had been closed and the doctor’s predictions exceeded three times over!

All this time our workload had increased enormously despite our non-stop efforts. But being active helped us feel human and not thinking we were all going to die. It was also very strange finishing work at 6pm on a summer’s evening – it’s still light, yet there’s no-one on the streets at all. The only sound is that of a loudspeaker blaring out the message that everything’s closed and that you can’t go anywhere.

(The number of regional CSOs may fall by at least 30%. Read more on the ASI website).

We had long been reluctant to work online but in June everyone was looking forward to the annual Big-Hearted Penza festival and we thought, well, why not? So we devised a format where each organisation had its own stand and stage on a virtual exhibition site. We also held an auction.

Of course, Covid-19 has undermined the work of many not-for-profit organisations. We conducted a study on the “Impact of the pandemic on the work of CSOs in the Penza area” and the results were terrible. Only 40 organisations throughout the entire region have survived and are still operating, compared to the previous figure of around 200.

However, on the whole, society seems to think that the pandemic’s over. People may still be getting ill and dying but no-one seems afraid anymore, with people ready to go on trips and take part in offline events and many already doing so.

There’s no me, there’s us

Olga Demicheva, President of the international Dr Liza Fair Help Foundation

I remember very well how it all started. It has been an unforgettable year for the world, for our country, for our organisation and for me personally. At the beginning of March last year, I had just taken up my post at the Foundation and among all my responsibilities I now had to deal with the pandemic.

But an organisation must not only survive but operate in triplicate. Especially at a time when donations are declining with many businesses in financial difficulty and yesterday’s donors starting to fall by the wayside. We therefore had to somehow rethink our strategy and find the courage to apply for grants, not merely to survive but to be productive. We worked as a team – there was no me in the organisation, there was us. That is how we remained viable.

We had no luck, but being unlucky helped

Anna Alieva-Khrustaleva, Vice-President for External and Internal Communications at the Rus Food Foundation

Following the announcement that restrictions had come into force, we couldn’t afford to spend too much time looking ahead as the top priority was to reassess our whole operational procedures. As it turned out, the assistance we were providing was of tremendous importance.

We felt that our regional development would move at a much slower pace. We never imagined that we would be able to open 11 area offices in so short a time. Colleagues from the World Association of Food Banks urged us to only open one branch from where all the procedures could be fine-tuned, then open others. However, the situation has changed.

Different sectors – business, government and civil society – all became involved in resolving social problems. And we also had to deal with requests not only from those in need of support but also from people who wanted to help. We therefore had to develop the infrastructure that we had planned to put together over several years. It turned out to be five years over three years.

No-one expected the restrictions to be in place for so long. Many believed the measures would only be necessary for one or two months but nobody thought this was to be the new normal. It appeared at first to be like a disaster that we could fight and eventually overcome but we came to realise that this wouldn’t be the case.

In April 2020, something was going on. It was impossible to watch, read or listen to the news. Evidence was piling up on the damage being caused to the planet, with constant talk about how many people were ill and had died. All this created severe psychological stress which, in my opinion, can affect even healthy people in a serious way.

However, we shan’t forget what happened in a hurry, or know what the future has in store for us. (“Now is an excellent time for food-sharing: How food can be saved in a pandemic”. For more information, please go to the ASI website).

In spite all this, we feel the scale and geographical outreach of our work have increased. Despite all the challenges, we have achieved stability and our dependable team has grown and shown great character which has enabled us to emerge stronger from the pandemic.

The crisis provided an incentive to look for different approaches, which have helped in enabling us to adapt and change in all circumstances.

It was interesting to see the government become involved which has helped in making changes that support both CSOs and our initiatives.

In our case, the crisis was a blessing in disguise. For several years now, we have been saying how, because of their tax code, it has been more profitable for businesses to throw

away food rather than to donate it to charity. During the crisis, we were quickly able to resolve the income tax problem and halve the tax burden on companies. And that probably wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the pandemic.


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