Yes, I have no compassion

Humanitarian leader Shri Shri Ravi Shankar believes that Russian business can be honest and socially responsible  Source:Vostock Photo

Humanitarian leader Shri Shri Ravi Shankar believes that Russian business can be honest and socially responsible Source:Vostock Photo

If you believe the ratings, there is no honest business in Russia, no freedom of the press, and no happiness in one’s personal life. Nor can there be any. (Fortunately, most Russians don’t realize this.)

This year, for the first time, the international organization Charities Aid Foundation compiled a worldwide charity rating. As expected, Russia ranked 138 out of the 153 countries listed. What awful people those Russians are. Here’s proof.

Three times a week, and sometimes more, Anna Milovidova loads up her car with toys, blankets, children’s clothes and books and drives 200 kilometers out of Moscow. For more than seven years Anna has been helping some 40 orphanages outside the capital. She’s an ordinary housewife. But at some point she became bored with being just the wife of a comfortably off husband. She called an orphanage and asked what she could do to help. Today she can no longer imagine her life without these weekly trips. Her husband is used to them and goes with her when he has time. Her daughter is a little jealous: “You love those children more than me.”

Moscow surgeon German Pyatov decided to give himself an unusual present one New Year’s: he decided to collect toys for children in an orphanage. He imagined that he would do this once. But ten years later German is still driving every weekend with his helpers to one of the 78 orphanages supported by Murziki, an association he founded. It became clear to this group fairly soon that material aid was not enough. They began setting up computer classes and carpentry studios for the orphans in an effort to help prepare them for life as independent adults. Most recently, German helped facilitate the enrollment of an especially gifted boy from an orphanage in Smolensk in a Moscow college. The boy’s school transcripts were late and he wasn’t able to matriculate with everyone else. To overcome the bureaucratic hurdles, German met personally with top officials from the Moscow Department of Education. When that didn’t help, he wrote a letter to President Medvedev. Many parents would not have been so persistent, and here a virtual stranger was doing everything in his power.

Examples such as these are plentiful. Take Lev Ambinder, head of the Russian Aid Fund. This organization was one of the first in Russia to begin collecting private donations to help specific people in need. Or actress Chulpan Khamatova, who created an aid foundation for children called Give Life. Or Elizaveta Glinka (popularly known as Doctor Liza), who opened hospices for cancer patients. Or Elena Alshanskaya, who created a network of volunteers to help newborns rejected by their parents while still in the maternity ward.

These are a few of the people in the public eye. The papers write about them, they have serious organizations behind them and big budgets. They are the current face of Russian charity. Imagine how many other people there are whom one has never heard of and who simply help one another.

My neighbor Nina has three children, and like all children they are growing fast. Every so often Nina gathers up her children’s old clothes and delivers them to a family she knows from Central Asia. That family also has many children, but little money. Another neighbor of mine, before going to the store, always knocks on the door of an elderly woman on the first floor and asks what to buy her. Or here’s a typical Moscow scene: a woman with small children, or a grandmother, begging by the Metro. The Russian press often reports that many of these beggars have long since become millionaires. And that’s easy to believe when you see how our far-from-rich citizens fill those outstretched hands with change.

I’m sure that if you asked these people whether they engaged in charity they would just shrug their shoulders in bewilderment. From the point of view of the ordinary Russian, charity is something from the life of Western high society, where beautiful women in their spare time collect millions in donations at sumptuous balls. What is known as “charity” in the West is often perceived in Russia simply as mutual assistance, support — that is, nothing out of the ordinary. Meanwhile Russia has seen a genuine boom in charity in the last ten or fifteen years. Many of these post-Soviet foundations collect from $5 million to $8 million annually —sums that are unheard of in Eastern Europe. Before the financial crisis Russian charity officially totaled $1.5 billion a year.

True, there is one substantial difference between Russian charity and the Western variety. Russian aid is always specific. Russians tend to give money not to an abstract charity organization (in which they have little faith as yet), but to a particular person. For instance, the popular actress already mentioned, Chulpan Khamatova, whom they know for a fact will not pocket the money but will distribute it to sick children. That’s why in Russia it’s easy to raise money for a specific need. An operation for a child with heart problems. Or for those who lost everything in this summer’s wildfires. Within a matter of days, tens of millions of dollars in private donations were raised, not bad for a country where the average salary is $500 a month. This is exactly why charity foundations find it so hard to work in Russia: they will always lose out to specific individuals whose good reputations and honest names give them unlimited credit.

We help the ones we know and love. And that is more than compassion. “Compassion suggests a lack of closeness, a certain distance, and an insufficient sense of belonging. Compassion is not what one shows to family and friends. Mothers do not say: ‘I show my children compassion.’ We show compassion to the person we do not consider one of us. Do you know that I have no compassion? When there is closeness, compassion is inappropriate.” Those are the words of Shri Shri Ravi Shankar, a world-renowned humanitarian leader, the creator of an international association of volunteers who help suffering people around the world in war zones and in the wake of natural disasters.

In mid-September of this year Shri Shri Ravi Shankar conducted his first business seminar in Moscow on the subject of “Ethics in Business”. To the Russian ear, “Ethics in Business” sounds like something of an oxymoron. You would think that no one in Russia would be interested. The first surprise was the turn-out: standing room only. The seminar’s local organizer, The Moscow Times, admitted that it had expected no more than 300 people to attend. Instead over 400 turned up.

Shri Shri Ravi Shankar talked about things that at first glance seemed far removed from Russian business. He said that unethical businesses were short-lived, that satisfaction from work is a temporary pleasure, as are money and material values. He said that genuine satisfaction is to be had only when you begin to share something important with others.

And indeed, one suspects that Ravi Shankar came to Moscow because he considered that it was high time and that he would be heard. One man in the audience, businessman Sergei Popov, the founder and president of a chain of car dealerships in Russia, said that he was sure that it was far more advantageous to be honest, that a socially responsible business and a profitable one were synonomous, and that one could succeed in Russia without corruption. He should know: his company has been in business since the early 1990s and is thriving.

Still, it’s hard to believe Sergei Popov if one looks at Russia through the prism of ratings. Or if one views one’s life and work in Russia as a fast short-distance race. From that point of view, there truly is no charity, no ethical approach in business, and no future. But those who plan to live in Russia for a long time begin to understand.

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