Press stories

We are grateful to The Friend for permission to reproduce this article, printed in the edition of 15 January 2010

Alternatives to Violence work in Ukraine

Mary Morris describes work that is contributing to the development of this country’s civil society

Last autumn the international board of Friends House Moscow (Dom Druzei) met in Odessa on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. We chose this venue for our annual meeting so that we could meet the facilitators who run the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) in Ukraine and hear about their work.

AVP is an international volunteer movement that was started by Friends in America in the 1970s and now operates in nearly thirty countries. It seeks to promote nonviolence in the most practical way possible, by running workshops that equip participants with the skills to respond in nonviolent ways to conflict situations in their everyday lives.

Board members met with Alla Soroka, the project coordinator for AVP Ukraine (which Friends House Moscow is supporting by providing essential running costs), and approximately fifteen AVP facilitators. Also present was Inna Tereshchenko, a manager from the Mediation Service with whom AVP share premises. They talked about the history of the project and their current activities, and each facilitator gave a personal account of her motivation in doing the work.

Links with Inna and others in Odessa were established in the early 1990s by Peter and Roswitha Jarman, Quaker Peace Service representatives in Moscow. AVP work started in 2004. It included workshops in prisons and detention centres for young people, using a specially adapted programme to cope with the higher levels of distrust about personal disclosure that are found in those settings.

In 2009 they started activities in partnership with an organisation that works with street children. They are also running workshops in orphanages and foster homes (accommodating twenty children with house-parents), partly to prevent the children ending up on the streets, but also to help them deal with their own experiences of conflict and violence. They have begun work in Crimea with the Crimean Tatars, an Islamic minority ethnic group that suffered heavily under the Soviet regime.

The project works in Lviv and Kharkov as well as Odessa and has been invited to other cities to talk about their work. The nineteen members of AVP Odessa are mainly social workers and psychologists, some motivated by Christian beliefs, others not, some from social groups and some from government agencies. There are a number of officials who support and encourage their work and have enabled their access to prisons and detention centres, schools and orphanages.

Friends were struck by the deep commitment within the group to AVP values and ways of working. AVP methods are permeating widely through the involvement of students and inputs into university courses. It would be harder to find a better example of civil society, of a kind that Quakers try to build in their own communities, being generated from the grass roots in a society without the benefit of recent historical experience of such practice.

Mary is Co-Clerk to the Friends House Moscow board.

Reprinted with permission from The Friend, May 9, 2008:

Alternatives to Violence Project works with Russian conscripts

Reducing violence among the military may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it’s something being tried by Quakers in Russia.

Friends in Moscow and the city of Lipetsk are leading an innovative project bringing the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) to soldiers. In AVP workshops, participants are given examples of everyday situations that could lead to violence and encouraged to think how they could be resolved without violence.

Sergei Grushko of Friends House Moscow, which is running the programme, told The Friend that the military involvement began after AVP facilitators failed to get permission to work in prisons. ‘A commander of a military unit near Moscow said in private conversation with an AVP participant that he was interested in the work of civilian psychologists with his conscripts’, he explained. ‘AVPers decided to try and the results were positive.’

As well as providing training sessions, Friends House Moscow has also produced handbooks and booklets on the issue for soldiers. Currently the project works only with conscripts from particular units in Moscow and Lipetsk, though a training manual has been developed for volunteers wishing to replicate this work elsewhere.

The project has recently received funding from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to develop its work with conscripts. It has also attracted attention from Russian media, with local and national television channels showing interest in making programmes about the AVP work with soldiers.

Army officers do not attend the AVP sessions, ‘in order to not disrupt the hierarchy’, but they are in favour of the workshops: ‘The officers are interested in this work as they see it helps to improve the situation with bullying in their units’, said Sergei. He added that over the three years that AVP has been running with soldiers, the military has become more relaxed about it and has ‘stopped being too suspicious’ about civilian involvement.

Oliver Robertson