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Good company: five socially conscious startups changing Russia for the better

Good company: five socially conscious startups changing Russia for the better

A growing number of young Russian entrepreneurs are setting up projects aimed at doing good in the community where state institutions have failed. Here are some of the most promising startups with civic activism at their core

2 December 2015

Russia is lagging far behind other European countries when it comes to charitable donation. The very concept of philanthropy is often associated with clandestine government funds and Ponzi schemes. However, general distrust of top-down institutions has led many to create an alternative model of helping those in need — channelling civic energy into grassroots social enterprises and internet-based communities.

As film critic Lybov Arkus mentioned recently at a social entrepreneurship conference in St Petersburg, Russian cities are experiencing an unprecedented boom in civic activism. We’ve picked out several innovative projects from the conference, organised by Calvert Forum, a sister project of The Calvert Journal.

Vrability (Moscow)

Try to picture yourself flying a paraglider from a snow-capped summit or chasing baby sharks in the shallow waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Now imagine doing these things in a wheelchair. This is the idea of Vrability — a virtual-reality startup which produces immersive video content for handicapped people who rarely venture outside their homes, let alone travel to distant lands. Launched in Moscow by filmmaker Georgy Molodstov, Vrability aspires to give disabled people an experience of adventure by recreating realistic 3D experiences like flying in a plane, playing tennis or simply relaxing in the countryside.

The team behind the project have already produced a series of immersive video journeys, including a 360-degree figure skating performance recorded by attaching multiple cameras to Maxim Kiselev, the only disabled figure skater in the world. The cameras helped reconstruct the experience of Kiselev’s dance for someone who can’t move their legs. The video content is accessible via Google Cardboard or via a smartphone with gyroscope functionality. To support the project, Vrability are also launching a distribution network which will enable anyone to buy an affordable virtual reality kit — and with it, a window into a new world of possibilities.

Public Speech (Omsk)

Omsk is not just all about ice, pollution and punks. It’s also a place where an uber-trendy concept of edutainment has been raised to a whole new level. Thanks to Public Speech, an online platform connecting inspirational speakers to grateful audiences, the Siberian city has transformed itself into a Platonic-style open air academy where public talks and scientific lectures often gather bigger crowds than music festivals. Ranging from photography workshops to pop-science series on the “psychology of colour”, Public Speech events take over various unexpected locations which help breathe new life into venues that have been left abandoned or underused. An unlikely destination for celebrity speakers from Moscow and abroad, Omsk is nevertheless awash with homegrown pundits eager to share their know-how. As the website’s founder Ilya Sevastyanov recalls, one of the most popular lectures took place during the project’s launch and was devoted to the history of Omsk’s remarkably ornate city flag.

Stenograffia (Yekaterinburg)

If you think that locking street artists, city authorities and urbanists in the same conference room is an odd idea, look no further than Yekaterinburg, where a street art festival has gradually evolved into a citywide regeneration movement. Launched in 2010 as a grassroots project to highlight the diversity of the city’s prolific art scene, Stenograffia has quickly risen through the festival ranks to form a broad community of street mavericks united in the spirit of collective action.

Far from being a guerrilla subculture, local street artists closely cooperate with the city’s liberal government on the “reclamation” of abandoned industrial sites and drab suburban housing. This phenomenon has caught the attention of businesses (this year’s festival was supported by Google Cultural Institute) and plaid-shirted city planners who now participate in the festival’s side project, an annual urban forum, where policy makers discuss how street culture can help regenerate neighbourhoods and shape a new identity for industrial cities.

Social Humanitarian Park (Tomsk)

Hidden in the depths of sprawling Tomsk State University (dubbed the Siberian Stanford), the Park of Social and Humanitarian Technologies is a breeding ground for local enterprises. Drawing inspiration from tech incubators, the park provides guidance and office space for dozens of small student initiatives. Tomsk students seem to never run short of unconventional ideas — among the park’s residents are the founders of a crash-course in “How to survive a student dorm”, an app helping find owners for homeless pets and a 24-hour mobile library in which to spend sleepless nights in the run-up to exams.

Anton’s Right Here (St Petersburg)

When film critic Lyubov Arkus produced Anton’s Right Here, a documentary about an autistic boy stuck between a psychiatric ward and a tiny flat in the suburbs, she already knew that the film was only one step in a long journey to changing attitudes to autism. Russian psychiatrists traditionally “treat” autistic adults alongside patients with severe disorders in standardised mental hospitals which drastically reduces the chances for autistic people to ever reintegrate into society.

Anton’s Right Here run campaigns to raise awareness about the problem and hold professional workshops for autistic people where they can learn crafts and socialise with their peers. The products of such workshops — including skilfully assembled toys and souvenirs — are usually sold in charity shops and like-minded concept stores which donate their sales back to the foundation. The project has even started training an autistic rugby team that is getting ready to play a friendly match against Georgia.

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