April 10-16 is observed in the United States and Canada as National Volunteer Week.
“Volunteer: a person who willingly does work without getting paid to do it”
Where I came from (Moscow, Russia), we never volunteered — at least not in the American way. The thing was that we didn’t have to — authorities “volunteered” us when and where they desired. The “without getting paid” part (see definition above) worked the same way as it does in America. As for the willingness, nobody ever cared to ask.
The most common cases of Russian “volunteering” during my time there included sending citizens to express their (fake) enthusiasm at state parades, and sending city dwellers to collective farms to help with harvesting.
I still remember spending long weeks (even months) picking cabbages and potatoes, hours away from my home in Moscow — living in military-style barracks, wearing oversized black rain boots and ugly telogreikas (black, shapeless quilted jackets), and drinking vodka — the only entertainment available in the provinces.
I also remember “voluntarily” greeting foreign dignitaries, including Gerald Ford, who visited Russia (then The Soviet Union) in November 1974. My whole college was positioned along Moscow’s wide Leninsky Prospect (Lenin’s Avenue) for about 2 hours, bored and cold, waiting for the black limousines and leather-clad motorcyclists to drive quickly past us, while we waved at them and smiled forced smiles under the command of our superiors.
This is not to say that nobody in Russia would take to the streets voluntarily. There were a few — some protesting against the injustice of the regime and some trying to force the authorities to allow them to leave the country. Yet they were called “dissidents,” and the country had appropriate places for them — mostly the state prisons. All in all, “altruism” was not a common word in our vocabulary – “mandate” was.
Of course, I haven’t been in the country of my birth for a very long time, and things are different there now. These days Russia, too, has volunteers. One example is Russian soldiers — sorry, I meant to say “volunteers” — who fought against the Ukranian Army in 2014-15 (in Ukrainian territory, mind you). Unlike my days of digging in the mud in Russian potato/cabbage/carrots/ etc. fields, those guys weren’t wearing telograikas and rain boots, but military style clothing. They were better equipped, too. Instead of sacks for gathering veggies, they carried automatic rifles, drove tanks, and used Russian-made rockets. Yet small differences aside, it’s clear that volunteering has finally made its way to Russia. In fact, some Russian volunteers are fighting in Syria right now.
Coming to America in 1990 was disorienting for me in a number of ways — mentally, linguistically and culturally; and one of things that amazed me was this American “volunteering streak.” I remember asking people, “Do you mean that nobody forces (or pays) volunteers to travel to different states to help victims of natural disasters or to support a cause?! That some people would spend their time and money to feed the poor or organize and attend fundraisers?” And when I heard, “yes,” I just shook my head in disbelief.
I’m not saying everybody in this country is an altruist. Of course not. I am saying, though, that I know many people here who have done – and will do again – all of the above and more. And let me tell you, volunteering is contagious. These days, I volunteer, too. I’ve participated in a number of fundraisers, and I’ve donated things to my congregation and my library. It’s not much, but it’s a beginning. For I finally understood that John Donne’s famous quote is not just poetic. It is a truth of the human condition:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved