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This is a collection of articles about FHM and our projects during the COVID-19 pandemic in Russia and Ukraine. A shorter version is in our print-format newsletter Spring 2020.

Click on the “+” signs below to see each article. Last updated: May 2020 (Photo: Moscow Times, 30 March 2020)

On Red Square, even the pigeons are social distancing…

Russia’s grand public spaces may be empty, but from their homes Russians are reaching across the internet to maintain precious social bonds and to show each other support. With our 25 years of Quaker witness in Russia, Friends House Moscow is perhaps uniquely positioned to share the Russian responses to pandemic isolation. Like many of “us,” many of “them” are coming to understand our burdensome isolation as an opportunity to re-imagine community.

A COVID-19 timeline in Russia

31 Dec 2019 – WHO is informed of an outbreak of “pneumonia of unknown cause” (later dubbed COVID-19) in Wuhan, China.

31 Jan 2020 – Two cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Russia, in Tyumen and Chita. They are both Chinese visitors to Russia. Both patients have recovered by 12 February and are discharged from hospital; there are no new cases of COVID-19 after this.

20 Feb 2020 – Russia closes its border with China.

28 Feb 2020 – Eight Russian citizens who were evacuated from the cruise ship Diamond Princess are confirmed to be suffering from COVID-19. They are hospitalised in Kazan.

2 Mar 2020 – First “local” Russian COVID-19 case is detected in Moscow (a Russian who recently returned from Italy).

16 Mar 2020 – Schools are ordered to be closed.

19 Mar 2020 – All persons arriving in Russia from abroad required to undergo a 14-day quarantine.

20 Mar 2020 – The total number of infections reaches 253 but there is only 1 death so far.

24 Mar 2020 – All nightclubs, cinemas and gyms are ordered to be closed.

25 Mar 2020 – The total number of infections doubles over a 5-day period. President Putin announces a one-week “paid holiday” (effectively, a soft lockdown) and the suspension of the referendum on proposed amendments to the Russian constitution.

27 Mar 2020 – All inbound flights to Russia are suspended, other than evacuation flights for Russian citizens abroad. Total number of infections exceeds 1,000.

29 Mar 2020 – Moscow mayor issues a “stay-at-home” order for all residents, effective from 30 March. Exceptions are: (1) to go to the nearest shop to buy food; (2) to go to the nearest chemists/pharmacy to purchase medicines; (3) to take out the rubbish; and (4) to walk pets (provided this is within 100 metres of the person’s residence);

2 Apr 2020 – “Paid holiday” period is extended to 30 April.

7 Apr 2020 – Number of new infections over a 24-hour period exceeds 1,000 for the first time; total number of infections is 7,497 with a total of 58 deaths.

9 Apr 2020 – Total number infections exceeds 10,000, with a total of 76 deaths.

14 Apr 2020 – Total number infections exceeds 20,000. Total number of deaths more than doubles in less than a week, to 170.

15 Apr 2020 – System of electronic permits comes into force. Any Moscow resident wishing to move around by car, taxi or public transport must now obtain an electronic permit to do so. [For a cartoonist’s take on what happened, read here …]

Metro queue 15 Apr 2020
The morning the new system of electronic passes went into effect, long lines formed at metro stations as police verified the passes (which, as indignant citizens pointed out on social media, did not help social distancing) (photo by ColonelCassad for LiveJournal)

16 Apr 2020 – Victory Day parade (traditionally held on 9 May) is postponed to an unspecified future date. [Preparations for the parade resulted in 15,000 soldiers being sent into quarantine: read here …]

28 April 2020 – The lockdown is extended to 11 May 2020. Rospotrebnadzor (the Federal Service for Consumer Protection and Human Wellbeing) is instructed to produce a strategy by 5 May 2020, for easing the lockdown.

29 April 2020 – Russia extends its border closure for an indefinite period.

30 April 2020 – Overall number of infections exceeds 100,000 (surpassing the number of infections reported by China). Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin discloses that he has tested positive for coronavirus, begins self-isolation.

1 May 2020 – Minister of Construction and Housing Vladimir Yakushev discloses that he has also tested positive for coronavirus.


Saving Us: Two nurses

People no one noticed before are saving our lives today. Because someone helped them in time.

Few of us know what happens to those who were raised in orphanages when they reach the age of eighteen and begin to live on their own. As a rule — and this is a shameful fact of life in our society — nothing good. Unprepared for life, deprived of the slightest experience of affection and without basic social skills, the majority of them are lost in this world. Few of them know who they want to be, and even fewer know how to achieve it.

But there are exceptions.

These exceptions do not come out of thin air — there are no miracles. Simply put, there are people, highly qualified and dedicated specialists, who take up these young people and help them to find their place in life, to chose a profession that is interesting for them and, in the long run, to become self-supporting. At the foundation “Big Change” that’s just how they work. The instructors match every student with an individual programme, help them to get a goal in their sights, and to go towards that goal. For one it is a high school diploma, for another — preparing for the Unified State Exam and entering a technical college, for a third — the capacity to get along with others and live independently.

“I’m afraid to imagine the hell she is in.”

Katya (the name has been changed at our heroine’s request) is 40 years old. Her mother died in childbirth, and the little girl immediately ended up in an orphanage. She switched orphanages several times and was in a boarding school for behaviour problems. Katya does not like to remember her childhood.

At age 14 she was left on her own — they simply took her from the school to a room in the communal apartment where her mother had been registered, and left her there to live. This was in 1994 — things like that were possible back then. Katya had no allowance, no life skills. no experience, no connections. She attached herself to the owner of a market stall, swept it up and cleaned it up for food.

Katya, a graduate of Big Change
Katya in coronavirus hazard gear

“There’s not much I can remember from that time, but I remember clear as day that I always wanted to work in medicine.” At 16, the girl got a job in a hospital as a nurse’s aide and worked there for almost 20 years.

When Katya was thirty, two events took place in her life — a bad one and a good one. They found cancer in her breast. Then came five operations and several courses of chemotherapy. But after that, through some friends, she started a school programme — until then Katya didn’t even have a certificate of completion for the 9th grade. And there she got to know Tatiana Timofeeva, the person who helped her change her life.

“Before long, I left that organisation and started at ‘Big Change,’ Tatiana explains, “and I took Katya with me. Somehow we became close friends at once. She’s an unusual person: her fate has been hard, but she has a beautiful soul. She had a dream — to finish ninth grade and enter a medical college. I was teaching Russian and I worked with Katya at home. Besides that, ‘Big Change’ gave her some financial help, because an aide’s salary — everybody knows what that’s like. And, at the same time, Katya was battling cancer. But never, not once, did I hear her complain about her life.”

After some years of studying Katya succeeded in getting her diploma; she went into remission and entered a medical college. Two years later she successfully finished and started to work at Filatovskaya Hospital (GKB No. 15) in Vykhino [an area in southeast Moscow]. During this whole time, she continued to spend time with Tatiana Timofeeva. “She’s the person I love best in the world,” says Katya. “Without her I wouldn’t have anything now.”

Katya was working as a surgical nurse in the hospital. But on March 27, Filatovskaya was completely converted for COVID-19 patients. It is now a major inpatient facility for patients infected with the coronavirus — there are more than 1300 beds and they are setting up new ones.

Life in the red zone

“I work in the red zone, that means with the most seriously ill patients,”  Katya explains. “My shift lasts for twelve hours, every day except weekends. We’re under enormous pressure, because a lot of the medical staff quit, and some went on sick leave — not because of coronavirus, they just can’t endure working under these conditions. Many develop high blood pressure from constantly being in a hazard suit, there isn’t enough oxygen. After their shift people get out of the suit barely alive.

Katya in action

Katya too comes off every shift barely alive, but there’s no quitting, no going on sick leave — no way! Every day at eight she arrives at work, puts on a special set of pajamas, then the white hazard suit, special shoes, a respirator mask and gloves. She doesn’t take all this off for twelve hours. She says, “It’s not allowed.” You can’t get anything to eat either, because it’s not allowed to take off the suit.

“You don’t go to the toilet, because you can’t get undressed,” Katya says. “A lot of us are working in Pampers. I can’t do the Pampers, that’s absolutely unbearable, so I don’t drink anything. True, it’s even harder that way. The mask steams up all the time, it’s hard to breathe in the respirator, the suit doesn’t let air through, and the sweat just pours off you. When it gets too bad, I go out on the balcony to get a breath of air. Sometimes I’ve got on four layers of gloves, and I’ve got to feel for the vein so I can put in a needle. When, after my shift, I take all of this off, there are welts on my face that are bleeding, and blisters on my legs. On the metro they often look at me strangely — obviously they think somebody’s beaten me up.”

Katya in action

Katya says that recently they have started bringing food from restaurants into the hospital. But she rarely eats after her shift — either there’s nothing left, or she just wants to hurry up and get home. Last Wednesday, like thousands of Moscovites, she was caught in a crowd at a metro entrance, when the police were verifying peoples’ [electronic] passes by hand. She was forty minutes late to work. “I’m afraid to guess how many people were infecting each other there.”

“We haven’t got enough people — no cafeteria workers, no aides either,” Katya continues. “We’re feeding the patients ourselves. They’re very seriously ill — double pneumonia, sugar diabetes, kidney failure. Recently a home for the elderly in Moscow burned down — and they brought all these people to us. Earlier, it seemed to me that I’d seen it all before, but my heart was simply torn apart by the condition they were in. Just skin and bones, hair all matted, huge bed sores, you can’t bear to look.”

Katya says that they have enough ventilators, but that they are running out of beds. In the hospital, they are rushing to make additional places, and the wards are already at capacity with around six people in each. People are being admitted who have other complications along with the coronavirus, even pregnant women — the hospital has its own birthing center. Women are infected and they are giving birth to infants who have the virus. Says Katya, “The doctors are doing battle for them from the first days of their lives.”

According to Katya, they were promised some kind of extra pay, but neither she, nor any of her acquaintances in other hospitals, has received anything so far. “But the money doesn’t bother me so much— I just want this to end as quickly as possible. No amount of money will expiate this hell.”

“Katya is not just a good-as-gold person, she’s a God-given medical worker,” says Tatiana. “Considerate, dedicated, trustworthy — to her, every patient matters. And with it all she is very strong. And very modest. And completely unique. I have good, warm relationships with many of my students at Big Change and with the graduates, but Katya — Katya’s a special case. Despite the blows of fate, she got up on her feet. She’s a unique person, I can’t tell you how much. I’m afraid to imagine the hell she is in, but I know that she is giving herself to her work unstintingly. I know she will work to the end of her strength.”

Katya and Tatiana were close friends before, but now they check in with each other every evening, when Katya comes home from work. “They haven’t tested us a single time,” says Katya. “I think they are afraid that, if there is a positive test, they’ll have to send the employees home, and then there won’t be anyone at all left to do the work. A lot of nurses I know have become sick in the different hospitals and they are now staying at home. I’m not afraid of getting sick. I dream that this will be over, although it won’t be over soon. But all the same, I love my work and I am happy that I can be of help to people in this horribly difficult time. And as for me, I’ll get through it all somehow.”

“First, you won’t outrun fate, and, second, this is my commitment.”

“I never saw my parents, but I know their history,” says Olya (her name has also been changed.) “Way back when, Mama was a champion in track and field, but her second marriage pulled her down, she started to drink. When she gave birth to me she was already a hopeless alcoholic. She abandoned me in an orphanage right away. Then during a domestic argument, she stabbed my father to death with a knife, and was sentenced to prison. It seems like she got out later, but I don’t know what happened to her then. My guess is, she’s dead by now. I never saw my Mama — not even once, she never came to see me or took any interest in me.”

Olya is 39 now. Like Katya, she dreamed from childhood of becoming a medical worker. And she’s not eager to remember her childhood either. She says, after fourth grade it became more or less bearable, just depressing. But before that there was another orphanage and there it was really bad.

“They systematically bullied us,” Olya remembers. “When we were naughty, they would punish us — they stood us in the drying cupboards for hours on end, they made us hold a pillow for hours in our outstretched arms, to lay our heads on the desk for a long time. I remember how one of the teachers, a great big woman, put a pillow on my head and sat her backside down on top of it. That was the most horrible of all. When people brought presents for us, they took them all away. They took the chocolate candy for themselves, and they stole the inexpensive fruit drops out from their wrappers. And they yelled at us all the time. To this day I hate shouting.”

From age 15 Olya dreamed of living on her own, and when at age 18 she left the orphanage and got a one-room apartment, this was true happiness. She was always a good student and had finished the 11th grade. But to survive, she went to work, and she laid aside her dream of medicine. She found work in a clinic as a receptionist — to be just a little bit closer to medicine.

Olya happened upon Big Change in 2012, and she immediately sat up and took notice. “They told me here that they would help me prepare for the Unified State Exam and enter a medical college,” Olya remembers. “I understood that this was unbelievable good luck, and that I should grab it by its tail. Still, I had left school in 2000 and of course I had forgotten everything. I had to pass Biology, Russian and English. They set up a programme for me, and I spent a year studying. Learning was great — heaven on earth compared with school. There, the teachers could not have cared less about anyone, especially the orphans. But here, they took trouble with everyone; they kept reminding us that learning is your ticket to life.”

She passed the Unified State Exam and entered a medical college. She did well there, and when she finished she found a place at a cancer treatment centre. She’s been working there for five years. “Olya has a very professional attitude to her work; they think highly of her, and she is in absolutely the right place,” says Elizaveta Zvereva, an instructor at “Big Change.” “They consider Olya one of their best specialists. She’s constantly educating herself. I know for a fact what a thoughtful professional she is and, the main thing is, she’s a person who cares. The kids come to us with very different starting levels, and Olya was one of the most self-directed of our charges.”

Olya works in cancer surgery and takes part in cancer identification. “We make an exact diagnosis and determine which patient should receive which treatment — chemotherapy, surgery or radiation, or, if the disease is already beyond that, we look at symptomatic treatments,” she says. “I like oncology very much. I realized that I wouldn’t flourish in a general practice, but here it’s both complicated and interesting. I know all the patients and each of their histories and often I am the one who advises them. I understand that when a person shows up at a cancer centre, he is, to put it mildly, feeling lost and frightened, and to help him, support him and give him direction is very important. I feel that this is the right place for me.”

Today Olya lives in the very same one room apartment, and there she is bringing up her 14 year old son Vanya. She remodeled the apartment herself, turning one room into two. She constructed a windowless separate bedroom for herself in an alcove, and turned the rest of the space over to her son. Even after she left “Big Change” she continued to spend time with the teachers, especially with Elizaveta Zvereva, who is in charge of the “club” activities at the foundation: excursions around the city, outings at the theatre, trips to the Golden Ring. When time allowed, Olya would take part in activities along with Vanya. “It is unbelievable, what they do,” says Olya. “Enormous support in any situation. I am fantastically grateful to the foundation for everything.”

Recently Olya signed up as a medical volunteer in the hospital in Kommunarka [a town in Moscow’s southwestern suburbs]. On any day they can call on her, and she takes herself out there to help treat patients infected with the coronavirus. “Many of my colleagues say, ‘What! Are you crazy? Stay put and don’t mess with it.’ But my feeling is: first, you can’t outrun fate, and second, it is my commitment, They don’t have enough nurses there, and I can — and want to — help,” says Olya.

“If Olya is going out there, and she needs to live in Kommunarka,” says Elizaveta Zbereva, “If this were somebody else, I would go and live with Vanya. But Olya has raised her son to be as sensible and self-sufficient as she is herself.”

The above article, entitled “Saving Us”, by Maria Bobyleva appeared in Takiye Dela on April 24, 2020. We are grateful to Takiye Dela for permission to reprint it here. Translation by Patricia Stewart


FHM supports the”English Club” programme at Big Change. The video below is a slide show of Katya in action.

New activity at the Refugee Centre

“Kids are Kids” (the Integration Centre for Refugee and Migrant Children) continues its work in Quarantine mode.

Refugee mother and son learning online
Mother and son learning online

Lessons in Russian, maths, English, physics, chemistry and some other subjects are still being held, but now they are online and teaching is most often done 1:1. Parents are also joining the classes, as they are not working and it is a way for them to take their minds off the ongoing situation. The Centre is trying to provide laptops for families who do not have access to the internet.

Online maths lesson

The Centre is conducting ongoing surveys of the needs of the families, and this is gradually becoming a separate area of work. Because many families are unemployed, the Centre ensures that they have food, that they are safe, and that they know who to contact if they need help. The staff at the Centre work with the Committee for Assistance to Refugee Families, to collect food or money for food, which is then delivered to the families by the volunteers.

The director and all the staff continue to work; although everything is now happening remotely, the volume of work remains: volunteers and children have to be coordinated, the needs of families have to be monitored, applications for help are accepted, and practical activities to collect and deliver food and other necessities are all carrying on – alongside the extra work involved in configuring the online platforms.

The Centre has an influx of new volunteers, because people now have more time and are offering to help with the children. There is even a special email address for new volunteers to apply. (And then of course they need training – another activity to fit in!)

A big change at the English Club

FHM supports the “English Club” at Big Change, the organisation that gives education and life skills to young people who have grown up in orphanages and leave with little ability to cope.

English Club Online Game
English Club online game

The English Club has recently gone online with the students mastering two new games: “Guess Who?” and “Guess Where?” – they are shown a picture and have to guess what is hidden and where it is hidden. This is not only valuable language practice, it also is something fun to do for young people confined to home.

Big Change online
Big Change online

Although most of the students at Big Change are young people from orphanages, a few are residents in a neuro-psychiatric institution. Often, young people who are placed in these institutions do not hope ever to leave; but Big Change supports some of them while still in hospital and helps them to prepare for an independent life and to pass exams and find employment.

We are delighted that a few of those students have contacted their tutor in order to be able to continue their lessons by Skype. Some of these are actually new students, who have a great desire for knowledge. Some of their neighbours in the institution started to complain about the noise during the online communication, but the girls moved to another room – smaller and less comfortable, but allowing them to continue their lessons without disturbing anybody.

Success stories

Among its success stories, Big Change can count two of its former “graduates” who are now working as nurses – see the news item “Two nurses“.

Alternatives to Violence in Russia and Ukraine

AVP (the Alternatives to Violence Project) groups in Moscow and Ukraine are starting to meet online.

AVP online community circles

Representatives from Ukraine have now joined AVP International’s Education Committee. They joined together with representatives from Africa, Australia, Europe and North America to discuss the demands of the current situation and how AVP’s work might be adapted.

On 21 April AVP Ukraine’s core team held their first online workshop, on the topic of “resources”. A “virtual office” has been prepared so that they can meet more often, and they are working on a programme which will be launched bit-by-bit. Alla Soroka reports, “It’s begun… AVP is now “live” in every sense of the word.” Of that first workshop she says, “…Well, it was different, but all the same it was warm and productive in the real AVP way.”

Alla Soroka is a child psychologist, one of the founders of AVP Ukraine. She loves the springtime and makes the internet bloom, even this year, with pictures of flowers, children, young, gentle animals, and — for the first of April — a poem from 1917 by Valery Bryusov. The poet delights in the fact that “In spring we live like children/As if we are raving out loud/In fresh colours, in clear light/ The spirit comes to life!”

Military conscription in the lockdown

On 30 March the Russian President and the Minister of Defence announced that spring conscription would start as usual on 1 April. The machinery of national defence requires that 135,000 young men be delivered twice a year. However by April, local governors and the heads of several regional military commissions had already announced that call-ups would be postponed due to concerns about the coronavirus. Human rights workers had worked tirelessly, sending open letters and appeals to the heads of local governments, reminding them that they have the legal authority to regulate the call-ups, and that they are responsible for the young men in their charge.

Miliatry conscripts
Photo: Aleksander Melnikov for RIA Novosti

Since then the Ministry of Defence has announced that all call-ups will be postponed and will not begin before 20 May. They will end, as usual, on 15 July and there will be elaborate medical safeguards. There continues to be an unsettling gap between the official announcements and what is actually happening on the ground: some regions had begun their call-ups in March; one governor now plans to postpone until June.

Veteran at Victory Day parade
Veteran at a Victory Day parade (photo: Aleksei Maishev for Izvestia)

By mid-April the virus was already active in Russia’s armed forces, with dozens of cases at army posts and in service academies. Only two weeks later the Ministry of Defence reported 2,600 cases. Startlingly, on April 20, at one fell swoop, 15,000 soldiers were sent into quarantine. On April 1 they had all taken part in close-formation drills for the May 9 Victory Day parade. On April 16 President Putin reluctantly announced that the parade will be postponed indefinitely. His decision was undoubtedly prompted by concerns expressed by veterans’ groups: surviving veterans of World War II, Russia’s human treasures, are elderly; many are in fragile health.

As for the spring conscription, human rights organisations have pointed out that it might be best simply to cancel it. However, this possibility frightens the parents of soldiers who are nearing the end of their tours of duty.  If the spring call-up is cancelled, will their sons will be forced to do more time? This is against the law, but. . . Advocacy groups, including our long-time friends at “For Our Sons” in Tatarstan are trying to provide young men and their families with more information, but as one activist wrote to us, “So far, there are more questions than answers.”

Military conscripts
Photo: Denis Abramov for Vedomosti

Advocacy for human rights and conscientious objection continues

Our friend from “For Our Sons” wrote to us from a rural village some 800 miles east of Moscow. Their advocacy centre used to operate from an FHM-supported office in the city of Kazan. After realizing that their work on behalf of conscripts and conscientious objectors is now conducted by internet and telephone, he and his wife moved their advocacy work to their dacha. They ride their bicycles to the grocery store in a neighbouring village; they make delicious berry jam (which is occasionally delivered in person to the FHM office); they find new homes for stray dogs first adopted, and then abandoned, by summer residents. His wife is an equal partner in their work of rescuing boys caught in the terrible machinery of war. As one awed American Quaker said, “He’s an activist; she’s a force of nature.”

Friends in Moscow

Quakers in Russia have continued to meet in March/April, under the Quarantine regulations, by going online.

Moscow Monthly Meeting (the main weekend Meeting for Worship, usually held on a Saturday) are now meeting by Skype. They also met like this with Michael Eccles who planned to visit Moscow on behalf of EMES (FWCC Europe and Middle East section), but who was prevented because of the border closure.

The second worship group, who meet twice a month on Wednesdays, are meeting online via Zoom. They have started a wider Meeting for Worship every second Sunday, which can be joined by participants from the Quaker groups in Facebook and vKontakte. Going online has even widened the number of participants. People from faraway regions – Barnaul and Samara – as well as France, the USA, etc., are able to join in.

The “Meditation of Friends” group (which is modelled on Experiment with Light) hold online meditative meetings on Zoom every two weeks. Between the meetings they communicate in their Whatsapp group.

News of the Friends House Moscow office

Sergei and his family at home

Sergei and Natasha are both working from home. Sergei communicates on Zoom, Skype and Facebook Messenger with Friends who wish to participate in online activities and need technical support.

Once a week Sergei visits the office, mainly to water the plants. At the moment he is editing and formatting Quaker books. Currently he is working on No Extraordinary Power by Helen Steven.

Sergei and his family have produced a charming short music video about life in the lockdown. You can watch it here.

Natasha participated in the Planning Committee of the Annual Conference of QUIP (Quakers Uniting in Publications). She co-clerked the QUIP meeting for business on Zoom, on Saturday 25 April. She keeps in contact with project coordinators at the Refugee Centre and Big Change about their news, quarantine adjustments, photos, reports, applications, etc. She has also heard from the coordinator in Dzerzhinsk where we have funded many projects.

Natasha has just completed editing The Presence in the Midst by Peter Eccles. She says it was the most challenging and interesting editing work she has ever done, because it included getting consultations from the scientists (who just praised the book!).