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Changing Lifestyles : Putting the Squeeze on Russian Charities : The former Soviet system once provided for all. Now kickbacks to officials have made philanthropy a thing of faith, hope and bribery.

January 31, 1995|EMILY HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOSCOW — You know a town is tough when even the soup kitchens get shaken down for bribes.

Alexander I. Ogorodnikov, a dissident in Soviet days and now head of one of Russia's few charitable organizations, complains that money-hungry bureaucrats continuously harass his soup kitchen because he refuses to pay them off.

Under the guise of "unsanitary conditions," authorities have permanently shut down four of Ogorodnikov's five kitchens and temporarily closed the remaining one several times. Ogorodnikov insists cleanliness wasn't the problem; it was his refusal to offer bribes.

"They have no interest in our charity," said Ogorodnikov, whose soup kitchen feeds 400 of Russia's new poor each day. "Bureaucrats see our premises as a possibility to make big money."

Soviet communism and its all-encompassing social system that once provided for all, albeit stingily, is gone. And in its place have come officials of the new government with hands out.

Ogorodnikov dreamed of starting a charity during nearly nine years he spent in Soviet prisons, where he landed because of his involvement in the Russian Orthodox religious revival of the 1970s. During former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's \o7 perestroika\f7 , Ogorodnikov founded the Christian Mercy Society, which now tries to pick up where the state welfare system falls short.

But while government help for the needy here has greatly lessened, the old laws haven't changed to support charitable work, and the emerging profit-taking economy doesn't understand charities' role. Goodwill groups often find themselves cornered, given no breaks by government and misunderstood by new capitalists--even as the number of people to feed and clothe rises.

Ogorodnikov's early clues to future social needs came from his work in 1991 when refugees came to Moscow from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the territorial fight between Azerbaijan and Armenia. "We saw the signs of the coming hunger," he said, and with advice from Western organizations, he decided to open the first free soup kitchen in the former Soviet Union.

It took seven months to find a suitable location and one month to complete repairs before the first soup kitchen opened in 1991. A second Moscow kitchen followed. In a double whammy, both were closed by Russian officials at the end of 1992.

The second kitchen never reopened, and neither did three provincial soup kitchens that Ogorodnikov opened and authorities closed in the last four years.

But the original soup kitchen was closed, reopened and hassled continuously. First there were accusations that the rent was not paid, although a foreign charitable organization had agreed to pick up the tab, Ogorodnikov said. Then the electricity was turned off for a few days, ruining all the produce. Firefighters came in to look for fire hazards. And of course, the health department sent the ubiquitous sanitary inspection teams.

"Local authorities know they cannot close us by direct action. They use another tool, the sanitary commission," said Ogorodnikov. "Because they want bribery--that we give them some gift, that we give part of our premises for some kind of commercial work, or that we sell part of our charitable food and share our money with them."

Unwilling to offer a bribe when bureaucrats decided to shut down the kitchen Nov. 17 (less than a month after it had passed inspection), Ogorodnikov instead sought help. He called in the press, contacted friends in the West and organized a 200-person demonstration outside the Russian Parliament.

Ogorodnikov was not just fighting a few local administrators, who are fast learning to take cuts from new businesses and don't care to distinguish a profit-turning pursuit from a charity. He was facing a decades-old system of laws and attitudes that combine to cripple charitable organizations in Russia.

Since the beginning of this year, nonprofit organizations can legally register under the new Russian civil code, but the law still does not clearly define nonprofit organizations, nor does it differentiate among charities, research institutions and artistic endeavors. Charities can be taxed, and Russian donors do not receive tax deductions for their contributions. Bills addressing these problems are circulating in Parliament, but a coherent law is not anticipated soon.

Furthermore, Russia's nascent court system lacks a trail of legal interpretations to reassure nonprofit organizers that rights defined generally in law will be later honored, said Alexei Korotayev, who has helped found and direct Memorial and Compassion, two groups that support victims of Soviet labor camps.

The Russian tax police also have a vested interest in delaying the adoption of a solid charity law, said Leonid Rozhetskin, a Moscow lawyer and organizer of a nonprofit telecommunications outfit.

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