Volunteering in Russia
Everything You Need to Succeed
Volunteering in Russia is a chance to experience the country from the inside, but finding volunteering opportunities in Russia can be very difficult, mostly from the lack of information. However, the need for volunteers is enormous.
Russia ’s transition to capitalism has created an array of problems not adequately addressed by the state. Volunteers can provide valuable help in areas ranging from environmental work and cultural exchange to social care and education.
Agencies that provide organized volunteering trips to Russia are easy to find, though the programs they offer are usually very expensive. It is worth thinking carefully about why you want to volunteer and where you want your money to go.
If you’re looking for life experience and a chance to travel while doing something fulfilling, such packages may be right for you. If your aim is to maximize your contribution to an important cause, you might consider other options. Among the most deserving causes are the ones without agencies bringing in volunteers and without the means to advertise themselves.
For the cost of some 1-month programs an orphanage could employ a qualified Russian nurse for almost a year. Think about how best to use the money you have available for the trip.
Finding a Cause
Base your search on how you want to contribute and the skills that you can offer. A first-year medical student is unlikely to be allowed to do anything in a surgery ward other than stand by and watch, but you may be extremely valuable in a drugs counseling or sex education clinic.
To volunteer for a professional position in Russia you generally have to be qualified for the role and should speak Russian well enough to cope with all duties required of the position.
Unless you are a professional looking for work experience, avoid “voluntary” work that should otherwise be paid. You may be occupying a position that would employ a local worker. Some language schools and other businesses use such means to enlist free labor.
Attitudes Towards Volunteers
Elena Walsh works in Moscow with Habitat for Humanity International (www.habitat.org). She advises that Russians may be suspicious of people who want to volunteer, especially if the work involves dealing with vulnerable individuals.
If you approach an organization that does not advertise vacancies for volunteers, be ready to answer questions about why you want to work for nothing and why you don’t volunteer in your own country instead. Many Russians are deeply distrusting of evangelists and missionaries, particularly Mormons, so avoid mentioning religion unless it is entirely appropriate to do so.
Some of the most harrowing problems in Russia are those faced by children, the elderly and the disabled. Volunteers should be prepared for distressing situations. Solvent abuse, sexual abuse, and prostitution are rife among the country’s street children.
Orphanages and shelters need counselors and people to teach basic skills for life and work.
For further information on social charities see the links section at the end of the article.
See Joshua Hartshorne’s article on the Transitions Abroad website for a personal account of his volunteering adventure on the Baikal Trail in Siberia. Volunteering in environmental projects can be a rewarding and exciting experience, especially for outdoors enthusiasts.
np-volunteer.narod.ru/index.htm (in Russian only) has information on a number of openings for environmental volunteers in Russian national parks.
When volunteering in education avoid becoming a substitute for a local teacher. As a volunteer you may be able to create evening study groups or find a school willing to organize classes for you to teach. Teaching a foreign language is an obvious option, but you may also be able to teach other useful skills.
Again, it will help if you can reassure people that you are not acting out of religious motives. Bear in mind that free language lessons are often treated with suspicion as this is a common tactic used by missionaries to recruit followers.
If you are planning an extended stay as a volunteer, think about how you will support yourself. Giving language lessons privately or through a local school is one possibility.
You could also ask friends, relatives, or neighbors in your home country to sponsor you. Or try approaching local businesses. A local or even a national newspaper may be willing to contribute financially in return for a regular update on your work.
Budget carefully, and make sure you have money in reserve for emergencies and for your journey home. Wherever you go, be sure to register with the nearest consulate or embassy and familiarize yourself with the emergency assistance they can provide; it’s often more limited than most people expect.
Try to economize on accommodations as much as possible. Ask your host organization if they know anyone who could give you cheap homestay accommodation. To avoid disappointment, don’t expect anything in return for your voluntary efforts, although you may well find that you are rewarded with unbounded hospitality. Reciprocate and contribute wherever you can and you will be sure to make good friends.
Visa and Legal Issues
You need a visa to enter Russia that is valid for the entire length of your stay, and you must register within three working days of entering Russia.
To obtain a visa you must have an invitation. If your host organization is unable to issue a visa invitation for you, you will need to arrange it through a travel service. Many companies issue visa invitations online.
www.waytorussia.net is an excellent information source for all issues related to visa and employment issues. Laws change regularly, so be sure to check the current situation before embarking on your journey. A professional visa invitation broker should be able to advise you in detail on the latest regulations.
Volunteering can be a rewarding and satisfying way to improve your language skills through everyday communication, but I wouldn’t recommend making this your main objective.
For those who need some guidance on Russian before setting off, www.ruslang.com is an excellent online resource with lessons and audio recordings from the alphabet and numbers to advanced grammar.
Research your chosen destination and organization as thoroughly as possible, and take note of any dangers issued by your country’s foreign office.
Tuberculosis is common in Russia. It’s a good idea to get vaccinated before arrival, especially if you will be working with homeless people or in hospitals.
Giardia is a dangerous parasite that breeds in some water supplies (especially St. Petersburg). Metronidazole is the only effective cure (easily available over the counter).
Consult your GP for any other vaccinations and medication you might need before leaving.
For More Info
Volunteering Opportunities in Russia
www.sras.org, (listing service provided by the School of Russian and Asian Studies, Moscow);
www.actionarc.com (Action for Russia’s Children);
np-volunteer.narod.ru/index.htm (Environmental opportunities in national parks -- Russian only);
www.nevachildren.org (Neva Childrens Charity is a British registered charity that carries out vital upgrade and maintenance work in run-down children's hospitals in St. Petersburg. Volunteers from all backgrounds are welcomed to help with repair and renovation work).
Searchable Database of Volunteering Positions
www.vfp.org (Volunteers For Peace).