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Coding from Russia’s countryside A group of Moscow programmers has launched a crowdfunded project to bring metropolitan expertise to remote towns

Source: Meduza
Liza Kochergina / Meduza

Several times a year, “Kruzhok” programmers from Moscow visit towns and villages to hold free coding workshops for local teenagers. Before finishing these lessons, students create websites where they share videos and photographs of their hometowns, describing life in Russia’s countryside. As it’s grown more popular, the Kruzhok project has also become more diverse. It’s not just programmers going into towns anymore; there are now musicians, architects, journalists, and astronomers. Meduza explains how professionals sick of the “Moscow bubble” are using their fatigue to fuel an effort to help young people in Russia’s remote regions. 

This article is part of our charity-support project “MeduzaCare.” In December 2019, we turned our attention to rural programs. You can read more stories like this (in Russia) here.

From the “bubble” to the countryside

By the spring of 2017, Alexander Bratchikov, Sergey Nugaev, Vlad Kyaune, and Alexander Patlukh had spent several years working at the Moscow Coding School and other programming training centers. In major cities across Russia, the demand for technical training was only growing, but the four programmers felt trapped in a “bubble” and decided to learn more about the most popular workshops thriving in the countryside. They also wanted to work specifically with teenagers — “the most interesting and challenging audience,” they say.

This paved the way to “Kruzhok” (Discussion Group), a free programming school for teens in small towns and villages. “When we were just starting out, everything seemed pretty complicated,” says Alexander Bratchikov. “We didn’t know anything about getting into schools. Do we just show up and put up posters all around town?” The first school they found was in the city of Votkinsk, in Russia’s Udmurt Republic, where Bratchikov grew up. This was possible thanks to a local activist who helped them find meeting space and gather a group of young people. Kruzhok still operates this way today. Receiving emails from potential volunteers, the program looks for responsible people who can invite students, find computers for the workshops if schools don’t have the equipment (which is often the case), and stay in touch after the training seminars are done. 

When these young instructors from the capital first showed up in small towns, both the local officials and the students themselves were skeptical. “It was only when they saw us in person that the students understood that ‘this other way is possible, too.’ [Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg], a young teacher is something unheard of,” says Bratchikov. Ana, who attended Kruzhok classes in the city of Baltiysk, in Russia’s Kaliningrad region, says the instructors told her to address them informally. “It really brings you together when you can talk to someone who’s twice your age like they’re an older brother,” Ana told Meduza.

“We connect with teenagers quickly because we don’t demand anything from them,” says Sergey Nugaev. Within a couple of days, students in the program aren’t even shy about rapping for their new friends. In Bolshaya Kocha (in the Perm region), for example, the local ensemble asked Kruzhok teachers to join them on guitar.

Alexander Patlukh says teenagers are often unaware of what opportunities and prospects an ordinary computer with an Internet connection can create. Kruzhok set out to demonstrate that innovation is possible from anywhere in the world. “If your father works in oil, then you’re supposed to follow in his footsteps. These behavioral patterns persist,” complains Patlukh. “We’re observing whether teenagers, despite their environmental conditioning, start to feel the weight of their own decisions.”

Modern local history

At the end of the training course, students create a website from scratch devoted to their hometown. To date, there are nine projects from different places across Russia, from the villages of Glazok and Bolshaya Kocha to the cities of Novorossiysk and Gus-Khrustalny

To give teenagers more freedom, Kruzhok, which was originally designed as a way to introduce young people to web development, has become more and more diverse. Some students write code, others draft texts, and others still practice design and video. “We talk to each teen individually and concentrate on their specific interests. For example, some people don’t want to do programming, but they’re ready to give a tour of their hometown, which is at the foundation of this new project,” explains Alexander Bratchikov.

The excursion story is a real-life example. Pasha, a young man living in the town of Shapsha (a small village outside Khanty-Mansiysk that’s home to 580 people), really led his teachers on a tour from the store where he buys soda to the river near his three-story apartment building. And Tanya interviewed her grandfather, who’s been living in the forest since the 1950s. He told her what to do if you meet a bear in the wild. It’s all documented on the village’s new website.

Arina Sachkova, the Russian language and literature teacher who invited Kruzhok to Glazok (in the Tambov region), says the village’s website has educated all kinds of people about life in the countryside. “People have written comments, messages, and posted it on Facebook. It’s like we’ve opened a door to the world where there are no iPhones, almost nobody uses Facebook, and you buy tickets in person, not online,” she says. “There’s a lot in this world that’s beautiful, honest, and simple that’s often lost in a big metropolis.” 

Kruzhok’s creators believe they’re chronicling modern local history. After all, how can you understand a pagan community without speaking to the local shaman? Especially when he’s also a history and social studies teacher and he’s the one who personally invited Kruzhok to visit. “We’re getting an entirely new look at Russia and at the people who live here, thanks to communication with students and locals,” says Sergey Nugaev.

Architecture and urban planning training in Gus-Khrustalny. 2019.
Emil Khafizov / Kruzhok

Everyone is special

Kruzhok’s entire team is just seven people, all working without pay. Another 50 or so volunteers have helped the project throughout its existence. “We don’t order anyone around or incentivize. There’s just no time for that. Every one of us is a special project designer,” says Sergey Nugaev. “People are inspired by our projects and then, totally sincerely and without pay, they’re ready to spend two months developing a training course, taking time off from work, and traveling thousands of miles.”

Alexander Bratchikov thinks Kruzhok owes its growth and success to the documentary films and websites it creates with its students. 

Thanks to volunteers from various fields, Kruzhok has already managed to stage four expanded training seminars that go beyond just web development. The new teachers are sent into the countryside with someone from the core team (for organizational help). “You set up communication with a region anyway you can, so the topics of the training courses are totally different. It’s just an excuse to start talking and share experiences,” says Bratchikov.

For example, Gus-Khrustalny hosted a training seminar in architecture and urban planning. Experts from the “MARSh” Architectural School Laboratory, the “Strelka” Institute, and the “Orchestra” Architectural Bureau explained how to explore local areas and design effective solutions for their urban environment. In Vyazma, musicians Sergey Dmitriev and Alexander Vinogradov taught teens how to write melodies, beats, lyrics, and arrange songs. At the end of the course, the students composed an entire album. In Kaluga, teenagers studied astronomy. In Sardayal, they trained with journalists.

Students in Kruzhok’s journalism seminar finished by collaborating with Strelka Mag (a periodical about modern cities) to create a newspaper about life in Sardayal that was released for free in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yoshkar-Ola, and Kazan. In the same town (about 110 miles from Yoshkar-Ola), Kruzhok organized a large festival with educational lectures and workshops, food stands, and even a performance by the indie group “SBPCh” in the school gym.

The entire town of Sardayal pitched in to make the festival happen. “We haven’t had anything like that for a long time,” says Polina Vladimirovna, the local school principal. “Even people who never participate in the town’s public life came out to mow the grass so tents could go up and they stocked their shelves to welcome guests.”

“These events aren’t to grab attention online, but to make local life a little more interesting and to help out with urgent problems,” says Alexander Bratchikov. For example, after Kruzhok students wrote on their town’s website that their slow Internet connection interfered with their studies and ability to be creative, local officials addressed the issue. The district head also promised to build a new school in town (the old one is falling apart, and it only goes up to ninth grade). It’s just a promise, so far, but the teachers from Moscow mention it in every interview, trying to hold him to his word.

“In 2019, Sardayal residents held a financial-literacy festival attended by people from throughout the region,” says Bratchikov. “And this village is on the outskirts of the Mari El Republic!”

Kruzhok in Sardayal
Sergey Nugaev / Kruzhok

Keeping in touch with students

The school in Sardayal also remembers Kruzhok because the project’s seminars were entirely crowdfunded. Organizers managed to raise the money thanks to active promotion in the media. One of Kruzhok’s goals in 2020 is stabilizing its crowdfunding efforts. “We’re a non-profit organization and we strive for independence. We don’t want to go to large corporations or the government, where we don’t always see eye to eye. So we have to rely on ourselves,” says Nugaev. But Kruzhok has successful experience working with some companies. For example, the Moscow Music School and Pro Audio supplied the group with equipment for a music school in Vyazma.

One of the project’s main goals, says Bratchikov, is keeping in touch with its students. “It would be dishonest to come in for a week and then forget about these teens,” he says. The team would also like to work with those it can’t reach with Kruzhok, as well as those who have taken its courses and now need mentoring. Right now, they don’t have the time or the energy for this; there’s just a group chat with the students, and the communication there is more unstructured. “Nevertheless, we’re trying to send free courses [to these places] and respond to questions, like by personally helping someone reinstall Linux,” says Alexander Patlukh.

“From the very start, we never knew if this would be a success,” admits Sergey Nugaev. “And the degree of uncertainty is only rising, but you realize who the real heroes are in this story when you meet the people in small towns doing their thing not because of but despite everything. He remembers Timofei from Vyazma, who composed a second song after finishing Kruzhok’s music school. He's now working on a concept album with sounds from nature (like bird calls and the crackle of a roaring fire). And there’s 15-year-old Kolya, who — with a little help from his new programmer friends in Moscow — is figuring out how much to charge clients for web development work.

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Story by Natalia Podlyzhnyak

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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