Volunteers: A Study in Contrasts


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”

IMG_1657-003Where 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

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To Make or Not to Make … New Year’s Resolutions


IMG_1657-003Humans’ attempts to improve themselves go back for centuries. The ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods to repay their debts at the beginning of each year. The Medieval knights took vows to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry at the end of Christmas, and we make New Year’s resolutions. Well, “we” doesn’t actually include me. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. For one thing, I believe that they’re grossly overrated. Do you know what the success rate of New Year’s resolutions is? Less than 20%! Also, you have to remember to make them — which isn’t easy in the excitement of a shopping season; and then you have to remember to follow up on them – as if the thing you’re testing is your memory.

In any case, I’m still influenced by the customs of my mother country, where people don’t make resolutions – they make good wishes. What’s the difference? Wishing is a humble thing to do, while declaring that you’ll live differently next year is rather presumptuous. First of all, it assumes that you have control over your life — something we’d never assume. How would we? We’ve lived through revolutions, wars, perestroikas, and Mr. Putin. No, scratch my last statement; Russia still has Mr. Putin!

Anyway, despite my aversion to New Year’s resolutions, I have a warm place for New Year’s in my heart. It is a centerpiece for Russian celebrations, and many attributes of the American Christmas somehow migrated into our culture to make New Year’s festive: a fir tree, a red star, and a bearded man with presents. Of course, in our country these symbols lost their religious meaning. The fir tree no longer evokes the Christian faith, but symbolizes New Year’s. The star on top does not recall Bethlehem, but the Soviet Revolution, and Santa Claus became Ded Moroz (Father Frost),although unlike Santa, he comes with his granddaughter Snegurochka — a pretty woman in a sparkling blue coat and a pointed kokoshnik (a traditional woman’s headdress).1-medium_3086820006

Also like Christmas, New Year’s is the best holiday for children, and it’s accompanied with sweets, presents, and New Year’s plays. The latter take place in theaters, concert halls, and open-air amphitheaters. Their usual scenario is this:

Ded Moroz and Snegurochka are traveling from the North Pole to our cities and towns. They are in a hurry — the kids are waiting for their New Year’s gifts and, more importantly, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka must light the yelkas (fir trees), entwined by strings of unlit bulbs. If they are late, the new year will never come, and although no child knows what that would mean, everybody understands this would be a catastrophe. As the show progresses, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka get separated, and both of them face countless obstacles and Russian folktale villains. The story is breathtaking and suspenseful. Will Ded Moroz and Snegurochka find each other? Will they deliver the gifts? Will they light the yelka on time?

My most memorable New Year’s performance took place when I was five and my grandfather took me for a walk to the nearest park. It was a clear winter day. Snow-dusted trees, benches, and ice-cream kiosks sparkled under the frigid northern sun, and small snowy waterfalls streamed down the stately pine trees. Yet the reason we went there wasn’t the beautiful scenery but a beer stall located in the middle of the park and well attended by rowdy men even in the winter. Actually, Grandpa didn’t plan to take me there — he left me in a small playground next to the stall, where children made snowmen, built snow fortresses, or had snowball fights.

Unfortunately, he paid no attention to the fact that that day the playground was sparsely populated — many children had moved to an amphitheater nearby, which was decorated with tinsel and a large fir tree. I soon headed there, too – just in time for a winter tale to begin. Never seeing a live play before, I was so fascinated that after it was over, I, unnoticed by my grandfather, followed the actors to another amphitheater (there were several in the park), and kept following them around for, possibly, several hours – never getting bored with the repetition and never thinking about my grandfather.

1-IMG_2344When the last performance ended, the sun was setting and blue shadows spread on the snowy ground. Children and their parents began leaving, and I finally realized that my grandfather was no longer nearby.  This was scary by itself, but to make matters worse, I suddenly felt freezing cold. Tears began rolling down my cheeks, and a lump in my throat sent a shock of panic down to my weakening legs. I was alone in the darkening park with no hope of finding my grandfather and nobody around to help me.

Yet a New Year’s tale, unlike real life, always ends well. A passer-by who heard an announcement about a lost five-year-old girl over the park’s loud speakers took pity on me and delivered me to the park’s entrance — all the while reprimanding me for hanging around the park alone and telling me that my grandfather would “wanna teach you a lesson!”

In truth, the only thing my anxious grandfather — who by that time had lost all of his beer-induced happiness – told me was: “Don’t tell anybody. Especially your grandma!” — which I accepted only too willingly, for that meant that nobody would punish me for my misbehavior.

That was a long time ago, and yet, every time New Year’s comes around, I recall that winter day in the park. I even included it in my memoir, which I really-really wish to publish next year. Oh, what the heck, maybe I’ll make a New Year’s resolution this time around, too. A very small one – to be a better person.  How hard could that be? 🙂

P.S. If you’d like to read a full story of my winter adventure, place click “Like!

P.P.S. Ded Moroz and Snegurochka photo credit: zsoolt via photopin cc

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