Transforming Power Saves a Russian Town from Violence: AVP in Dzerzhinsk

Transforming Power Saves a Russian Town from Violence
Hit across the cheek? Hold the hand that tries to hit back

Every one of us has the right to live in harmony with ourselves and those around us. We do not have to go all the way to Tibet to discover the secret of how to do this. All we have to do is examine our own souls and we will find the strength to listen to the ‘voice of peace’. This voice, which in situations of conflict suggests means of resolving the problem without aggression, is known in accordance with AVP philosophy as ‘transforming power.’ The task of AVP trainers, or facilitators, is to teach us how to identify this transforming power within ourselves. AVP workshops have been held in Dzerzhinsk since 1999 as a long-term project of the youth organisation Little Prince.

Dzerzhinsk society today is very aggressive. In our provincial town – Dzerzhinsk – not far distant from Moscow, the heart of our vast state, people are no better or worse than anywhere else. They offend one another with an ill-chosen word or careless action wherever they are – on the neat tree-lined streets, in the noisy courtyards and in the shops and bars on the ground floors of residential apartment blocks. A decade ago Dzerzhinsk was renowned as the centre of chemical industry in Russia. Today many of the industrial plants stand inactive. There are not enough jobs left in the factories and people here are mostly poor. The forced inactivity breeds violence.

Violence is not peculiar to time or place. The same violence encountered by the disadvantaged resident of Dzerzhinsk is also to be found in foggy London, the buoyant streets of Paris and ancient Rome. Nobody anywhere needs to search hard to find examples of violence.

You are in a hurry and are walking quickly along the street when someone knocks your shoulder as they pass. There is virtually no physical sense of pain at all but it leaves you with a feeling of resentment, particularly if the person in question does not apologise but on the contrary turns to you with a verbal attack ‘Oh for ***’s sake!’ Violence has entered your life. The violence inflicted upon you is the most difficult to eradicate – psychological violence.

What do you do in such a situation? You could elbow him back, more strongly than he jostled you. You could bury the feeling of discomfort in a sub-conscious place but the wound would still not be healed and could well begin to ache again later. In fact, the best course of action would be to stop the aggressive passer-by and say to him ‘Is there anything wrong? Why are you trying to offend me? Is there anything I can do to help?’

We should all agree that there is something of good in everyone. AVP facilitators, who have undergone special training in this area, work to draw out fellow sympathy in the hearts of victims of physical and psychological violence in the same way as a skilled fisherman draws a fish out of a dark pond. At these workshops hundreds of people have re-evaluated their life experiences and discovered with astonishment that there is nothing shameful in striving to reach a compromise.

There is only one thing that is shameful and that is to inflict violence on others. The youth organisation Little Prince and AVP facilitators are engaged in fighting violence inflicted by adults on children and teenagers.
Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

In Russia fifty percent of children fall victim to physical or psychological violence at some point in their lives. Parents do not have to be alcoholics or suffer from mental health conditions to be violent towards their children. The following scenario is more common: someone quarrels with their boss at work and on the way home a cashier is rude to them or someone treads on their foot on the bus. They return home to their family. They vent their anger on someone more defenceless: a son or a daughter. In this situation it is difficult to say which is worse – the parent hitting the child or exposing him or her to chastisement and humiliation. Both can leave the child psychologically scarred.

The story of six-year old Ruslan occurred in an ordinary primary school in Dzerzhinsk. On the day Ruslan met his future adoptive parents for the first time he could not believe his eyes. His new mother and father were kind and smiling. With a sad smile they said to him ‘We don’t have children of our own. How would you like to be our son?’ How could the boy who had grown up in an orphanage not be delighted at this prospect?

‘Can it really be true that this beautiful lady and smiling man have chosen me for their son?’ Ruslan wondered, unable to believe that this miracle could be real. It was only when the director of the orphanage took him by the hand and led him across to his adoptive parents that his doubts left him. The documents for Ruslan’s adoption were prepared and signed very quickly, after all where was the sense in delaying it? His parents had never been alcoholics, had no criminal charges and moreover they had a comfortable income.

AVP workshopAnd then the day Ruslan had long been waiting for finally arrived – his first day at school. And what was more, he went into the school not with the orphanage nurse as he had expected, but hand in hand with a new mother and father. Everything about this day, from his new school briefcase and neat school uniform to the desks and chairs in the sunlit classroom, made him happy. Ruslan thoroughly enjoyed school: he answered all his teacher’s questions correctly, made friends with the other children in his class and became happy and full of life.

Not a year later, Ruslan learned that he was soon to have a little sister. As soon as their daughter was born Ruslan’s mother and father forgot about their adoptive son from the orphanage. Ruslan understood that his mother was much busier now that she had a baby to look after but he did not understand why his every word and movement seemed to aggravate her. His father ceased talking to him altogether. They did not sit together in the lounge to watch television as they used to do. Ruslan now had no one to listen to him recount his achievements at school and what he and his friends had been up to that day.

One day Ruslan went into his sister’s room, keen to have a closer look at the little girl. Following him into the room and seeing him close to her daughter’s cot, his mother became enraged. At school the next day, Ruslan’s teacher noticed a bruise on her pupil’s neck and asked him what had happened. The seven-year old hurriedly pulled up the collar of his shirt to cover the mark on his neck and muttered ‘I fell.’ After that first incident he began to ‘fall’ more and more often.

Ruslan’s parents refused to respond to the urgent requests from his teacher that they come in to the school to talk to her. Finally the school administration officially gave evidence that the young boy was coming into school covered in bruises and took the matter to court. In court Ruslan’s mother fiercely denied all charges, maintaining that her adoptive son had made everything up. The court delayed passing a final verdict on the case.

The Bitter but Unavoidable Truth

What became of Ruslan and his adoptive family after the court hearing? It was clear that after such a traumatic experience the young boy would need psychological support from a professional. Specialists from the Municipal Centre of Psychology and Pedagogy, with the help of facilitators from the Alternatives to Violence Project, put together a special programme for Ruslan. He is gradually recovering from the trauma – he is now less frightened of adults and tries to smile.

Ruslan’s adoptive parents, who still retain custody of Ruslan, attended a basic level Alternatives to Violence workshop, in which facilitators helped the young couple to identify the underlying motivations for their aggressive behaviour towards their child. For a long time the couple could not understand why these workshops were necessary. In the supportive and understanding environment of the AVP workshops they found it much more difficult to communicate than they had in the confrontational setting of the courtroom.

‘I now understand why, after my daughter was born, my feelings towards Ruslan changed.’ Marina admitted. ‘The AVP trainers helped me to understand myself better: there was not enough space in my heart for both my birth daughter and my adoptive son at the same time. I am trying to find the strength in myself to change the way both I and my husband respond to the situation and most of all to change our relationship with Ruslan.’

Unfortunately our mental stereotypes cannot be broken that easily. Although the family’s psychologists and AVP facilitators do not want it, they have not ruled out the possibility of Ruslan returning to the orphanage.

‘We are not allowed to comment on the situation or the behaviour of the participants in this conflict,’ said Natalya, an AVP facilitator working with the family. ‘But speaking from a purely personal point of view the bitter truth is preferable to lies. Even though the parents have examined the reasons for their cruel treatment of their son, continuing to live with the same family when the parents are in that state of mind could do permanent damage to the child’s psychology. Let the couple not be afraid to acknowledge: no, we won’t be able to live as a family of four any more, but we’ve learned our lesson from this experience.

‘Our workshops are by no means the final stage in this process. Marina and her husband, I am sure, will listen to their hearts much more carefully from now on.
‘We have done everything we can to ensure that when Ruslan grows up he will not feel inclined to take his feelings out on his adoptive parents in the same way as they were accustomed to taking their feelings out on him. We do not want the young boy to harbour violence in his soul and continue the vicious cycle of violence of which he himself was a victim.’

In the first story we described how violence already being committed was to a certain degree assuaged through Alternatives to Violence workshops. The next story, recounted by a young woman who works as a teacher of senior pupils at a local secondary school, deals with slightly different circumstances: using AVP workshops to avert a potentially destructive conflict.

‘I’ve got one boy in my class, Dima, who I can say straight away, is a difficult pupil,’ Elena told us. ‘He’s not stupid but he’s just not interested in working. You know, students like that always bring out the worst in their teachers. He doesn’t do his homework and thinks up all number of foolish reasons for not responding in class and he takes a disrespectful tone with his teachers.

‘One day Dima overstepped the line: we were doing individual study and everybody had been given a separate assignment to do and had settled down to work. Dima stood up demonstratively and announced ‘I’m not doing anything!’ He then left his usual seat and sat down at the back of the room with an insolent expression.’

Elena had been attending AVP workshops since the start of the AVP Season in Dzerzhinsk. Even before participating in AVP she had not been one to act impulsively in a conflict or to get wound up by a single offensive remark. Then, as always, she did not allow herself to raise ‘a storm in a teacup.’

‘I could have given Dima a two, that’s to say, the lowest mark in the Russian grading system, and left it at that. I would have liked to have done just that. I thought to myself: ‘I’ll tell him right now that I’m going to give him the two he deserves, maybe then he’ll start to do the work properly.’

‘It’s remarkable how the Alternatives to Violence workshops influence personality, not least the personality of a teacher! Often the school routine wears us out and we don’t have time to stop and analyse the inner life of an individual pupil or our own for that matter. Although I’d been attending workshops for a while, I hadn’t noticed the effect they had had on me until then. It seems that, without knowing it, the process of analysing my emotions and resisting giving way to the first surge of emotion had become almost intuitive to me.

‘Looking at Dima the thought suddenly struck me: yes he hardly ever does his homework, he’s undisciplined and rude. But today he spoke to me not only rudely but with a tone of despair. What if something has happened to him? That was the moment when I realised that I was starting to see the world from Dima’s perspective.’

Having handed round work to the other pupils Elena approached the problem pupil. He was sitting with his back to the class gazing out of the window and chewing on a stick of gum with a resolute look on his face.

‘Are you feeling tired?’ asked Elena ‘If you’re tired you may have a rest for a while. But individual study is very important so it would be best if you nevertheless did it when you’re feeling better.’

Dima seemed not to hear his teacher. He sat in that attitude all lesson, turned towards the window in silence. But in the break when there was no-one else left in the class he went up to Elena of his own accord and apologised for his behaviour for the first time in a very long time. He also told Elena that the previous evening his father had been taken to hospital and that the family had had no news about his condition.

‘I expect that, had I not felt the need to understand Dima but had forcibly tried to make him do the work or given him a two, the situation would have spiralled out of control,’ Elena reflected. ‘In that frame of mind Dima would have been capable of being still ruder to me and I might not then have been able to restrain myself. It seems to me that we were half a step away from an aggressive conflict.

‘Now, thanks to the reflex of containing my emotions and driving all hostility and animosity from my heart (I acquired this reflex at AVP workshops), I have found the key to this headstrong pupil. After that first conversation Dima and I have started to understand each other much better and this has affected the atmosphere in the class as a whole.’
Expect the best!

How can we reduce the number of children who suffer violence at the hands of adults? How can we train adults in the ways of good instead of the ways of violence? One answer is the Alternatives to Violence Project. It is well known that there are some issues which we must talk about at the top of our collective voice so that all around us hear the message. AVP is that collective voice.

Dzerzhinsk memorialNatalya, an AVP facilitator, explains, ‘We, the participants in the programme, are beginning to see that there is an alternative to solving disputes using violence and that is compromise. The ability to reach a compromise is a skill that needs to be learnt, just like learning to speak a foreign language, knit or drive a car. Admittedly the skills I’ve just listed are physical and mental skills only. When we talk about compromise we are talking about a skill which relies on the heart and the soul.’

Why not give it a try? Why not look more deeply into your heart? In what colours is it painted: warm or cold? The heart of an opponent of violence is warm. Why? Because this heart is not influenced by external violence, just as a thousand candles cannot be extinguished by a single gust of wind. A heart which listens to the voice of compromise is connected to other warm hearts which share in this mutual desire, while violence, by its very nature, stands alone, because it does not find fellow sympathy with anyone or anything.

Participants in Dzerzhinsk workshops agree:

Maria (student): ‘I think that these kinds of workshop are particularly relevant to us in Dzerzhinsk. Almost every day I hear about another child being found sleeping in an open cellar off the street. These children are forced to go out and beg for a pittance for their parents to spend on alcohol. If they don’t bring back enough, their parents beat them.

‘In workshops we discuss cases like these and search for practicable ways of saving such children and the adults as well. All of them are victims of violence and my friends and I are opponents of violence in all its forms.’

Tatiana Vasilievna (deputy director of the Dzerzhinsk Pedagogical College): ‘There’s no question that we need to study the problem of violence. We frequently try to close our eyes to the injustice, rudeness, injury and pain around us. But it is our wilful blindness that keeps violence alive. The only solution I believe is compromise and belief in the best.’

Tatiana (workshop participant): ‘I’m glad to have taken part in the AVP workshops. The facilitators and other participants have helped me to view many things in a new light. I won’t say that I changed straight away. But I began to take a more sombre view of many manifestations of violence, which previously I hadn’t considered as violence. It turned out not to be so difficult to put myself in someone else’s position and to try to think like them.’

Natalya (workshop organiser): ‘I think we are engaged in an important task. We help a person to see the truth. Compromise and ability to understand the other person is exactly what is lacking very often in all spheres of human interaction, be it between parents and their children or managers and their staff. And I believe that within each person is his or her own peculiar energy, which is capable of making manifest that person’s best qualities.’

AVP workshop DzerzhinskFacilitators and participants could have even greater opportunity to sever violence at its roots. Sadly, in striving to overcome hate and discomfort they frequently run into difficulties themselves: there are not always the funds to organise workshops as facilitators need money for stationary and teaching aids. Facilitators would like to make their workshops more visible and would be extremely grateful if people from Russia and abroad, having read this article about their working life, could assist with advice or perhaps with actions.

For as long as it lives inside us, violence will not disappear. But we can choose a different path and we in Dzerzhinsk have chosen it. We say ‘No’ to violence! Join us!

Oxana Belyanskaya and Natalya Shvetsova
Dzerzhinsk Youth Organisation Little Prince
Dzerzhinsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia

Translated by Claire Jewkes
Friends House Moscow