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Not Giving, Till It Hurts

In Russia, being asked to donate to charity is viewed more as attack than an appeal.

by Galina Stolyarova 29 May 2014

I have around 430 friends on Facebook, and plenty of them respond with “like” and so forth to the vacation photos or the article links that I post from time to time.


But in early May I used Facebook for something much more important than holiday snaps. I wrote a post to draw attention to the plight of Valeria Olshanskaya, a woman who has spent decades working for a charity raising funds to help hearing-impaired children. Valeria is battling cancer and now needs financial help herself.


Valeria’s main fundraiser is her daughter, Varvara, who is deaf. And young Varvara, seeing her mother’s desperate situation, has started using the Internet to appeal for donations.


When I drew attention to their situation on Facebook, my 430 friends, mostly Russians, responded with what I can only describe as a deafening silence. In fact the only person who reacted at all was an American. I was deeply grateful to her but felt deflated and a bit let down.


Two weeks later, I remembered that disappointment as I listened to a speech about charity at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.


Andrei Dubovskov, president and chairman of the board at MTS, a major Russian provider of mobile-phone services, was expressing his own frustration over the poor response from the company’s 70 million subscribers when it makes charity appeals. He said fewer than 0.1 percent of customers ever participate in charitable projects introduced or supported by MTS.


As “the intervention of social networks into our lives has increased dramatically,” Dubovskov said, the avalanche of desperate, unsolicited appeals has come to seem to many people like an attack.


As with any attack, people tend to defend – to protect themselves from what they see as having to deal with sorrow. Dubovskov’s words put me in mind of the reaction of a friend of mine some time ago to the news that a couple she knew were going through a tragedy. Their daughter had been diagnosed with cancer. Her condition was rapidly getting worse and the outlook was bleak. The girl soon died.


My friend admitted that on first hearing of the situation she had abruptly cut off contact with the family.


“I was in no position to help, and I couldn’t face either the girl, who was just vanishing, or talking to her parents,” she said, trying to explain.


At the Economic Forum, Russians’ limp response to charitable appeals was also taken up by Maria Chertok, director of the Russian office of the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF). She said the organization’s 2013 World Giving Index showed that a mere 6 percent of Russians donated money to a charitable cause – even in a way as simple as giving a bit of change to street beggars.


In the overall Giving Index ranking, which takes into account other charitable behavior like volunteering or helping a stranger, Russia is way down the league table – 123rd of 153 listed countries. At least that’s an improvement from 2010, when Russia came in 138th.


The reason for this apathy could be that most Russians tend to see charity as the province of the rich. And people in Russia have a very low opinion of the rich.


“In Russia, they don’t like the rich and they despise the very rich,” Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, said at the forum. His sentiment was echoed by other speakers. A prevailing view in Russian society is that almost all of the country’s nouveau riches got that way through lawlessness and corruption.


Sitting next to me at the forum was a St. Petersburg entrepreneur, Viktoria Shamlikashvili, who owns a travel agency and a boutique hotel in the city. For more than a decade she has sponsored a multitude of initiatives and projects, from cultural events to support programs for disabled people.


“Part of the problem is a tangible lack of trust between the donors and the recipients,” Shamlikashvili said. “The truth is that some of Russia’s richest people have shown enough arrogance and public contempt for the law to create a prejudiced attitude among the poorer parts of the population. They’ve come to think that all the country’s big businesses were created by robbing the rest of society.” Many Russians consider it only fair that the wealthy – not themselves – be the ones to hand out what they’ve got, she said.


Several prominent Russian businessmen have set positive examples, not only by regularly running charitable projects but by signing the so-called Giving Pledge promulgated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, by which billionaires promise to donate at least half their wealth to charity. Among the Russian signers is Vladimir Potanin, chief executive of OAO GMK Norilsk Nickel, a giant metals and mining company.


“I made a decision not to leave all my fortune to [my] children but to distribute most of it to charitable projects,” Potanin wrote in a statement posted on his charitable foundation’s website.


“I will provide my children with enough money to cover the costs of a good education, quality health care, and their basic needs,” he stated. “But I would like to protect them from the responsibility tied up with owning large amounts of capital and to give them an opportunity to build their own lives and careers independently.”


While financial contributions to charity remain low, many Russians are happy to volunteer. Almost 20 percent do so, according to the CAF’s World Giving Index. That figure, not far short of the European average, increased in the last couple of years as the Kremlin campaigned to recruit volunteers for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.


In heavily promoted television interviews, Sochi volunteers spoke of their fascination with the games and about belonging to something big and meaningful, designed to create respect for Russia and restore its glory. 


Those chosen had to weather a tough selection process. And the Kremlin was certainly successful in sparking people’s interest in that kind of volunteer work. But there is little indication that ordinary Russians’ willingness to do something for nothing extends to more humdrum tasks, like keeping vital but underfunded health and social services running.


No volunteers are lining up to work in retirement homes or hospitals. And blood donations remain a chronic problem in Russia, with clinics across the country often reporting shortages.


This means that charity Russian style is somewhat selective. After the blanket coverage of volunteers at Sochi, perhaps the TV stations could devote similar broadcast time to those few people who do step up to keep obscure hospitals going, or who regularly give blood to cash-starved provincial hospitals and clinics.


Several large Russian companies – mobile providers MTS and MegaFon, for example, and metallurgy firm Severstal – are creating systematic solutions for their staff, their corporate partners, and even their customers to get involved in charity.


However, the Russian government has so far failed to do anything to make it easier for potential donors – regardless of their social status – to offer support to the needy: no tax incentives, no dismantling of ridiculous bureaucratic and legal obstacles. Nothing.


Further, it’s not just generosity and compassion that move people to give, but also the belief that their donations will make a difference. Russia’s 123rd place in the World Giving Index likely reflects ordinary people’s view that they cannot change anything or do any good. 


The majority appear to feel that charity goes back to the days of the aristocracy and the privileged status of the tsars. If the Russian people had more faith in democracy and people power, if they could escape from the “tsar-and-peasant” mentality, the habit of giving would probably come more naturally. 

Galina Stolyarova
is a writer for the St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper.
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