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Youth Heading for Trouble: Can Leisure Help in Vladimir, Russia?
(Mar 2006)
Barbara Elwood Schlatter, Associate Professor, Illinois State University
Marta K. Moorman, Associate Professor, University of Nebraska at Kearney
Yelena Bychkovskikh, Vladimir City Administration, Russia

Contact information:
Barbara Elwood Schlatter, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Illinois State University
Campus Box 5121
Normal, IL  61790-5121, USA

Vladimir, Russia is a large industrial city located northeast of Moscow.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, broad access to public parks was negatively affected by a reduction in government funding (Service, 2003). Concomitantly, profit-based “corporate leisure activity” (Bykhovskaya, 2004) grew to meet the needs of a relatively small cohort of affluent urban youth.  In Vladimir, young people spend their summers drinking beer, smoking, and getting into trouble; and few are attracted to the declining parks. Failure to address these youth-related problems places demands on law enforcement resources and interferes with economic development. The purpose of this paper was to examine the extent to which public parks meet the leisure needs of Vladimir youth in post-perestroika Russia. Researchers conducted separate in-depth interviews with park directors and a focus group with youth (using a translator for both) during a recent visit to Vladimir. Directors identified challenges and assets of their parks. Challenges identified included: limited government funding for parks, resulting in staff complacency; the dilemma of free versus fee-based attractions; and vandalism. Assets identified included: professionals’ genuine concern for youth; presence of well-organized youth groups; existence of city beautification projects, and presence of a low-cost mass transportation system. Youth identified leisure needs including free facilities open daily, facilities with few equipment needs, and facilities resistant to vandalism. While facilities are important, the authors argued that organized programs will be more effective in steering youth away from negative influences. Leisure professionals in the United States have employed outcome-based programming approaches (e.g. Benefits Based Programming) to create programs that foster resiliency among troubled youth. Future research should test the effectiveness of a cultural adaptation of outcome-based programming for Vladimir youth.  Finally, there should be a further assessment of management practices by public park directors.
Key words:  youth, Russia, leisure, facilities

Vladimir, a city of over 375,000 located 115 kilometers from Moscow, is a typical Russian city in that it struggles to meet the leisure needs of its youth.  Russia’s transition from communism to a democracy has been burdened by social and economic strains.  Consequently, park provisions and other leisure facilities are in a state of disrepair and largely under funded.  City officials are concerned that youth have little else to do with their free time but drink alcohol and get into trouble. The purpose of this paper is to examine the extent to which public parks meet the leisure needs of Vladimir youth in post-perestroika Russia.  To address this problem, several research strategies were implemented.   Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with park directors to understand the challenges and assets of city parks. Public parks and facilities were also toured as part of the interview process. Researchers also conducted a focus group with city youth to assess their leisure needs.  The collective discussions revealed a range of challenges currently being faced by park professionals in Vladimir in terms of seeking to meet the leisure needs of youth. Possible solutions and related implications are presented for a range of stakeholders inclusive of youth, professionals, and policy makers.

An Historical Perspective
 Leisure in Soviet Russia, including cities such as Vladimir, was effectively government-sanctioned and subsidized.  Soviet society observer, Hendrick Smith (1976; 1991) described a people who expected simple and affordable leisure pursuits provided by their government. Near the end of the 1930s, state monies funded the construction of a range of facilities designed to facilitate inexpensive relaxation in the form of cinemas and spectator sports, especially football, hockey, and gymnastics (Service, 1999).  State-owned “houses of culture” promoted dance and drama (Service, 1999, p. 191).  Families used state-sponsored city parks for strolling on Sundays.  Western forms of entertainment such as drive-in movies, speedways, and amusement parks were either nonexistent, or not affordable, for most people. Television provided little entertainment for the masses beyond sport broadcasts, while advanced forms of leisure and self-expression were available only to the most privileged and politically well-connected members of society.

State-owned factories provided workers with city park areas for daily leisure pursuits as well as resorts and summer camps for annual vacations and holidays.  Workers who displayed high levels of obedience and involvement were rewarded with beach vacations in the south of the Republic (Service, 1999). Such vacations included health treatments in mud baths and sulfur cures.  Smith (1976) maintained that these inexpensive, month-long vacations were the pride of the people.

While recreational clubs in urban centers thrived during Khrushchev’s rule (1961-1964), the number and quality of rural recreation facilities fell drastically short.  Khrushchev’s attempts to create super collective farms in the country, as well as quasi-urban settlements with facilities for education, recreation, shopping, etc., resulted in little more than societal misery (Service, 1999).  For example, bulldozers destroyed small villages to make way for the super collective farms and settlements, but the problems occurred when newly constructed facilities either fell short of community expectations, or were never built at all.

Sports schools were another important leisure-related Soviet institution.  Like other communist countries, success in sport performance bolstered the Soviet Union’s international reputation (Service, 1999).  Youngsters who showed potential in sport received exclusive training for a career. Facilities for the sport elite were well-funded and equipped with the best trainers and equipment (Service, 1999).  These sports included gymnastics, swimming, track, field, ice hockey, among others (Smith, 1976).

Russians have always liked to escape city life and return to nature on weekends and holidays (Smith, 1976, 1991; and Gerhart, 1994). Wild flowers and free-growing grasses have strong appeal to Russians. They appreciate the untamed, vast landscape of Russia, and often replicate these features in personal gardens.   The popular activity of mushroom picking is often combined with camping and drinking. Pickers keep their favorite spots a secret.  The experience of mushroom picking is an entire process that involves travel, sleeping out, awaking early to find the best mushrooms, and keeping the prime locations a secret. Other popular outdoor activities include ice skating and cross-country skiing.

While alcohol consumption often occurs in leisure environments (Simpura, 1985), the pervasive, and oft-negative role played by alcohol in Russian culture is well-documented (Bykhovskaya, 2004, March; Mikheyev, 1996; Smith, 1976; 1991; & Service, 1999). Mikheyev (1996) offered two theories on the motivations for drinking during communism. First, dictatorships create psychological strain on individuals because they lead a double life – the public life of conformity and obedience, and the private life of individuality. Alcohol, then, provides an ironic safeguard for one’s individuality.  The second theory links drinking to powerlessness and helplessness, both of which are emphasized in totalitarian systems (Mikheyev, 1996). These theories underscore the ubiquitous nature of alcohol in Russian culture.

Glasnost, Perestroika, and a New Leisure
Gorbechav’s reign during the late 1980s marked a period of openness or glasnost, which eventually led to the end of the Soviet Union or perestroika.  Effects on leisure included a booming paperback trade in areas such as astrology, horticulture, and crossword puzzles (Service, 1999).  The government began to mitigate its censorship of popular cultural pursuits including music, drama and speech.   Most importantly, however, the “quest for private pleasure outdid the zeal for public service” (Service, 1999, p. 476).  As a consequence, people began to expect that leisure pursuits were no longer limited to those solely provided by the state.

Diminishing state control after perestroika affected other aspects of leisure.  For example, financial support for managing and maintaining sport and recreational training facilities declined (Schultz, 2000).  Concomitant with the popular acceptance of capitalist ideology were new forms of leisure that were attractive to those willing to pay. Leisure opportunities that emulated other western countries included bowling, karate, cycling, gymnastics, rock climbing, mountain climbing, caving, auto racing, sailing, alpine skiing, sky diving, ballooning, swimming, diving, archery, boxing, wrestling, squash, hunting, fishing, baseball, fencing, inline skating, rollerblading, bodybuilding, golf, horseracing, billiards, table tennis, video games, and paintball; all were available for a price (Schultz, 2000).

Unfortunately, by the mid 1990s, a Russian male’s life expectancy was an average of only 59 years and alcohol abuse was pervasive throughout the Russian philosophy (Bykhovskaya, 2004, March; Mikhevov, 1996). “The problems faced by most citizens were beyond their control: declining health care, the pollution and lack of industrial safety standards, and the fall in average family income. Even thousands of people who had jobs were not always paid” (Service, 1999, p. 518).  Russian citizens continue to struggle economically to make ends meet today, and gone are the days where leisure was provided by communist leaders. The current trend is to charge a fee for leisure attractions and amusements.

Youth and the Case of Vladimir, Russia

Vladimir, Russia is a large industrial city located northeast of Moscow.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, broad support for public parks was negatively affected by a significant decline in government funding (Service, 1999). Concurrently, profit-based “corporate leisure activity” grew to meet the needs of a relatively small cohort of affluent urban youth (Bykhovskaya, 2004).  According to local government officials in Vladimir, there is concern that increasing numbers of youth spend their summers drinking beer, smoking, and getting into trouble. Moreover, few young people are attracted to parks that are in such decline. Vladimir City Administration officials shared their concerns with staff members at the “American Home” and asked for assistance, claiming that failure to address these problems places demands on law enforcement resources and interferes with economic development.

The "American Home" in Vladimir was conceived as a way to open the door to concrete assistance from the United States as the city began making the transition from communism to a democracy (“Serendipity,” 2005).  As such, cooperative projects have been established between the “American Home” and the Vladimir City Administration since 1992. To address the problems faced by youth during the summer, the “American Home” asked leisure researchers from the United States to assist with the project. The project had three objectives: (1) to determine the extent to which public parks meet the needs of Vladimir youth; (2) to conduct a focus group with youth to determine their leisure interests; and (3) to introduce several pieces of leisure equipment to the youth in the form of skateboards, disc golf baskets and discs, and indoor rock-climbing equipment. Grant monies obtained from the University of Nebraska at Kearney financed the travel of one researcher and purchases of the leisure equipment.

Two subject groups were the focus of this investigation:  Vladimir city park directors and Vladimir youth.  In-depth interviews (Denzin, 1989) were used to ascertain information from park directors about Vladimir city parks.  A focus group (Morgan & Krueger, 1998) was conducted with the Vladimir youth to determine leisure needs and preferences.  The succeeding sections describe the design and analysis of the interviews and focus group data.

Interview Design and Analysis
The interview design for park directors was based on the “non-schedule standardized interview” process (Denzin, 1989, p. 105) whereby the same questions were asked of all the subjects, however, there was no predetermined order to the questioning. Subjects were asked about what they perceived to be the greatest challenges and assets of their parks.  Denzin (1989) cited several inherent problems with interview research designs; language, honesty, subjects’ interpretation of the culture, and the identity of the interviewer(s). While the researchers took steps to minimize these problems, it was not possible to completely eliminate them.

A bilingual (Russian – English) Vladimir city official arranged four interviews with the city’s park directors for the researchers, and also served as translator.  The list of questions included the following:  What are the challenges of running your park?  What are the assets of your park?  While other questions were asked, these two questions served as the basis for the data collection.  Shank (2002) contended that it is better to ask too few questions than too many.   Interview questions for the directors focused on the challenges and assets of their venues in terms of meeting the leisure needs of youth.  Finally, the interviews ranged in duration from 30 – 45 minutes, including facility tours.

Data from the interviews were analyzed using thematic analysis (Shank, 2002) whereby “patterns of order that seem to cut across various aspects of the data” (p. 129) were identified as themes.  This creative process occurs by sorting the data so that the themes will seem apparent.

Focus Group Design and Analysis
Focus groups are a useful approach for learning about user needs and preferences (Morgan & Krueger, 1998).  The focus group meeting with Vladimir youth was arranged prior to the researchers’ arrival in Russia.  Several months in advance of the researchers’ visit, staff at the “American Home” was asked to contact members of youth clubs and invite them to participate in the focus group.  Researchers then sent the “American Home” staff informed consent forms which were translated into Russian and given to the youths’ parents for signatures.  The questions included the following:  what work, if any do you have; what do you do for fun in the summer; how do you hear about upcoming opportunities for fun;  what do you think about the recreation equipment that we’ve brought for you to try (skateboards, disc golf, and indoor rock climbing equipment)?

The co-ed group consisted of 19 youth who ranged in age from 12 – 25 years. Ten were male and nine were female. Youth were invited to try out the leisure equipment at the conclusion of the focus group meeting. Their reactions and interest levels were recorded in researchers’ notes.  Focus group data were analyzed by grouping similar responses, identifying frequently-mentioned comments, and discussing strongly held viewpoints (Edmunds, 1999). The focus group findings are presented in the succeeding section.

Park Director Interviews
Before 1995, parks belonged to various state-owned factories and were better maintained and funded then they are today (according to interview data).  Between 1995 and 2002, parks were privately owned and operated until 2003 when the parks were subsumed in the City Administration budget. Several themes emerged in terms of challenges faced by city park directors. The greatest challenge was the lack of funding from the city administration which equates to inadequate maintenance of areas and facilities and low wages for personnel.  A negative by-product of the funding problems exists among some of the carry-over staff who worked in the parks during communism. It was highlighted that park jobs came with few expectations during the Soviet era resulting in complacency with the current status quo. There was also an informal understanding amongst workers that little or nothing had to be accomplished. Park directors lamented the fact that this attitude continues today among some staff.

Another challenge faced by park administrators was the dilemma of free versus fee-based attractions. While it may be desirable to offer free park attractions, it was currently not feasible in the existing environment to do so.  Directors argued that parks need all the income they can generate with vandalism the other most common theme that emerged in the form of challenges they currently faced.

Assets identified by park directors included: professionals’ genuine concern for youth; presence of well-organized youth groups; clean parks and city-wide beautification projects; and presence of a low-cost mass transportation system. Each park had main walkways combined with heavily wooded areas. Every few feet there were metal containers to be used for garbage. That there was little litter on the ground and park trash receptacles were empty indicated to the researchers that cleanliness was a priority for park administrators.

Focus Group Meeting
The focus group consisted of 19 youth with a median age of 18 years. Five had summer jobs (one worked in a supermarket, one was a parking lot attendant, two were web designers, and one was a computer specialist).  In the summer they like to skateboard, watch TV, drink beer, hangout, hike, and ride mountain bikes. They indicated that they find out about leisure-related activities through the Internet, newspaper, TV, billboards, and word of mouth. While they indicated their most popular participant sports as football soccer and basketball, they also expressed interest in new activities that were more individual-based and not dependent on teams.

Researchers presented recreation equipment to the youth in the focus group.  Youth reactions are presented in the order in which they tried out the recreation equipment:  skateboarding / in-line skating, disc golf, and rock wall-climbing.  The main problem with skateboarding lamented by the youth was that there is no ideal place to engage in it.  As a group, they currently skateboard and in-line skate in front of the regional administration building, largely due to its central location and smooth surface. Because there are no obstacles for skateboards, they make their own by stacking skateboards and trying to jump over the stack.  No protective equipment is used, and many have wounds and scars from previous accidents.  The youth expressed a desire for a centrally-located facility that would be open year round, have obstacles and other challenges, and offer protection from potential vandals.

Youth were then exposed to the sport of disc golf for the first time. They tried their skill at tossing the disc into the baskets in the back yard of the American Home.  Their immediate reaction to the sport was that it was enjoyable, easy to learn, and affordable, primarily because they would only need to initially purchase the discs.  To install a disc golf course at a park would require purchasing the baskets and maintaining them from weather and possible vandals.

The last activity discussed amongst the group was indoor rock wall-climbing.  Youth found the activity both interesting and challenging. The problem would be placing the equipment in a facility would be accessible to them. They assumed that a fee would be required for participation, and the group overwhelmingly indicated that they do not have the money to pay such potential fees. They also acknowledged the sizable cost and expertise needed to purchase and install the hand holds for rock climbing.

Funding Strategies
For the past two years, city parks have begun receiving for the first time some limited financial support by way of the local city government budget. While this development is encouraging, park directors acknowledge that they must also seek to supplement that financial support via other revenue streams in the form of business sponsorships, private citizen donations, and fundraising events. Merely relying on a line item in the city budget was not sufficient in the current economy.  Park directors must therefore serve as catalysts for developing new revenue streams for their park operations.

At the parks, little in the way of new forms of equipment and amenities has been introduced. For example, most playground equipment and carnival rides available to the public date back to the 1960s.  Maintenance is basic in the extreme.  One park did not have a water utility.  Moreover, vandalism is an issue for directors and youth alike.  Both feared that new recreation attractions would be subject to vandalism.  One park director cited two examples to reinforce how different the situation was.  The first related to new park lights that were installed one day in 1995 and destroyed the next day.  The second example offered occurred in 2000, whereby newly installed steel benches were dumped in the park fountain.  Park directors felt that, by seeking new sources of funding, it will be possible to address this behavior and other more pressing maintenance issues not addressed in the parks’ recent history.

Programs and Services
The most common program formats used in Vladimir parks are in the form of open facility, competition, and special events.  Citizens visit parks to picnic, relax, and use the available facilities.  Parks also offer short-term competitions for a variety of sports.  Special events celebrate the seasons of the year, patriotic holidays, and other noted dates. Directors stated that there are few, if any, instructional programs offered because there is no money to pay staff, nor can people afford to pay the fees.

While the provision of facilities, competitions, and special events are important; such program formats are only short term. The authors urge park directors to develop organized leisure programs because they will be most effective in steering youth away from negative influences (Rossman & Schlatter, 2003). Leisure professionals in the United States have employed Benefits Based Programming (BBP) (Allen & McGovern, 1997) to create programs that foster resiliency among troubled youth. Administering such programs does not have to be costly, especially if managed (perhaps initially) by volunteers.  Research by Witt & Crompton (1997) has shown that the presence of knowledgeable, caring, and responsible adults, who are present in the lives of young people during organized leisure experiences, helps them stay out of trouble. Vladimir City parks would do well to offer such outcome-based programs that include cultural adaptation for Russian society.

In terms of services, park directors would do well to incorporate staff training into their operations to address things like customer service practices, and program planning skills. Staff training could help foster pride among park employees with their facilities and customers.

Fee versus Free
Vladimir park directors who were interviewed indicated that they charge patrons for as many opportunities as possible in order to bring in needed revenue.  One park had a wide-open space in the center of the park which had been converted to a parking lot for revenue purposes.  Bath houses (banya), amusement park rides, and pinball / video games are all examples of services which are offered for a fee.  Seasonal lease agreements with beer companies result in numerous tents with tables, chairs, and beer sales opportunity. Directors all agree that they can depend on revenue from beer sales at the parks.  Revenue from all sales are used primarily to augment park staff salaries and to make essential purchases for park operations.  Still, directors indicated they would prefer not to charge fees to patrons, especially youth. Youth with the greatest need for leisure programs often have the least discretionary income available.

Recent Developments
In response to the youths’ desire for a skatepark, the researchers submitted an $8000 grant proposal to the Tony Hawk Foundation for the purchase of several skatepark obstacles.  Also, one of the city park directors agreed to transform an unused park facility into an indoor skateboard venue. If the grant proposal is approved, the obstacles will be placed at that venue, with the added bonus of vandalism protection due to the indoor venue.

The two portable disc golf baskets used at the focus group meeting were later taken to one of the parks. Additionally, step-by-step construction plans obtained in the U.S. were translated into Russian so that disc golf baskets could be built. Careful attention was placed on the need for basic and inexpensive materials. It is expected that the portable nature of the disc golf baskets will aid in reducing the opportunity for vandalism.

Future Implications
The ultimate goal of this project was to address the leisure needs of Vladimir City youth.  Organized leisure has been used throughout history to provide socially acceptable activities for participants. Leisure activities can provide social, active, and enjoyable opportunities for youth which may deter them from getting into trouble.  Future research should measure participant satisfaction of disc golf equipment and the new indoor skateboard facility.  Research should test the effectiveness of a cultural adaptation of outcome-based programming for Vladimir youth.  Finally, there should be a further assessment of management practices by public park directors.

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