Coronavirus shortages give Russia’s charity sector a new spark

Why We Wrote This

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred creation of many charitable organizations in Russia, a country where the charity sector is nascent – and still learning to coexist with the prickly government.

Courtesy of Zinaida Korneva
Zinaida Korneva, a decorated World War II veteran turned COVID-19 relief fundraiser, sits with her great-grandson in her dacha outside St. Petersburg, Russia. Ms. Korneva decided to raise money for medical workers by telling her tales of the war on YouTube.

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Russia’s charitable sector is relatively new, but the coronavirus pandemic has supercharged it in what observers hope may be a lasting way. Hundreds of private initiatives to aid in the fight against COVID-19 have sprung up in the past couple of months, ranging from filling holes in the existing public health system to just helping ease the plight of vulnerable people trapped in quarantine.

This has caused tensions to arise between the new charity sector, whose assistance is genuinely welcomed by the public, and authorities who can become irate at activities that highlight the deficiencies of state services. “The government doesn’t mind established charity groups stepping in to help,” says Masha Lipman, editor of a Russian affairs journal. “They do mind what they see as alarmist and critical comments that emphasize how bad things are.”

Experts say the government is now learning to welcome charities, and it might well leave permanent changes in Russia’s social landscape after the crisis has passed.

“I hope the world will become a different place after this,” says World War II veteran Zinaida Korneva, who has been fundraising for medical workers’ families in St. Petersburg. “I want countries to realize that working together to solve problems is the only way.”

Nearly 80 years ago, Zinaida Korneva marched 1,400 miles from Stalingrad to Berlin as an anti-aircraft gunner in the Soviet Army, fighting all the way.

Today, almost a centenarian, she is one of the few remaining combat veterans of World War II – and feels called to arms again.

Ms. Korneva’s daughter and granddaughter, both doctors in St. Petersburg, informed her about the immense challenges they were facing in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. That included exhausting hours, shortages of critical equipment and protective gear, and the constant danger of getting infected themselves.

So, with help from the youthful portion of her extended family, Ms. Korneva set up a YouTube channel and began offering her reminiscences of the war in order to raise money to help the families of about 10 local medical workers, whom she describes as “being on the front line this time.” She says a British friend, World War II veteran Capt. Tom Moore, inspired her by raising almost $40 million for Britain’s National Health Service by walking laps in his backyard.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Her YouTube channel has since garnered about 14,000 subscribers, while over 4 million rubles [about $60,000] has poured into her donation page. That’s enough to help more than 100 families, by her estimates.

“We are all in this together, just as we were during the war,” she says. “Back then we could see our enemy, and knew how to deal with him. Now it’s an invisible enemy, and there is no vaccine. Scientists all over the world are racing to find it, while our doctors fight to preserve lives. What each of us must do is find ways to help them, to stop people from dying.”

Ms. Korneva is not alone among Russians in taking the coronavirus pandemic as a clarion call. Hundreds of private initiatives have sprung up in the past couple of months, some of them quite innovative. They range from filling holes in the existing public health system, to circumventing bureaucratic bottlenecks, to just helping ease the plight of vulnerable people trapped in quarantine. Many existing charities quickly repurposed their activities to help beleaguered state medical services speed and improve their response to the crisis.

“This aspect of social life in Russia, the charitable sector, is relatively new and generally overlooked,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, a journal of Russian affairs published by George Washington University. “When this disaster struck, it caught Russia unprepared, as it did most countries, and it created many new challenges that private initiatives stepped in to meet.”

Making a difference

One of those was the Zhivoy (Living) Foundation, which normally helps hospitals and patients with severe medical problems with logistical and other forms of assistance. The group’s director, Viktoria Agadzhanova, says that when the pandemic struck many hospitals began to adjust to treat COVID-19, suspending their other regular operations.

“We realized that in order to resume our usual work we needed first to help defeat this pandemic threat,” she says.

One of the biggest problems in the early stages, she says, was that doctors and hospitals were unable to directly order supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other critical gear. They were required to submit a request to the Department of Health, which would stage a tender, and eventually purchase and deliver the supplies. It wasn’t until April 17 that the State Duma adopted a law on simplifying the procurement process.

“The delays meant that lots of doctors and medical workers were in danger of getting infected,” Ms. Agadzhanova says. “Hospital managers were left to either pretend there was no problem, or risk their jobs by publicly calling for help.”

Groups like the Zhivoy Foundation, and the private citizens’ rescue service Sozidaniye (Creation), slashed through the red tape by locating supplies of PPE sitting in warehouses or shops, buying it, and delivering it straight to the hospitals that needed it.

“The authorities neither helped us nor hampered us,” says Yelena Smirnova, head of Sozidaniye. “But we had dozens of requests from medical workers, and we knew what we had to do.”

One organization that did briefly get into trouble with authorities in early April was the Doctors’ Alliance, a medical workers’ group associated with opposition leader Alexei Navalny. While delivering PPE to a remote hospital in western Russia, the group’s leader Anastasia Vasilyeva was detained by police and reportedly abused for allegedly disobeying a local ordinance. She was released the next day. The case made global headlines, and may have persuaded Russian authorities to change their approach.

“We were accused of spreading fake information, of using charity for political PR purposes, of staging provocations and what not,” says Ivan Konovalov, press spokesman for the Doctors’ Alliance. “But with the passing of time the authorities have realized that this is not the best way to struggle against us. We haven’t had these difficulties since then. The authorities themselves realized that problems do exist, especially after Putin recognized this fact in one of his addresses.”

Finding an understanding with government

The case underlined the tensions that exist between the new charity sector, whose assistance is genuinely welcomed by the public, and authorities who can become irate at activities that highlight the deficiencies of state services.

“The government doesn’t mind established charity groups stepping in to help,” says Ms. Lipman. “They do mind what they see as alarmist and critical comments that emphasize how bad things are. Ideally, I think the authorities would prefer that charities act, but do so quietly.”

Russia’s government has actually promoted the creation of an official volunteer movement, #MyVmeste (Us Together), which organizes companies and individuals to help out with things like coronavirus hotlines, free legal consultations, and facilities for remote work and distance learning. One of its most successful services has been to organize armies of mostly youthful volunteers to assist elderly people in self-isolation by buying and delivering groceries and medicines, and helping out with other necessary chores.

Angelina Fitoz, a prominent Moscow lawyer, is offering her services pro bono to doctors who can’t keep up with payments when they get sick, or are having trouble receiving promised hazard bonuses and overtime pay. “I just want to help doctors, one professional to another, and not make a big deal out of it,” she says.

Aliona Doletskaya, former editor of Vogue-Russia and a prolific author and TV personality, is one of many Russian celebrities who’ve come up with their own ways to help. She has put aside and sold 500 signed and boxed copies of her latest book, and raised about $35,000. “I am the daughter of two doctors. They raised me, and I learned to see the world through their eyes,” she says. “I know everyone is suffering in this crisis, but doctors have special concerns.”

Experts say there are innumerable individual and group initiatives like this springing up around the country, the government is learning to welcome them, and it might well leave permanent changes in Russia’s social landscape after the crisis has passed. And maybe some of those changes will be universal.

“I hope the world will become a different place after this,” says Ms. Korneva. “I want countries to realize that working together to solve problems is the only way. I hope no one ever thinks about war again.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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