In October 2018, the first “Kindness House” (“Dobrodomik” in Russian) charity café was opened in St. Petersburg, where elderly people, survivors of the Leningrad blockade by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, needy elderly with small pensions and in difficult life situations are offered free dinners. Now a half year later we are asking Alexandra about the progress of their undertaking. Now another “Kindness House” has been opened in Gatchina [a town twenty-eight miles south-west of St. Petersburg which is famous for its palaces and park complex.—Trans.], and a new one is under construction in Krasnogvardeysky [a district in the northeast of St. Petersburg.—Trans.].
“With no trouble at all”
—Alexandra, is the “Kindness house” that has won the hearts of many still active today?
—The very first “Kindness house”, which we built through the joint efforts of those involved, the “kindness builders” as we’ve nicknamed them, where over sixty volunteers would come daily and paint, drill, and construct the walls… Now it serves up to 500 pensioners, Leningrad blockade survivors and veterans on a daily basis.
—The rule is the same—the café doesn’t charge its customers, does it?
—It certainly doesn’t! On one occasion we managed to serve as many as 627 elderly people with no trouble at all.
—How do you cope with your work?
—At present waiters volunteer at our café to serve elderly diners every day; young people come and offer hot meals to our senior citizens. Besides that, music groups come and perform almost every week—some sing, others play musical instruments, while old men and women dance.
The way to a man’s heart
—So this café is a place where customers not only eat.
—As a matter of fact, visiting this café is not just about dining. For elderly people the “Kindness house” is not so much a place where they can eat as a small, cozy house where they are always welcome. Here people meet each other. For example, there is one granny, ninety-six, who is a war veteran and Leningrad blockade survivor. Every day she leaves her home with the sole aim of coming here—and she does it at the call of her heart and not just to satisfy her hunger. She comes down from the fourth floor and comes to us to meet with one old gentleman. Aged ninety-two, he is younger than she, so he is “courting” her and they come and have dinner together every day. The old lady has poor eyesight, and he often says laughing: “It is good that my girlfriend can’t see very well. Otherwise she would see how old I am and leave me for another guy.” Everyone laughs, and we rejoice.
“We are not alone”
—I heard that you opened another “Kindness house” café in Gatchina. How did you manage to do this? Are there any plans to open such cafes in other places as well?
—After the publication on Pravoslavie.ru last autumn there came the first wave of financial assistance, which encouraged us not to lose heart. At that time we were finishing our first “Kindness house”, but we had absolutely no financial resources to buy the necessary equipment (refrigerators, sinks, tables, etc.). It was only thanks to your readers’ aid that we managed to purchase all these things within one day and receive the older men and women on the appointed day. That was the first and greatest marvel and surprise! Following the opening of the first café a group in social media shot a video and told the whole country about our initiative. And people saw that real Russia is still alive, that we have not turned into a “grey mass” that doesn’t care about anything except rumors, scandals, elections, and pop culture. Then we got greater support.
Those who were not indifferent wrote that they were willing to help as far as possible. And they did—some brought bread, others brought meat, others decorated the café for the New Year and the Nativity of Christ and donated over 1,000 presents. It was a true miracle. We realized that we are not alone. But how our old people felt when they saw this involvement and gratitude! Thanks to everybody’s contribution to this cause we were able to collect money to set up a charity foundation to help elderly people.
Holy Russia and impious Russia
—And did you avoid problems?
—To our great regret, some people saw that the “Kindness house” had grown into a big project and suggested that we… sell it for a large sum. This suggestion disgusted us. That was out of the question for me because my husband and I consider this project as our own child that we have protected and will always protect from everything bad! That made my blood boil because those people wanted to cash in on the “Kindness house”, the purpose of which is to thank our elderly and render disinterested aid to them. Those would-be buyers have left us alone now.
—But let us get back to Gatchina.
—We worked as hard as possible, the team of those involved kept growing, and at some point there were 180,000 rubles (c. 2,745 US dollars) in the “Kindness house’s” kitty… That is an enormous amount, given that we were always in the red during our gratitude dinners.
At that time an Orthodox young man came from Gatchina. I like it when believers join us because their souls radiate a special light, we can rely on them, they really work for the good of people and won’t betray our trust… That guy said that he was eager to help the elderly in Gatchina and ready to work double time… I tried to explain to him for a long time that though it seemed to him that it was easy to work at the “Kindness house”, in reality it is a tremendous effort and awesome responsibility!
And miracles followed. Much to our surprise, we found out that there were suitable premises in Gatchina, and we were to pay exactly 180,000 rubles for the first and last months, which would be followed by a two-month grace period.
Having had the experience of our first “Kindness house” behind us, we took the new premises, having just the right amount for the rent in hand and regarded it as a sign from above. If God gives you an opportunity, it would be stupid of you to ignore it. Thus our construction work in Gatchina commenced, and today around 200 old people dine here on a daily basis and we have new volunteers.
—Apparently nearly 1,000 elderly men and women spend time with each other in two “Kindness houses” daily.
—It is not a matter of hundreds or thousands… What really matters is the joy of our elderly citizens. These people become happier, as do those who do good for them… We already call ourselves “kindness-addicted”. Do you mind if I tell you our dream?
—To open “Kindness houses” of this kind in each region of Russia so that all seniors can feel our gratitude and have an opportunity to eat in cafes for free.
—What do people think of your initiative? Have you come to any agreement with the authorities?
—Initially, no one understood us—there were lots of questions, people were skeptical and puzzled. They would say: “What do you need that for? You have children, a whole lot of problems, and you are digging yourselves into a hole!” But you see, we couldn’t do otherwise: when older men and women with canes were coming to us from different districts, we couldn’t deny them dinner…
My circle of acquaintances has changed completely; either the world has changed or only kind-hearted, inspiring people who understand the problems of the older generation gather around the “Kindness house”. I don’t know. Now absolutely everybody supports this undertaking and says only kind, sincere words to all of us. They do it from the bottom of their hearts. And they aren’t feigning sincerity—we see frankness in their eyes.
The authorities still remain indifferent. We inquired about the possibilities of being allocated premises for this project, but they replied that “there is no opportunity thus far” and so on. At least it is good they don’t get in the way!
Mudslinging, TV, and “those crazy about the Kindness house who don’t care”
—Truly, one cannot avoid difficulties here. Have you faced envy and slander?
—Of course! People slandered me in all sorts of ways on the internet; and over the past few months as our cafés have become better known so much mud has been slung at me! Now I have come to realize that it is unavoidable (they say a certain spiritual law is in action), though at first I got very worried and my husband ended up in hospital because of this gossip… It was so disappointing when after you had put your whole soul and much effort into this undertaking, loving elderly men and women sincerely, without any ulterior motives, arranging the “Kindness house” with our friends over a year, others suddenly threw dirt at us! They claimed that we have been doing this “for money laundering”, to avoid taxes, and “scraping up a fortune” (what fortune, I wonder?)… And they labelled me as… No, I don’t want to talk about this anymore, to remember this filth. Now I take it more in stride because I have gotten used to it. I just don’t react; I have gotten over it and just carry on—so much the better.
It was hard for me to perceive the “Kindness house” as a project—for me it is my soul, it is sincere, warm friendship.
—What helps you overcome your difficulties?
—God and people help me. In difficult moments I lift up my head and cry to God: “What will we do next?” And I find solutions at once. For example, at the first stage when we had 200 pensioners per day, I would sit at the table, thinking that I had neither the money nor the food to feed 200 elderly people the next day… I had nothing, and there was nobody to borrow money from… One day, as the cooks stood around me, I lifted my head and shouted (they thought that I was off my rocker): “Please! I only need twenty kilos of chicken! Only twenty kilos of chicken! That’s all I need!” Suddenly the door opened, a man with a box in his hands came in and said: “I brought you twenty kilos of chicken for your dinners. Whom should I give it to?” The cooks nearly fell off their chairs when they heard this. Meanwhile, I lifted my head again and said, addressing God, and not that man, “Thank you!” You see, God is always with us in the most difficult moments.
—Do you suffer from star syndrome? Do you ever think: “Now we are famous! Now we are invited to talk on the central TV channel!”?
—We are “insane and crazy about the ‘Kindness house’”, and even when we were invited to talk on TV, the subject was fashion and not charity… The first question we were asked was: “Can you tell us about the gratitude dinners?” So, there just can’t be any star syndrome in our circumstances! I think the best response in this situation is a “protest”, in the best sense of the word: “You were saying that nothing would come out of it, that we and our friends are strange people and should take pity on ourselves! But we have made it! Russia is alive! God loves her, as He loves old men and women!” I was filled with this sense of joy: “We have made it!” And there was so much joy when our elderly guests brought us those newspapers and we rejoiced in our success together… When we were invited to an award ceremony to the Mikhailovsky (St. Michael’s) Fortress in St. Petersburg, we took one old woman with us, and she still keeps saying that she had never seen such beautiful things before. The month we went to various meetings, awards and so on, was a real gift from God to me, and I am pleased to see that we have succeeded.
But we had no time for rest because the more the media covered our project the more old people discovered us and came to us. At some point all the kitchens and those who worked in them were stretched to the limit. But we managed somehow and everybody was pleased. One and the same question kept bothering us: how many people are going to come tomorrow? What if sponsor money doesn’t come this time? So, we are not at risk of developing a star syndrome because our challenges are very different.
—We are in the middle of Great Lent. Do you observe the Church fasting rules when you plan your menus?
—During Lent we cook ordinary dinners, but we don’t add meat into soups and salads, so we get vegetable broths as a result. Our old ladies can opt for garnish with vegetables without meat. That is, everything is at each customer’s discretion. Some keep the fast, others don’t. But elderly women will come to us in any case, so we try to avoid a situation where elderly ladies stay at home because we have only meat dishes on our menu, or non-fasters stop coming to us because of the meatless menu. There is freedom here. I hope this freedom is Christian. So we try our best to ensure that every visitor feels comfortable here, and our cooks cook in such a way that customers can have or not have meat. Thanks to one family who supports us permanently our elderly guests have fish every Thursday (zander, cod); but our general menu contains simple dishes, such as soup, salad, a second course, compote, and bread…
—Who do you rely on more for you project, sponsors or God?
—In my personal opinion, sponsors appear in our project only by the will of God (though non-believers would say that these are coincidences). And they appear at the very moments when our team and I have absolutely no idea what to do next. These are not coincidences at all.
Only two out of thousands of stories
—Can you share any stories associated with your elderly customers that stick in your mind?
—I won’t tell any personal stories of our older visitors here. They share such innermost thoughts and feelings with me that they remain inside me. These will be sufficient for a whole book, if they allow me to write it someday. There are thousands of stories, but I can tell you a couple of them. For example, one very shy old lady has come to our dinners from the very beginning. On March 8 last year, when we greeted our grannies with International Women’s Day and gave them presents, she was absent for some reason. We worried for her. At seven in the evening the door opened, this woman came in and said, “Listen, Sasha [a diminutive form of the name Alexandra in Russia.—Trans.], I tested my sugar level before my departure and decided to go to your café by public transport. But when I left home I met my friend. It turned out that her travel card was invalid, so we decided to go on foot together. But some 110 yards before the café I lost consciousness due to diabetes. An ambulance came, the doctors brought me around and told me to stay in the hospital for a while. But as soon as I realized that I wouldn’t be able to congratulate you, I decided that I don’t need to stay in this hospital. In short, I ran away! After having a rest, I am here! Happy Women’s Day!” She still comes to us regularly, though we warned her that she should be more attentive to her health.
Another story took place not long ago. At present I am always on the move so I cannot be in our main “Kindness house” every day. One day I had a phone call. It was the number of our waitress Rita, but the voice of one of our grannies. I asked her what happened, and she replied: “Sasha, I cannot talk about this on the telephone. We should meet as soon as possible.” On that day I was in Gatchina, preparing for the opening of the new “Kindness house”. I asked if she was feeling well, and the woman answered: “I am fine, but I must see you straightaway!” I wondered if she could wait till Monday (it was on Friday). But she said that while she could wait, she had better see me as soon as possible. I cancelled all the meetings immediately and made a beeline for St. Petersburg. As soon as I entered our “Kindness house” (17 Detskaya Street), I saw joy and happiness in the eyes of that old woman. I said: “What’s up?” She replied: “Sasha, as I look at you I wonder how you will manage to shoulder the burdens of these cafés; you have to feed everybody in both places. You have taken so much on your shoulders… I was anxious about you, consulted a priest, and looked for this thing for a long time until I finally found it.” Then she offered me an icon of the Holy Martyr Alexandra and added: “You asked if it could wait until Monday. I thought so but feared: What if I don’t live until Monday and won’t be able to give you this icon? And I am sure it will protect and guide you.” I burst into tears like a little girl and realized that the meetings that I had just cancelled were of little value compared to this… Now this icon is with me all the time.
A simple way of changing one’s outlook on life
—What do you feel when others thank you and promise to keep you in their prayers?
—We show mutual gratitude to one another. These of elderly ladies’ words really make me happy and give me relief: “You are helping us now, and the Lord Who sees everything will bless the lives of your grandchildren who are yet to be born.” Of course, we really enjoy helping others and it is nice to hear their words of gratitude as well. It gives strength to our team. But this is not the main thing. What really matters is the eyes of these old ladies who come to us and the positive emotions we give each other.
—Do you ever get depressed?
—There are moments when I suffer, be it materially, morally, or physically. But I have never found myself in hopeless situations, though there is such a thing as mental overload, when your brain gets tired of thinking and trying more and more options. God helps, people help, and that is the most important thing.
—How will the “Kindness house” benefit those who aid others?
—You learn to value your time. Some live it up by sitting at their computers, cracking pistachio nuts and drinking beer. Thus they ruin their livers and die young. Instead we can learn to devote the time we’ve given by God to helping others. And in our country, wherever you look you will find people who need your help. Not only the older generation needs our support—it is needed by everybody. And it is not only about food—we can help one another with words, a look, a smile, a good book, clothes or anything. The question is whether or not we are able to see and feel the pain of our neighbors.
I have also noticed that if you begin to help others from the bottom of your heart, your outlook on life changes when you see the atmosphere of gratitude. You see very many things in a different light. We have tested this on ourselves—it works!
Dear readers, if you want to contribute to Alexandra and her team’s worthwhile cause, you can transfer your donations to the following bank account (Sberbank of Russia) to support the needy pensioners of St. Petersburg and Gatchina: № 2202 2003 5621 7347 (the recipient: Alexandra Alexandrovna Sinyak / Александра Александровна Синяк).