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From charity to treason How Russia's philanthropists went from heroes to traitors

Source: Meduza
Photo: Evgeny Feldman / Novaya Gazeta

Last week, on April 20, the Russian State Duma voted on the first draft of an amendment that clarifies the concept of “political activity” in federal laws on nonprofit organizations. If the legislation is approved and the language in its final draft stays mostly the same, any charitable foundation in Russia that's received even a single donation from abroad would be at risk of being labeled a “foreign agent.” This would mean the “foreign-agent” designation must accompany every mention of the foundation, which would also need to start spending more of its funds on legally mandated internal audits. It would be only a matter of time before such organizations found it impossible to operate, and donators' patience ran out. Meduza's special correspondent Katerina Gordeeva looks at how Russia came to regard helping the sick and the poor as political activity.

In 2016, almost all of Russia's biggest charities will celebrate a decade of official operations. But there's a lot more to this story.

In 1988, the Armenian earthquake was a shock to many in Soviet Russia. Throughout the early 1990s, Russians were horrified to learn about the high mortality rate among children in the oncological and hematological wings of hospitals across the country (not to mention the abysmal state of the hospitals themselves). Some of the most basic problems included shortages of donated blood, medicines, bandages, clothing, and linens. In the last years before the twentieth century ended, concerned citizens got together, met up, and cooperated to provide help to those in need. At first, their efforts were slapdash and spontaneous. Later, they realized that systematizing charity work is far more effective. 

In was in those years that Veronika Krasheninnikova, a native of the industrial city of Cherepovets, managed to finish her studies at the Leningrad Shipbuilding Institute's Engineering and Economics department and the Paris Institute of Political Studies' Economics and Finance department. From there, she went on to make her career. In 2001, Krasheninnikova joined the US-CIS Council on Commercial and Economic Cooperation, and by 2006 she was the organization's president. Colleagues in Washington, DC, and New York who knew Krasheninnikova in those days say she was a freedom-loving woman who embraced democratic and even liberal views. She was reportedly cynical about any form of censorship, any type of political pressure on businesses, and any kind of crackdown on civil rights in Russia.

In the mid-2000s, several charities suddenly appeared in Russia dedicated to providing aid and hospice care to seriously ill children and adults. The people who came to work in these organizations (including the individuals leading them) soon learned by trial and error what it is to operate a charitable foundation. In those days, no one in post-Soviet Russia was trained to manage a nonprofit organization. No one understood how or where to raise funds for the inexhaustible needs of Russia's hospital patients, or how to raise money for the hospitals themselves. Consulting with each other, and with sympathetic lawyers, legislators, and state officials, these organizations drafted and adopted charters. They developed action protocols in various cases, and formed expert councils to make informed decisions about when to provide charitable assistance, and when to refuse. By the ends of the decade, the level of expertise among Russia's charities provided many of these foundations' leaders with the clout to gain an audience with ministers in the federal government and to insist on various legislative and procedural amendments from lawmakers.

For instance, it is Russia's charities that have elevated national attention on issues like access to painkillers, the development of blood donation across the country, the provision of “orphan drugs” (medications for rare diseases), and much more. These organizations' greatest success has been changing Russians' basic perception of concepts like illness, infirmity, and weakness. Cancer—especially when diagnosed in children—is no longer seen as a death sentence. There are now many people who are willing to help, and not just in specific cases with individual children, but through regular donations to systematized projects managed by charities. The right to live without disease, as well as the right to die with dignity, no longer seem like impossible ideas, and an incurable illness doesn't make a human being an outcast. 

Charities gradually taught Russian society not to be indifferent to its weaker members. It was perhaps Russia's greatest humanitarian achievement of the decade.

It was also during these years that Veronika Krasheninnikova, somehow finding time while living in the US, defended her dissertation at the Moscow Pedagogical University. The paper was titled “The Russian-American Dialogue As a Problem of Political Culture.” By now, Krasheninnikova's attitudes about the West's entire value system had changed dramatically. 

State Duma deputy Alexander Sidyakin, the author of the law on “foreign agents.”
Photo: Anna Isakova / State Duma press service / TASS

Krasheninnikova returned to Russia on a mission. While thousands of Muscovites stood freezing at Bolotnaya Square in the 2011-2012 protests to demand fair elections, she authored an article in the news agency Regnum on January 20, 2012, calling on the nation to adopt legislation against “foreign agents.”

“The plans for the liberalization of Russia's political system laid out in [President Medvedev's] national address are being implemented in a particular hurry and at the worst possible time—on the eve of the presidential election, which certain circles in Washington, together with the Russian ‘opposition,’ are using to attempt ‘regime change’ in Russia,” Krasheninnikova wrote. 

In her byline, Krasheninnikova was described by Regnum as the director of the Institute for Foreign Policy Research and Initiatives. (That organization was formally registered in March 2011, and it's worth noting that Krasheninnikova is, to this day, still the only board member listed publicly.) Before the article, Krasheninnikova was still largely unknown inside Russia. Alexander Sidyakin, an active lawmaker from the ruling political party United Russia, soon drafted legislation on “foreign agents,” and the State Duma adopted the law later that summer.

Having returned to her homeland, Krasheninnikova quickly built an extraordinary career. In addition to heading the Institute for Foreign Policy Research and Initiatives, she acted as a consultant in 2012 and 2013 for the chief editor of the state-funded television network Russia Today, and served as the director of the Center for International Studies and Journalism at the news agency RIA Novosti (which was later rebranded Rossiya Segodnya). In March 2013, Krasheninnikova became a member of the state consulting body the Civic Chamber and soon an indispensable guest on the political talk shows that air on Russian network television. In every TV appearance, Krasheninnikova reminds viewers, citing the various hardships of life in the United States, that Russia's law on “foreign agents” is no different than the laws in the US, which she says also target spies and enemies masquerading as nonprofit groups.

Few people realize that Krasheninnikova has in mind the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law passed in 1938 that had its heyday during the trials of the McCarthyist period, when the US experienced heightened political repression against suspected communists. In 1966, American lawmakers amended FARA, transforming it from an instrument against propaganda into an instrument against lobbying efforts by foreign economic and political interests. In other words, FARA today is aimed primarily at foreign lobbyists, and not at nonprofit organizations (which, even if they receive foreign funding, are merely required to register formally). This makes the US law significantly different from the law Russia adopted in 2012.

Currently, Russian legislation on “foreign agents” states specifically that it “does not apply to activities in the fields of science, culture, art, healthcare, preventative treatment, social support, support for motherhood and childhood, social support for disabled persons, promoting healthy lifestyles, physical fitness and sports, environmental protectionism, and charity.”

Outside the office of the human rights organization Memorial, shortly after the group was formally labeled a “foreign agent.” (Graffiti reads, “FOREIGN AGENT.”
Photo: Kirill Kudryatsev / AFP / Scanpix

As soon as the law passed, nonprofit organizations immediately needed to know the meaning of the term “political activity” (which was now off limits to any groups labeled “foreign agents”). Organizations turned to President Vladimir Putin, who punted the question to the Constitutional Court. 

It would be four years before anyone got a clear answer.

By 2016, Russian charitable groups have indisputably become a main pillar in the country's system for medical and social support. The 6 billion rubles ($90 million) charities spend on projects annually might seem small, when compared to the government's 400-billion-ruble ($6-billion) healthcare budget, but certain vital procedures rely intensely on nonprofits. In Russia today, charities fund all the bone marrow transplants between unrelated patients, 60 percent of unregistered medication purchases, many kinds of high-tech treatments, and—in some hospitals—up to 30 percent of the entire drug supply. Russia's charities catch those whom the state isn't able to assist, providing hope to even the most extreme cases. 

Charities do the dirty work that government ministers and state agencies don't want to: they compile and tabulate statistics, study other nations' experiences, and devise cost-effective ways out of difficult situations. Many of the laws passed in the last five years dealing with social policy and healthcare were drafted in close consultations between state officials and representatives of the nonprofit sector.

All this was covered in a public letter addressed to Vladimir Putin, signed by some of the country's most famous and best respected artists, public figures, and journalists. Some of the biggest names in Russia turned out in support of charity work: Konstantin Khabensky, Egor Beroev, Ksenia Rappoport, Chulpan Khamatova, Natalia Vodianova, Yevgeny Mironov, Julia Peresild, Tatiana Drubich, Avdotya Smirnova, and Vladimir Pozner.

Just three pages long, the letter didn't criticize Russia's new law on “foreign agents“ (which had opponents outside the charity world, as well, such as Dmitry Zimin's Dynasty Foundation, which closed down after being labeled a “foreign agent”). The letter even agreed with Putin, who signed the law, saying Russia has a reasonable interest in shielding its domestic politics from outside interference. At the same time, the letter asked the government not to conflate political educational activity and charities' social work. Charity figures insisted that many projects already underway would cease, if they were unable to consult with doctors and officials about crafting and amending legislation, and about promoting the very idea of charity. The letter also warned that future charity projects would be canceled before they ever begin.

Veronika Krasheninnikova as a member of Russia's Civic Chamber.
Photo: Alexander Natruskin / Sputnik / Scanpix

The letter to Putin was sent on April 9, 2016. Two days later, lawmakers in the State Duma announced that their review of first-draft amendments meant to clarify the concept of “political activity” in Russia's law on foreign agents would be postponed from April 15 until “a later date.” But the heated public debate sparked by the letter didn't last long. At Vladimir Putin's nationally televised “Q&A” on April 14, despite lingering questions about nonprofits, there wasn't a word about charitable foundations, which are fast becoming “foreign agents” in their own country.

“A later date” turned out to be April 20, when lawmakers approved the first draft of the amendments. If the Duma passes the legislation as it's currently written, the new “clarifications” would put any charity in the country at risk of being labeled a “foreign agent,” if it's ever engaged in public activity or has at any time received a donation in any amount from someone who isn't a Russian citizen. 

On April 19, when the amendments were being discussed in a Duma committee, representatives of charities throughout the country hinted that Russia has “so many enemies” today that the fight against them “might harm friends, too.” The charities were told, however, that they've nothing to fear: anyone labeled a “foreign agent” can contest it in court.

During the same discussion, the committee's head, Yaroslav Nilov, recalled the recent events in Ukraine, where he believes representatives of the nonprofit sector “destabilized the situation.” Meanwhile, Mikhail Markelov, a United Russia deputy, proposed changing Russians' psychological attitude about the label “foreign agent,” and Civic Chamber member Veronika Krasheninnikova called on the “Gift of Life” group and other charities not to “hide behind children.” She didn't explain what she meant by this.

The actress Chulpan Khamatova, who co-founded Gift of Life in 2006, at an exhibition of children's art, hosted by Gift of Life at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. February 15, 2013.
Photo: Vyacheslav Prokofiev / Kommersant

As it happens, Veronika Krasheninnikova was elected on February 6, 2016, to join United Russia's governing body, the high council, and became one of the four authors who drafted the party's ideological platform for Russia's parliamentary elections this fall. 

These “foreign agents,” as members of the Duma and leaders of United Russia will probably come to label the country's charities, are clearly something alien for Russia's authorities. They're different not because they're enemies, but because they don't make sense. Why would anyone care about or waste their lives on unknown weaklings, incurable cases, and—until these charities themselves emerged—useless people? Why devote oneself to people who are unknown and unseen, and therefore can't spoil the general picture of a happy nation?

Of course, charities will fight. Some groups will go to court to prove they aren't “foreign agents.” Some charities might even win. 

If the decision has already been made, however, to redefine organized charity as a “political act,” the amendments' adoption in the Duma is just a matter of time. And it's entirely irrelevant what charities are called after that. What matters is that charity as it used to be understood and practiced will be destroyed. On charges of treason.

This text was translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock.

Katerina Gordeeva

Riga, Latvia

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