Street Life Samotechny lane: Sally Army's gift of hope

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The Independent Online
THE RUSSIAN Orthodox Church may be suspicious of foreign missionaries but Vera Ivanovna, alone in the world at 93, is glad to receive a call from the Salvation Army. For their part, the "soldiers" do not impose their view of God on the elderly and disabled people they visit but try to help them in practical ways.

The "soldiers" in this story are not, in fact, foreigners but Russians who have chosen a different path from traditional Orthodoxy. Although in these times of crisis it seems that Russians are mostly on the receiving end of charity, there are those who are giving their lives to others.

Nina Salnikova leads a team that cares for the vulnerable in their own homes. She is rising in the Salvation Army in Russia, administered mostly by Americans who run soup kitchens for the homeless, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation programme and a prison ministry as well as social services.

I was looking out for Nina on the platform of Textilshiki (Textile Workers') metro station. Surely, I would spot her bonnet in the fur-hatted crowd. But it was she who picked out my floppy red velvet hat, giving me away as a daft foreigner. She had left her uniform at home and was wearing an astrakhan coat and floral headscarf.

We were going to visit Vera Ivanovna. On the bus, Nina told me her own story. Widowed, she had brought up three children, including a disabled son. She was on a list of the poor and received a food parcel from the Salvation Army. Moved by this, she decided to attend Bible classes and joined the army herself. Now she is one of their full-time social workers.

Always on the lookout for new helpers, she goes to the labour exchange and offerscleaning jobs to people ready to work with the elderly. They do not have to be believers but they should be patient, honest and reliable. Outside an apartment block, we met Galya, one of Nina's recruits. Galya cleans and cares for seven lonely pensioners, including Vera Ivanovna.

Cautiously, the old lady opened the door of her single room. Nina and Galya had warned her they were bringing a journalist. "I'm not a monkey," she said, fearing I was going to photograph her. I did not even take out a pen.

Galya gave her an apple in a cup, a belated present for International Women's Day. Vera Ivanovna asked for new curtains, as she found the spring sun too bright. Despite her frailty, she revealed a sharp mind. When her memories began to flow, they were of teaching Russian language and literature to children in Stalin's time.

Once, she said, she was criticised for spending too much time on Turgenev and Chekhov and failing to give sufficient weight to Stalin and Lenin. A commission of inspectors arrived to supervise a lesson. Terrified thatshe might be condemned as an "enemy of the people", she decided to stick to grammar, which seemed an ideologically free zone. She wrote the following sentence on the blackboard: "The people compose wonderful songs about our own wise, dear Stalin." Just in time, she realised her mistake and said: "Oh my goodness, I should have made Stalin the subject of the sentence." This self-criticism saved her skin.

I could have listened to her all morning but Vera Ivanovna tired of having guests. Galya stayed to do the cleaning while Nina and I got up to leave. "Don't come again," the old lady said to me, sweetly but firmly. I promised I would not bother her any more.

"We work with all kinds of people," said Nina when we were outside. "Some are bad-tempered, especially if they are ill. We understand." Harder for her to take must be the attitude of some of her countrymen. Because, under Communism, Russians grew used to the idea that the state provided, they can be suspicious of altruism. "They think I must be after something for myself," she said.

Frequently, she also comes up against the attitude that a "true Russian can only be Russian Orthodox". The Patriarchy may have reason to be concerned about some of the wackier sects operating in Russia but it also jealously guards what it regards as its spiritual territory.

"Orthodox priests are sometimes less than friendly. They do not like us," said Nina. "We hope to convince by the force of our example."