Big Change Graduation Ceremony 2012

by Patricia Stewart and Natasha Zhuravenkova

It was June 22 in Moscow, and the charity foundation “Big Change” was holding its annual graduation ceremony. In the front hall a woman and little girl were excitedly putting the last touches on a giant greeting card.

The big reception room was filled with guests. Graduates all wore gold satin sashes.

Sky-blue and white balloons went sailing up to the ceiling. There were congratulations, thanks and speeches. There were bouquets of flowers — and yet more speeches. After each and every speech, there was singing or dancing and even a little play. The play was about Buratino.

Buratino and the Golden Key

Buratino is the Russian Pinocchio: he and the other child puppets free themselves from a wicked puppet master: they find a golden key that opens the secret door to reality and freedom. The Golden Key, or the Adventures of Buratino was an enormously popular Soviet musical film for children; it appeared in 1975. Russian writers now suggest that the film was so popular because of its anti-authoritarian subtext. If you would like to see the scene where wicked Carabas-Barabas drives his cage of sadly singing, but secretly rebelling, puppet children through the streets, go to

You may be beguiled by the villain’s elegant sneers or by his magnificent, flowing red waterfall of a beard, but watch carefully, or you will miss seeing two of the puppets cutting each other free.


This year Big Change was celebrating twenty-one graduates, young people officially designated as orphans, who have now finished individualized life-skill and education programs.

In Russia, a child whose parents may still be living, but who are not able to take care of him, can be classified as an orphan. We can see the extent of the human damage done by the collapse of the Soviet system in the fact that there were more “orphaned” children in Russia at the end of the 20th century than there had been at the end of World War II. One current Big Change student was placed in a Moscow orphanage at age 15; before that, she had never attended any school.

Big Change was started in 2002 by a group of Russians teachers who saw that such young people needed a new kind of “golden key” to help them enter a reality which had been almost unthinkably altered.

To date the program has graduated 350 young people. One is in medical school; another is a martial arts coach. Another has won prizes in international competitions for her work as a hair-stylist. Each student at Big Change has an “Individual Development Plan”. Almost half the students struggle with psychological problems or learning disorders. Luda, for example, has just passed the state’s middle-school reading exams. She is 28. After eight years of hard work, she has fulfilled her “IDP”, her dream, of learning how to read.

Post-Soviet, new-Russia pioneer

It could be said that, after ten years of hard work, the program itself has “graduated”. There are now more than 25 staff members. Big Change has been a post-Soviet, new-Russia pioneer in fund-raising and network building. Rosbank, the largest private bank in Russia, is a contributor. IBM and global accounting and tax advisory firm KPMG encourage their Moscow staff to serve as volunteers. At this year’s graduation, Sony gave cameras to students who had completed a digital processes workshop led by staff from Sony. Big Change has its own web site, with an English-language page

Spreading the word – with help from FHM

In some respects, it might seem that Big Change has graduated beyond needing help from Friends House, Moscow, but a graduation is also a commencement and Big Change would like our help in developing their resource center.

Most of their contributors, like donors in the United States, like to give to programs that directly benefit children – programs that are visible and sympathetic. The work done by the resource center is less easily publicized, but it could feed deeper roots. It helps educators learn from each other.

The centerpiece of Big Change’s program, and perhaps its single most transformative practice, is the “Self-Study” project: students and teachers alike choose a question of burning personal interest and pursue it as a research project. They share their discoveries at conferences, which have had titles like “People, Mysteries, Miracles” and “Chariot of History”.

Big Change would like to share this and their other practices with teachers, social workers and psychologists in other Russian cities. They have in fact begun to do so. The resource center could thus help build an all-Russia network of educators and advocates for interactive, inclusive education.

Setting each other free

It is interesting here to remember the liberation of the puppets in Buratino. Some passing hero does not cut them loose; they are not lonely rebels – instead, they help each other and so set each other free.