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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Salvation Army Gives Comfort In Tough Time




Nina Salnikova is a soldier. Dressed in an astrakhan coat and floral scarf, she hardly looks military as she walks toward me down the metro platform. I am assured, however, that she does have a uniform at home - the uniform of the Salvation Army.


I wanted to meet a Russian engaged in humanitarian work. In these times of crisis, Russians are often at the receiving end of charity but they also have much to give. Nina leads a group that helps the elderly and disabled in their own homes. She is taking me to meet one of her old ladies in the suburb of Lyublino.


In the bus on the way, Nina tells her story. She used to do piecework, knitting, as she was housebound with a disabled son. She received a food package from the Salvation Army. After this, she attended Bible classes and joined the ranks herself.


It was an unusual, even brave, decision for a Russian. She says she often comes up against the attitude that a "true Russian can only be Russian Orthodox." For her, there is One God, but many ways of describing Him. The God of the Salvation Army is a God of concrete and practical action.


The Salvation Army existed in Russia before the Revolution and returned after the fall of Communism. Westerners still dominate the administration but Russians are increasingly active in the corps. The army runs soup kitchens, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program and a prison ministry, in addition to working with the elderly.


When choosing helpers, Nina, who earns a modest salary from the army, is looking for patient and honest people. "They must be reliable too, because the old people look forward to our visits and get upset if we let them down."


At the entrance to an apartment block, we meet Galya, one of Nina's colleagues and just such a diamond character. Galya pays weekly visits to seven elderly people, and this morning it is the turn of Vera Ivanovna, 93. The old lady is lucky to have considerate neighbors in her communal flat but she has no relatives, so the Salvation Army is like family to her. She welcomes Galya and Nina enthusiastically but treats me with initial suspicion. "I'm not a monkey," she says, defensive of her privacy. She calms down when she sees I have no camera.


Vera Ivanovna, a former teacher of Russian language and literature, has poor sight, a deprivation for a book lover. Despite her frailty, her mind is as sharp as a knife. We find we have a common interest in language. Age ceases to matter and we lose ourselves in conversation.


Vera Ivanovna's memories are of school teaching during the Stalin period. Criticized for mentioning Turgenyev and Chekhov more often than Stalin and Lenin, she once had to give a show lesson in front of a commission of inspectors. She decided to stick to grammar, which she thought would be an ideologically free zone.


She wrote the sentence: "The people compose wonderful songs about our own wise, dear Stalin." Just in time, she realized her mistake and said, "Oh my goodness, I should have made Stalin the subject of the sentence." Her self-criticism saved her skin.


This is fascinating but Vera Ivanovna is already tiring from having guests. We leave her with Galya, who will clean her room as usual and put up some new curtains she has asked for.


Out in the yard, Nina checks her list. The day has just begun and she is on her way to visit another old lady who depends on the Salvation Army.