Orthodox America

   Reviving Charity in Russia

If Russia has any hope of becoming a healthy society, it cannot afford to overlook the needs of its weaker members-the poor, the ailing, the homeless, the helpless. During the seventy years of the Great Socialist Experiment, these individuals were marginalized, institutionalized and otherwise de-personalized.  The present economic bankruptcy has, in some cases, made their lot even worse.  It may be profitable for Russia to look to Western models as it charts a course towards economic recovery, but should it seriously seek to address the problems of its social welfare, it could do not better than to take a lesson from its own history.  Before Russia had even emerged as a nation, it stood, in terms of social policy, well in advance of its European counterparts. This was thanks to Great Prince Vladimir who, after his conversion to Christianity in 988, initiated a remarkable program to assist the needy:

All of the poor and aged became the object of organized social assistance.   Provisions and items of great necessity were delivered to them.  Porters travelled through the streets of Kiev with the mission of seeking out the sick and infirm who were unable to present themselves  at the palace in order there to receive their aid, which came from the cash-box of the prince. This old-age security was not a speciality of the city of Kiev alone, but an institution of the whole Kievan state. (Kovalevsky, St.  Sergius and Russian Spirituality.)

Such charity as is a hallmark of any truly Christian society became an essential feature of both the public and private sectors of Russian life.  An experienced English traveller who made a trip to Russia at the turn of the century commented enthusiastically upon one institution which could serve as a model even today:

There is an institution in Moscow which no traveler should fail to visit.  It is the Foundling Hospital, into which about thirteen thousand infants are admitted annually. It is said that no cities in the world surpass those of Russia in the comforts provided for outcast children. The Government grants, yearly, a million dollars to this hospital alone; yet there is another nearly as large as this in St. Petersburg.  In many cities of Europe, when a child is brought to such an asylum, a bell is rung and the door turns upon a pivot so as to present to the applicant a little table.  Upon this the infant is laid. The door then continues its revolution, and the child is wheeled gently within the walls of the hospital never again, perhaps, to be seen by its parents.  In this institution, however, there is no such secrecy; for it receives even the children of poor parents, who find it difficult to support them and who give them to the State. No other questions are ever asked than these: “Has the child been baptized?”  If so, “By what name?” The infant is then registered on the books of the institution, with a regular number, and a receipt for it is given to the parents of the infant, who may visit and even claim the child at any time within ten years.  If I thought I could make a success of it, I would attempt a description of what I saw in this vast hospital. The simple arts of washing and dressing babies are here brought as near to perfection as it is possible for me, at least, to imagine. Suffice it to say, the little foundlings are bathed in copper tubs lined with thick flannel, and then are dressed on soft pillows, instead of on the bony knees or sharp crinoline of the nurses.... (John L. Stoddard’s Lectures, Vol. VI: Berlin, Vienna, St.  Petersburg, Moscow; Geo L. Shuman & Co., 1910; pp. 312-316.) Under the communists the Church was forbidden to engage in charitable activities; such institutions as the Foundling Hospital lost their Christian character, and charity lost its soul.

The present government is no longer hostile to the Church, but it is still a long way from operating on Christian principles.  Journalist Natalia Dyachenko reports that the old Soviet mentality still prevails. She herself was inspired after her conversion to join a newly-established “charity” in St. Petersburg, but observing that the term was but a fashionable facade, she concluded that real charity exists only within Christianity.  She gathered together a group of like-minded Orthodox who are now engaged in helping the needy-not only materially but also spiritually. Unfortunately, such private initiatives-and there are many willing to exercise this virtue-are often stifled by bureaucratic regulators, by those more anxious to collect taxes than to support efforts to alleviate the misery of the destitute.  Several worthy charitable enterprises-such as the Elias Street soup kitchen in St. Petersburg, which last winter catered to scores of elderly among the city’s estimated 40,000 homeless-were forced to close.  Happily, there are also some success stories.

In May 1991, in Moscow, the Sisterhood of St. Dimitri (the martyred Tsarevitch, 1591) was formed, inspired by the Saints Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy.   Currently it is purely a nursing sisterhood but it hopes to become a monastic community with a place for married women to work alongside.  Creed News (June 1992) reported that some 70 students are enrolled in the Sisterhood’s nursing school at Moscow’s First City Hospital. Despite limited medical supplies, their standard of patient care is exceptionally high. The sisters serve as missionaries to their patients and teach in the newly-formed Sunday school based at the church there in the hospital.  The school’s 200 children make gifts and distribute them to the patients. The presence of the children in the wards provides excellent therapy.

We Can Contribute

This fall the St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Washington DC took up a collection to help the Sisterhood obtain a copying machine. The rector of the hospital church and the Sisterhood’s spiritual father, Archpriest Arkady Shatov, responded in a letter:

“We thank you for you generous Nativity gift, which provided us with considerable joy.  The copying machine obtained with the money you donated will resolve many of our problems.  First of all, such technical equipment is extremely necessary for us for the circulation of the missionary leaflets issued by our hospital church of the Right-Believing Tsarevich Dimitri. Already fifteen such leaflets have been issued, and right now new numbers are being prepared.  The materials published in them help our sisters of mercy (i.e., nurses-trans.) very much in their difficult missionary activity in the hospital, in the Sunday school, the kindergartens and the boarding schools.  We are sending you example of our leaflets....”

Parishioners of the Washington Cathedral also contributed to a shipment of winter clothing, shoes, vitamins, Christmas cookies and candy and-by special request-more than 100 pairs of sneakers with velcro snaps, destined for the Moscow Association of Families Having Invalid Children.  And there are many other parishes engaged in collecting and shipping humanitarian aid.  Orthodox faithful in Germany have sent two equipped dentist offices to Russia.  Those familiar with Soviet dental practice can appreciate the value of such a gift!

One of the most impressive efforts at coordinating aid to Russia, that has come to our attention, is St. Gregory’s Foundation in Britain, an Orthodox charitable organization formed in early 1991. Through its affiliate in St.  Petersburg, the Foundation has sent shipments of medical supplies and other humanitarian aid to the St. Dimitri’s Sisterhood and other charitable institutions, including the “Little Prince” youth shelter for homeless teenagers, the Kulpina young offenders prison, the Children’s Infectious Diseases Hospital,  an association of women with motor disabilities, the Bodkin Infectious Diseases Hospital, the Salena Home for Girl Offenders, and the St. Ignatius Fellowship (which provides assistance to inmates of hospitals, prisons and psychiatric homes).   The Foundation likewise provides ongoing support to the agricultural project at Shamordino Convent-seeds, tools, cheese-making supplies, etc.  In this country, the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), formed early in 1992 as an international humanitarian agency of SCOBA, is engaged in raising funds to assist the poor not only in Russia but elsewhere (Serbia, Egypt...).  Through its office in Moscow, it is currently supervising a $17 million food program.

Readers can conveniently channel funds for Russia through Orthodox America or the Orthodox Benevolent Fund (PO Box 743, Rye, NH 03870).  And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover a multitude of sins    (I Peter 4:8)