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In Search of Merjamaa. 1. Introduction
1. 1 THE STUDY
The study deals with voluntary activity as a means of sustaining the neo-Meryan movement of Central Russia. The neo-Meryan movement comprises a diverse set of individuals, associations and aspirations with a common aim to preserve and revitalize the Meryan heritage of Central Russian oblasts. Meryans, a Finno-Ugric people, inhabited the current Vladimir, Kostroma, Ivanovo, Yaroslavl and Moscow oblasts until the 17th century.
Collecting and distributing information about Meryans is an important activity for neoMeryans. However, the ideological background provided by ethno-futurism, a cultural tendency taken shape in former Soviet republics, is a distinctive feature of the movement. The study aims to find out how grassroot voluntary activity in local studies contributes to Russian cultural philanthropy and to Russian civil society in general. An essential hypothesis of the study is that local studies as voluntary activity are able to bind together local voluntary initiatives and pervasive ongoing processes of a cultural or a social nature. Moreover, the study approaches local studies as a field in which the Russian third sector can co-operate with public and private sectors. The active cooperation of different sectors is not only a typical feature of Russian philanthropy, but it also enables the creation of social and cultural capital necessary for developing Post-Soviet civil society.
The studies concentrating on these Russian non-governmental organisations often focus on political questions, aiming to chart out the general atmosphere of Russian civil society. Moreover, Western organisations often serve as a yardstick when their Russian counterparts are observed. Thus, the number of active members and the volume of philanthropic giving set the criteria of appraisal. However, such an approach does not adequately take into account the distinctive features of Russian non-governmental activity.
By so far, there seems to be no research on local studies as a field of Russian grassroot civil society activity. This study aims to fill this gap in research. Ever since the 19th century local studies have constituted an important form of Russian voluntary activity, and local studies associations were among the few non-governmental organisations which were able to operate during the Soviet years. Therefore, they reflect the nature of Russian philanthropy and the state of Russian civil society in general.
1. 2 THE RESEARCH DESIGN
The neo-Meryan movement is founded on unofficial organisational activity with a heterogeneous set of participants. This fact guides the choice of research questions, theory and methods. The movement and its aims can be approached from the perspective of capital.
Therefore, the research questions are:
1. What is the role of volunteering in the construction and maintaining of the modern Meryan identity?
The chapter 2 explains the theoretical framework of the study. Here, attention is paid to the research theory. Moreover, the chapter puts the neo-Meryan movement in the context of a grassroot local studies organisation. The chapter 3, for its part, explains the chosen research methods, and this is also where a description of observed thematic categories is given. These categories guide the approach to the research data: 447 texts published in the Merjamaa Internet site. The question is about a web portal run by the Metsa Kunnta association, an unofficial civil society organisation concentrating on Meryan history and culture.
The chapter 4 approaches the artistic dimension of the neo-Meryan movement. The influence of ethno-futurism in Meryan art projects is illustrated here, and the chapter also observes the Meryan field as a market of symbolic goods with the reproduction of Meryanness as a strategy. The chapter 5, for its part, deals with Meryan publishing activity. Publishing is approached as a way of distributing symbolic capital, and also as a means of creating new types of connections between volunteers and the private sector.
The chapter 6 observes local studies as a form of activity which mirrors the individual nature of neo-Meryan volunteering. The Meryan soil of Central Russian oblasts is seen as a source of symbolic and cultural capital. In order to chart out these forms of capital, the thematic analysis of the research data is expanded here. Moreover, this is where Meryanness is approached as a habitus which links the past to the present.
1. 3 RESEARCH ETHICS
In order to mitigate risks to individuals, human participation in the research was limited to the minimum. Therefore, the study is primarily founded on written material. However, because the study deals with neo-Meryan volunteers and their activity, these volunteers were given an opportunity to comment on the research questions and findings. The neo-Meryan activists` comments were taken into account when the written data were approached and the research findings were dealt with.
The selection of activists to comment on the research questions and findings was carried out by means of the snowball method. An information leaflet including the research questions was sent to the moderator of the Merjamaa portal. He was asked to forward the leaflet to other activists of the movement. Together, four activists commented on the research questions.
When the data analysis was completed, a summary of the research findings was sent to these four activists. Both the information leaflet and the summary were written in Russian in order to avoid misunderstandings. One of the activists commented on these findings.
Each four activists were asked for a request of informed consent. The activists were free to withdraw from the research project at any stage of it, and their comments were anonymised. Also the people appearing in the written research material were fully anonymised. Moreover, the access to the texts published in the Merjamaa portal was open, and it did not require one to log in to the website. Therefore, analysing these texts did not create any ethical issues.
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