To Russia, With Love by Harris Sussman
Bringing presents and giving money to people in Russia came naturally, as a simple extension of our life in two countries.
Svetlana and her son Leo left their home in St. Petersburg to move to America when we met and got married ten years ago. When her mother died a year later, her father, a professor for more than fifty years, continued to live among an active network of colleagues, graduate students, lifelong friends, as well as Svetlana's and Leo's classmates and friends.
It was normal, on Svetlana's trips to see him and when we traveled together, for her to take some gifts from America . (It got strange in recent years when the clothes we were looking at in our local stores began carrying labels "made in Russia ." We chose other things.)
Moisey N. Adamov was a friend and counselor to a wide circle of people. His memory for phone numbers and people's circumstances was impressive. He adapted to being the hub for all Svetlana's and Leo's contacts as well. He was our social secretary, setting up appointments, arranging people's visits to the apartment.
On her visits home, Svetlana would give a couple of her friends, all single mothers, a $20 bill, American money that we had not changed into rubles. When she saw that they needed more regular assistance, it was Moisey who gave them money. They appreciated it. Any amount made a difference in conditions that were basically subsistence.
By the way, Moisey was blind. A number of his friends from his international academic contacts were blind, and he participated in a group of blind professionals in the city. He received various local services for the blind. He had taught Leo to read and write Braille when Leo was very young and they would sometimes exchange notes in Braille. This was before both of them became regular email users.
Father, grandfather, father-in-law, died in February at his home, quietly and suddenly. He was 84. He was born in Petrograd , lived in Leningrad , and died in St. Petersburg --all in the same city. Now, without him, we have to make a number of decisions. Svetlana, of course, doesn't want to lose her connections with her friends in Russia. (Leo is living in Amsterdam, so our family logistics are even more dispersed.)
We still have our relations with people eight time zones away, but Moisey is missing, and he was the vehicle, the channel, the glue, for so many elements of those relations. And now another dimension of our loss is what Moisey's absence does to them.
So we decided to turn our memories of Moisey into a living memorial, to try to act in his name and spirit to help some of the people, especially blind people, who knew him, and to see how we could help some of the services for the blind that helped him. It sounded reasonable and right. There are a few catches, though. One is that we still live in America and they are in Russia . Another is that we don't have much money ourselves. This raises some real challenges.
It seems like we're deciding to practice philanthropy from scratch. Neither we nor Russia has much experience with this decision.
In Russian, the word for people who are blind or have any disabilities is "invalids." The government has been cutting back on social services to retired people and to people with disabilities, among others. It's a double whammy for retired blind people. And the income level of most of the people in our circle is barely enough to get by in the first place.
As if that weren't enough, the state of post-soviet Russia is not entirely post-soviet. Russia is a mixture of social, economic, and political systems. Svetlana says, alluding to a famous phrase of Lenin, that Russia is going about capitalism one apartment at a time. The legislation, tax system, laws, and formal infrastructure aren't philanthropy-ready. Even though some Western-style efforts exist, they're barely a few years old.
And then there's us. We decided the first thing to do was to open a bank account called the MN Adamov Memorial Fund and take things from there. Would we/could we/should we be a family foundation? We thought of registering as a nonprofit organization, using someone else as a temporary fiscal agent, starting an endowed fund within another organization, opening a donor's account. We have some learning to do.
Meanwhile, we're acutely aware of the plight of blind people, Russians, blind Russians. We've been told that Americans aren't very interested in or sympathetic to Russians these days. The Cold War is over--young people don't even know that it was the major war for most of my life; and few Americans study Russian in school, even though Svetlana has had a steady stream of students in classes she's been teaching for years. Americans have been adopting children from Russian orphanages, and some are doing business in one of the 15 former republics of the USSR that are now all independent countries; some have Russian boyfriends, girlfriends, and even in-laws.
We're trying to sort it out. Most of the new-style philanthropy development is based in Moscow , where there are more Mercedes cars and banks than anywhere else in Russia . Forbes magazine reported that in 2004 there were 33 billionaires in Moscow, only 31 in New York City . The billionaires, moguls, oligarchs of Moscow are being cajoled and educated to be philanthropists. So far, none of them has discovered the needs of blind people in St. Petersburg .
We want to facilitate getting information to blind individuals and organizations and their advocates, transferring new ideas and mechanisms as well as financial humanitarian aid. And of course, the dollar isn't what it used to be. While we figure out currency exchange rates, money transfer, and customs forms, we are looking for allies and partners. Ray Kurzweil donated some of his state-of-the-art software for blind people. We want to be a catalyst for a broad range of in-kind contributions, contributions of all sorts, pledges, endowments, toys, scholarships, however this evolves.
Our decision to pursue this has given momentum and discipline to our thoughts of Moisey and has opened many new avenues between people and countries.