By Julie Lafford
Philanthropy is a relatively new idea in Russia. During seventy years of communism where the government was expected to take care of all needs, material and spiritual, charity was thought of as demeaning towards the receiver (Gambrell). The response to the summer 2010 wildfires by the government, big business and the public at large shows that this attitude has changed greatly since the fall of the Soviet Union as the three parties rethink their role in philanthropy.
After the fall of communism some families and individuals profited greatly from new capatilist business activities; Russians refer to these people as “oligarchs”. There were a number of scandals involving big business and false philanthropic activity because of a lack of government regulation which led to a further mistrust of charitable activity among the population.
Despite the scandals of the 1990s, corporate philanthropy thrives in Russia and continues to be the largest source of charitable giving. However, despite rising poverty and a clear need for social welfare charity, oligarchs such as Dimitry Zimin of the Dynasty Foundation admit to founding charities to support the future elite of Russia (Smetanina). Sports teams are also a major recipient of giving from Russia’s oligarchs (Markowitz). While attitudes are slowly changing, support for the elderly, the disabled and single mothers is still thought of as the government’s responsibility (Smetanina).
In an interesting contrast between capitalist and communist thought, Russia’s new rich don’t think they owe anything to society but the poor think charity is the duty of the rich and there is a general hostility towards individual wealth (Smetanina). As one might expect, there is very little charitable giving from the general population; according to the World Giving Index only six percent of Russians donate regularly (Markowitz). Maria Chertok, Director of Charities Aid Foundation Russia cites some of the challenges to increasing private giving; public awareness, lack of tax receipting for donations, and the misconception that the government is a donor (Markowitz).
The response to the summer 2010 wildfires across Russia is an important example of how some things are changing in Russia as the country begins to find a new meaning for charitable activity. The hundreds of fires, which swept Russia from late July to early September 2010 claimed dozens of lives, thousands of homes caused an estimated $15B USD in damage. The disaster raised a vital grass roots response among ordinary Russians who organized themselves through blogs and a Livejournal community despite mixed messages and an “information vacuum” from government and media channels (Antonova). An average of 170 volunteers a day helped stop fires with buckets of water and sand (Antonova), collected food and household goods, and raised funds for firefighting equipment through the Russian Orthodox Church and other grassroots charities (RIA Novosti).
The government response is also telling; in a televised meeting President Dimitry Medvedev appealed to wealthy business owners to support the rebuild after the wildfires not by simply donating funds but by direct involvement in the rehabilitation work in the regions affected (Adelaya). The President’s appeal was strongly supported “cementing [corporate] relations with the state in a legitimate way while also allowing them to publicize their involvement in social projects to a public that sometimes disapproves of their activities” (Adelaya). It is important to note that President Vladmir Putin eliminated the public fire service in 2007 thereby transferring the responsibility for the prevention of forest fires to land owners. Understandably, the public interpreted Medvedev’s appeal as a sign of the weakness of the state.
While undoubtedly a disaster on a large scale, the summer 2010 wildfires gave the Russian government an opportunity to publicly demonstrate that it is in no longer the provider for all public needs and gave corporate philanthropy public legitimacy and a valued role in rebuilding Russia. The public response of grassroots volunteerism and fundraising acknowledges a public awareness s that Russia cannot solely rely on government and big business and a willingness of each Russian to invest personally in charitable activity.
Adelaya, Taj. “Shotgun Philanthropy” Russia Profile August 21, 2010.
Antonova, Maria. “Volunteers take fires into own hands” Moscow Times August 17, 2010.
Gambrell, Jamey. “Philanthropy in Russia” Carnegie Reporter Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall 2004.
Markowitz, Andy. “With Charity Toward Some” Transitions Online September 21, 2010.
RIA Novosti. “Volunteers, church get relief for Russians affected by wildfires” August 1, 2010
Smetanina, Svetlana. “Russian’s vulnerable need sweet charity from philanthropy” Rossiyskaya Gazeta reprinted in Telegraph.co.uk April 21, 2010.