Rubtsovsk community foundation: building philanthropy and civic engagement in one of Russia’s “dying cities”

Philanthropy in Russia today is no longer just about big private Moscow-based foundations or humanitarian aid organizations. Editor of Philanthropy (an online portal on all matters philanthropic run by Charities Aid Foundation Russia), Matthew Masal’tsev, went to Siberia, to find for himself out how local philanthropy is changing lives at the community level. He began his journey in Rubtsovsk, in the Altai region of Russia.

In many ways, Rubtsovsk can be regarded as the birthplace of a new kind of local philanthropy which is as much about civic participation as it about money. Eight years ago, the local community foundation (known in Russian as City Charitable Fund, “Development”) produced its first “charity show”, an adaptation of the children’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The performers included prominent businessmen as well as local officials and deputies, and proceeds from ticket sales went towards a community grantmaking programme. The show was an instant hit: it has been performed every year since and has raised over 1.2 million rubles, or around US $36,000. (It has also inspired similar types of charitable / theatrical productions in other parts of Russia).

Building on this success, the community foundation went on to hold other community-oriented charitable events, including a talent show and, most recently, a music contest called, “Together Through Song” where the musically talented – and the less musically talented – all have an opportunity to perform.

Talent competition organized by the community foundation

Igor Levin, director of a local metals factory, is a newly inspired bass guitarist, having picked a guitar for the first time only a few months ago to join one of the bands playing in the competition. This isn’t Igor’s first foray into the activities of the community foundation – he’s starred as the heroic lover in five of the charitable productions, competed in the talent show, and been a key member of the team in a charitable football tournament.

Rubtsovsk is in the Altai region, near the border with Kazakhstan and a 300 kilometres from the nearest airport in Barnaul. Although the city (pop. 150,000) was founded 120 years ago, it began to grow significantly during the Second World War when two large factories were relocated there away from the front lines. These two factories – one producing tractors the other agricultural machinery – formed the pillars of the city’s economy during the Soviet era, bringing jobs and infrastructure. In fact, during Soviet times, Rubtsovsk was one of the largest employers in the manufacturing industry across the Union.

However, in the early 1990s with the demise of the Soviet Union, industrial production ground to a halt and Rubtsovsk went through a very difficult period as state salaries and pensions went unpaid.  Although things improved after 2000, Rubtsovsk is still categorised as one of Russia’s “dying cities”. (Even in the last year the city has seen more job losses with the abolition of customs controls between Russia and Kazakhstan).

As times got more and more difficult, local businesses found themselves frequently approached with requests for assistance. Businessmen like Alexander Varatanov and his partners felt strongly that it was their responsibility to do what they could to help. “But then I became concerned that we were starting to see the emergence of a ‘professional beggar’ mentality. It’s impossible to help everyone. And it’s hard to make decisions when people turn up at your office,” says Vartanov. “At the same time, you need to have systems in place to ensure that money is spent properly and for the intended purpose. A few of decided that we needed some kind of structure which could help address some of these problems.”

Tatiana Bukanovich, director of the foundation (on right)

The idea of introducing such a mechanism took root and the foundation was established in 2000, under the charismatic leadership of Tatiana Bukanovich and with support from local business leaders. Over the last twelve years the foundation has organized charity performances, grants programmes, social projects, public campaigns and, more recently, it has been the driving force behind the alliance of Altai community foundations. It has also created a stronger links within the local business sector and the conversation these days is much more about the development of civil society and of active citizens than about charity.

For one of the donors to the foundation, the aspiring bass guitarist and head of a local factory, Igor Levin, the relationship with the community foundation has been an interesting journey. Levin believes in “doing” and had always been rather sceptical about the idea of “charity” as something that perpetuates passivity and inertia. So it was only in 2003, when he decided to run for political office and was advised that he needed to improve his image in the community, that he approached Tatiana and her colleagues at the community foundation – and promptly received an instant and thorough education about the role and importance of philanthropy.

For Levin, the community foundation goes beyond mere charity to community development and innovation. He describes receiving requests from two kindergartens: one was for a television and video recorder and the other was to purchase materials to decorate a room that they had turned into a children’s theatre. “Of course, I supported the second: after all, how many children will pass through that children’s theatre. You never know, some of them might turn out to be great artists in the future!” (He adds with a sly smile, “And by the way, one of the community foundation projects has actually brought me business”. His company was commissioned to construct 10 play structures with the funds raised through the charity show).

Marat Yelagin, a former radio journalist turned furniture entrepreneur and a board member of the community foundation, harbours a rather sceptical view of the local community whom he sees as often disengaged and distrustful. Despite this he has established his own designated fund within the community foundation and is exploring the idea of creating a system of legal aid for citizens to support them in asserting their rights in their dealings with government. Whether people would appreciate such an effort, he muses, is another thing altogether.  So why engage in philanthropy at all? “In my own way, I’m just trying to make sure that everything I’m involved in is at least transparent and effective.”

And it is around that last sentiment, it seems, that the Rubtsovsk Community Foundation continues to strike a chord: that in a broader environment of inertia, corruption and distrust it is still possible for individuals to come together to engage in philanthropic giving in ways that are both transparent and effective.

 Translated and adapted from an article originally published on the “филантроп” website published by CAF Russia


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