The everyday heroes behind Russia’s voluntary search and rescue team

8 April 2021

The volunteers who make up Liza Alert, Russia’s dedicated search and rescue team, are the fastest response service for missing persons. Armed with only compass, a flashlight, walkie talkies, paper, and tape — all of which the volunteers supply themselves — they carry out large-scale investigations, many among Russia’s large stretches of wilderness. But what the team lacks in search equipment, they make up for in scale. The sheer size of the organisation helps them cover more ground. At present, Liza Alert consists of 25,000 volunteers, spread across 59 Russian regions. When a person is reported missing to the police, it’s the power of community — ordinary people banding together, posting flyers and spreading awareness online, checking surveillance footage, travelling to hard-to-reach areas — that provide practical help and hope in the most impossible of circumstances.

19-year-old senior searcher in Zelenogorsk.
A heat shield is constructed if the found person is suffering from frostbite.
Training for cases where the person is suffering from severe frostbite.
A compass is one of the main tools for orientation.
Volunteers carrying out an underwater search in Novoladozhsky canal.
According to folk legends, moss grows on the north side of trees, which helps with navigation.

St Petersburg native Denis Lapin joined Liza Alert for a little less than a year before the pandemic struck, over which time he attended introductory lectures, training sessions, and participated in numerous searches — all the while photographing the rescuers behind the initiative to get a better understanding of what drives people to devote their free time to volunteering.

“In Russia, it’s the police who are responsible for carrying out missing persons investigations. But the key to search and rescue is speed. In reality, the police are limited in resources and experience. NGOs like Liza Alert are the most reliable emergency service available,” the photographer explains. It was the inadequacy of Russia’s police force that promoted the creation of Liza Alert back in 2010 following the tragic death of five-year-old Liza Fomkina, who went missing with her aunt while walking their dogs in Orekhovo-Zuevo, a town in the Moscow region, that same year. Their bodies were found on the 9th day of their disappearance. It provoked a national scandal, with people questioning both the ability of the police to protect the safety of everyday citizens, and the procedures in place for dealing with disappearances. When news of Liza Fomkina’s death first spread, the initial reaction was: “This was Moscow, not somewhere in Siberia,” as Yekaterina Demidova, 38, a spokeswoman for Liza Alert, told The Moscow Times.

Relatives are called, as one of the first steps in the search, to find out everything there is to know about the missing person’s mental and physical state.

After a search area is established, there is a callout for volunteers. Those who respond gather in crews and await instructions.

“Disappearances happen daily. It can be seasonal: when it’s warmer, many elderly people go to the forest to pick mushrooms and berries. On one occasion, a 70-year-old woman was found alive after three weeks in a forest alone,” Lapin reveals. Over its 11 years of existence, Liza Alert has grown organically. “When the body of a girl was found drowned in Pskov, a city 200 km from St. Petersburg, the organisation assembled a Liza Alert branch in the area,” the photographer says.

Volunteer covering Dibuny village, Leningrad region.
Coordinators will establish the search area and what tasks to perform.
Ulyana with a walkie-talkie in Dibuny village, Leningrad region.
The car radio provides a larger coverage of signal reception.
Poster printed by relatives of the missing teenager. The search continues in Zelenogorsk for more than a year.
volunteers are divided into groups of two to five, led by an experienced investigator.

“This is a group of people united by one goal: to help people find their friends and relatives. Many are motivated by a desire to be of help, to become part of a community, to spend their free time doing good. One girl I met said she made a promise to a terminally-ill friend, an active member of Liza Alert, to follow that same path. There are also people who are very fond of nature. I even met a whole family — a dad, mum, and son — who all volunteer for Liza Alert.” His photo story Found Alive is dedicated to these everyday heroes, many of whom balance volunteering with studies, work, and family life.

Lapin says that though the searches he participated in were unsuccessful, the experience was overwhelmingly heartening. “Probably the main thing I learned, and this may sound a little trite, is just to go for it, in spite of everything. There are lots of selfless people in our society who want to make the world a better place, and this above all gives me hope.”

Read more

The everyday heroes behind Russia’s voluntary search and rescue team

Digging deeper: life lessons from an archaeological summer camp

The everyday heroes behind Russia’s voluntary search and rescue team

Paws for thought: a heartwarming photo diary about a rescue dog and his owner

The everyday heroes behind Russia’s voluntary search and rescue team

The curious tale of the Russian village with more cafes per capita than New York