Living Faithfully in an Unjust World: Compassionate Care in Russia

Living Faithfully in an Unjust World: Compassionate Care in Russia

by Melissa L. Caldwell

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What does it mean to be a compassionate, caring person in Russia, which has become a country of stark income inequalities and political restrictions? How might ethics and practices of kindness constitute a mode of civic participation in which “doing good”—helping, caring for, and loving one another in a world marked by many problems and few easy solutions—is a necessary part of being an active citizen? Living Faithfully in an Unjust World explores how, following the retreat of the Russian state from social welfare services, Russians’ efforts to “do the right thing” for their communities have forged new modes of social justice and civic engagement. Through vivid ethnography based on twenty years of research within a thriving Moscow-based network of religious and secular charitable service providers, Melissa L. Caldwell examines how community members care for a broad range of Russia’s population, in Moscow and beyond, through programs that range from basic health services to human rights advocacy. As the experiences of assistance workers, government officials, recipients, and supporters reveal, their work and beliefs are shaped by a practical philosophy of goodness and kindness. Despite the hardships these individuals witness on a regular basis, there is a pervasive sense of optimism that human kindness will prevail over poverty, injury, and injustice. Ultimately, what connects members of this diverse group is a shared belief that caring for others is not simply a practical matter or an idealistic vision but a project of faith and hope. Together care-seekers and care-givers destabilize and remake the meaning of “faith” and “faith-based” by putting into practice a vision of humanitarianism that transcends the boundaries between state and private, religious and secular.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520285842
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Melissa L. Caldwell is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. She is the author of Not by Bread Alone: Social Support in the New Russia and Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russia’s Countryside and coeditor with Yuson Jung and Jakob Klein of Ethical Eating in the Postsocialist and Socialist World. 

Read an Excerpt

Living Faithfully in an Unjust World

Compassionate Care in Russia

By Melissa L. Caldwell


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96121-0



"Compassion" is dedicated to humane relationships with homeless animals.

This simple inscription graces the elegant bronze sculpture of a dog, foot raised in the air to scratch his neck, that rests in the entrance to Moscow's Mendeleevskaia metro station. The dog commemorated in the sculpture was a stray, or more specifically, one of Moscow's metro dogs, a uniquely Russian breed of canine that travels the city on public transportation, often snoozing undisturbed on subway and bus seats, and surviving on the food and makeshift shelters left by fellow commuters and station workers. He had lived in the passageway leading to the metro and was a familiar presence to countless commuters, many of whom provided him with food, bedding, and affection. In 2007, the dog was brutally killed, allegedly by hooligans. In anguish over the senseless killing, local residents pooled their funds to commission the sculpture and then lobbied authorities to allow it to be placed in the metro station.

Much like what is done at other grave sites and public monuments throughout Russia, Moscow's commuters adorn the bronze dog with lit candles, store-bought bouquets of flowers wrapped in plastic, and hand-cut flowers placed in water in mayonnaise jars–turned-vases. In a city of fifteen million people, where residents often complain about the rudeness and selfishness of their fellow citizens and worry about how easily one could be swallowed up in the anonymity of such a sprawling megacity, the highly personalized and deeply intimate touches bestowed on a sculpture commemorating a stray dog are moving.

The community efforts to erect this memorial came at a particular moment when people across Russia were actively and publicly discussing their relationships and responsibilities to one another, their communities, the nation, and the state. Central to these discussions have been concerns with addressing injustices and ensuring that care, kindness, and generosity remain at the forefront of daily life despite the increasing neoliberalization of society and the state's deliberate divestment from social welfare following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Over the past twenty years that I have been conducting fieldwork in Russia, primarily in Moscow and the Moscow region, a seeming constant has been the frequency with which friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and strangers alike have complained about the consequences of Russia's economic and political transformation. While enjoying the benefits of neoliberal capitalism in terms of improved consumer experiences at home and in public, the freedom to travel, and greater independence in their daily lives, Russians have also been critical of what they perceive as growing social problems caused by the values and practices that constitute their new political economy. Citing such diverse issues as socioeconomic stratification, joblessness, homelessness, poverty, criminality, abandonment of children and the elderly, prostitution, drug use and alcoholism, the desecration and destruction of parks, forests, and other environmentally fragile sites, worsening traffic congestion and emissions-caused pollution, and political and economic corruption, among many others, concerned Russians articulate broader anxieties about social instability and moral decline.

Offering striking evidence of the prevalence of these worries, my field notes from the 1990s and early 2000s are filled with stories from friends and acquaintances who were frustrated by what seemed to them to be a dramatic rupture of the social compact that they believed had previously knitted their society together. Russian friends in Moscow and elsewhere drew my attention to everyday sights of elderly pensioners and small children standing along city sidewalks, tearfully begging for a few coins to buy a loaf of bread, and to severely disabled veterans struggling to navigate steep metro steps on makeshift scooters that carried their legless and armless bodies. One friend, a doctor who worked closely with victims of domestic abuse, confided that she was deeply troubled by what seemed to her to be skyrocketing rates of homelessness and the medical and hygiene problems caused by life on the streets.

Alongside such concerns over socioeconomic disparities were complaints about disruptions of general civility in public and private spaces. Moscow's mounting traffic problems were a favorite topic, especially the prevalence of rude and dangerous drivers, as well as the publicly visible displays of alcoholism that accompanied the growing occupation of public spaces by young people at night and on weekends. Other acquaintances noted the apparent escalation of physical violence, especially acts of domestic violence between family members, including between parents and children. One friend, an English-language teacher whose clients included professionals from Moscow's leading businesses, was proud when her own professional successes were marked by her ability to become a home owner. Yet her initial excitement over her newly purchased apartment was quickly replaced by despair when she was forced to endure the constant fighting and screaming that emanated from the apartment next door. Still others complained about the graffiti, rubbish, and human excrement that littered both public walkways and vestibules of private buildings. Elderly friends specifically mentioned the fading away of public norms such as giving up one's seat on the metro for elderly, disabled, or pregnant passengers.

Within this context of mounting frustration and even resentment about social problems, the senseless killing of one of Moscow's metro dogs crystallized in a very public and visceral way the more widespread feelings of sadness and anger over the seeming disappearance of basic human decency and a loss of community cohesion. By investing considerable effort into mobilizing their neighborhood and working through Moscow's bureaucracy, local residents directly challenged hate and violence and sent a forceful message that shared values and practices of care and kindness remained at the core of daily Russian life. In this way, a simple statue of a stray dog turned the intimacies of compassion into a publicly performed act of civic responsibility.

For me, the installation of the Compassion statue beautifully exemplified the private and public acts of care and kindness that I have witnessed over my many years of doing research in Russia. I have witnessed countless people dig into their tote bags and pass on their own lunches to beggars and watched as elderly pensioners who depend on a food aid program dish some of their small daily portion of kasha onto paper plates for the stray cats that share their neighborhood. In the dead of winter, neighbors have propped open the doors to apartment building vestibules so that homeless people and animals might have a place to keep dry and warm. I have met and accompanied high school and university students who spend their evenings walking city streets to deliver sandwiches to homeless persons with whom they have developed deep and genuinely affectionate relationships. Middle-aged workers with tight paychecks and even tighter schedules conscientiously checked on their elderly and disabled neighbors by "dropping by" with the "too much" produce that they "accidentally" purchased at the market. Attorneys, social workers, and clergy whom I knew dismissed the hate mail and death threats they received in order to continue serving and publicly advocating for Russia's most disenfranchised populations: the homeless, ethnic and racial minorities, and undocumented migrants. Through such acts, ordinary citizens and public servants alike link personal acts of genuine kindness with larger political and ethical issues and values. They are not simply caring for others, but caring for others in ways that have the potential to intervene in some of the most pressing civic issues in today's Russia: poverty, crime, immigration, and intolerance.

The ordinariness with which people engage in such activities invites intriguing questions not just about why care, kindness, and compassion matter in today's Russia, but also about the kinds of social and political work that care does. How and why do people engage with social problems and injustices? What does it mean to care for or to love another person, especially a complete stranger? How do acts of care shift between spontaneous acts to deliberate and organized forms of societal or even political improvement? What constitutes "doing good" in a world in which there are many problems and few easy answers? How might instances of "doing good" — helping, caring for, and loving another person — be a necessary part of being an active citizen in the world? And are these forms of civic engagement modes of resisting Russia's newly neoliberal world, or are they modes of supporting, nurturing, and even reinventing this new society? Or are they both simultaneously?

In Moscow, concerns with addressing injustices and righting wrongs have been front and center for the communities and individuals that I have been following for the past two decades. From spontaneous, individual acts of kindness and compassion performed by individuals or small groups of persons to organized projects funded by national and international organizations and administered through formal groups, Russians like my friends and acquaintances have worked hard to channel their personal inclinations to help others into practical action. Clearly, these activities matter to people. Yet intriguingly, when queried about their personal motivations for helping and why these activities matter, respondents have brushed off their actions as simply things one does because they are the right things to do. Above all, despite the seemingly never-ending injustices and constantly worsening problems they describe around them, friends have articulated a compelling sense of optimism and hope that their efforts, no matter how small and inconsequential, will contribute to something larger that might in turn bring about significant changes in the world around them.

These are the issues and puzzles that animate this book.

At the center of this book is a Moscow-based assistance community that has emerged and coalesced over the past twenty years into a thriving network of charitable service providers with extensive reach across Moscow and Russia more generally. Caring for a broad and diverse range of Russia's population, both in Moscow and beyond, these charitable groups offer and support a broad array of programs that range from basic health services to public lobbying of Russian and international governments on urgent human rights matters. Positioning themselves as caretakers of their fellow human beings, as well as of the greater world around them, members of this community actively promote human decency and kindness in order to "do the right thing" and make the world a better place.

As the experiences and perspectives of the assistance workers, government officials, recipients, and supporters documented here reveal, their work and beliefs are shaped by a practical philosophy of goodness and kindness. In the face of the hardships, injustices, and despair these individuals witness on a regular basis, and confronted by problems they are too often helpless to prevent or alleviate, they nonetheless hold to an optimism that human kindness will ultimately prevail over poverty, injury, and injustice. Ultimately, what connects members of this diverse group of individuals and organizations is a shared concern that caring for others is not simply a practical matter or an idealistic, even utopian vision, but rather a project of faith and hope.

It is not insignificant that the individuals and organizations that comprise this network and subscribe to these views are enmeshed in what might conventionally be called "faith-based communities." At the heart of these communities is a core group of religiously affiliated organizations: Christian churches (Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant), denominationally affiliated national and international development organizations (e.g., Caritas, Catholic Charities, Lutheran World Relief, the development department of the Russian Orthodox Church, among others), and small charities supported with funding and materials from religious communities. These organizations are linked into a broader network of development and humanitarian organizations with religious backgrounds (e.g., Habitat for Humanity, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, and the Aga Khan Foundation), national and international development and humanitarian organizations (Russian state agencies and funding bodies, USAID, International Organization for Migration, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Russian Red Cross, and the International Red Cross), and numerous governmental social welfare agencies and secular nongovernmental social services organizations.

Yet as will become clear, the moniker of "faith-based community" obscures more than it reveals, as these individuals and communities defy easy classification and their practices of faith are oriented to a civic-minded social action that is explicitly pluralistic, and even resolutely secular in many instances. Although "faith-based" is a standard term in scholarly accounts describing such diverse organizations elsewhere in the world (e.g., Adams 2013; Dionne Jr. and Chen 2001; Elisha 2008), and was considered a reasonable generic gloss by the many different people I encountered in Moscow assistance organizations that were both religious and nonreligious, this term risks provoking assumptions that these organizations were explicitly and primarily focused on conversion, embedding religious doctrines and traditions into an ostensibly secular political and economic system, or even interpolating citizens and their lives into a religiously oriented political and economic framework (cf. Adams 2013; Elisha 2008: 211–12; Engelke 2007; Rudnyckyj 2010; Wanner 2007; Wanner and Steinberg 2008).

Within the network of assistance providers documented here, even as faith and hope are guiding ethics, religiosity and spirituality are often less important than a clear sense of a civic commitment to social justice. At the same time that the practical philosophies of goodness and kindness guiding people's activities may be grounded in and realized through religious communities and their particular denominational histories and doctrines, they are not uniquely religious per se. These were not conservative, evangelical Christians, but liberal, progressive Christian communities that positioned themselves outside proselytization efforts (cf. Elisha 2011; Engelke 2007; Wanner 2007). Church attendance, belief in or adherence to religious precepts, knowledge of church histories, and even self-identification as a believer were largely superseded by shared commitments to what many described as more fundamental and universal humanist qualities of human kindness and love. In fact, many people I interviewed and followed denied having any particular religious identity or affiliation or even any interest in religion beyond curiosity or a desire for feeling part of a community. By contrast, what most of my interlocutors found compelling about religiously affiliated communities was the extent to which they provided logistical and ethical frameworks for modes of social action that were deeply enmeshed in secular, civic, and even state affairs.

Ultimately, in very tangible ways, this is a community in which faith matters, but where everyone wrestles with what "faith" means and how it can be mobilized into compassionate action that benefits the greater social good, whether for the nation, the state, or a larger human community. In so doing, these individuals and organizations collectively challenge what is understood by "faith" and its effects. Consequently, one of the explicit goals of this book is to unsettle expectations of what "faith-based" means by examining critically what faith is and what it does.

By documenting the efforts of these individuals and the organizations with which they are affiliated as they strive to serve and help others in Moscow, this book takes up the question of what constitutes faith-based compassion in Russian life today. Specifically, I am concerned with what it means to live faithfully when striving to correct injustices. A key piece to this discussion is a consideration of the issue of faith as a spiritual, philosophical, economic, and even civic quality that makes compassion possible and actionable. As such, this is not so much a book about religion, religious charities, or religious perspectives on poverty, injustice, or suffering more generally, as it is an ethnographic account of how members of this particular assistance community in Moscow have mobilized faith-driven ideals about compassion, service, and social action to create an alternative system of social welfare and social justice that is contributing meaningfully to Russian society.


Excerpted from Living Faithfully in an Unjust World by Melissa L. Caldwell. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

Note on Transliteration xviii

1 Compassion 1

2 Faith in a Secular Humanism 38

3 Practical Love 65

4 Developing Faith in a More Civil Society 91

5 Living a Life of Service 123

6 The Business of Being Kind 156

7 The Deficits of Generosity 193

8 Conclusion: Precarious Faith 223

Notes 231

References 241

Index 255

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