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Therapeutic Schools and Social Communities in Sibiria

Peter Marti: Why just Siberia ?

Peter Marti has been supporting the curative school Talisman and the therapeutic community in Istok near Irkustk for many years. In this report he gives a personal insight into the origins of this cooperation between east and west and the development of the work in far away Siberia.

In April 1992 a long held wish was fulfilled. Accompanied by a friend I travelled on the longest railway journey on Earth, the Tran Siberian from Moscow to Irkutsk. Georg Müller knew the city like an old hand and already had contact to lots of people locally who were involved in the founding of the Talisman curative education school.

I had never imagined having a task in Siberia and had never heard of Talisman. But my visit did not involve just sight seeing in and around Irkutsk and a trip to Lake Baikal. My friend wanted my to speak with the Talisman people, above all mothers. He knew just how to get me involved and enthusiastic for the work but I was also fascinated by the people and the contrasts within that immense and secretive land.

What experiences did I bring with me? On the one hand I brought 30 years of professional experience of a more rational worldly nature, goal orientated and systematic. In recent years I was often sent as a troubleshooter to a country to sort things out. I was particularly fond of problems with surprises. On the other hand I had got to know anthroposophy. Our children had attended the Rudolf Steiner School in Biel. It was 20 years ago that I first encountered Talisman.

East and west meet each other

Workcamp 2008 ("Istok")

Curative education was completely new for me. For Russia, too. How would I get on with these new challenges? How do I present myself as Swiss person in this land of great contrasts? How can I get to know the people? How should I behave in order that people can accept me? Money is also a factor in our support. Apply pressure using money? You have to do this…! Demanding, yes, but only when the situation requires it.

At first working together was quite easy, though my visits were short because of my work situation. At first I was only briefly in Siberia during my vacations. We sat together with tea and cakes and exchanged opinions. Everything happened within an easy going and relaxed atmosphere.

At the beginning of October 1996, shortly after my retirement, I flew for three months to Irkutsk. Hardly had I arrived when I wanted to demonstrate to the people there that I was capable with a pick and shovel in the school garden- and how I worked! Soon I began to suffer from back pains. I wanted to hide my pain at all costs. Arnica massage oil served me well. Then came winter- Siberian winter. The ground froze, luckily for my back. Now I was working in the warm wood workshop with handicapped children.

My first physical engagement helped me to gain insight. The small school was chaotic, disorganised, and disorderly and rhythm was missing. The school had been severely challenged several times in the past few years and was almost on its knees. The women did their best but they were no match for the difficult challenges of the Russian environment.

At this critical moment a Westerner had arrived from a country in which everything is perfectly organised. He had professional experience in analysis and organisation. Not quite as young as he had once been but still flexible. Was he strong enough? Did he have the necessary perseverance? Was he also sensitive and patient? Was he ready to learn something new? Only the people there could judge on that. From a feeling point of view I would say that I found a good balance between all those demands.

From year to year we were able build up the Talisman School. At first we extended the buildings; we added a multi-purpose workshop which could also be used as a theatre and for festivals, to serve visitors and much more.

Our woodwork teacher Natalja Kulakowa is a qualified vet. She was active in a Siberian village and enjoyed her work. Then she gave birth to her son Wowa who was handicapped and her life changed. She heard about Talisman and came to Irkutsk and today is one of the great strengths of the school (she still practices as a vet and very much appreciated in the village community of Isok with its growing population of farm animals).

In order to extend the spaces for teaching we purchased an apartment in a neighbouring family house in which two classrooms were build and a social space. Our outer appearance is also important. The somewhat poor surroundings of the school in the Marata quarter of the city were soon much enhanced by the school. Committed co-workers came to Talisman, training programmes were introduced and supported and the curative seminar “Maria” was invited.

In 1997 the work on the school vision started and has continued for the past 10 years. In written form the school vision is still not complete, but the process seems to us to be more important. Community building, working together, mutual support, listening, frank discussions, dealing with problems- everything that often gets lost in the everyday work.

Landscape, people and a new school year

Lake Baikal

The Westerner travels frequently and often feels the urge to discover new places. Russia and Siberia offer an almost endless range of possibilities. Further east, in the far North and naturally Lake Baikal, almost as big as my homeland of Switzerland. The journeys to the island of Solowki in the White Sea with its dramatic past are unforgettable; a boat trip on the Amur; Kakutsk on the broad curve of the impressive Lena. These memories of these immense rivers – Angara, Jenissej, Ob, Amur and of course the Volga are ever tempting.

In the meantime we visit the painting lessons of Tatjana Gerasimowa. Originally she was an architect and is the founder of Talisman. Her handicappe son Kostja is now about 20 years old and lives in the village of Istok, the “source” (founded in 1999 for the first children who had to leave the school).

In the painting room everything is prepared. The pupils of class 10 sit down at tables covered with newspaper. There is thoughtful mood in the room. Tatjana greets each pupil individually. She shows them what the theme for the day is; trees in bright autumn colours. She then shows each one how to use the brush, water and the individual watercolours. Igor is autistic and a real artist in painting and shaping. Tatjana also works with him in nature.

Here I have to mention something important- a tree! In Siberia, that can only be a birch tree. Whoever has seen a Siberian birch forest and is not filled with a certain mood? Something deeply refreshing. Nowhere have experienced birch trees so pure as in Siberia. In the forest community, pure, slender appearances with fine delicate branches. And above the treetops what is there to be seen, depending on the light? An aura of colour? And then an old solitary birch on the island of Youth in the Angara that I often visit. The birch is the essence of starting something new!

On the 1st of September after the long summer holidays a new school year begins in the whole of Russia. Everyone wants to be there, parents, brothers and sisters, relatives. The most beautiful clothes are worn, perhaps even something new. Greeting in a circle around a candle, the school director Elena Anatoljewna welcomes all the children and visitors. Every class teacher introduces all the children in the class. Then there are more speeches. If the Swiss man happens to be there he also has to make a speech.

Afterwards the children go to their newly decorated classrooms. Holiday experiences are recalled; perhaps a drawing is made of a special event. The parents and relatives join them for tea and cakes. There is singing, a happy community, typically Russian. The first school day ends.

Performances in Istok and the future

Celebrating festivals in Siberia in Talisman - that is a story in itself! The seasonal festivals are always a high point. Performances at Michaelmas and Christmas too. There are rehearsals; costumes are sewn in handwork. Then the children and teachers, parents and relatives drive to the village of Istock (meaning “the source”) , some 40 kilometers in a north-westerly direction.

In the bus with beaming faces we eventually reach for former Soviet Army base- previously a base for middle range missiles. Eight years ago the curative education was allowed access. For the founding mothers of Talisman this mean yet more renovation work in, for Russian experience, completely new area.

Pure air instead of street traffic, birch forests like in a fairy tale. The children and the adults enjoy the day. Each class has rehearsed a play and are proud of their self-made costumes. The performances take place in the former barracks, in which soldiers until recently lived in cramped and very basic conditions.

A Michaelmas play remains especially in my memory. It dealt with Jermak Timofejewitsch, a national hero. In 1581 he went with 800 Cossacks from the Urals in the direction of Siberia in order to settle the secret land of the Tartars in the name of the Czar. Andrej, then in class 8 played the main role- totally in his element in armour and with sword in hand. He embellished the learned text with phrases that he felt enhanced the role. The audience applauded with great enthusiasm, the hero was in his element, a talent on the stage…

I often think of the whole development around Talisman and Istok and the other new initiatives in Siberia that have grown thanks in large to the help from the West. On the other hand something new appears to be developing here out of a totally different social context.

Finally I must mention some of these other initiatives that I support together with two other foundations. Somewhat outside Irkutsk the small village community of Zaretschnaja is being founded by the young couple Tatjana und Viktor; in Talovka (nearUlan Ude) the curative school Raduga („Rainbow“) and a further village community, in Bakanaj and Nikolsk two branches of a large state institution and of course the curative seminar “ Maria Centre” with its central tasks in this whole venture.

Those who wish to be more informed can be added to our list to receive our regular annual reports. And we are seeking people who want to actively get involved.

A poster (pdf)

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Sorry, but I can't answer any questions quickly, because I don't speak English and must ask a friend to translate ...

Tags: Russia, Sibiria, community, curative, school, therapeutic

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