Advertisement

Changing Lifestyles : Putting the Squeeze on Russian Charities : The former Soviet system once provided for all. Now kickbacks to officials have made philanthropy a thing of faith, hope and bribery.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You know a town is tough when even the soup kitchens get shaken down for bribes.

Alexander I. Ogorodnikov, a dissident in Soviet days and now head of one of Russia’s few charitable organizations, complains that money-hungry bureaucrats continuously harass his soup kitchen because he refuses to pay them off.

Under the guise of “unsanitary conditions,” authorities have permanently shut down four of Ogorodnikov’s five kitchens and temporarily closed the remaining one several times. Ogorodnikov insists cleanliness wasn’t the problem; it was his refusal to offer bribes.

“They have no interest in our charity,” said Ogorodnikov, whose soup kitchen feeds 400 of Russia’s new poor each day. “Bureaucrats see our premises as a possibility to make big money.”

Advertisement

Soviet communism and its all-encompassing social system that once provided for all, albeit stingily, is gone. And in its place have come officials of the new government with hands out.

Ogorodnikov dreamed of starting a charity during nearly nine years he spent in Soviet prisons, where he landed because of his involvement in the Russian Orthodox religious revival of the 1970s. During former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s perestroika , Ogorodnikov founded the Christian Mercy Society, which now tries to pick up where the state welfare system falls short.

But while government help for the needy here has greatly lessened, the old laws haven’t changed to support charitable work, and the emerging profit-taking economy doesn’t understand charities’ role. Goodwill groups often find themselves cornered, given no breaks by government and misunderstood by new capitalists--even as the number of people to feed and clothe rises.

Ogorodnikov’s early clues to future social needs came from his work in 1991 when refugees came to Moscow from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the territorial fight between Azerbaijan and Armenia. “We saw the signs of the coming hunger,” he said, and with advice from Western organizations, he decided to open the first free soup kitchen in the former Soviet Union.

Advertisement

It took seven months to find a suitable location and one month to complete repairs before the first soup kitchen opened in 1991. A second Moscow kitchen followed. In a double whammy, both were closed by Russian officials at the end of 1992.

The second kitchen never reopened, and neither did three provincial soup kitchens that Ogorodnikov opened and authorities closed in the last four years.

But the original soup kitchen was closed, reopened and hassled continuously. First there were accusations that the rent was not paid, although a foreign charitable organization had agreed to pick up the tab, Ogorodnikov said. Then the electricity was turned off for a few days, ruining all the produce. Firefighters came in to look for fire hazards. And of course, the health department sent the ubiquitous sanitary inspection teams.

“Local authorities know they cannot close us by direct action. They use another tool, the sanitary commission,” said Ogorodnikov. “Because they want bribery--that we give them some gift, that we give part of our premises for some kind of commercial work, or that we sell part of our charitable food and share our money with them.”

Advertisement

Unwilling to offer a bribe when bureaucrats decided to shut down the kitchen Nov. 17 (less than a month after it had passed inspection), Ogorodnikov instead sought help. He called in the press, contacted friends in the West and organized a 200-person demonstration outside the Russian Parliament.

Ogorodnikov was not just fighting a few local administrators, who are fast learning to take cuts from new businesses and don’t care to distinguish a profit-turning pursuit from a charity. He was facing a decades-old system of laws and attitudes that combine to cripple charitable organizations in Russia.

Since the beginning of this year, nonprofit organizations can legally register under the new Russian civil code, but the law still does not clearly define nonprofit organizations, nor does it differentiate among charities, research institutions and artistic endeavors. Charities can be taxed, and Russian donors do not receive tax deductions for their contributions. Bills addressing these problems are circulating in Parliament, but a coherent law is not anticipated soon.

Furthermore, Russia’s nascent court system lacks a trail of legal interpretations to reassure nonprofit organizers that rights defined generally in law will be later honored, said Alexei Korotayev, who has helped found and direct Memorial and Compassion, two groups that support victims of Soviet labor camps.

Advertisement

The Russian tax police also have a vested interest in delaying the adoption of a solid charity law, said Leonid Rozhetskin, a Moscow lawyer and organizer of a nonprofit telecommunications outfit.

“They simply don’t have the sophistication, the knowledge or the enforcement capability to draft regulations that would allow a tax break that wouldn’t become a loophole for everyone,” Rozhetskin said.

While tax breaks remain a dream, high rent is a harsh reality that Ogorodnikov calls “another tool” authorities use to keep his soup kitchen struggling. Current rent for the cafeteria and kitchen, on the first floor of a government-owned residential building, is 42 million rubles a year (about $11,000). By comparison, the average Russian pension in late 1994 was about $23 a month.

“We are feeding the very people they (the government) should be dealing with,” said Daniel Ogan, an American who came to Moscow last year to work with Ogorodnikov. “But we’re paying the same amount of rent for this building as if we were a bank.”

Advertisement

Korotayev, Compassion’s director, says everything involving nonprofit groups depends on whom you know. Connections determine what activities you can accomplish, what money you can accept from abroad, what duty taxes might be avoided.

“It depends on personal contacts,” Korotayev said. “It depends on the discretion of those people.”

He is especially frustrated by the lack of both legal definition and common recognition of charity groups. The group Compassion currently works out of a privately rented apartment, but needs to move. Korotayev knows he cannot afford commercial rents and recently wrote to a Moscow City Council representative to ask for a room with a telephone in a government-subsidized building.

“I have no law that I can explain myself by,” he said. “I just have to say we do this and this and please help us.”

Advertisement

Ordinary citizens, although usually generous in helping close friends and relatives in need, tend not to trust private charities. In pre-revolutionary Russia, the nobility largely followed royalty’s lead in establishing orphanages and hospitals for the needy. During World War I, some leaders of charitable organizations established to help the troops were so visible and valued that they wielded political power just after the fall of the czar.

But during the Soviet years, people learned not to trust or help strangers.

“Charity is weak now because that’s the social psychology of a society that’s become deeply fragmented,” said Mark Steinburg, associate professor of Russian history at Yale.

To fight such ingrained attitudes, Ogorodnikov chose the tactics he learned as a dissident. In response to his December publicity campaign, at least one member of Congress wrote letters to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov on Ogorodnikov’s behalf, as did a member of Britain’s Parliament.

Advertisement

A story about the soup kitchen’s plight in a Tennessee paper inspired Dwight Marable of Missions International, an old supporter of Ogorodnikov, to get back in touch and offer $16,000 to help the kitchen.

Ogorodnikov isn’t sure how directly the guarantee of rent influenced the sanitary commission’s decision on Jan. 13 to allow the kitchen to reopen, but he said all he had to do was paint the basement, which is used for storing food, and exclude volunteers from work in the kitchen.

Customers began trickling back into the narrow, dim cafeteria earlier this month as news spread that it had reopened, though the kitchen still is not feeding its previous 400 people a day.

A handwritten sign in the window identifies the cafeteria as a Christian refectory. “Free Lunchroom,” it announces underneath.

Advertisement

Alexander Ivanov, 45, said he heard about the kitchen from an acquaintance. He traveled about 15 minutes on the subway from a railway station, where he has lived since being released from prison two years ago, Ivanov said. “They feed us at the railway station, but only soup,” he said. “Here, there’s soup and rice.”


Advertisement
Advertisement