YMCA Russia: ‘We may seem invisible, but we continue to exist’

Date: 06 February 2024

By Carlos Sanvee, World YMCA Secretary General

Yaroslavl is 260 kilometres north-east of Moscow. It was -10°C when I visited on a bright and bitterly cold day in January 2024.

I made my way towards an office building in the centre of the town, where YMCA Russia owns one floor with its three rooms, occasionally letting it out for dance classes, yoga, psychology groups and other meetings to generate some small income. YMCA Yaroslavl uses it too, at discounted rates.

Katia Volkova

As in the majority of local Russian YMCAs, there are no staff at YMCA Yaroslavl. Only volunteers: young people who want to serve their community.

Like Katia Volkova, 28, known well to me since she came to Geneva for a few months in 2019, to work as a staff intern in the World YMCA headquarters. She did great work then in mapping our global YMCA operations to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

And now I had come to see her in her own YMCA, about which she had so often spoken to me. Her task there is to organise a team of volunteers who run summer camps in Yaroslavl and at a YMCA dacha outside town.

YMCA Dacha

In 2023, this small team ran camps for 12–18-year-olds and also for young leaders, training them to be camp counsellors. There are family camps too, which are also very popular at YMCA Moscow which even runs parent camps.

Psychology students at the University of Yaroslavl are attached to the YMCA to develop their own leadership and conflict resolution skills, and they also join its camps.

I spoke to a group of volunteers – at first they were nervous, then they opened up.

‘The YMCA changed my life’, said Yegor. ‘The first time I went on a YMCA camp, it just felt different in the way people related to each other. This is a safe space where we are well treated. No one will hurt us here. We can communicate freely.’

Kate said the same. ‘It’s a nice atmosphere here. People want to connect.’

Lera said she felt safe, comfortable, and listened to.

‘Many people came out of Covid with real mental scars’, said Katia. ‘Our YMCA community has been a lifeline in allowing us to communicate among friends.’

I asked the group how the war affected them and their YMCA life.

‘It is very painful for us’, they all said. ‘And so much of the media and social media that we read in our own country and around the world, it just promotes intolerance and hate. In the YMCA we should continue to support each other and people in difficult situations.’

I had heard the same thing in different words when I spoke to the young people of YMCA Moscow. ‘We feel pain, but all we can do is to try to help young people to feel better.’

The YMCA of Russia unites 12 local public organizations which run creative, sports, health, leadership and volunteer programs, youth and family camps, and international youth exchange projects in nine regions of Russia: Moscow, St Petersburg, Yaroslavl, Ivanovo, Novosibirsk, Sverdlovsk, Kaliningrad regions, the Altai Territory, and the Kola Peninsula.

‘Today, we may seem invisible in the YMCA Movement’, one of the YMCA Russia leaders said to me. ‘But friends, please know that we continue to exist and to do our work.’