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Goodwill heroes: the history of the volunteer movement in Russia - in the Presidential Library’s collections

1 December 2018

The outgoing 2018 was declared the Year of the Volunteer in Russia. Many volunteer initiatives have been implemented in our country, a number of events have been organized, which could not have been possible without the participation of public assistance. Mutual assistance is the most important national trait of the Russian people. Evidence of this statement is reflected in new digital collection of the Presidential Library “Year of the Volunteer in Russia”. It tells how the volunteer movement was originated in our country, how it evolved, what organizations were created to provide selfless help to those in need.   

Of interest are the instructions that were given to the sisters of mercy in the Russian military hospitals of the XIX century. They are described in detail in one of the issues of St. Petersburg Vedomosti (1860): “They are charged with the duty to look at: a. So that the food is benign, and in general, so that the patients will be given all that they should and that they will be prescribed by the doctor personally handing out portions in wards and personally handing out prescribed wine and vodka to patients; b. to change the bed linen and sick bed at the proper time, to be constantly clean, dry and unbroken, especially in such diseases where change is often required; c. to keep the chambers in proper tidiness, there was no bad smell, the air was at a proper temperature and was always cleaned by means of air vents and fireplaces; d. so that at night in the wards, corridors and water closets at the appointed time the fire burned; e. so that the ward receivers, attendants and nurses fulfill their duties exactly”.  

One of the main goals of the collection dedicated to the volunteer movement is to show how great, though not always noticeable, is the role of volunteers in the history of our country. An invaluable contribution to the victories of the Russian army in World War I was made by the same sisters of mercy. Often their exploits were no less significant than the military courage of our soldiers and officers. One of the participants in the events of those years, Lidia Zakharova, in her Diary of a Sister of Mercy (1915), tells in detail what had to be experienced at the front of very young girls who left everything and went to help the Russian army: “I remember the feeling of emotion and desire that overwhelmed me to bow my head before the beautiful banner of mercy, under the shadow of which I assembled to fight, a small imperceptible rank and file of a great army”.

A significant section of the collection is devoted to the work of Russian volunteers in the international organization "Red Cross". Of particular interest is the rare edition “Red Cross at Sea” (1901) by I. A. Ovchinnikov. The book describes how the first Russian medical vessel was created to evacuate the victims during the fighting in China to suppress the so-called boxing riot: “The desire to alleviate the situation of the wounded in the Far East was reflected in the arrangement of the entire network of Red Cross and sending the ship Tsaritsa “For their evacuation from Taku to Port Arthur and Vladivostok. It cannot but be noted that the ship Tsaritsa is the first floating Russian hospital, equipped with the care of the Red Cross Society ... ”

Another area of ​​Russian volunteering that few people know about is the rehabilitation of prisoners. This gap can be eliminated thanks to the book by E. M. Barantsevich “The Importance of Society Patronage during War and National Disasters” (1915). Here is what the author writes about the main tasks of the association: “[Members of the Patronage] are obliged to visit places of detention, positively affecting prisoners so that these prison inmates, by their behavior in places of detention, indulging in work, would try to earn early release. Having been released early, they would have returned to the family centers they had forgotten, but already restored and able to work people”.

Speaking about little-known facts, it is worth noting that in our country almost everyone is familiar with such a phenomenon as “subbotnik” - but how, when and by whom were they invented? The answer to these questions is contained in the rare edition of R. Arsky “The Anniversary of Communist Subbotnik” (1920): “On May 10, 1919, the idea of ​​communist subbotnik emerged for the first time. The first communist subbotnik workers began to spend the Communists of the Moscow-Kazan railway road that gave the rest of the workers of Russia an example of this kind of work. The communists, the railroad workers of this road, took into account the difficult situation in which Soviet Russia was located, and decided to help it not by word, but by deed. Workers Communists of Kazan railway road without thinking for a long time, they decided in a difficult time, when the country was in danger of collapse and death, to take on perhaps more vigorously work, which alone can put in order the railways, transport, factories and factories badly damaged by military events, and help Soviet Russia".

In addition, in the 20s of the 20th century, the Soviet authorities were seriously alarmed by the abundant stockpiles of chemical weapons in a number of Western countries. To prepare the population for defense and to talk about precautionary measures in the event of a poisonous attack, the Dobrokhim public organization was created. The Presidential Library’s collection “Year of the Volunteer in Russia” provides the text of Leonid Trotsky’s speech on this event, “Dobrokhim's Tasks” (1925): “Dobrokhim” should not be created in a manner similar to the straw fire flashes and goes out. We need a long, hard, persistent and systematic work. The main work will be aimed at making the most elementary beginnings of chemistry, for the first time, the domain of the widest masses”.

At all times, our government has paid great attention to the physical health of citizens and their sports education. In the late 70s - early 80s of the last century, volunteers played a significant role in this matter. You can read about this in the article “Be prepared for work and defense”, published in the newspaper “Soviet Sport” (No. 144, 1978): “The task now is to generalize the particles of experience, to go everywhere to purposeful work in all groups physical education, in all residential areas. A crucial role in this will play a clear interaction of all organizations, heads of economic bodies, social assets. It is useful, in particular, for production teams of physical culture to conduct mass sports and recreational work in the same microdistricts sponsored by the party and Komsomol organizations of their enterprises and institutions: they sent coaches, methodologists, assisted with equipment and equipment, and helped in the construction of sports facilities".

It is very important to note that over the years the interest of Russians in voluntary assistance has been growing steadily. The Presidential Library’s collections feature the dissertation abstract by M. V. Pevnaya “Volunteering as a social phenomenon: a managerial approach” (2016), which contains interesting statistics: “The volunteer movement is not limited to different countries and territories. In 2014, 1 billion people over the age of 18 worked as volunteers in the non-profit sector (21%), 2.2 billion people provided assistance to strangers (48.9%). At least once a year, 23 million Russians (19%) volunteered in non-profit organizations, and every third (32%) provided free aid to those in need”.

In addition to unique text materials, the Presidential Library’s new collection “Year of the Volunteer in Russia” widely represents digital copies of paintings, photographs and postcards from different times. Basically, these are portraits of ordinary people who became famous all over the world thanks to their boundless kindness and courage — real heroes.