Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 1 - Moscow, Schekino and Kaluga

Oxfam have asked me to advise them on how social enterprise development might contribute to the anti-poverty programme they are currently running in Russia. I'm now sitting outside the Metropol Hotel just beside Red Square – quite appropriately (for a social enterprise blog) between the Marx Monument and the GUM department store (which has become a cathedral to capitalism) – trying to make sense of my first week here.

What can you say to people about setting up social enterprise in a country where any one of over 90 government agencies can inspect your premises at any time... where most of the inspectors aren't paid enough to live on, so whatever their personal morality they have to supplement their income somehow... and where 80% of the wealth of the world's largest country is concentrated in it's capital city - and outside Moscow almost everybody has only just enough money to live on?

If you've ever done any grassroots community work anywhere you would recognise Alla Novikova. She is the kind of middle-aged woman that is often at the centre of vibrant community groups. Well turned out, both sceptical and full of hope, first to speak up for others, yet clearly herself the heart and soul of the organisation. Her life experience has left her equally at home making policy or tea. Alla is chair of the Schekino branch of the All Russia Society of Disabled People. You might notice the missing finger lost in a train accident back in Soviet times, when she was 25, newly married with a new baby. You probably won't notice, because she'll be wearing trousers, that the train also took her leg. Alla knows what it's like to be disabled in a workers' state, where workers are supposed to be strong.

Alla took us to meet a disabled artist,

Viacheslav, down a dirt road on the edge of town to the little wooden house which he shares with his wife, her mother and her daughter (his first wife having left with his own children when he was disabled in a car accident - at just 19). I know you will have seen before - or can imagine - the living conditions of very poor people. In Russia it is estimated that welfare benefits provide between 10 and 50% of what you need to survive. But it wasn't how little Viacheslav's family had, or the bits of their house that were indeed falling apart that really moved me, but the immaculate upkeep of everything in the little house and garden that they could do for themselves. I remember many years ago visiting the Pennywell estate northeast of Newcastle, just after it had been torn apart by riots. There again it wasn't the abandoned or burnt out houses that struck me most forcibly, but one house alone in a row all burnt out or clad in metal 'systems' against the chaos, one immaculate house and old-fashioned front garden neatly kept, with bright bedding plants and fresh dug earth. I imagined an elderly couple, locking their door every evening not knowing what fresh chaos might overtake their old street in the night.

The artist showed me paintings he had done on scraps of wood when he could not afford paper. But here's the point: they really were good. I've seen a lot of work over the years that has come out of 'therapeutic' art and craft activities, and I am not naïve or sentimental about this. Moreover, today I took a special interest in the work on display at the Izmaylovo Art Market here in Moscow – and Viacheslav's work is better than most of the stuff I've seen. In any other country it would be a simple matter to set up a social enterprise to distribute and sell such work, carefully selected across small town Russia and sold in Moscow. Will it be simple here?

The scope of my work for Oxfam does not yet extend to development. I'm currently working with Victor Glushkov, a lanky Russian microfinance (and single malt) specialist here in the Oxfam Moscow office, just assessing the barriers and opportunities for social enterprise development and organising a 3-day conference in October to explore the possibilities. But we are already talking to a new Russian organisation that has some funds, and wants to focus on social enterprise development. I hope we have the basis for a partnership that can put together an application for a larger scale development project.

If you can help, please contact me at geof@geofcox.info.

So far the field research has been only in Schekino and Kaluga; next week I'll be travelling to Rybinsk, Vyshniy Volochek and Ostashkov, and the week after to Aleksin then back to Sheremetyevo. I'll try to post here my further thoughts as I go, though internet access is not always straightforward...