Interview with Melissa L. Caldwell

Melissa Caldwell’s most recent book is Living Faithfully in an Unjust World: Compassionate Care in Russia (California, 2016). It takes up themes about humanitarianism, insecurity, and religious intervention in contemporary Russia. Anthrocybib had the chance to ask her more about it over email.

Participants: Melissa Caldwell (UC Santa Cruz) and Hillary Kaell (Concordia University)

HK: You have done twenty years of fieldwork in Moscow. Tell me a bit about how the economic and social changes you have seen prompted this study.

MC: When I first began crafting my dissertation research in the early 1990s, I was interested in how Russia’s emerging capitalist economy was becoming realized in changing consumer practices, most notably the arrival and spread of Western food products, restaurant and grocery store cultures, and eating practices. By the late 1990s, the Russian economy was increasingly unstable, and there were shortages of both basic consumer goods – including food – and money. All of these changes were happening within a context in which the Russian state was ceding responsibility for social welfare to individual citizens and private organizations. Low-income Russians – especially the elderly, disabled, veterans, and single mothers – were especially affected. Charities, nonprofits organizations, religious communities, and development agencies increasingly stepped in to provide assistance. I became interested in how questions of need and deservingness were presented, and then in the ways in which ordinary people compensated for shortages and insecurity. Over time, I became fascinated by the ethics and practices of care and compassion that were intrinsic to assistance.

HK: Can you give me a sense of the relation between churches and the state in post-Soviet Russia?

MC: In the early post-Soviet period, religious communities were actively engaged in rebuilding projects. To a great extent, the Russian state allowed these activities to take place. Some were explicitly and publicly encouraged, such as rebuilding efforts by the Russian Orthodox Church; while others were tacitly allowed, even if not officially sanctioned. Over the past 25 years, the Russian state has alternated between encouraging and discouraging religious activities, sometimes simultaneously. In 1997, the federal government passed a law identifying Russia’s three traditional – and therefore authentically Russian – religions: Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Islam. Yet the laws also allow the existence of other religious denominations that can claim historical heritage within Russia. These are typically religious denominations associated with “minority” communities. Overall, I would characterize relationships between religious communities and the state as ambiguous and uncertain. At some moments, the state has permitted harassment of religious communities, particularly as means to regulate them and compel them to leave, while at others the state has allowed religious communities to continue their activities, even when those directly challenge state or Orthodox positions.

HK: How would you sum up some of the ways that the Muscovites with whom you worked talked about key questions that animate humanitarian action, such as generosity, the good life, or justice?

MC: What was so striking was how matter-of-fact people were about discussing these questions. When I asked people to describe their perspectives on generosity, justice, and simply being kind to one another, respondents typically responded that these were simply part of being human – of being a good person. My interlocutors recognized that not every person followed these traits, but I encountered a persistent sense that not being kind and generous to others was the deviation from being a normal, moral, ethical person.

HK: You worked with a lot of faith-based providers—both people and institutions. What is one of your most memorable experiences or stories from the field?

MC: It is difficult to pick just one. I was privileged to watch small acts of kindness and care on a daily basis, and I had the incredible opportunity to have long, thoughtful conversations with clergy, aid workers, volunteers, and recipients about the values and issues that were most meaningful to them. But if I had to select just one experience, it would be the evening that I spent with several volunteers with Sant’Egidio’s street ministry as they walked through Moscow, delivering meals and talking with people. We encountered several individuals with whom the volunteers had created very close relationships, and I found it deeply moving to watch the volunteers and the recipients embrace one another and catch up on one another’s lives. It became very clear that these were not assistance relationships per se, but rather relationships bound by friendship and love.

HK: What are some of the key scholars or studies with which you are in dialogue in this project?

MC: I am definitely thinking with and through anthropologists of charity, social justice, and humanitarianism – most notably scholars like Liisa Malkki, Erica Bornstein, Andrea Muehlenbach, Peter Redfield, Heath Cabot, and Erica Caple James. At the same time, many of my key intellectual interlocutors were people I interviewed during my research. Many of my conversations with clergy and professional aid workers turned into philosophical discussions where we discussed other scholars like Foucault and Habermas, among others, as well as theologians. As I was writing, I also found Michael Jackson’s work on phenomenology and intersubjectivity incredibly helpful for trying to understand how people relate to one another, especially when trying to be empathetic with one another.

HK: You note that faith-based aid programs are, or are perceived to be, more successful than their “secular” counterparts in Russia. Why is that the case and in what sense?

MC: The reality is that most of the faith-based programs that I have been following over the past 25 years have outlasted their secular counterparts. In several cases, I have seen faith-based programs grow and become larger than secular programs. Success can thus be measured in terms of longevity, stability, resources, numbers of recipients and volunteers, and even public opinion. Part of this has to do with beliefs that somehow faith-based organizations are better suited to provide assistance – ideas like their values predispose them to be compassionate or humane and their institutional structures can better mobilize people and resources; and part of this has to do with the fact that faith-based programs are simply doing the work. This is not to say that there are not successful secular organizations – and in fact, most faith-based programs are legally classified as and operate as secular organizations (that is, they do not promote any kind of religious activity or belief when they are providing assistance). Rather, there is public perception that there is something unique about faith-based programs and their ability to emphasize compassion and dignity and to treat people humanely.

HK: How do you define “faith” in the context of your study?

MC: During my research, “faith” emerged as a concept with multiple dimensions that were not necessarily grounded in religious belief or practice. Certainly for some people, faith was their belief in a deity or adherence to a set of religious doctrines or practices. But more generally, what I found was that faith was not exclusively a religious or spiritual experience, but rather a philosophical, and even ethical commitment to a sense of hopefulness and optimism. Faith was how people believed that they might somehow make a difference in the world and that change could happen.

HK: You talk about a “compassion economy” in contemporary Russia. What do you mean by that? And why do you suggest that faith-based organizations are especially robust despite economic booms and busts?

MC: In thinking about Russia’s “compassion economy,” I was inspired by work from the anthropology of humanitarianism, development, and poverty relief, notably the insights from scholars who have examined how assistance and care are deeply embedded in webs and relationships of circulation and exchange. In many cases, assistance requires and even creates its own exchange systems through which goods, services, and labor circulate. These circulations in turn generate value. We can then start to understand how charitable “gifts” are actually a type of economic activity. I observed similar trends in Russia, and drawing on theories of affect and sentiment, I wanted to understand how the emotional qualities associated with charity and assistance – such as compassion, empathy, sympathy, pity, friendship, affection, and love – also circulate alongside and embedded within the goods and services that constitute assistance in Russia.

In terms of your second question, I observed several qualities that distinguished faith-based programs from their secular counterparts in terms of their ability to weather economic and political changes. In many cases, faith-based programs enjoyed greater institutional stability and longevity: religious organizations have long been organized in ways that combine formal roles with informal, even spontaneous activities and participants. By contrast, secular organizations that emerge from temporary relief programs can be more vulnerable to the unpredictable flows of volunteers and goods. At the same time, secular organizations often have to answer to bureaucratic expectations from funders, and so they have to design programs to respond directly to bureaucratically determined needs. Although faith-based programs may also have to be accountable to evaluation criteria, they may also have the ability to work outside those regulations and be more flexible in how they respond to individuals. And lastly, what I found in Russia is that faith-based organizations usually enjoyed a greater moral status than secular organizations. Even when public sentiment was skeptical or critical of religious organizations, Russians were even more skeptical or critical of programs that were affiliated with the state or state-like organizations.

HK: As you note, there is the tendency to gloss faith-based aid in Russia—at least apart from the Russian Orthodox Church—as a post-1980s and 1990s spurred by foreign intervention. You show a much more complicated picture. What are some aspects of the relationship between Russian and “foreign” providers of aid, donors, and funders?

MC: These relationships have changed greatly over the past three decades, so it is difficult to generalize. Most notably, over the past five-ten years, official Russian policy has become more suspicious of the motives of “foreign” entities operating in Russia. Aid and humanitarian organizations are often associated with American-style “democratic” values, and skeptics have worried that these organizations will introduce non-Russian values. More bluntly, there are fears that foreign providers are actively working to destabilize local communities and the political system more generally. These are certainly not universally held perspectives, but there are nationalist sentiments in Russia that have emerged in concerns that other countries – especially the United States – do not appreciate the fact that Russia is also a world leader but treats it as a backwards, impoverished country.

These larger geopolitical issues have affected the activities of both religious communities and aid organizations. Yet intriguingly, as I document in the book, faith-based aid programs have enjoyed leniency and even respect because they are doing work that the Russian state does think is important. This is not easy to accomplish, however, and faith-based aid workers must be very diplomatic and humble in how they do their work. From what I have observed, it is their insistence on treating people with dignity and respect – and not trying to change their underlying beliefs or identities – that has enabled faith-based organizations to have greater flexibility.

HK: Towards the end of the book, you pose a provocative question that does not often come up in studies of humanitarianism: when is it better to refuse donations and resources? What happens when aid organizations have too many resources at their disposal? Tell me a bit about what you mean by that and why you foreground the issue.

MC: One of the most intriguing problems that emerged during my research was that at the same time that aid organizations were requesting resources and often faced shortages of resources, there were also surpluses. Among the programs with surpluses, I observed aid workers trying to figure out what to do with all of the stuff they had received. It became a huge problem, as donors treated assistance programs as their dumping grounds. One church had to turn its storage spaces into holding spaces for all kinds of clothing and toys that no one really wanted. I spent an interesting afternoon with a minister who was grumpily throwing out all of the food that people had donated but was unusable. In this case, the church could only accept canned goods because the mice that found their way into the storage closet would eat through plastic wrappers. And I often came home from one assistance program with all kinds of snacks that had been donated by a large food company. Once I realized that surplus and excess were problems for assistance programs, I saw it everywhere. This is not unique to Russia, but one that scholars have observed in many other places as well.

In thinking about why surpluses matter, it prompted me to think about the circumstances of accepting assistance. There is something unsettling about how assistance is typically predicated on expectations that people in need must accept whatever donors give them. Recipients are not allowed to have full agency or make choices for themselves. Moreover, when recipients are forced to accept resources, this creates a different dependency: donors depend on recipients to take their things. I felt that it was important to think more about the other dependencies, problems, and types of disenfranchisement that exist within assistance programs.

HK: And to conclude, a broad question: what are you working on now?

MC: My new project examines hacktivism, that is, the social justice dimensions of hacking. I am especially interested in how ethics and practices of creativity, experimentation, making, and DIY provide the impetus and space for new anarchist forms of participatory democracy. I will be looking at how people come together and work together through emergent forms of questioning, negotiating, and making. For me, what is most intriguing is exploring the design-inspired ethos of not starting with predetermined issues, questions, or solutions but instead letting questions and answers emerge through participatory interaction. This is a different approach to a lot of social justice and social welfare work, which typically starts with a predefined “problem” and then comes up with very specific solutions and then imposes them. Hacking, and hacktivism specifically, offer possibilities for much more egalitarian, participatory, and creative ways to identify and address