Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 2 - Vyshniy Volochek & Ostashkov

We received a wonderful welcome in Vyshniy Volochek, especially from Vladimir Samuipov, the deputy mayor and celebrated local historian and writer, who presented us with both a copy of his latest book, on Pushkin's brief stay in the Tver region, and a bottle of the unique herbal liqueur 'Tverskaya' (ТΒΕΡСКАЯ). A man of culture and taste!

While Rybinsk wants to become a 'social town', both Vyshniy Volochek and Ostashkov are targeting tourism. The local authority in Vyshniy Volochek wants to explore setting up a social enterprise travel agency, and those at the meeting were very interested in my ad lib case study of Travel Matters in Surrey (if they contact you Peter it's my fault!). There is tourism potential. Both Vyshniy Volochek and Ostashkov are close to beautiful countryside and have interesting historic connections and buildings; Vyshniy Volochek is at the centre of a big canal system and Ostashkov by the side of a picturesque lake and famous monastery. The first target is domestic tourism, and indeed I fear there are still some major barriers for foreign visitors. Russia is still not that easy to get into, or stay in. There is red tape (although according to The Moscow Times the visa regime with EU countries might be loosened within 3 years) as well as a number of other difficulties to negotiate. Moreover, the legacy of soviet town planning and the collapse of the economy in the 1990s makes many places fundamentally unsuited to visitors – for example facilities in towns such as hotels, shops, bars, library, etc may not be clustered around a 'town centre' but spread out across different neighbourhoods – quite convenient if you're planning a town around the needs of ordinary residents but not necessarily very market- or visitor-friendly. Moreover, a lot of infrastructure outside Moscow – roads, buildings, etc – has gone pretty much unmaintained since the 1980s.

In Ostashkov we met more disharmony with the local authority – indeed it seemed between local and district authorities. Two enterprises that had formerly held contracts with the local authority to offer 50% discounts to pensioners and disabled people had just had these contracts withdrawn. One of these – which undertakes shoe and other small repairs – also employs 3 disabled people (out of 5 staff) and has continued to offer 10% discounts at it's own expense. Clearly this is a social firm. They have 2 clear business planning needs:

  • they have unused space in their building, which might be used to generate more income, and
  • they need to update their equipment.

They will talk to Oxfam about a two-stage investment, first help with business planning and then, if appropriate, investment in modernisation. I wonder if any UK Social Firm would be interested in twinning with them?

We also met in Ostashkov with the head of the residential unit for 2-8 year old children. There are 70 children living there, who were either abandoned or 'taken into care'. Over 90% have some kind of disability or illness; many have HIV/AIDS. Having found that attempts to place children with foster families often came undone, Oxfam is assisting them to develop a new approach, which has some elements in common with that of the big North East & Yorkshire social enterprise Team Fostering: careful selection and thorough training of foster parents, and on-going support. In the Russian context this means that foster parents actually become employees of the residential home, with contracts clearly specifying who-does-what (basically the foster parents look after the child and bring them up, but the residential unit deals with medical and legal issues).

Again, the number of abandoned or abused children reflects on the economic collapse of the 1990s, from which small towns like Ostashkov are finding it hard to recover. Of the 25,000 townspeople, 9000 (36%) are pensioners; and 10% of the others are disabled. About a third of the population live below the official poverty line.

One Ostashkov project I'm particularly interested in is being developed by a local school, Gymnasium No.2: a shop or merchandising arrangement in a proposed new tourist information centre, selling souvenirs made by the schoolchildren. In the UK I'm working with Susan Priestley on a big school social enterprise project – addressing the relationship between educational and enterprise priorities in ventures that aim to both provide trade and business training and real jobs for students who might otherwise leave without a progression route (most of the schools we are dealing with are special schools, or are located in areas of high and multi-generational unemployment, so this is a real issue). Again I'm hoping for some transnational linking of the projects!

My ears also pricked up when I heard that Ostashkov has the infrastructure for district heating. It was switched off last year seemingly for lack of funds, then the price hiked beyond the reach of most people. Now it's shrouded in uncertainty because of the prospect of a natural gas connection for the town. Russia has of course plentiful natural oil and gas – but I know some environmentalists who would give their eye teeth for a ready-made district heating infrastructure – especially amidst huge areas of forest. In the short term, and locally, I've no doubt that it makes narrow financial sense to burn gas – but surely from a global perspective it cannot be the best option...