Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.
Since the turn of the century, philanthropic giving by Russia’s rich has seen extraordinary growth. That generosity is deeply rooted in history and culture, as well as constrained by ideology and politics.
In the early 2000s, there were several reasons for Russia's new wealthy to take up philanthropy. The economy had recovered from the 1998 economic downturn and the recently-begun oil boom had increased personal fortunes. As those who had prevailed during the country’s era of cutthroat capitalism in the 1990s began to think about consolidating their social status, many of those who had enriched themselves during the ensuing oil boom followed suit. The new rich came to understand that conspicuous consumption would only solidify their reputation for being ruthless and selfish, and that if they wanted to be seen as legitimate, they would have to demonstrate a degree of compassion and care for their less fortunate fellow citizens.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin encouraged this giving and channeled it into areas the Kremlin deemed most urgent — primarily state-run bodies that had been neglected for years. Many of those who initially were less than excited about engaging in philanthropy swiftly identified their philanthropic passions to avoid being assigned a disagreeable project by the authorities. As a result, cynics regard elite Russian philanthropy as both a "social tax" and a necessary pay-off to remain in Putin's good graces. But wealthy Russians' philanthropic motivations are far more complex.
Supporting the trustworthy and innocent…
In contrast to taxes, philanthropy provides the rich with some freedom of choice. In theory, it allows them to express their individualism. In reality, however, it means that everybody does the same: the vast majority of wealthy Russian donors opt to support children.
This is not simply because helping children is always and universally popular. Many times in Russia's past, distrust of institutions grew so strong that it pervaded every corner of life — usually as a result of the regime employing harsh methods to control and discipline its people. In this context, the innocence ascribed to children makes them both "trustworthy" and suitable objects of compassion. During the research for my recently published book, I asked a Russian oil businessman whether he was prepared to help less popular groups such as migrants, homeless people, drug addicts, ex-convicts, or the long-term unemployed. "I never say no when people ask me for help," he replied. Then he paused: "Should I help drug addicts, you mean? No, no, no, no way. I wouldn't give anything to them, nor to a medical center that deals with them. Never! To people who look after prisoners, maybe, but not through an organization. Well, the organization could send me a list, and I'd say, 'This prisoner, yes, this one. no.'"
…but only the "normal and healthy"
While supporting children is seen as an investment in the country's future, there are limits to that support. Anatoly, an art dealer in his mid-60s, put it bluntly: "It's necessary to help healthy and normal children. I've got a strictly biological outlook. One needs to help the very best." As Alexander Svetakov, a billionaire property developer explained to me: "Our society likes the strong and healthy. It doesn't like the weak and infirm." Many of the children in the school he set up are physically disabled or the children of alcoholics. "It's not something many are comfortable with," Svetakov added. When I asked whether he thought he had become an example to others, he laughed. "No, I haven't won any admirers." He then told me a story that illustrates this attitude. "Just before the opening of the school two years ago, an important politician came up to me and said, 'Why do you need that? Let's do a school for gifted children. We can have a quota of 5 percent disabled ones, and you can show those off. But why on earth a whole school for disabled children?'"
Survival of the fittest
Social-Darwinist reasoning, popular around the world in the early twentieth century, remained alive and well in the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Even in the 1960s and 1970s — at a time when, in the West, critical thought, especially feminist thinking, was challenging outmoded biological explanations of how the world is constructed and society works — Soviet intellectuals and scholars, in particular dissident thinkers, upheld conservative views. This was reinforced by the weakness of the feminist movement and the underdevelopment of the social sciences.
The survival-of-the-fittest mindset was given a further boost after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Most of those who subsequently became rich believed that they had triumphed in the dog-eat-dog world of the 1990s because they were the strongest, smartest, and most daring. A similar attitude prevailed among those who got rich during the oil boom of the 2000s, many of whom attributed their success to their entrepreneurial spirit, innovative thinking, and superior work ethic.
Fortunately, a dismissive attitude toward the most vulnerable members of society is not universal, as Svetakov's case shows. Historically, too, there is fertile soil in Russia for alternative ideas to grow and develop; after all, almsgiving is a core tradition in Russian Orthodoxy, and by definition is directed to those most in need of help, irrespective of whether they are responsible for their misery or not. One can only hope that as the wealthy in Russia continue to consolidate their social status, the desire to help the vulnerable and those in need will grow stronger.
Elisabeth Schimpfössl (@ElisabethSchimpf) is a lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University In Birmingham, England.