In Russia, people who are mentally challenged are often stigmatized. They are not considered fully human with the ability to learn and socialize, and they are often unemployed. But there is a place where life is different—and better—for some of them. Svetlana is a unique social village in Leningrad Oblast, Russia. This community gives mentally challenged people the opportunity to live freely and fully, supported by tutors and volunteers.
For the residents these roles mean nothing. This place is not a boarding school or a clinic. No one is controlled and the doors are always opened. Residents don’t draw a line between healthy and unhealthy, normal and abnormal. Everyone is valued as an individual. Capabilities and abilities are the only things that matter. The residents of Svetlana believe in the person you can become in spite of your past.
Svetlana is a community of about 40 residents. They live in four large houses and have a garden, a farm, a bakery, a carpenter’s workshop, and more. The residents survive through subsistence farming and work despite their different abilities. Villagers are served five meals a day, visit the sauna on weekends, and perform plays on holidays. People with special needs are free to go out, work, have friends, and fall in love. They can engage in any employment or creative activities. For example, at first, some residents could not even hold a spoon, but now some bake bread for all the inhabitants of the village, or have become fine actors in the community performances.
Mary Gelman worked on the Svetlana project for three years starting in 2016. In this lecture she describes how she covered this special community as a long-term project, what challenges she faced, and address questions about ethics and communication.