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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Best Advice Remains to Be Given

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A friend asked me for help recently. I would have been happy to help, and I should have been able to help, but I could not figure out a way to help. I promised I'd think about it, and I thought about it -- and I still came up with nothing.

My friend runs a charity organization. She hasn't always done this: She was a graphic designer when I met her, years ago, and then, slowly, she got involved with helping children who needed heart surgery. She found the surgeons to perform the operations, the money to pay for them, and the ways to bring families to wherever care was available. After a while, she found herself doing this full-time. I didn't actually realize that she had completed the transformation until I tried to hook her up with a magazine job one day and she responded that, though the job was right up her alley, she had changed professions.

I have seen her learn a number of new skills. I have seen her come close to burning out and, it seemed, utterly collapsing -- only to pick herself up and keep moving. I have seen her pull off events and fund-raising efforts I never would have thought possible in this country. I am frequently in awe of this woman.

Recently, she had dinner with President Vladimir Putin. Along with about 300 other representatives of nongovernmental organizations, she was invited to the Kremlin on People's Unity Day. It's not the sort of invitation that would make most people we know jump for joy, but I think my friend was curious, and pleased to have her efforts recognized. It seemed a reasonable assumption that the event would yield the sort of publicity that would help in her work.

In the days following the Kremlin reception, my friend and her many colleagues could not figure out what hit them. A well-known fiction writer, television personality and newspaper commentator named Dmitry Bykov unleashed a torrent of invective on those who, in his view, use other people's grief to gain publicity: Only anonymous charity is honorable, he wrote. Kommersant's Kremlin correspondent, Andrei Kolesnikov, wrote a mean piece going after various charity activists -- one because her job title did not happen to be listed on the Kremlin web site next to her name, and another because of her strange last name.

Several of the people who had been present at the dinner wrote open letters trying to defend their work. They also planned a news conference. Then my friend called me to ask if they were doing things right.

I advised her to stop. I explained that trying to defend yourself against specious accusations always makes you look guilty. That the journalists who would come to a news conference like that would only reproduce the incoherent filth that had been hurled at the charities. That this was no way to fight back.

So she asked me what they should do instead. I promised to think about it. I came up with nothing.

I explained to my friend that the reception and the media coverage were directly related to a pending bill that would severely restrict the functioning and funding of nongovernmental organizations. That the Kremlin was trying to discredit them while also forcing them to engage in demonstrations of loyalty -- my friend had appeared on television clinking glasses with the president. And that it was wrong to expect ostensibly oppositional media outlets like Kommersant to provide a meaningful alternative: The newspaper's take on the news is, generally, to cover all the same stories as the state-controlled media -- moreover, to provide the same narrative -- but to do it in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

I admitted that, as a fairly well-connected journalist working in this town, I had no idea what to do. But the difference between my chosen field and my friend's is that, for her, doing nothing is never really an option.

Masha Gessen is a contributing editor of Bolshoi Gorod.