‘Delai Sam’ – Russian community DIY

File Photo of Crowd of Russians with One Waving Russian Flag

(opendemocracy.net – By Tatyana Kargina – September 18, 2013)

‘Delai Sam’ is Russian for ‘Do it yourself,’ a concept supposedly alien to the average Russian, who is used to having other people take decisions for him or her. But, as Tatyana Kargina reports, herself a ‘Delia Sam’ believer, more and more people are becoming civic grassroots activists.

‘Do it yourself,’ they tell you when you turn up at a ‘Delai Sam’ Marathon, with an idea for something you think needs doing in your local community. A ‘Delai Sam’ is a self-organising community of individuals united by the idea of some grassroots action to improve their city; and linked with one another through the Internet. A ‘Delai Sam’ covers both one-off actions, and year-round work involving close cooperation between different groups; that is why it is called a Marathon: we are not talking quick fixes.

If you ask who is in charge at a ‘Delai Sam,’ you find out that nobody is, because everybody does what they can, as part of a team of like-minded people (although they do add, ‘but we’ll help you’). A project to improve an urban area might take many forms: the greening of the city, and creation of garden plots; the introduction of rubbish recycling; the tidying and planting of courtyards; the encouragement of cycling; protection of the local architectural heritage; a campaign against leaking roofs ­ anything that will make an area look more pleasant.

The DIY Marathon initiative is one of the success stories of Russia’s developing civil society, and specifically its environmental aspect. Over the last few years there has been an enormous growth in new, grassroots initiatives taking their place alongside the work of more institutionalised environmental NGOs. Moreover, the people starting and developing them often do not have a professional or scientific background ­ they might be IT programmers, designers, business people, journalists ­ anybody, in other words. These new, ‘bottom-up’, projects are a clear indicator of public concern, of the issues that unite people, and get them involved in what are serious efforts to address local problems.

Not surprisingly, a major focus of the ‘Delai Sam’ Marathon movement is the environment, for this is, after all, a central element of many of today’s urban problems, not only in Russia: the collection and recycling of different waste materials; the loss of green space as a result of both infill development and poorly planned building policies; traffic jams causing air pollution; a concern more with car parking rather than parks, and so on. But this grassroots activism is not confined only to environmental matters ­ the ‘Delai Sam’ community understands that ecological problems do not exist in a vacuum, but are closely linked to socio-economic issues, as well as questions of planning, ethics and aesthetics. Thus, the Marathon brings together eco-geeks, street artists, urban planners, sociologists and cycling freaks; and this cross-fertilisation leads to mutual enrichment: street artists introduce environmental subjects into their work; eco-warriors develop new, more creative ways of ‘packaging’ a message that the public has often been unwilling to take on board.

The beginnings  

The ‘Delai Sam’ Marathon movement began in the spring of 2011, inspired by the 10:10:10 International Day of Climate Action on 10th October 2010, in which Russia took part. The focus of the day was a Global Work Party, when thousands of groups around the world took action to reduce carbon emissions, and promote clean energy in their local area. The activists that got together in Moscow on the day were surprised and delighted to discover how many of them there were, and decided to carry on the good work.

As a community, ‘Delai Sam’ works all year round exchanging information and resources, and developing joint projects. As an event, it takes place over one or two weeks twice a year, in summer and autumn. In Moscow, St Petersburg and Chelyabinsk it has been going on now for several years; and new cities are joining each time. Each city decides on its own focus, and format depending on local problems, but there are already a number of standard formats for them to draw on: a Do-It-Yourself Summit conference; a Concerted Action Day, or, as happened the last time, a Non-action Day ­  a response to our era of consumption and meaningless activity; and an attempt to lessen our negative impact on the environment.

Do-It-Yourself Summits

A Do-It-Yourself Summit is an informal gathering where the people attending, create their own agenda, where, at any given moment, there will be several sessions and events going on simultaneously, as different groups talk about their own experience of organising and running grassroots initiatives, focused on making their town or city more friendly to both people and the environment. The idea behind it all is to inspire and galvanise people into action, and give them the skills and tools they need, as well as strengthening the movement by bringing different groups and activists together. These summits attract visitors from all over Russia and even from abroad ­ guests have included New York street artist Jason Eppink, creator of the Astoria Scum River Bridge project; Artur van Balen of the Eclectic Electric Collective, and Brad Downey, an American urban sculptor, both based in Berlin; Vít Masare from the Czech artists’ and urban planners’ group Auto*Mat , and Joel Rozenberg from the Finnish eco-collective DoDo. The big thing about the most recent Summit was that for the first time, representatives of Russian bureaucracy also took part; the mayor of the town of Zarechny, young (and not so young) officials from the Ministry of Transport, the Moscow Parks Authority and the Departments of Culture and Youth, as well as various independent city councillors, all spoke about their experience of working with their local communities, and their attempts to transform their townscapes.

An important part of these summits is the workshops: creating spontaneous street sculptures; guerrilla gardening; re-planning parts of Moscow with the help of local children, and much, much more. At the last one, held in April this year, some participants, supervised by Artur van Balen, made giant inflatables, one of which, a saw, even took part in a Bolotnaya Square rally, while others learned from Jason Eppink how to create simple solar-powered street projectors, which were then set up around Moscow, including one in historic Miusskaya Square, as part of the campaign to save it from redevelopment.

Concerted Action Days

These are an opportunity for active groups in different cities all over the country to promote what they are doing, and attract new members. They might have a free-cycling Really Free Market or a recycling information point, for people to bring their household waste for sorting; there might be events to promote cycling or art happenings (guerrilla cycle lanes, for example) by the Partizaning group; there could be guerrilla gardening, a vegetarian pay-what-you-like café; neighbours tidying their courtyard, and having a meal together in it. This spring, for example, members of the Guerrilla Gardening movement cleaned up the bank of the Yauza, a tributary of the Moskva River. They planted lilac bushes, put up hammocks and built street furniture out of pallets. And in Miusskaya Square, which is threatened with the loss of its trees, they tied human face-masks to the trunks to remind people that trees are also living things. But these action days are also about spreading the word among the public, and attracting media attention. As the ‘Delai Sam’ community grows, its message is reaching national TV channels, and appearing on the streets ­ for the last Action Day the giant ‘Newsoutdoor’ advertising company gave the movement 100 free billboards in Moscow and also printed the advertisements.

Some of the ad-hoc groups and activities that were part of the first ‘Marathons’ have grown into ongoing projects. For example, Alina Kolovska and Masha Belous, who ran the first waste sorting points in Moscow parks, have now, thanks to crowd funding by supporters, set up a Centre for Resource Conservation, with a dual function as both a collection point for presorted waste and an education space which hosts numerous eco-events.  Another Marathon featured a rally (incorporating a waste paper collection point and a veggie café), to try to stop the destruction of the unique Travnikov Garden by a giant development corporation; and at the following DIY Summit the local action group was able to report that the garden had indeed been saved; and they could now talk about their future plans for it.

Meanwhile, a mobile cinema, with pallets for seats, started by two street artists who showed films and ran master classes in the courtyards of some blocks of flats (and collected paper for recycling at the same time) is now a regular fixture in Moscow’s dormitory suburbs. Two Marathon organisers, Anton Polsky (who goes by the name ‘Make’) and Igor Ponosov, have set up the popular Partizaning project to re-plan cities as if people really mattered; and Sveta Sdvig, the organiser of the Really Free Markets, has opened her own vegetarian café, Ekaloka. Thanks to Joel Rozenberg’s seminar on urban horticulture, the Guerrilla Gardening movement, which began to appear in other countries in the 1970s, has finally made it to Russia. The guerrillas believe they are not only greening bits of wasteland, tending neglected flowerbeds and their own back yards, but also creating a new aesthetic of city life, and promoting the idea of ‘bottom-up’ urban development.

This autumn the Marathon will try out a new format: DIY Film, a festival of committed documentary film. Cinema is, after all, the best medium for demonstrating how you achieved fair local elections, designed a city cycling map, thought up a new use for street art or helped save someone’s life. The accent will be on films that show concrete examples of how people have organised themselves, to try to solve urban and social problems.

Growing a grassroots culture

‘Delai Sam’ is, on the one hand, the apolitical embodiment of the principles of DIY culture, a ‘new collectivism,’ principles that are becoming ever more widespread the world over; and, on the other hand, it is also partly a search for new ways to react and respond to political events in Russia; an abandonment of any expectation that the government, or someone else, will solve your problems; a rejection of the hierarchical model of society; an attempt at self-awareness and self organisation.

The actual experience of non-hierarchical cooperation, and the development of an egalitarian community ethic is no less, and perhaps even more, important than any concrete, community activity.  The Internet allows us to organise events without leaving our computers (and that is how we work most of the time), however, regular face-to face, rather than facebook, meetings are a very important part of ‘Delai Sam.’ In Moscow, initially, these meetings took place at the commune ‘The Ecoloft on Pyatnitsky Street’, but since it closed we have been meeting at the Centre for Resource Conservation mentioned above.

There is a big difference between the achievements of the local community, and those of local government: witness, the dangers of the bicycle lanes designed by the authorities without consultation with the public, and those that owe their existence to local people’s efforts; our effective implementation of recycling programmes, and those,initiated by City Hall, which tend to fail miserably; in general, the schemes designed in cooperation with members of the public are much more effective… As we see it, involving the Russian public in decision making about urban planning, and its implementation, is essential if any changes are to be publicly accepted, and sustainable in the long term.

In the ‘Delai Sam’ movement, we believe that the main value of grassroots initiatives lies in drawing attention to what needs to be done to improve the lives of local people, and the environment; at the same time, giving a powerful voice to public opinion, and so influencing the direction of change. These initiatives suffer, of course, from an extreme lack of resources ­ financial, administrative and every other kind – and thus are limited in their ability to influence major changes in infrastructure. That is the job of local government, which has the necessary mechanisms and resources, not to mention the powers delegated to it by the public. Nevertheless, the role of active citizens in creating a social mandate, and exercising public oversight over the use of resources by local bureaucracy; and the implementation of the changes they have electedf their city council to make, cannot be overestimated.

Standing on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, during a rally just a few years, and feeling the will of the thousands of people standing around me, I imagined, and still imagine, these thousands of people beginning to reclaim their cities and their country, using ‘Delai Sam’ principles; and learning how to take responsibility,for their own lives, through this everyday, humdrum and sometimes completely unnoticeable activity. I imagined them all joining together with those who already believe in ‘Delai Sam.’ and saying to those in power, all over Russia: “We can do it ourselves, thank you.”

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[featured image is file photo of random crowd in Russia]