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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia: A Headache for U.S. Peace Corps

One year after the U.S. Peace Corps set up offices in cities around Russia for the first time in history, nearly a third of its volunteers have quit, some because they simply could not stand living here anymore, officials say.


"I think there are many of us who, had we known the reality, would never have come," said Earl Trotter, who runs the Peace Corps office in Volgodonsk. "It's just a bit harsher, you might say, than living in the United States."


Of 100 American volunteers who started two-year tours to help advise Russian businesses in mid-February 1993, only 70 are still here, a higher than average attrition rate, according to Peace Corps officials.


Among those who have recently left is the director for Western Russia, Karen Woodbury, who had extensive Peace Corps experience in developing nations.


"Some people will early terminate because they are very frustrated with trying to get something done; others will early terminate because of either illness or family effects or whatever," said Jose Ralls, acting director in the Russian Far East.


Among volunteers in Poland, where Ralls served previously, attrition is roughly 10 percent, he said. Thirty percent attrition rates usually are reached only at the end of a two-year period of service, Chuck Rooney, chief administrative officer for the Peace Corps' Eurasian/Mideast region, said by telephone from Washington D.C.


One reason for the contrast is that while many Peace Corps volunteers in Eastern Europe teach English within the existing educational system, most in Russia are setting up "business information centers" from scratch.


"The structure isn't there, and I suspect that causes some of the frustrations that people have," Ralls said by telephone from Vladivostok.


A case in point is in Volgograd, where volunteers earning just $191 a month had to operate out of their apartments until they finally received office space just two months ago. Two of the four volunteers returned to the U.S. during that time.


"We didn't expect a rose garden, but we expected a lot more cooperation than we got, particularly from the Peace Corps, but also from the city and the oblast," said volunteer Irving Gerrick.


Earl Trotter, a long-time U.S. Navy officer, has been so frustrated in Volgodonsk, south of Volgograd, that at times he has given thought to abandoning ship.


"I spent many, many nights aboard an aircraft carrier," he said. But "I don't think I had in my entire life anything that has confronted me like living in Russia."


Despite these difficulties, Gerrick and many other volunteers are positive about their time here, calling it "a great experience."


Both Gerrick and Trotter are also symbols of the rich business background many volunteers bring to Russia. Gerrick has worked as an investment banker, Trotter as the head of a real estate office, and at ages 70 and 59 respectively, both have many years of practical experience to share.


Still, the Peace Corps is struggling to spread the word about its business activities in Russia, some volunteers say.


"When people hear Peace Corps, they think of injecting cattle and infant health care in Africa," said Joshua Eckhaus, 30, a volunteer in Rostov On Don. "The concept of business training is very alien to what the Peace Corps is."


An array of computers, printers and business textbooks make it clear that Eckhaus's office is focused on business.


Although volunteers originally expected lines of Russians seeking advice, the past few months have shown that only a few drop by every day. Many who do come hope to receive money, volunteers say. Rostov locals also come for other reasons. Alexander Kozukalov, 20, said he comes in to practice English. Maina Bengus came in last week for tips on how to introduce computerized stock trading in Russia.


Because there are few walk-ins, some offices have shifted to larger projects such as bringing aid money to the region, Eckhaus said. In one such project, they are advising the city on developing a new airport.