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A Visit to Moscow and Grozny – Friends House Moscow
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By Roswitha Jarman

Roswitha is a Quaker who worked in Moscow in the 1990s and helped to set up Friends House Moscow.  She also worked in Chechnya promoting peace and reconciliation.  In May 2013 she returned after a 10 year absence, and these are her impressions of the visit.  All of the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of Friends House Moscow.

The purpose of my visit was to visit Friends House Moscow and hear about its work, to meet with the AVP group, to attend the Quaker Meetings, to visit Grozny and meet with the team of people I had been training and working with for over ten years, and to meet with my friends from the School of Psychology in Moscow.

Friends House Moscow is well situated and is an efficiently run place. I met with Natasha who enjoys her work in FHM. Twice I had long talks with Natasha and once we had a meeting with some of the AVP group (the Alternatives to Violence Project).

AVP group

Four people from the AVP group came for a Sunday workshop. Some facilitators were in the Caucasus doing workshops so there was only a small group in Moscow. It was very good to have Lena from Dzerzhinsk with us. We also had two friends of mine from the psychology department of the University who were interested because their voluntary work was also with people on the margins. They booked themselves into the next AVP workshop. They are busy people and probably won’t be able to become facilitators, but the contact was of mutual benefit.

The focus of the AVP workshop was on mentoring: how do we support one another as facilitators. We also spent time on some useful further exercises that were less familiar to the group: Non-Violent Communication as taught by Marshall Rosenberg, the Tree of Violence and Non-Violence which surprisingly was unfamiliar to those present. We looked at the Power Triangle Game and the anger escalator. We also did a mediation exercise, which was fun. I hope to stay in contact with some of the AVP group and exchange some information from time to time.

Natasha was quite amazing as a first class help and translator and also as a participant. I think she enjoyed the day although it was quite a challenge and very tiring.

Quaker Meetings

I went to meetings of both worship groups. Because of the summertime and family concerns, there were only few people at each meeting.

The main meeting meets now in a reasonably good place, but it is small. After the meeting and the refreshments I was asked to do a worship sharing around my booklet Breakthrough to Unity; the first chapter has been translated by Irina and photocopied by Natasha so that all had the material in front of them. We focused on three points and had worship sharing around these. This felt fruitful, after this we had some general discussion.

The other worship group was very small on this evening because of young parents’ commitments. I sense that people at this meeting come with a serious intent and understanding of Quaker ways.

About Moscow / Russia / impressions

Moscow is beautiful and looks fantastic. I was surprised at the huge cars parked seemingly everywhere. The streets are full of them. Restaurants and coffee shops are everywhere, it is a good life, full of options, luxury and wealth: for those who can afford it. There is no indication that people are concerned about the environment: there is the visible emphasis on big cars, there is traffic congestion and there are big containers which collect all rubbish without any distinction.

The weather was beautiful and warm, but it suddenly went cold and wet as I was getting near leaving. Good, it might prevent forest fires.

I did not see any protesters, but then, I was very likely not in the right places.

Opinion as to how to accept the regime of Putin is varied. I met with psychologists with whom I had done seminars and workshops over many years. One sensitive soul said: I don’t know why there is so much fuss, and why people are afraid to come to Russia, I can say what I want, I can work the way I want, I am happy here.

However there is much interference from the top. Apart from NGOs and religious groups being hassled, the education system is being totally revamped in such a way that independent schools (institutes/colleges/University) will lose their freedom, and will come under one umbrella where the rules are set; the rules can make life very difficult for small, interesting and independent organisations.

On the surface all seems fine, but there is uncertainty as to what new laws may suddenly come about, and what that might mean to the individual and to NGOs or religious groups. It is not an open society, people are trapped. One friend whom we have known since the days of the Cold War and the dissident groups, of which she was part, is horrified by Russia and what Putin is up to.

I spent some time in the Tretyakov Gallery, because I love the paintings of the 19th Century that have been collected there. I fell again in love with what I sense of the Russian soul in these paintings. They are amazing paintings, so little known in the west. When I talked with Natasha about how deeply I was impressed again by these paintings, she said with a sad smile: now you know why I love Russia. This is the sadness, that there is a real Russia hidden somewhere in the people, but it is largely displaced by materialism, fear, uncertainty, and the hardship of daily life.

Grozny

I was very surprised that I had no trouble buying an air ticket and just flying there without any questions asked. Going in and out of Russia was totally without problems. Grozny is now amazing. I saw it last when it was grey and skeletal, about 10 years ago. Now it is rebuilt with beautiful rose coloured and ochre stones and of course golden minarets and domes. The architecture is beautiful and interesting and full of harmonious variety. Life in Grozny looks good, in the back streets near to where I was staying, houses have been rebuilt in the traditional way, children can play safely on the streets, the old people sit and chat on benches in front of their houses.

On the whole people seem to feel safe, and it certainly felt safe and very clean. There is no drunkenness or unruly behaviour, the streets are clean and litter free.

We visited the new museum which can almost compete with the Hermitage in its beautiful architecture. The pictures on exhibition were by young artists of the North Caucasus, and many of them were very fine works of art. Very pleasing to the eye, and giving a proud image of life in the north Caucasus. This is a republic that is rebuilding its self esteem and image.

Top of the agenda for Kadirov (Chechen President) is remembering tradition and culture. Many restrictions especially for women (and human rights) are justified because of maintaining tradition. There is a sad (and even cruel) underbelly which people sense (or know about), and those sensitive to it regret it and feel pain and agony. All this beautiful facade is a game which lacks real grounding. But at least there is some order and there is no war.

I met with the group of counsellors that I had trained over a period of about 10 years. The NGO that was set up is still functioning, but funding is very limited and all the counsellors have found work in the wider society in villages outside Grozny, which is good. I asked if they could use the training that we had done (counselling skills and working with traumatized people) and to my joy, they all said that what they had learned over the years was very helpful to them. People come to them with their problems. Most of the counsellors work in schools as ‘psychologists’. Of course their training is not a full psychological training, but they said that the people who come out of University with psychology degrees don’t have the person centred skills, that they feel they have.

My friends in Grozny did not allow me to go to Ingushetia, that and Dagestan they say and know are uncertain and dangerous places for foreigners. In fact even as I was there, there were serious incidents.

Miscellaneous

I was glad to meet with my friends from the School of Psychology with whom I have been working since 1992, and hear about the positive work going on as well as their worries about the changes to come. I was able to contribute with a seminar on person centred counselling skills (which I had done for many years at this school), to some 30 second and third year students. This was much appreciated. The human touch is still largely missing in the training of psychologists, and I have found that this contribution is always much appreciated.

I was deeply touched when towards the end of the seminar someone asked: so what do you really need to be a good therapist? We offered: empathy and congruity, and added unconditional regard and love, and when the questioner wanted more, we added to uphold the sanctity of life, her eyes filled with emotions, this was what she was longing to hear. Again and again in my work, I have found that people long to hear that life has meaning, a deep meaning. That all of life is sacred.

When walking with some friends down the streets of Moscow, someone pointed out yet another refurbished church and wanted me to visit it. I was not keen. I feel the sadness of the conflict of Putin’s money and support for these showpieces which serve to ‘calm’ the people, but which contribute to taking individual freedoms away. There is an informative and sad article about this in the latest Keston Newsletter.

I am left with mixed feelings, but I do also have hope that a gradual process of open dialogue and of engagement with the wider world can bring about the changes that are needed. The changes I feel that are needed are: the courage to have an open society (on the government side) but linked into this: a greater personal awareness and a willingness to take on responsibility, a letting go (little by little) of greed and material satisfiers and an awareness of our global and environmental condition and limitations for which we all have responsibility.

Grozny Mosque photo by JoeT10 (Wikitravel)