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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How to Do Charity in Russia?

Traditional charity is helping both the ill and afflicted, poor and helpless, young and inexperienced, the creative and the nonsensical, animals and others who cannot speak for themselves. But in Russia today, charity is first and foremost about helping ill children. That and supporting educational programs. However, for the people involved in this work, charity is thousands of amazing, funny and sad stories that happen every day, sometimes to you and sometimes to your friends. Here are some of these stories.

Partisan night

Charity activity in Russia can seem reminiscent of partisan warfare. There are isolated squadrons of two and three people, who are generally trying to help someone without any prospects of success, fighting against government injustice on a grand scale. Sometimes the fight is illegal. Sometimes it feels pointless. The only thing supporting them on difficult days is the knowledge that there are others out there, fighting the good fight too. And maybe they fight the same battles, even if it is unbeknownst to them.

But sometimes all this changes. One of those times happened on an ordinary weekend night. The baby daughter of one of our acquaintances, who is very active in charity work, suddenly suffered a brain aneurysm. The little girl was taken to hospital and needed emergency surgery. The problem was that during the operation the girl would need a blood transfusion and there was no blood of the right blood group in the clinic. There were blood packs of the right blood group in the local transfusion station, but they could not give the blood for the operation to go ahead. The signature of the head doctor, who had left town for the weekend, or some form that was locked in some cabinet until Monday, was lacking, and without this the blood could not be given.

I did not take part in the urgent search for blood for the girl's operation, but I soon got the news though text messages containing the word 'blood'. All these isolated groups of volunteers and active workers, who were working within charities related to cardiology and oncology, those working in the battle against AIDS, people active in the children's reading program, volunteers helping the homeless and Chechen refugees, all of them, were manically writing text messages to each other in the night, searching for blood.

And in the end they succeeded. A doctor at one Moscow hospital wrote in his log that he had transfused blood to one of his patients, and then secretly took the blood out of the hospital. It was a crime of dire need. The doctor drove through half of Moscow offering up a prayer to God that he would not be stopped by police, since it is strictly illegal to transport human organs (and yes, blood is considered an organ) in such a manner.

He managed to bring the blood to the clinic where the girl was to be operated on. The operation was a success and the girl survived. The surgeon, who performed the operation, committed his own crime by operating with blood illegal obtained. He wrote in his log that he had preformed the surgery without doing a transfusion. Any serious check would immediately discover the deception, but according to the chart, for the first time in history, surgery for a brain aneurysm was performed without any loss of blood.


Another night of insane text messaging happened a couple of months ago. A 10-year-old girl with leukemia desperately needed a rare antibiotic, not yet registered in Russia. There were charity workers in London who were prepared to buy this antibiotic, but how could they get this medicine to Moscow? Express mail was impossible. They needed to find someone who would fly from London to Moscow and bring the medicine with him, in his suitcase, and tell the customs that the medicine was his, should it be necessary.

I wrote about it in the newspaper, and was told by many a person, that antibiotics do not cure cancer of the blood. My friends and I had no time to tell the know-it-alls that when leukemia is treated, the immune system of children is dramatically weakened, that many minor illnesses are suddenly fatal, and that children often die, not from the cancer itself, but from an ordinary infection, which can be treated with antibiotics. But there was no time for explanations, we had to find someone to help us.

It seemed to me that the whole city was searching for a person who was flying from London to Moscow. We called all our contacts in London, then all our contracts in Moscow, who had any connection with London. And finally we found someone. But this was the middle of the night and the person was traveling early in the morning, before the chemist's shops in London had opened. This meant that we would only get one pack, which would only last the girl a day.

The search began anew. At 3 o'clock in the morning we found someone, who had no relationship with the charity workers or with the hematologist, but rather an investment banker and a friend of a friend of a friend. He was flying to Moscow to start a job, but he immediately agreed to bring the medicine for the girl, only asking for a prescription to be faxed to him, as he was very afraid of Russian customs and border-guards.

In the morning, the first dose of the medicine was brought, and in the evening we had the rest of the medicine. The investment bankers were thrilled like children, jumping up and down in the middle of their bank shouting: "we did it, we did it".

After another day, regardless of the medicine, the girl died. These things happen: charity is not like going into shop and trading the saving of a life for money. It's more like a business where you can invest money into saving a life, and then maybe you'll win and maybe you'll lose.

Advantages of the System

I would like to say one thing: we are artisans. Systematic charity in Russia is only in its beginnings, basically only in the area of education. Most people do not know the difference between systematic and non-systematic charity. Everyone keeps talking about targeted help, when targeted help is an outdated concept in charity, a coercive measure taken because of distrust between people.

I will try to explain. For example, children with leukemia, usually do not die of the cancer, but rather of the side effects of the treatment. Terrible things like Aspergillus's infections through mycotic lesions. From high doses of chemotherapy, needed to cure the cancer, the child's immunity is weakened to such an extent that even exposure to mould, growing on the walls, can be deadly dangerous. The fungus enters the child's body through holes in the veins, created by the numerous injections the child has had. In the provinces especially, children who are ill with leukemia are at risk, because there is not enough modern medical equipment like intravenous catheters, hermetical seals for drip bottles and other basic equipment. If they had these things, it would cut the mortality due to Aspergillus's dramatically – at least tenfold.

Medicine treating Aspergillus's infections cost $25 000 per child. Basic materials to prevent Aspergillus's infection in all children suffering from leukemia, all over the country, would cost $100,000. It's not difficult to deduce that for $100 000 you can treat four children or it's possible to prevent Aspergillus's infections in 1,500 children.

Modern Russian charity focuses on treating the four children, because it is possible to see the person getting the charity directly. Even for serious and systematic charity programs there is not enough trust.

The fashion model

The physician superintendent at the 1st. Moscow Hospice, Vera Millionshchikova, told this story about one of her nurses. This girl, who apart from working at the hospice as a nurse, was also a fashion model and a real beauty. When she arrived at the hospice, she had hair obviously styled by an expensive hairdresser, flawless manicure and high-heeled shoes. A hospice, for those who don't know, is a medical establishment, where rather than try to cure patients, they simply try to relieve their suffering, because hospice patients have incurable diseases and are dying.

Vera Vasilevna told the girl that if she was to work seriously at the hospice, soon the haircut, manicure, high-heels and the rest of the beauty aids would seem completely pointless to her. Vera Vasilevna had seen many times how working in the hospice changed people, how girls would cut their nails short so that sponge bathing patients would be more comfortable, or how they would scorn high-heeled shoes because in tennis shoes they could run much faster from patient to patient. In the case of this fashion model, Vera Vasilevna felt a little sorry for her, knowing that in a few months the girl would know that she had wasted her life so far on pointless vanity.

But the girl got her own way. She was accepted by the staff, and turned out to be a shining exception to the rule. She turned out to be a wonderful nurse, diligent and sensitive. She worked like a slave, and then having saved up her holidays, would be sent somewhere warm to be photographed on white sandy beaches, to advertise something beautiful but unnecessary.

When she returned to her job at the hospice, she would show her colleagues and patients the magnificent photos: "Here I am in the waves, here I am reclining in the background with fruit and champagne, that's me with the transparent sarong."

— Darling, asked the main doctor, why do you, after all this beauty still feel the need to treat bedsores and empty bedpans?

— You know, Vera Vasilevna, the nurse said shyly, here in the hospice life is real, and there – she poked a finger at the photo, it's not real.

The point is that it's difficult to voluntarily stand this real life for long. After a few years the nurse-fashion model got married, became pregnant and left the hospice. The patients and staff saw her off with admiration and gratitude.