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In the Wake of Krymsk Floods, Social Media Powers Russian Relief Efforts

BY Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya | Wednesday, July 18 2012

In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Sasha Senderovich described how a new Russian volunteer movement is taking shape, triggered by devastating floods in Krymsk and cultivated in the country’s dynamic online opposition movement.

“The volunteerism in Krymsk is one signal that anti-government street protests that began last winter have helped inspire in many young Russians a consciousness of their responsibilities toward society and a desire for the government to uphold its obligations to its citizens. Buoyed by social networks and new communities, they are creating what could become a blueprint for a new form of civil society.”

There’s definitely something to Senderovich’s argument. The similarities between last winter’s opposition movement and the recent flood relief efforts are obvious: both movements grew out of seemingly spontaneous burst of online organizing that occurred immediately after a crisis. But it’s far from clear that one led to the other.

More likely, both indicate that many Russians, like civic activists in other parts of the world, are learning that being networked enables all kinds of new, bottom-up efforts. And, interestingly enough, the stories coming out of Russia now around the floods are strikingly reminiscent of other grassroots, network-based relief projects that we’ve seen take place after the Katrina hurricane, the Haiti earthquake, and the Joplin tornado last year.

In the days immediately following the floods, concerned citizens made quick use of blogs and social networks to alert others of the devastation, even while official media were playing down the severity of the disaster.

Russian muckraker and blogger, Alexei Navalny, wrote a blog post that listed three different ways for ordinary people to help. He ended the post with a list of regional pages for Facebook and Vkontakte, a Russian social network.

An organization called Pomozhem, Russian for “We’ll Help”, had a website up less than a day after the floods occurred. On the page, volunteers could find information on donation drop-off sites in their region and contacts for organizers working in Krymsk.

They quickly added a Facebook, Twitter, and Vkontakte page to their roster, gaining over 18,000 members between the three pages. The Vkontakte page had over three hundred discussions, most attempting to break the bottleneck created by a surplus of goodwill and a dearth of transportation.

A post written by Vkontake member Polina Kazakova is representative of the low-level, grassroots type of organization going on:

Is anyone going from Astrakhan? 2 people (a 25 year-old guy and a 19 year-old girl) want to help and can support themselves but don’t have transportation or money for a ticket. Can someone take us? We really want to help.

A crowdmap of Krymsk was also created, allowing volunteers to identify evacuation zones, donation stations, and organizing headquarters. Updates could be sent via text message, email, or Twitter.

In an interview with Ekho Moskvy, a Moscow-based opposition radio station, blogger and civil activist Danila Lindele spoke about the role of the Internet organizing in Krymsk:

“The extent to which the volunteers assisted ended up being higher than the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The first day, they have a meeting. The second day, they gather the goods. And for our volunteers, you write about it on Twitter and from there it’s chaos.”