One of Russia’s few social enterprises is working to inspire kids to read by traveling the country in an old, book-filled bus.
MOSCOW, Russia – At the back of an old bus, surrounded by fading rugs thrown over benches, under a ceiling covered in the scribblings, autographs and doodles of children, I share a flask of honey tea with Andrey Nekrasov, Tanya Schultz, a child psychologist, and the classical musician turned children’s author Artur Givargizov. The shelves around us, loaded with books, jolt back and forth at every traffic light as the bus negotiates Moscow’s notorious traffic jams. Givargizov enthusiastically regales me with tales of their winter expeditions to isolated Russian villages, as we head for the considerably less far-flung School No. 2005 in the Moscow suburbs.
This is the Bumper Bus, one of Russia’s few social enterprises, founded by the child psychologist Anna Tikhomirova in 2010. Tikhomirova had spent the previous 15 years working with youths from disadvantaged backgrounds who were struggling with addiction issues. She recognized that one of the principal causes of social problems in Russia was a lack of access to a modern, stimulating education. Cobbling together funds and assembling a team from various sources, she launched the Bumper Bus: a traveling, non-profitbookshop and book club that has thur far visited 40 cities in three years. Bumper aims to provide kids with the chance to buy contemporary books that their school and public libraries (so often stuffed only with Soviet-approved classics) may not have as well as to stimulate their interest in books with interactive readings, authors’ talks and book club meetings.
The project has expanded quickly and now consists of nine people, with up to six workers as part of the on-the-road team. Nekrasov, Bumper’s creative director, explained what they are hoping to achieve.
“The main thing we are looking for is stability. In three years we became a very recognizable group. We can afford to do what we do in Moscow, but we also want to travel to visit smaller towns and villages, and this is difficult. Selling books [on the road] is often not enough to cover our expenses.”
The team wants to expand beyond European Russia and across the nation. Funds, however, are proving a constant obstacle. As the current bus rapidly approaches the end of its natural lifespan, a new one will cost a million rubles ($31,360 US), a difficult sum to raise on the back of selling books in disadvantaged areas. For a country the size of Russia, an expansion of the fleet will be required in order for the team to realize their goals. A recent trip to Murmansk took 20 days, in which time 5,000 kilometers were covered.
The Bumper Bus can be considered one of Russia’s first purely social businesses, in a country where the public sector has long been expected to cater to social needs and where the private sector has been dominated by the ruthless search for profit. While Nekrasov explained that they were entering new territory back in 2010, he is hopeful that social enterprise is now on the rise. “I had only heard about it abroad. I didn’t think that such things worked in Russia. I thought people here maybe weren’t ready. I think it is now possible, but the amount of social enterprises here can’t be compared to the number in Europe. But I hope that will change.” The Bumper Bus is supported by Impact Hub Moscow, an exchange and support platform for many of the city’s newly emerging social enterprises.
In an assembly hall of schoolchildren, who in the Russian tradition have been turned out in suits and business wear, Givargizov delivers a perfect performance with his poems about school, animals and babushki, which draw hushed giggles and warm applause. Afterward, teachers and children alike stand in line, either transfixed or fidgeting, waiting for Givargizov to sign their newly bought copies of his books. At the end of the day, Nekrasov reflects that they probably broke even on this trip. The social profits, though, are likely to have been bumpier .