Russia: Putin, Piano and Vanishing Foundation Create Controversy

Piano, photo by me5otron/Flickr

Vladimir Putin's cute – and unexpected – performance at a charity concert has been covered by many Russian and foreign media but a foundation that allegedly vanished with the charity money was put on the spot by energetic Russian bloggers.

Growing influence of online communities on Russian politics and media agenda is illustrated by the recent story that involves Hollywood stars, singing Putin, charity donations and mysterious “Federaciya” (“Federation” – GV) foundation.

It all started with a wide PR campaign in Moscow advertising many international stars and their willingness to help sick children in Russian hospitals. Billboards would show the names of Hollywood movie starts and cite their commitment to help Russian children in need. Tickets for the charity event with the celebrities (Sharon Stone, Mickey Rourke, Monica Bellucci and many others) would claim that the purpose of all this was to “gather enough money to help sick kids.”

The arrival of the stars in Saint Petersburg on December 8, 2010 was continued with their visits to children hospital and, as a climax of the campaign, a concert in the Ledovy Place where sweating and nervous Vladimir Putin played piano and sang “Blueberry Hill” song.

But two months later, Russian bloggers resurrected the story by claiming that “Federaciya” charity foundation responsible for organizing the event mysteriously disappeared and sick children – many of them with a terminal form of cancer – have yet to see any money donated by the generous western celebrities.

Matvey Ganopolsky, a famous anchor on Echo Moskvy radio, published a letter from Olga Kuznetsova [RUS], a mother of one of the kids who have cancer and who were expected to receive the money from the charity event. Kuznetsova writes:

Средства на этом благотворительном концерте собирал некий фонд «Федерация», который не числится ни в одном списке благотворительных фондов. Он нигде не зарегистрирован, у него нет сайта, о нем никто ничего не знает. С того самого момента прошло почти три месяца. Ни денег, ни помощи, ни самого фонда.

Money from this charity concert was gathered by some “Federaciya” foundation that is not on any list of charity foundations. It is not registered anywhere, it doesn't have a web site, nobody knows anything about it. Three months have passed. There is no money, there is no help and there is no [“Federaciya” – G.V.] foundation anymore.

68 thousand people read Kuznetsova's letter on Ganopolsky's blog. More than 200 comments show people posting links that provide additional information about the foundation and about the issue in general.  Some people suggested to help Kuznetsova's daughter with money.

Other bloggers begain enthusiastically re-posting the information with their own take on the situation. The issue has started spinning online slowly acquiring its tangible forms in “real life.”

Many Russian and foreign media outlets picked up the story. Although the story of some foundation stealing money from children may not be particularly newsworthy for a lot of Russians, the connection to Vladimir Putin seemed to be obvious. Putin's press secretary claimed that the prime minister had nothing to do with “Federaciya” foundation and he simply attended the event to help raise money. But the headlines almost unanimously connect Putin with missing money: “Money Raised by Putin ‘Missing'” (The Moscow Times), “Where's the money? On Blueberry Hill?” (The Economist blog), “He ‘Found His Thrill,’ But the Cash Is Still Missing” (RFE/RL).

As it is often the case, the most lively discussion of the failed fundraising was happening on Russian blogs. Netizens discovered that the president of “Federaciya” foundation Vladimil Kisilyov used to work with Vladimir Putin (Kisilyov earlier denied knowing the prime minister). Bloggers also offered their interpretation of the scandal. Blogger oleg-kozyrev writes [RUS]:

Меня не удивляет, что облапошили и родителей детей, и западных звезд. Меня не удивляет, что в сомнительном мероприятии лично поучаствовал Путин. Меня удивляет, что ради того, чтобы замять очевиднейший скандал не нашлось срочно несколько миллионов, которые передали бы, наконец, в эти многострадальные семьи – ну хотя бы просто, чтобы скандал утихомирить. Ведь когда вскрылась афера с заповедным лесом в Крыму – мгновенно дворец перепродали. Видимо, количество афер, вскрываемых блогерами и СМИ, превышает уже возможности по их прикрытию.

I am not surprised that parents, kinds and western celebrities got cheated. I am not surprised that Putin himself participated in this shady event. But I am surprised that, to stop the obvious scandal, they couldn't find fast several million dollars that they could give to those suffering families – just to stop the scandal. When the fraud with the forest in the Crimea became known, they immediately re-sold the palace [read more about this here – G.V.]. Apparently, the amount of frauds discovered by bloggers and media exceeds the abilities to hide them.

Bloggers oreh thinks [RUS] that Putin is just a victim of a simple fraud:

Понимаете, когда мероприятием занимается организация, о которой никто ничего толком сказать не может, у которой нет, оказывается, даже расчетного счета для сбора средств, когда комментарии дает гражданка по фамилии Сникерс, то все это похоже на жульничество с элементами издевательства. А зарубежных знаменитостей и самого Путина при этом, получается, использовали в качестве лохов, чтобы срубить бабла и растворить эти деньги в нагромождении всякой лабуды.

You see, when an event is conduced by an organization that nobody can say anything about; that doesn't even have, as it turned out, a bank account to receive donations; when someone with the last name Sneakers comments on the issue; all that looks like a fraud with elements of bullying. And foreign celebrities and Putin were used as suckers to get money and dissolve it in a stack of different crap.

LJ user wapkin noted [RUS] the dual nature of the scandal:

И что может быть хуже для страны, чем премьер, в роли то ли лоха, то ли афериста – делающего себе дешевую популярность на людском горе, и укравшего последнюю надежду и у детей и у родителей?!

And what can be worse for a country than the prime minister in the role of either a sucker or a crook creating cheap popularity for himself at the expense of human suffering and who stole the last hope from children and their parents.

The story is far from being over but it certainly adds to the apparent trend in modern Russia: the blogosphere became a primary platform for many “hot” issues that were later picked up by traditional media. It is unlikely that the “vanishing foundation” story would have been noticed by newspapers and TV if it wasn't for the Internet and thousands of people who read and re-posted the information. There are also elements of crowdsourcing  in the story as many people dig out and share additional information on the foundation and provide the names of people who may have been involved in the scheme. As we have seen in similar cases previously covered by GVO, ordinary Russians start using the Web to reach wider audience and draw attention to the issues not covered by mainstream media.

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