“Different types of people flock to an emergency zone, including curious ones and 'beneficiaries”

Olga Basheva about volunteer movement in emergency situations

“Different types of people flock to an emergency zone, including curious ones and 'beneficiaries”
Photo: vk.com

Olga Amelchenkova, a member of the working group on preparing amendments to the Russian Constitution, has proposed amendments to the Basic law that would fix additional measures to support volunteer activities in the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in response that the volunteer movement in Russia has now become popular, while in the 1990s the very concept of volunteerism was “blurred”. Realnoe Vremya spoke with Olga Basheva, a research associate of the Russian Academy of Sciences, about what makes people join the voluntary movement, about the history of protecting Baikal Lake, and about fraudulent volunteers.

'Mutual assistance, and to some extent, adventurism, are always characteristic of a certain percentage of people”

Olga, when did such a phenomenon as volunteering in an extreme situation appear in Russia?

It is typical for all times because such qualities as willingness to help, mutual assistance, altruism, and to some extent, adventurism, the desire to tickle your nerves, have always been characteristic of a certain percentage of people. In the West, research on this phenomenon has been conducted since the 1950s.

If we talk about the situation in modern Russia, my colleagues and I have been closely monitoring volunteers working in emergency situations since the hot summer of 2010, when fires were burning in Central Russia. At that time, many people were actively using social networks, and it was clear how citizens were organizing themselves to fight forest fires and help the victims of fire.

Photo: rutnov.ru
In addition to spontaneous responses, volunteers are increasingly providing organized, almost professional assistance. Many are certified as rescuers, undergo training, and are members of volunteer rescue organizations

“There are 'beneficiaries' who come to the emergency zone to profit from someone else's misfortune”

I wonder how sociologists answer the question why people regularly spend part of their lives on volunteering?

The question of the motives for participating in volunteer activities in general seems to me one of the most difficult and interesting. It is difficult because it is not always possible to give a clear answer to it. People are not always able to formulate the true reasons for their behaviour. The desire to find an answer to this question was one of the factors behind the emergence of our project 'Volunteering in emergency situations as a response to natural and man-made challenges in Russia'.

Some researchers believe that for volunteers who find themselves in an emergency zone, saving others is a manifestation of instinct because they themselves were in a critical situation. For example, researchers of volunteer participation after the attacks on the twin towers in New York identified the need to transform their negative feelings, in particular the feeling of victimization (feeling like a victim), into a sense of their effectiveness through helping others.

Other authors divide motivation into altruistic (a sincere desire to help others, religious beliefs) and egoistic. The latter includes self-realization (self-esteem, the ability to cope with feelings of internal dissatisfaction and anxiety) and personal growth (development and practice of certain skills, building new relationships, so-called networking, experience for career advancement). There is also an opinion about the importance of identifying yourself with a certain group, which encourages you to participate in joint voluntary activities.

Photo: tass.ru
For victims of emergencies, the set of skills that “helpers” possess is not as important as a sense of closeness and trust.

As far as I understand, scammers are also interested in the topic of volunteering. In charity, they have operated for a long time. How not to become a free worker or sponsor for a fraudster?

Based on my daily experience and reading in the media and literature, I can say that funds that raise funds to help people, animals, nature, etc., always do so openly, officially, on their resources, with open accounting, and so on. But those who stand in the crosswalk are, of course, accomplices of those people of whom you speak.

In addition to representatives of official rescue services, different types of people always flock to the emergency zone: spontaneous helpers, organized groups that already have the necessary skills or even official certificates of rescuers, as well as curious and onlookers who, under the guise of assistants, enter the emergency zone to meet their own needs — curiosity in particular, as well as the opportunity to show themselves as a “hero” by exposing their photos in social networks. There are also so-called 'beneficiaries' who come to the emergency zone to profit from someone else's misfortune.

“There is an opinion that the fight for the preservation of Baikal Lake has stimulated the emergence of an environmental movement in Russia”

In 2010, an interesting and high-profile story happened with the Baikal pulp and paper plant. How did the public manage to insist on closing the plant?

There is an opinion that the fight for the preservation of Baikal Lake has stimulated the emergence of an environmental movement in Russia. Protests against lake pollution began in 1958, when it was decided to build the plant on the lakeside of Baikal. Scientists and creative intelligentsia, in particular Siberian writers, opposed it at that time. Then the protest was expressed in the form of appeals to the press, resolutions of meetings and conferences, and so on. There were no mass rallies. But under public pressure, the government decided several times to suspend the plant's work.

The mass public movement for the preservation of Baikal Lake arose during perestroika in the mid-80's in Irkutsk. People held actions, meetings, forums, issued booklets, declarations, activists themselves interviewed experts, and so on. They were joined by the whole of Siberia, so there was a mass Baikal environmental movement, which received support from all over the country. It was headed by professional ecologists and creative intellectuals. For example, in 1986, writer Valentin Rasputin met with the minister of forestry and paper industry to discuss the problems of protecting Baikal Lake.

Partly or entirely thanks to the initiatives of the movement, Baikal was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996, and the Federal bill on the protection of lake Baikal was adopted in 1999. In 2000, then acting President Vladimir Putin instructed to develop a programme for re-profiling the Baikal pulp and paper mill. In July 2001, the ministry of natural resources approved a plan to introduce closed water use at the plant. In 2007, Rosprirodnadzor, through the court, demanded to stop the activity of the plant for working with an expired license for nature management. During this period, the public continued to fight for the cleanliness of the lake. In April 2007, the Baikal movement held a rally to mark

the 20th anniversary of the decision to close the plant. In 2008, many rallies and pickets were held with demands to close the plant. Then, the movement fought for the closure of the plant with respect for the rights of its employees. In the same year, the plant, under pressure from environmentalists and on the instructions of Rosprirodnadzor, finally switched to a closed water cycle. And after a while, the plant suspended its work until 2010.

Photo: lesprominform.ru
The mass public movement for the preservation of Baikal Lake arose during perestroika in the mid-80's in Irkutsk

That year, the movement for the protection of Baikal Lake organized a broad protest campaign. They initiated the collection of signatures under the letters to the president of the Russian Federation and the director general of UNESCO, the organization of mass rallies throughout the country, and the formation of For Baikal!, which included about 50 non-profit organizations, they were joined by social movements in protection of the Utrish reserve and the Khimki forest. Discussions were held on the Internet about possible projects for the development of Baikalsk after the closure of the plant. On the Greenpeace website, almost 150 organizations signed the letter to the president of the Russian Federation, as well as the statement from public organizations 'Hands off the defenders of Lake Baikal!' sent to the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, signed by about 200 non-governmental organizations, on the Irkutsk resource Babr.ru about 30,000 people voted for the closure of the enterprise. The website of the president of the Russian Federation received thousands of requests from citizens. 96% of respondents on the website of Rosprirodnadzor opposed the opening of the plant.

And so until 2013, public activists fought for the closure of the plant, which happened on December 25, 2013. But, as far as I know, there is still a threat of negative impact of the plant's waste on the lake. They haven't been disposed of yet.

In what other extreme situations over the past 10 years have volunteer movements shown themselves?

Volunteers in one form or another, both individually, spontaneously, and as part of organized trained groups, participated in the elimination of the consequences of flooding in Krymsk in 2012, in the Far East in 2013. Last summer, we heard about the participation of volunteers in the emergency after the flood near Irkutsk in Tulun.

But this is if we are talking about major emergencies. But critical situations happen all the time: every year forests and peatlands burn, people are lost, and so on. In these cases, volunteers are irreplaceable helpers, since official services are not always able to respond to them in a timely manner for various reasons.

By Matvey Antropov