I have to say that Krasnodar really blew me away since there was such a gap between my expectations and what I actually encountered there. I expected a sleepy agricultural town in the Black Sea region; however, what I saw was a vibrant city with some very civic-minded people taking the initiative to resolve problems in their communities and get local government to be responsive to the needs and desires of the residents.
On our first day there, we began the walk from our charming hotel on a brisk morning to the site of our informal meeting with some of Krasnodar's professionals, including some from the local Rotary Club (there are a number of active Rotary Clubs throughout Russia) and those who were graduates of the program that brought aspiring Russian entrepreneurs for training with compatible business professionals in the U.S. during the 80's and 90's (sponsored by Sharon Tennison's organization, the Center for Citizen Initiatives). We got no further than the first block when one of the participants of the meeting, an older woman, recognized us at the stoplight and got our attention. We all crammed into her small sedan and rode on to the location, with Russian hip-hop playing on the radio.
Before the meeting formally began, we all casually introduced ourselves, tanked up on coffee, tea and water, and mingled as Russian music that sounded very similar to the American soul of the early 60's played mellow in the background. About 20 people participated in the meeting (excluding Sharon and myself), 6 of them were women; their professions included legal, medicine, accounting, advertising, construction, engineering, architecture, retail and agricultural production. The Rotarians present discussed some of the service projects they had recently worked on: various youth programs, including children with Down Syndrome as well as the Gifted and Talented program, polio eradication, and tree planting.
Afterwards, we took a taxi to the location where we met up with a tall statuesque blond who guided us on a brief walking tour of downtown. In terms of architecture, we saw the old and the new side by side, a large shopping center that was built around a large tower that had been there for generations that local residents saved from destruction by the mall planners, a square with controversial fountains (the residents thought money was wasted on too many fountains that could have gone for practical infrastructure improvements), and a main thoroughfare that was closed to auto traffic, allowing pedestrians free rein. Couples, parents pushing baby strollers, and bicyclists all wound their way through the streets as both Russian and American music was piped in and building walls on one side of the street for a stretch displayed delicate illustrations of Russian history.
Later that evening, we met with four women who worked for various NGO's, ranging from education and culture to oversight of Russia's prison system in the Krasnodar region. Of course, there was much discussion of Russia's law on foreign agents. Although most of the women understood why the Russian government wanted to crack down on NGO's that were funded by the U.S. government's National Endowment for Democracy, they were upset that some authentic Russian NGO''s were getting caught in the dragnet. One expressed her sense of irony that Putin had initiated and supported the development of civil society by conducting the first Forum on Social Activism in 2001, stating that such initiation and support "certainly wouldn't have happened under Yeltsin." The law appears to be undergoing revision and not as many organizations are on the list as in the beginning.
The woman who represented the oversight of prisons told a sad tale of a young man who was acknowledged by some authorities to be innocent of the crime he was in prison for as it was later discovered that it wasn't possible for him to have been at the location of the crime at the time it was committed (he was only 16 or 17 years old at the time of the alleged crime). She said that certain authorities did not want to admit they made a mistake and so the young man continued to remain in detention. In an attempt to show solidarity and provide perspective, I told the woman that there were people in the U.S. having to fight similar battles as I could think of 3 prisoners off the top of my head who had been executed in the past 10 years who's guilt was in serious doubt and who clearly had not received due process. (Unlike the U.S., Russia does not have the death penalty). The woman expressed skepticism at my assertion that we had such problem in the U.S.
On the second day, our translator and liaison, Natasha, along with her 25-year old son Valery, both of whom tirelessly facilitated meetings during our stay in Krasnodar, led us to the city's "Public Council." This is a group of citizens, from their 20's and older, who work with local government to ensure that policy is responsive to the needs and desires of the residents. They first came together to express their outrage at and to put a stop to the city's practice of cutting down old trees that were deemed dangerous. They first noticed this practice during the Museum Day holiday in May of 2014. They took pictures of the destruction, posted them on Facebook, and spread the word. A local businesswoman led the group as they began negotiations with the mayor who advised them to register with the city so they could communicate their concerns with city officials more easily. Not only did they successfully end the destruction of old trees in the city, they have saved parks and buildings from destruction as well. They have subsequently taken on other projects, including periodic clean-up and renovation days in various parts of the city. Citizens from other Russian cities have gotten in touch and expressed interest in replicating the Public Council model where they live.
Our last stop of the day was at a school where Tennison spoke to about 30 students around the ages of 15-17 about her experience of working in Russia for over 30 years. The students were intrigued by her story as an American who was prompted to "go meet the enemy" for herself at one of the worst points of the Cold War in 1983, and were flabbergasted to learn that she is 79 years old as she's obviously still as vital as ever. They responded enthusiastically to her nascent project of getting programs started whereby American and Russian youth spend time in homes in each other's countries, sharing language and culture and spreading goodwill. This enthusiasm did not surprise me in light of the conversations I've had with a wide range of Russians since I've been here. One question I asked as many people as I could was, "What is the one thing you'd like to say to Americans?" I will be covering what they said in a later article.
Natylie Baldwin is co-author of Ukraine: Zbig's Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated, available from Tayen Lane Publishing. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various publications including Sun Monthly, Dissident Voice, (more...)