Report on our trip to Russia
February 5, 2009
We just returned from St. Petersburg, Russia. This is a report of our trip.
We are the only project in the US dedicated to helping talented blind people in Russia, focusing especially in St. Petersburg. As with any proper accounting, there are several bottom lines. We operate in the spirit of Moisey Naumovich Adamov, Svetlana's father, through personal relationships. At first (in 2005) we thought we might find and assist several talented blind people. On this trip alone, we delivered things we had bought with money contributed by several dozen donors that will be used by at least 110 people. Of all the things and money we have given, nothing has been lost or stolen or confiscated or diverted from the intended recipients. We have been able to help individuals directly and to help expand resources and services of groups. We have increased our connections and stayed in touch.
We did not go to Russia in 2008. Svetlana said she would like to be in St. Petersburg for her birthday January 26, which was also a week she could be gone from her job at MIT. I mainly wanted to be warm since the last time we were there in January it was minus 25 C° for a week. So I took woolen socks, a thermal undershirt, and my fleece jacket, which were more than enough since it turned out to be warmer than Boston, mostly around 0 C° with a low one night of minus 15 C°. We had black down coats, which meant we blended in with everyone else on the street and on the subways and trolleys. We found low-priced tickets on CheapAir. We packed as much as we could take, including three computers, 14 folding white canes, 15 extra tips, 40 digital voice recorders, 15 magnifying loupes, creative toys, a good amount of gifts and some things Russian friends in Boston asked us to take to their families. We each checked 2 bags at the 23kg limit and we each had a carry-on, over 200 pounds total, some of which was our clothes for 10 days. We coordinated with a dedicated courier from Boston to pick up 13 more canes and 10 more recorders which I had given him.
We waited to leave America until we were sure Obama was actually in office, then we skidded into Russia. Svetlana had two birthday parties at the apartment, one with some classmates she's known for 30 years and their husbands, and one with some people who knew her father.
An 80-year-old friend of Svetlana's mother came from Voronezh via a 24-hour train ride, dragging about 60 pounds of pickles, pickled tomatoes, jars of fruit preserves, fresh-made cabbage pirozhki, boxes of chocolates, and other basic provisions. We would not starve if she had anything to do with it. (I had made a resolution not to eat any dessert-which I kept for 6 days.)
A deaf and blind friend, whom we've communicated with on Skype chat for three years, came by train from Moscow to meet us in person and had his cane, his recorder, and his talking Braille watch with him-all things we had bought for him.
One evening we met with the three expressive therapy teachers (Rudolf Steiner-oriented) who work with blind students in their studio where they made a simple supper for us. They had requested some silk scarves that their students could use in dancing and we had searched Tibetan stores in Boston and through New York's Chinatown to find some for them. They were delighted. I gave them a number of toys and games I had bought for them to use with their students. When we asked what they'd like to have, they said they'd like some percussion instruments like African drums and tambourines and castanets, so the next day we went to a music store but everything was way too expensive. I found some good affordable ones on the Internet and they're on our list of things to get to them in coming months.
There are 410 members in the RIT group (Workers of Intellectual Labor, blind students and professionals. MN belonged to the group years ago.) We have given recorders or canes or computers to about 100 of them. Still, I was surprised when we met with a group of them and several people pulled one of the Olympus VN3100 or Olympus VN3100PC recorders that we have sent out of their pockets to show us how useful they are.
We went to a free violin and piano virtuoso recital at the House of Composers; we were invited to a friend's home for lunch that lasted all afternoon and included Svetlana's high school teacher of Russian Literature, now in her eighties; we visited another old Adamov family friend in the apartment where she lived through the 900-day Siege in 1941-44 (the 65th Anniversary of the end of the Siege was marked by many events and exhibits around the city). Svetlana met with a friend who had been in the Gulag for many years and has written two volumes of her memoirs; the 1st book has been translated into English and hopefully will be published soon in the US. She also met with another friend who is a prominent poet; their conversations ran long after midnight. Svetlana and I met two women who worked with her mother at the Vavilov Institute, the leading seed bank in Russia, who shared warm stories and photos of Svetlana's mother.
I finally got over my jet lag and went to the Hermitage for three hours. When you have such a short time in the country, you create opportunities to cherish as a shared memory. We took 15 friends to an organ concert in a newly restored concert hall only one of them had been to before. We had our only restaurant meal, a light lunch, with our American friend and courier at his hotel.
At the rehabilitation center I asked where things stood with getting internet connection. The director said she'd found a service for 15,000 rubles a month. I told her that price was too high. When we met with her again five days later, she said she had found a service for 4,800 rubles a month, thanks to my reaction-though she doesn't have the budget to pay for it.
In the course of a conversation with a blind mobility instructor there, she mentioned she had been asking for several reflective safety vests for two years, to help protect groups when they go out on walks. That night we looked on the Internet and found a store in the city that sold safety work clothes. The next day Svetlana and I went to the store, an hour each way, and ordered three bright orange vests with reflective silver stripes for $7 each. On Monday, the day before our scheduled departure, we went back to the store, picked up the vests and took them to the instructor, another hour each way. "It's a miracle," she said.
We had 21 people over for a "salon" on our last Sunday, 13 blind and 8 sighted. They came at 3 p.m. and left about 8:30. Much homemade food, singing and music. This was a high point of the week.
Svetlana has been working to get a volume of her father's selected scientific papers and reminiscences by his colleagues and students printed. It will be done this year thanks to her perseverance and management of the process and a financial gift from an "angel." We are planning to print 500 hard-cover copies in Russian that the university will help distribute to libraries and we will prepare an English paper cover version of the personal stories. We'll announce when it is available.
Even if Medvedev follows through on a reference in a speech to help people with disabilities and if Logos, a branch of the All-Russia Association for the Blind in Moscow, recommends a foreign make of canes for Social Services to provide to blind people, I think it will be at least late 2010 before a blind person gets such a cane. Maybe after that, as one person told me, Sussmans can phase out providing top-quality canes and can focus on providing better cane tips! I think we still should aim to give at least a hundred more canes to people this year-that will cost $3000 (that's in addition to filling last year's requests).
In late December, we gave three groups $100 each to help them celebrate New Year's. When 2008 ended, we had a list of 50 people who wanted a recorder or cane that we had not bought because we didn't have enough money to buy them. We were about $1500 short in our rolling account. Each cane or recorder costs $30 apiece.
The rehabilitation center at Djambula gets a dozen new clients every 2 ½ months, the one at Volokolamsk gets 100 new people every three months. We also try to help the alumni club of the Djambula center which has about 20 members and is an important support group for people we've met.
More than a year ago we proposed to the directors of two centers that they should not give out canes and recorders for free but they should ask for a token payment. This has worked out very well to give them supplemental income to do things they couldn't have afforded, so there 's a real multiplier effect going on.
Since the start of our project, we have been able to improve the short-term practical needs and comfort for almost 300 people, to raise people's spirits and if I may put it this way to raise their sights. They have some possibilities in their lives they didn't have before, both concretely and more generally, just from contact with some outsiders who care and who follow through in helping them.
If everyone who reads this connects us to one more person who can make a donation, we can get the things we would like to give this year. Or if you can get us invited to speak to a group, maybe a club or a congregation you belong to. Or if you can put us in touch with someone who is going to Russia who will take some things--and remember we have a bed & breakfast/guest room near St. Isaac Square and the English Embankment of the Neva.
We will continue, as we come to the end of 4 years of our effort and begin a 5th year, only with your support. Financial donations are tax-deductible if a check is made to the Carroll Center for the Blind and marked FOR ADAMOV FUND. Thank you for making this work possible.