Russia’s Lost Legacy of Charity

One of the casualties of the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the culture of giving, of charity, that had developed from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. The Soviet regime forbade the Russian Orthodox Church and other religious organizations from engaging in humanitarian relief to the poor. By the time of the 1921-22 famine, the last secular private charities were also outlawed. The rich tradition of voluntary charitable organizations was destroyed and the Soviet regime diligently suppressed all organizations it did not control. Individuals were discouraged from forming voluntary associations of any kind and the atomization of society became a priority.

The Russian Tradition of Charity

The foundation for Russia’s tradition of charitable giving was largely based on Orthodox teachings. Russian Orthodoxy neither condemned nor praised wealth, but emphasized instead the concept of stewardship. Because wealth was a gift of God, the possessors of wealth were not necessarily superior people, according to church teaching. In fact, wealth brought with it an obligation to use it for the general good and specifically to give to charity.

Orthodox doctrine adopted a gracious attitude toward the poor and taught that poverty and need were not the fault of the poor, but the result of accident and misfortune. The poor are “our spiritual equals,” according to the Orthodox Church, and they are “our flesh and blood, God’s children.” The colorful vocabulary Russians used when writing about the poor reflects this tolerance. In addition to “the poor,” the words used were “the unfortunate,” “the needy,” “the suffering, “ “the deprived” – words with less negative connotations than their English equivalents. In addition, the poor were often identified with Christ in Orthodox teachings.

This sanctification of poverty by religious leaders helped Russians to see the poor not as unruly beggars or vagrants, but like pilgrims, cripples, orphans or widows of Biblical times. The poor were victims, not threats to the social order. These views of wealth and poverty formed the basis for a distinctive Russian view of giving. Charity was a moral duty and everyone needed to help the poor. In addition, Orthodox teaching emphasized that there was a symbiotic exchange relationship between the rich and the poor. The rich had a duty to give and the poor had the responsibility to accept these gifts graciously and to bless the giver with prayers.

The Orthodox Church also taught that every charitable act must be personal, spontaneous and direct. Unconditional love and compassion must be a part of charity for Christians. The model often cited by Orthodox leaders was that of the early Church in the Book of Acts.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was also an element of national chauvinism in Orthodox pronouncements on charity. Catholics and Protestants were often described as having strayed from the teachings and examples of early Christians, but Orthodoxy alone preserved the Biblical principles on this subject. These feelings fed the Slavophile conviction that Russia was distinct from the West and was a superior culture.

An Outside Perspective

In 1905, an English woman named Edith Sellers published her appraisal of relief for the poor in Russia after visiting the country and interviewing many officials and private citizens. On the eve of World War I, Russia had no centrally funded or organized public relief system and Sellers was initially shocked and dismayed by this discovery. However, Sellers soon realized that traditional charitable beliefs and practices in Russia were tenaciously held by many Russians and she concluded: “No people are so lavish in their charity as the Russians; no people give alms with the same reckless generosity.” She found a general tolerance for beggars and the poor and a strong preference for private, morally-based assistance that influenced the behavior of peasants, merchants and local government officials.

The rapid growth of private charities, especially from the 1890s on, was another striking feature of Russian life. Sellers wrote: “Never was I in a country where there are so many private institutions for the benefit of the poor.” Between 1896 and 1900, for example, over 1,100 charitable organizations were founded and, between 1881 and 1900, almost 3,000 had been created. Private charities were doing the work that the government ignored. These voluntary organizations were contributing to the formation of a civil society in pre-revolutionary Russia. Although many of these organizations were small and often organized by just one or two families, they served important functions. They showed that Russians could identify and attack social problems, mobilize private funds for “the common good,” and forge bonds between individuals and small groups.

After Perestroika

The dramatic reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s as a part of his “re-structuring” (perestroika) campaign brought significant changes in Russian life. Pre-revolutionary behaviors and institutions that had been eliminated under Communism quickly re-emerged. One of the most striking changes, often overlooked by the Western press, was the rapid creation of thousands of charitable and other voluntary organizations. Forms of private charity that existed in Russia before 1917 were re-invented to combat poverty and dislocation caused by the collapse of Communism and local government agencies. Private soup kitchens, for example, were organized, usually by Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant churches.

The formation of humanitarian organizations is important not only because these institutions provide care for poor and disadvantaged people, but their existence is a critical part of the rebuilding of civil society in Russia. Can the Russian people learn once again about the importance of stewardship and that wealth is a gift of God which brings with it responsibility to help the poor? Can charitable giving once again become a part of the fabric of Russian society? There is a rich tradition in Russia to draw upon, but after the experience under Soviet rule, most Russians today need to be introduced to this impressive legacy.

*NOTE: This essay is based on Adele Lindenmeyr’s book, Poverty is Not a Vice: Charity, Society and the State in Imperial Russia.