Volunteer Graham tells of his experience in Russia
Moscow Backwoods is a two-week, environmental project based in Bitsevsky Forest, a Natural Historical park located at the South-western edge of Moscow. This once in a lifetime experience provided an opportunity to better understand conservation and Russian culture. The ability to live with and be shown around Moscow by Muscovites helped the group to gain an insight that we would not have gained had we visited as tourists. Despite it only being a short-term project, I believe that Moscow Backwoods was an excellent life experience. I have to admit to having some apprehensions before going to Moscow, which were primarily caused by what I had seen on television. So after arriving at the Park, late Thursday evening, after having got lost on the Metro during rush hour (thankfully a female attendant acted out where I should go in front of a crowd of people) I was starting to wonder what I had gotten myself into. However, all my worries disappeared after the warm welcome I received from the people of the Park and by the rest of the group. During the project we stayed in the gym of a local school that was one stop by metro away from the park. The accommodation was more than adequate as we slept on gym mats and had the use of a shower and warm running water. The volunteers of the camp prepared the food with two people taking it in turn each day as part of the cooking team. This was a great idea as it gave us the chance to experience the national dishes of each other’s countries. We arrived at the park at 9 a.m. each day to start our conservation work. On the first day we played various games to help get to each other better. The work took place at various locations around the 18 square kilometres of territory that the forest covers. Our main task was to deal with clearing the forest of both litter and areas that had been damaged by fires which are prohibited within the park. Other work was centred around the main administration buildings of the park. This included maintenance on a special nature trail for blind people and helping to design and decorate an open-air classroom. My personal favourite was helping in the planning and execution of the Bicycle rate that is organised every year in the forest for members of the local community. During the two weeks we also had the opportunity to work in another park within Moscow and to visit many others. This gave us all a great overview of the different environmental work that is being carried out in Moscow in order to preserve the city’s natural habitats. One of the best parts of the project was the large number of excursions that had been organised. There was very little that was not covered, with many tours of the city and visits including the ballet, Moscow Zoo and a local monastery. This was fantastic as it allowed us to see the different elements of Moscow life and experience a bit of what the city has to offer.
When I decided to go to Moscow, probably the last thing that I expected to be doing was to be giving a television interview to Channel 1 Russia, but it happened. The previous day we had been told that a camera crew from a local channel would be waking us up the following morning, as they wanted to film the project and the daily life of us volunteers. This was a big surprise and a very weird experience trying to act normally and not look at the cameras. A few days later we had to do the same thing all over again as the main television channel in Russia came to film us for the day. This trend continued over the two weeks and three television and two newspaper interviews later, I can safely say that we became well accustomed to life in the media. Despite visiting some of the best sites in Moscow and being on national television, it was often the smaller activities and the free time spent at the school or the park that provided the highlights of the camp. One such highlight was ‘Moscow Families’, where the group split up to spend the evening with a family from Moscow. This was great as it allowed us to meet other people from the Moscow area and get a taste of home life in the Russian capital.
What truly made the time special was the effort that the Russian host volunteers and theemployees of the park put into welcoming the foreign volunteers. I believe that this was the key factor to the success of the camp as it allowed the group to become great friends in such a short period of time. Their enthusiasm for the project and their willingness to help out with translation and problems faced by the foreigners of the group was incredible. This invaluable contribution to the experience of the international volunteers cannot be overstated. The project was a very rewarding and authentic experience that went way beyond the work at the park. It allowed the group to make a difference and help the local community. I would recommend the project to anyone.
Graham, Moscow 2009