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Saturday, February 1, 1992

Philanthropy in a Cold Climate

Peter Frumkin is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Chicago where his research focuses on philanthropy and voluntarism.

Soviet Communists have long maintained that the needs of the people can be met only through the state. Now, however, this tenet has weakened, and a new breed of charitable organization is blossoming in cities across the Soviet Union.

American grant-makers have been heartened by the development of Soviet philanthropy. Foundation News, the magazine for American foundation professionals, trumpeted on its cover the optimistic headline, “Glasnost’s Biggest Surprise: A Charitable Sector Is Born in Russia.” Over the past two years, several groups of American grant-makers have organized tours of the Soviet Union.

Part of the reason that so much interest is being expressed in Soviet foundations stems from the fact that private philanthropy can be a powerful force for social change, one that—in the United States, at least—often differs radically in approach from government. In fact, philanthropy’s private, non-governmental character is considered one of its greatest virtues. By standing outside the public sector, private philanthropy is free from the pressures of public opinion and can engage in experimental and controversial projects that government would never be able to undertake for legal or political reasons.

Because it is free to innovate, American philanthropy has brought competition to civic life. Leading by example, private philanthropy has taught government a lesson or two about what works and what doesn’t in the area of social policy. Often, innovative private programs have proven more effective than similar programs run by government. And in many cases, the competition between public and private spheres has led to the wholesale re-evaluation of public policy.

Does Soviet philanthropy fulfill a similar role? Do Soviet grant-makers fund innovative programs? Are the new foundations really independent from government? To answer these questions, let’s examine some of the major new players in Soviet philanthropy.

Philanthropy, Soviet Style

The cutting edge of Soviet-style philanthropy can be found on a shady street in Moscow’s historic Arbat district. In offices paid for by Armand Hammer, stylish furniture from Stockholm and Apple computers from California abound. These plush surroundings are the headquarters of the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity, one of the most prominent of the new Soviet independent organizations.

What does the International Foundation aim to accomplish? Its lofty goals center on “the promotion of scientific, international projects and public activities aimed at joint efforts to enter the Twenty-first Century without the danger of nuclear war, in an atmosphere of mutual trust and understanding, and with a concern for the preservation of the environment and for the enhancement of the human condition.” The foundation has an impressive international board of directors, including the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame; Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense; and Jerome Wiesner, president emeritus of MIT In many respects, however, the real moving force is board member Yevgeni Velikhov, vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who enjoys Mikhail Gorbachev’s enthusiastic support.

After many delays, the International Foundation has begun to dispense funds. Among its earliest grants was 15,000 rubles to support the compilation and publication of a collection of essays from world literature on the subject of nonviolence. Other grants include a 100,000-ruble gift to fund joint American and Soviet studies of global climate change, and a 34,000-ruble contribution to permit the study of “topical problems in humanitarian ethics.”

With its cooperative and global vision, the International Foundation is unable to spend its money studying domestic issues, such as the Soviet penal system or Soviet religious life. When board member Andrei Sakharov suggested that such domestic concerns should be included in the foundation’s agenda, his idea was rejected by the other board members.

Like most new organizations in the Soviet Union, the international Foundation operates without an endowment. The foundation raises money in both rubles and hard currency and gives it away without seeking to build up a large reserve fund. This mode of operation is dictated partly because Soviet banks pay very low interest rates and partly because the funds trickle in little by little rather than arriving in the form of one large donation.

Yet there are exceptions: The Foundation for Social inventions has 8 million rubles in the bank. Founded by Gennady Alfrenko, a special correspondent of Komsomolskaya Pravda, the foundation operates as an incubator and funder of ideas that have social implications. Alfrenko solicits ideas and donations in his Pravda column and then makes grants to those applicants whose projects have the greatest potential.

Alfrenko receives over 100 letters a day from his readers, yet he operates the foundation alone, Projects for which funds have been solicited by Alfrenko include the Samantha Project, named in memory of the famed child diplomat Samantha Smith who sought to promote East-West dialogue. The plea that ran in Pravda read in part:

Death did not stop Samantha’s heart, it beats in the breasts of millions of her contemporaries. For them, Samantha is still alive—they have not acknowledged her death. They carry on Samantha’s cause, the struggle for the continued existence of this planet. They preserve Samantha’s truth: War will never originate in the land of the Soviets.

The Samantha Project should join together our youthful fighters for peace, child internationalists. The Project’s tasks are to acquaint foreign children with life in our country, with our country’s love of peace. Our children will become guides for our guests. To do this they must have a profound knowledge of our people and of our history. By studying these, our Soviet children will have an intensified patriotic, inter national education. Each contribution to the Project’s bank account must be accompanied by a description of how the money was earned.

Not all of the new Soviet philanthropies are so unabashedly politicized. For those in the Soviet Union who have a taste for the arts, there is the new Soviet Cultural Foundation. Its primary mission is to protect and restore architectural monuments within the Soviet Union. It also tries to bring back to the motherland important Soviet works of art located abroad. The foundation thus seeks to act as a kind of national trust for historic preservation.

The Soviet-American Foundation Cultural Initiative has an agenda that is as vague as it is ambitious. Founded by the Hungarian-born millionaire George Soros with a $3 million grant, the Cultural initiative has set as its goal the promotion of culture, construed broadly to include not only art and literature, but also the sciences, education, and medicine. The Cultural Initiative is a grant-making body that has dollars as well as rubles to dispense. Like its American counterparts, the foundation has a board of directors that reviews grant proposals and allocates funds.

Because it was founded by a foreign financier, the foundation has strict standards for accountability and openness. And yet the very fact that a foreigner is involved in philanthropy within the Soviet Union has raised some eyebrows. Soros has tried to make clear his motives for getting involved in philanthropy in the USSR: “I wanted to be personally involved in promoting openness and independence in Soviet culture. Being a businessman, I have a realistic view of things and i know that in the Soviet Union every dollar matters, so I can use my money more effectively here than in the U.S. where everything is much more expensive.”

While Soros’ concern about independence and openness is healthy, it extends only to the hard currency side of the Cultural Initiative. For while Soros donated several million dollars, the foundation also received a sizable contribution in rubles from the Soviet Peace Fund, a public organization set up in 1961, that in 1987 received 273 million rubles in “donations” from Soviet worker collectives and individual citizens.

Even if these organizations are less than fully independent of the Soviet government, it is important to remember that Soros, Velikhov of the international Foundation, Alfrenko of the Foundation for Social Inventions, as well as many others involved in Soviet philanthropy, are pioneers of sorts. After all, the Communists until recently dismissed charity as a form of bourgeois trickery designed to get the proletariat to postpone class struggle and revolution.

Then and Now

New Soviet scholarship on philanthropy clearly documents the changing perception of charity. Vitali Tretyakov, deputy editor of Moscow News, is the author of a monograph on the topic, Philanthropy in Soviet Society, published in 1990 by Novosti. To demonstrate how far the Soviet Union has come, Tretyakov describes how the definitions of the words “philanthropy” and “charity” have changed over the years. In the Concise Dictionary of Foreign Words, published in 1950, philanthropy is defined as follows:

PHILANTHROPY. Charity; a means the bourgeoisie uses to deceive workers and disguise parasitism and its exploiter’s face by rendering hypocritical, humiliating aid to the poor in order to distract the latter from class struggle.

The 5th volume of the second edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, also published in 1950, defines charity in similar terms:

CHARITY. Aid hypocritically rendered by representatives of the ruling class in an exploiter society to a part of the poor population in order to deceive the workers and divert them from class struggle.

Tretyakov notes that the contempt of earlier generations is no longer to be found by 1987 in Sergei Ozhegov’s Dictionary of the Russian Language:

PHILANTHROPY. Bourgeois charity, aid to and protection of the poor.

CHARITY. In bourgeois society: generosity of private individuals in giving to the needy.

While philanthropy and charity are still defined as phenomena found only in a class society, Tretyakov believes that the progress in Soviet attitudes toward charity is important. And, in some respects, he is right. Attitudes are changing—now all that is needed are concrete actions.

The most crucial task is to draw clear lines between the public and private spheres. Many of the most important Soviet foundations that purport to be independent, non-governmental organizations are in fact connected in one way or another tO the government: Some have public officials on their boards, others operate with funds that come directly or indirectly from the state.

All the while, the number of smaller, less well-funded independent charitable groups within the Soviet Union continues to rise. Since many, if not all, of these organizations are trying to raise money from Soviet citizens, it is almost certain that a fund-raising industry will soon develop in the USSR. And while such a development may lead in the short run to an increase in charitable giving in the Soviet Union, it also will bode well in the long run for the cause of freedom. For once Soviet citizens realize that their savings can be put to useful private purposes, effective alternatives to government programs may become more clear.

What can be done to promote the development of philanthropies in the USSR that are truly independent from government? Most important, American policy-makers, foundation directors, and educators-to whom leaders in the Soviet charity movement look for advice and guidance—must hold the new Soviet foundations to a rigorous standard when it comes to their autonomy. The new Soviet foundations must distance themselves from the state while defining for themselves a mission in Soviet society that justifies the term “independent sector.”

If such steps are taken, the Soviet Union might eventually become hospitable to those habits of the heart that are so intimately connected to individual freedom. For the moment, however, an authentic independent philanthropic sector is only a distant aspiration for the Soviet people.