Teaching Citizens How to Be Good Neighbors

For the old babushkas who live in the neighborhood near Smolensky Bulvar, life is just beginning.

Unlike the old days when doors were kept shut and suspicion ran high, these women are discovering the benefits of knowing who their neighbors are and how they can help each other.

They gather to discuss their problems, such as how to find affordable medicine and where it is cheaper to shop. They are learning about new religious holidays being celebrated again after 70 years of Soviet rule, reading poetry and making new friends in a world of loneliness and hardship.

"Our pensions are so meager that we need all the help we can get," said Nadezhda Shalist, 81, who attended a recent afternoon session at the Neopalimovka Community Center. The center is part of a model project to create a new spirit of community for Moscow's neighborhoods. It is an important first step in developing grass-roots activism with numerous citizen initiative groups and programs involved with the center's activities, including a children's theater, a crisis center, a health center and a library run by community activists.

"When we organized the Neopalimovka center, we first had a crisis center where the [elderly] could discuss what it's like being lonely, how to get buried, depression and health problems," said Zina Kapitonava, a doctor and director of Neopalimovka's health center. "I explain to them, as to little children, what everything means. They have problems with their neighbors so we hook them up with others who can help."

Developing local communities in Russia is not an easy task. Whereas most American cities are divided into neighborhoods, with distinct economic bases and atmospheres of their own, Moscow's neighborhoods sometimes are distinguished only by their assigned administrative numbers.

Developing a sense of community will help residents learn from grassroots champions how to become organizers who can rally their neighbors to fight crime and poor government planning.

"We have had volunteerism, but in a different way," said Igor Kokarev, president of the Citizen's Foundation, which set up the Neopalimovka Community Center. "We were taught to be patriots. The only thing that mattered was that we serve our country. We were taught to sacrifice for country, for the motherland, not to make changes in our community. Here, in the new Russia, we try to find another kind of activism. If we sacrifice, it is not for a faraway future, but for a better life now."

In 1991, following the collapse of communism, Kokarev, a Russian film-maker who made documentaries, went to the United States in search of humanitarian aid for people in need of food and clothing. During his visit he met with American community development specialists and decided that citizen empowerment and community organizing was the best way to achieve real improvement in the lives of Russians.

On his return to Moscow, Kokarev incorporated community development techniques into his program, sometimes borrowing from the Russian experience. For example, he revived the system implemented under Stalin where building captains helped identify residents in need of donations, assessed their financial situations and helped them.

He also set up a thrift shop of donated clothes, using the proceeds from the sales to support communal projects, such as the health center, legal services and local community clubs.

"Before, all the social services were provided by the state but they were poor in quality," he said. "Now people are beginning to help, and they know better their needs."

Kokarev, who now offers consulting to nongovernmental groups hoping to do the same thing in other Russian cities, learned about community organization after working with Dan Karan, the director of training for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board in New York. The two teamed up through the Community Development Partnership Project, which began two years ago with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Community organization has proved successful in the United States. Karan pioneered the idea of tenant ownership by training residents who wanted to take over city-run buildings and buy their apartments. Karan said the project in New York was so successful that of the 850 buildings and 30,000 apartments privatized, only 1 percent failed. He's looking to do the same in Russia.

"Community organizing at the local level and working in coalitions, that is the base for any successful program," he said. "With citizens' organizations the government doesn't have to support you, but if public officials don't feel pressure from their constituents below who can vote them out of office, nothing will be done. Ultimately public officials respond to pressure from organized citizens."

Karan's group also has met with some initial success in Moscow. It first was affiliated with the All-National Fund for the Liquidation of Communal Apartments, which was created to address the needs of local tenants in the Kitai Gorod neighborhood. The fund ran a small theater in a landmark building just a few blocks from Red Square and formed a resident association to promote the building's renovation and encourage a spirit of community among the residents.

After the 1991 municipal elections, Moscow city authorities rescinded their original promise to grant the All-National Fund control of the building and oversee its renovation and maintenance. After months of demonstrations, sit-ins and confrontations with government authorities, the courts granted control of the building to the All-National Fund. Since then the group has completed the design work for capital renovation, established their own maintenance and repair operation, initiated social services for the elderly and youth and published a manual for residents on "How to Get Out of a Communal Apartment."

But developing local neighborhoods further has been very difficult, Karan said. Turf battles over control of the community projects, a lingering suspicion of people becoming activists and internal organizing problems have made community development tough to crack.

"Lots of suspicion about neighbors, that's one of the most difficult things for Russian organizers to overcome," Karan said.

Another area of difficulty is defining the neighborhoods people live in. In the Moscow housing market, new millionaires are buying out families from communal apartments, creating a bizarre income mix and further dampening a sense of community.

That hopefully will change, Karan said, with the Neopalimovka center. Neopalimovka, which is located in the Khamovniki District in the center of the city, has a history that many of its elderly residents can relate to.

"Most live in districts and don't identify it as a neighborhood," Karan said. "That's what Neopalimovka is trying to do, to get people to identify where they live."