The Salvation Army of St. Petersburg /
Армия спасения в Санкт Петербурге
Ул. Литейная, 44
In the USA, humanitarian groups like the Salvation Army serve as highly visible, influential actors that champion for social justice. However, does the same hold true in other parts of the world, such as in Russia? As part of an event arranged by The School of Russian and Asian Studies for its students, we had the opportunity to meet and tour the St. Petersburg chapter of the Salvation Army. We thus gained insight into Russian civil society and into how NGOs operate in Russia and the challenges they face.
The St. Petersburg branch of the Salvation Army is located in a modest apartment on Liteinaya Ulitsa. Once we arrived, the chief regional coordinator, Major Vic Tidman, warmly greeted us at the door. To our surprise, he turned out to be an American, and has worked in the St. Petersburg for the past six years (though he lamented about his lack of fluency in Russian). He began with a brief history of the Salvation Army; founded in 1864 by a Methodist Christian group, the organization now operates in 126 countries, and strives to improve conditions for the poor and disenfranchised. The Salvation Army has a particularly fascinating association with Russia. The organization was introduced to the nation in 1913, but after the 1917 Revolution, the Communist government banned it, due to its religious affiliations. After a seventy-year long absence, the Salvation Army returned to Russia in 1993, and has been working steadfastly to combat the dilemmas that face the country today.
After this introduction, Vic turned our attention to his fellow “soldiers”, two Russians named Nina and Sergei. They defined the three main areas that the St. Petersburg unit of the Salvation Army focuses on: the homeless, the poor, and the HIV-positive population. Nina then took center stage, delving into her work with HIV patients. She cited how there are 50,000 registered HIV-positive people in St. Petersburg, though the actual amount may be double or triple that. She detailed how the Salvation Army provides services for pregnant women with HIV, such as prenatal testing for HIV, proper nutrition, clothes, and formula milk. We then shifted our focus to Sergei, who discussed how the Salvation Army provides food, shelter, clothes, and cleaning facilities in order to help the poor and homeless, with the ultimate goal of returning them to society. Interestingly, the homeless are marginalized as a “leper” class in Russian society; their reputation is so bad that the poor will not associate with them, and therefore the Salvation Army must act cautiously to serve both groups while also preventing clashes.
Vic, Nina, and Sergei also pointed out the chief obstacle that the organization faces in Russia. They first distinguished how in the United States, issues such as homelessness and alcoholism are considered “societal” problems. Americans tend to work together through charities, aid groups, and other independent organizations to tackle these challenges. In contrast, Russians consider those same issues as “government problems” that the state, rather than the populace, should fix. Therefore, the relatively weak influence of civil societal groups and other grass-roots organizations has limited the Salvation Army’s capabilities in Russia. Nonetheless, they felt optimistic about the future of the Salvation Army; not only is word of mouth creating a positive reputation for the organization, but also more Russians are slowly shifting towards addressing issues from a more societal, hands-on perspective, as opposed to entrusting sole responsibility in the hands of the state.
They finished up their speech by informing us about how we can help out. Most of the work is done on site, such as sorting and organizing clothes donations and preparing meals for the feeds. However, Nina travels throughout the Leningrad Oblast to meet with HIV patients; together they discuss medical treatment and help care for the children.
As for my overall impression, I greatly enjoyed visiting the Salvation Army headquarters in St. Petersburg. The soldiers were all kind and knowledgeable, the speech provided a good overview for how such an organization works in general, and we learned about the pros and cons that the Army faces in a specific Russian context. In short, if you decide to benefit the needs of others while staying in St. Petersburg, the Salvation Army will provide an unforgettable experience!