Wealth and philanthropy in Russia

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.

By Elisabeth Schimpfössl, Philanthropy News Digest

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.'”

Read the full story at Philanthropy News Digest.
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