A Russian photojournalist fights injustice and inertia.
In 1989, the West got its first real glimpse at how hopeless things could be for Russian youth through the popular feature film Little Vera, about a young woman searching for herself amid the chaos of her everyday life. The picture was grim: You did as you were told. Everything was out of your hands. Forget changing your environment. You didn’t even have a change of clothes. The movie’s heroine, Vera, wore the same striped v-neck in nearly every scene.
The fashion options have grown vastly since then, but the sentiment of powerlessness prevails in much of Russia today. Voter turnout is dismal. Corruption is rampant. Apathy reigns supreme. But a particular stratum of Russia’s youth is careening off in the opposite direction. Armed with mobile devices, tapped into social media, and possessing the boundless energy that can only be possessed by 20-somethings, they are determined to reform Russia, bit by bit. At the forefront of this new movement is a 28-year-old former photojournalist, Moscow native, and anti-apathy crusader, Dmitry “Mitya” Aleshkovsky. His name has become synonymous with a new form of Russian youth engagement that is non-mandatory, apolitical, and performed for free. His organization, Nuzhna Pomosh (which translates to “Need Help”) consists of more than 40 volunteers who publish stories on its website to draw attention to projects that need public support.
In Russia, Nuzhna Pomosh is widely known for saving Itomlinskaya Hospital in the Tver Oblast about 100 miles northwest of Moscow. It was April 2013, and the hospital, with a lone doctor serving patients from the 112 villages in the region, was struggling to stay alive. In a country with no small share of high profile-billionaires, somehow no one seemed to be able—or willing—to do anything. No one, that is, except for Nuzhna Pomosh, which over the course of several months collected enough donations to furnish the hospital with new equipment, furniture, and an ambulance. The hospital was saved.
The weight of every project Nuzhna Pomosh supports ultimately falls on Aleshkovsky’s shoulders. Thankfully, his energy is boundless. “My day is very simple. I work nonstop, around the clock. ... Every problem we handle becomes my personal problem,” he says. Aleshkovsky draws inspiration from his lineage. “My great-grandfather was in a Stalin camp,” he says, “and upon leaving, he said that if there is an opportunity to leave alive and well, then it would serve every decent person to spend some time in prison. He was like granite. He was a person who was impossible to break. Those kinds of people inspire me.
I understand that only being this way—in wholly not retreating from their ideals—can you do something for your country.”
As recently as two years ago, Aleshkovsky was a photojournalist for TASS, Russia’s largest news agency. But the catastrophic flooding of Krymsk, the southern city that was essentially submerged in 2012, forever changed the trajectory of his career. Aleshkovsky and a group of fellow journalists flew there almost immediately after the severity of the flooding became apparent, medical supplies and food in tow. The scale of the disaster floored him. He ended up staying for two weeks and becoming a de facto volunteer coordinator. “It was the harshest vacation of my life,” he says dryly. Aleshkovsky barely slept during those weeks, but the experience climaxed with an epiphany. “I realized, dammit, that it’s possible to be very effective,” he recalls. And so, despite his parents’ concern that he was leaving behind a promising journalism career, he started Nuzhna Pomosh.
When Aleshkovsky’s organization selects a project to support, it commissions qualified journalist to write about it. The idea is that a compelling story will move the reader to donate. Anyone who has crowdfunded a cause-driven project is familiar with the process, but in Russia, where the government is notoriously suspicious of volunteerism, the climate is much less hospitable than most places. “In essence, if you want to walk a granny across the street, you have to get insurance for yourself, for the granny, buy yourself a ticket back, and join some kind of organization, to get stamped to get approval to walk a granny across the street,” Aleshkovsky says of the difficulty of grassroots work in his country. “It’s that kind of gibberish.” In July of 2012, for example, the Russian Public Chamber proposed a bill that would regulate the country’s volunteer movement. Thankfully, Aleshkovsky and a few other charity workers managed to prevent it from getting passed.
But as hard as it is to get things done in contemporary Russia, Aleshkovsky still feels inspired. “In this country, there remain people who still give a damn,” he says, “who live honestly, who live not for their own pocket, but for their soul.”
Photo by Victor Gorbachev.