Promoting EA in Russia: Barriers and opportunities

by jasonk20th Aug 201614 comments

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Last week, my partner Yulia and I had the pleasure of talking about the state of effective altruism in Russia with Vyacheslav “Slava” Matyukhin. Slava has made efforts to promote EA online and in Moscow in the past few years. Below are some highlights from our discussion. I share these because it became apparent from our discussion that Russia is quite a different place to promote EA than the West or Australia. Spreading EA in Russia may require different strategies than were used in the West or may require economic, political, cultural, or other shifts.

 

Current efforts to promote EA

Slava mentioned a handful of people who’ve done some work to promote EA in Russia. Right now, he is the main person working to promote it. His efforts have included:

  • building http://effectivealtruism.ru and coordinating the translation of the EA handbook from English to Russian.

  • moderating Facebook and VK EA pages (VK is a very popular social network in Russia).

  • hosting giving games at community events.

    • He and others have run three giving games so far, all three involving quick contact at a booth. The first one was small with 68 people participating and involved allocating a total of ~$100 (each person getting 100 rubles each, $1USD≈65 rubles). The second one was two days long and at the Moscow Geek Picnic, and 501 people participated. The third one was at the Saint Petersburg Geek Picnic, with more than 300 participating.

  • hosting effective altruism related meetings and speakers at http://kocherga-club.ru, an anti-cafe he runs. These meetings typically draw 5-10 people each.

Each of these efforts have drawn some interest, but they haven’t led to more than a few individuals regularly engaging in events or committing to the ideas, so far as he knows.

 

Hypothesized barriers to acceptance

Our conversation turned up a number of potential barriers to spreading interest in EA and earning-to-give in Russia. This list of barriers should be understood as educated guesses.

  • There are no obvious forums for spreading progressive ideas like EA.

    • Universities in Russia are not centers of student activism nor personal exploration of ideas. EA ideas seem to have spread (at least initially) largely through universities in the West.

    • Activist communities are relatively less popular than in the West, in part perhaps due to government influence.

    • Getting people to attend community events and speakers has proven difficult (in part because advertising events to those who might be interested is difficult).

  • Salaries are relatively lower than in the West and the tax benefit is lower

    • A software engineer at a large, Russian software company, for example, might make $20k/year USD after tax.

    • While there is a tax deduction for donating, income taxes are relatively low (~13%).

  • Russians seem to prioritize giving money to family members in need ahead of making donations, and when they do consider donations they prefer to help those at home (i.e., in Russia).

    • They may not be so different from the West.

  • EA in the West has been able to find cultural support for promoting a 10% donation goal from the Christian practice of tithing

    • Tithing may have been more popular pre-USSR. The USSR sought to eliminate religion and replace it with atheism, which would have affected any tithing habits people had. While the Russian Orthodox church does have influence in post-Soviet Russia, tithing seems to be less popular.

In addition to the above hypothesized barriers, discussion with other Russians about earning to give and donating led us to understand that many Russians associate charities with fraud.

 

Potential opportunities

Though there seem to be many potentially strong barriers to spreading EA, we discussed several possible opportunities:

  • VK and Facebook are popular. Creating online content and/or using targeted ads may be easy ways to expose Russians to EA.

  • At least one Russian poker player has donated substantially to MIRI. Perhaps various REG branches will be able to reach other wealthier Russians.

  • Russia has a strong gift giving culture around birthdays. People are expected to buy friends and family birthday gifts into adulthood. Birthday fundraisers may be effective.

 

Thanks to Slava and Yulia for our discussion and providing feedback on this post.

11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:41 AM
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This may just be the way you phrased it, but you talk about spreading "EA and earning-to-give" as if earning-to-give is the primary focus of EA. I'm not sure if this is your view, but if it is, it's worth reading 80,000 Hours' arguments on why only a small proportion of people should earn to give in the long term.

Given these arguments and the low salaries in Russia, it might be better to concentrate on encouraging other sorts of effective altruist activity such as direct work, research, or advocacy. And there may be some altruistic work that is easier to do in Russia than in other countries. Unfortunately I don't know enough about Russia to suggest anything, but I'm sure you'd have some good ideas.

I haven't seen this 80,000 Hours post, thanks. Seems like you're right and we've overemphasized earning-to-give in our activities so far.

Checking in: I'm Slava and I'd be glad to answer any further questions. Jason, thanks for writing this post!

Transhumanism seems to have a decently large Russian presence. Any ideas why that might be?

I'm not really sure. It might be because of Soviet Union cultural influence, the whole "let's build the future ourselves which will be significantly different from our current reality" idea. And also there was a Russian cosmism movement which still has some followers, even though it currently looks more like an art movement than anything substantial.

It might also be because a few people managed to start KrioRus (cryonics company) and Russian Transhumanist Movement 10-15 years ago.

Of course, these two reasons are not mutually exclusive.

Yes I have noticed that too. My impression/hunch is that parts of the Russian intellectual class seem to be interested in ideas seen to be far out (and have been so for a long time). That might be one explanatory factor.

Hey! College student here, studying math and Russian. What's the best way I can help get EA to catch on in Russia? VK posts?

Hi! Not sure if you'll see my response, but in case you do: join #effective_altruism in LW Russia Slack and let's discuss strategies.

We're not sure at the moment about the best strategy. Social network activity would probably be good if you have a wide network of friends and you write well, or would be close to useless if you just routinely repost each VK group post to a few friends.

Speaking from my perspective as someone who has researched Soviet civic engagement, I'm curious if it would be good to tie EA to existing Russian cultural ideas. For example, the idea of "going to the people" might be useful. This sort of cultural translation is what is being tried right now in translating EA to Muslim norms of giving to charity. Also, have you worked with the sizable LessWrong community in Moscow? They might be particularly amenable to EA. I can put you in touch with the group leader there if you're not, email me at gleb@intentionalinsights.org

I don't think "going to the people" would be a wise idea at this moment. EA at its core is much more fit for intelligentsia than for peasants (going by Narodniks termonology), and we need this core to stay strong, in my opinion.

Also, I am the leader of the Moscow LessWrong community, actually. I'm assuming you meant Yuliy? If so, he still maintains the lesswrong.ru website and a public page on vk.com, but he disengaged from the community and LW meetups a few years ago.

Oh, I didn't mean "going to the people" as an activity, but a cultural tradition of valuing the masses. Namely, get to that part of the intelligentsia that values such activities, and show that EA is actually a great way to achieve their goal of valuing human beings in the most effective way possible (and later perhaps expand to other sentient beings).

Ah, didn't know about Yuliy's disengagement. Thanks for updating me about that.