Tuesday, March 11, 2014

ISIS Cultural Outreach International Society in Russia

- Arie van Ameringen 

The ISIS Foundation is dedicated to promoting and supporting anthroposophical initiatives in Russia. It was started in 1988 by Monica Gold, a Vancouver anthroposophist and art therapist. During an anthroposophical gathering in Ann Arbor in 2008, I met with Mary Lee Plumb-Mentjes (who at the time was a resident of Alaska) and Galina Fin of Toronto. The three of us agreed that we would work together to ensure the continuing existence of this Foundation.

Since 2009 we have traveled three times to Russia and have visited multiple locations: Siberia (Vladivostok), Irkutsk, and Talovka, in the Buriatia region east of Lake Baikal. We also traveled to the Urals and to Kirov, located 800 km. east of Moscow. In each of these places we offered mini conferences on anthroposophy and Waldorf education (lectures, workshops, artistic activities). Our fundraising campaigns have been successful enough to allow us to offer modest support to initiatives including schools, kindergartens and centers for the handicapped.  

Images of Russia’s recent past
During our stay in Kirov, in August of 2013, Slava, our host, took us to Slobodskoï, a small town on the edge of the Vyatka. The city is known for its expertise in leatherworks and furs, due to the fact that the clayey soil of the region is far better suited to raising bovine herds than it is to growing crops.

During our visit, Slava showed us photographs dating from the beginning of the 20th century, depicting the family of the owners of a large boot-making factory. The moving story Slava recounted was part of his own family history and gave us a touching glimpse into the plight of the Russian people of the last century:

With the outbreak of the 1917 revolution the owners were forced to flee (the buildings once housing the factory are still standing). One day, Slava’s grandparents took in a nun who had no place to live following the destruction of her convent. During those years of hardship, Slava’s grandmother, who worked in a bakery, was accused of having traded bread coupons and was sent to the gulag, from which she was never to return. The nun, who was then living with the family, took on the task of raising little Victor (Slava’s father) and became his adopted mother. She continued to say her prayers throughout the rest of her life, but in secret, without the knowledge of other members of the family. Indeed religion was forbidden and under communist rule it was quite dangerous for anyone to be known as a practicing Christian. 

Victor’s father, Slava’s grandfather, was killed in the war. His maternal grandfather was severely injured in the battle of Stalingrad (1942-1943) and had to be hospitalized for several years. He wrote to the members of his family, but the letters never reached them because they had been forced to move after their home was flooded. He remarried, believing that his wife had died. But then, due to a set of quite remarkable circumstances, they discovered to their overwhelming astonishment that life had protected both of them and that they were both still alive. However, the grandfather made the decision to continue living with his second wife.

The photographs of the factory owner’s family had been safely guarded by a woman employee, an ethnic native of the area who had also been taken in by Slava’s family. Our host then took us to visit the square in the center of the town where, not far from a towering statue of Lenin, there stands an old wooden church built in the 17th century. This structure had been dismantled in order to be shown in an exposition in Paris in the 1980’s. However, when the building was reassembled, the work could not be executed according to the original technique, which did not make use of nails, because no contemporary workmen possessing the necessary skills could be found.

Today, Slava is a prosperous business owner, and his wife runs a new Waldorf kindergarten.

Institutions for care of the handicapped
Near Lake Baikal there are three anthroposophically-inspired centers for the handicapped. These initiatives are often founded and carried by parents who have handicapped children themselves. And their work is beginning to be acknowledged in this country where the intellectually handicapped are not considered to be fully human. Indeed, the government is starting to recognize that these institutions obtain tangible results and the authorities are becoming more open to the possibility of supporting them, but there is still much work to be done to increase public awareness of the benefits of this educational work.

Waldorf Schools
In Irkutsk, in Siberia, a well-established, government-supported Waldorf school offers classes through grade 12, but government support does not come without restrictions. For example, during our 2009 visit several inspectors had come by the school, requiring, among other things, that the walls be repainted since they considered the colors too bold. The school’s permit renewal depended on this change being made. It is worth mentioning here that this school had received assistance from several Swiss teachers.

In Kirov, the school called Our School (Nasha Skolje) was founded in the early 1980’s and is struggling to remain independent. It is a private school that requires heavy sacrifices on the part of both teachers and parents to be able to survive.

In Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, in spite of the presence of an active anthroposophical group and an institution for the handicapped, none of the attempts to found a school have met with success. It is in this city that the Bolsheviks assassinated the Czar and his family in 1918 and on the very spot where this crime was committed there now stands an imposing cathedral. At a distance of several kilometers from the city itself, at the site of the quarry where the victims’ remains were buried, an immense religious complex consisting of chapels and a training seminary for orthodox priests has been erected with funds donated by Russian billionaires. Portraits of the imperial family adorn the chapel façades, since the members of the Czar’s family have been declared saints and are the object of great devotion. One must cover one’s head before being allowed to enter the site.

That being said, anthroposophy and Russian orthodoxy do not always live harmoniously side by side. One kindergarten teacher admitted to having been threatened with exclusion from the church if she did not give up anthroposophy. And so, she does as do many other Russian anthroposophists: she remains orthodox but in her own individual way!

In each location we visited we met individuals who shared a keen interest in Waldorf education and anthroposophy. Their openness to what we were offering was evident; parents, educators and friends of anthroposophy participated in our workshops with great enthusiasm, and everywhere we were deeply touched by the warmth and unlimited generosity of the people we met.

Today’s challenges
The Russian people’s remarkable strength lies in their sense of community and their fundamental ability to work together towards a common goal. This is something we were able to observe in all the groups we met. Although living standards have improved since the end of the communist regime, the gap between rich and poor has considerably widened. Business tycoons, political leaders and heads of church continue to work hand in hand to retain control over the country’s wealth and power.

Yet we must recognize the fact that President Vladimir Putin recently acknowledged the relevance of the Waldorf approach in education during a visit to a Moscow school. Although after the fall of the Berlin wall several European countries gave financial support to anthroposophical initiatives in Russia, this financial aid has since been curtailed. ISIS is committed to continue to support local initiatives in that country, though its means are modest.

Anyone wishing to make a donation to the ISIS Foundation is welcome to contact me at: arieva.perceval@gmail.com or Mary-Lee Plumb-Mentjes  :maryplumbmentjes@yahoo.com

Meta Williams
Many of you may remember Meta Williams, who gave a moving talk during the Whitehorse conference in 2009, and recall the fact that she was actively involved in the life of her First Nation’s community. After hearing the lecture, Monica Gold decided to utilise the ISIS Foundation’s legal structure to raise funds for Meta’s projects. Contributions from participants during the conference amounted to $3 100. We attempted several times to transfer this money to Meta Williams, but the correct conditions were not yet set up and she did not feel right in accepting the donation. But we are pleased to inform you that the money has now been transferred to The Haines Junction Employment Development Society, a non-profit organisation she is presently running in the Yukon with other members of her community. This initiative is a social reintegration project whose goal is to help ex-drug users re-enter the work place by producing furniture and other objects out of wood.

Arie van Ameringen, Dunham, February,2014

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