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Philanthropy a Lost Art in the New Russia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Igor Donenko wants to prove that the new Russia has a soul. From a cramped basement on the northeast edge of Moscow, he is struggling to revive the forgotten impulse of philanthropy.

A slight, intense, soft-spoken psychiatrist who wears jeans to work, Donenko rescues schizophrenic and manic-depressive patients from the poverty and prison-like regimes of state mental hospitals. He treats them with medication and a kinder therapy adapted from the West.

A dozen or more patients each day crowd his four-room basement to learn clerical skills, study English, socialize, exercise and cook lunch in a clubhouse atmosphere. About 200 have undergone treatment; nearly all function better, he says, and 30 have found jobs.

To finance this treatment, the 37-year-old doctor set up one of Russia’s first post-Soviet charities, Human Soul Foundation, and appeals tirelessly to the conscience of the country’s new rich.

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“You make money, and we help people,” he tells them. “Let’s be partners.”

It’s a hard sell. After a promising start, Human Soul and other private charities are hearing nyet more often from would-be donors, who face growing pressures and uncertainties in Russia’s wild free market.

Philanthropy was prestigious here a century ago, when noblemen and wealthy merchants built hospitals and orphanages under the czar. Then the Communists erased the notion of noblesse oblige along with the nobility itself. Now the Communist substitute is gone; the state no longer takes care of everyone. Donenko is trying to help fill the void.

He’s not alone. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse more than five years ago, more than 4,000 private charities have sprung up across Russia to help the growing ranks of defenseless poor and disabled. With start-up aid and advice from the West, the groups learned fund-raising techniques--from charity balls to direct mail--while winning legal status and tax exemptions from Russia’s parliament.

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By 1995, Donenko had 65 corporate contributors in Russia--enough, he hoped, to sustain and expand Human Soul after its two-year $400,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development ran out last fall.

Then the bubble burst. Donenko is down to four contributors, $8,000 in debt and facing cutbacks in his program.

What went wrong? Several things, according to Donenko and other charity organizers experiencing the same withdrawal.

For one, the Moscow mayor’s office began strong-arming businesses to donate to official “charity” schemes, which have more to do with building monuments and restoring a giant cathedral than helping the needy.

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Also, entrepreneurs never made a habit of charity. According to surveys, most have donated at least once; but, unsure of Russia’s political future, they avoid long-term commitments. After taking their initial donors for granted, “charities are realizing that raising money is full-time work,” said Paul Legendre of Moscow’s Charities Aid Foundation.

Finally, tax agents became more efficient at collecting ruinously high taxes, and racketeers became more ruthless in extorting protection money. As a matter of self-preservation, Russia’s new rich lost the incentive to seek public recognition for doing good.

“It’s not the best idea right now to call attention to your profits,” said a Moscow industrialist. “If I want to help, I’ll help my family, my friends, my circle. Quietly. I won’t get involved in charity.”

Human Soul itself has been burglarized, robbed of its phones, shaken down by the neighborhood godfather and offered police protection--for a price. Like its former donors, the charity has adopted a low profile; it no longer displays a nameplate on the door.

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Donenko, ever the idealist, is undaunted. The foundation will try to limp along on modest grants from abroad, he said, and keep searching for donors at home.

“The motivation to do good is alive in some Russians, and there are others who need to be helped,” he said. “The question is how to connect them. When the situation is more stable, people’s logic will change, and our work will be easier.”


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