Russian ladies start lunching

Observations on charity

The concept of nouveau riche first came to Moscow in the early 1990s. Stories flew around about the $2,000 pool table in a sports store that sold only when the price tag was hiked to $20,000. Then by the end of the decade came stealth wealth. A friend of mine, Viktoria, queen of hair extensions and killer manicures, developed a fascination for discreet but outrageously priced Harry Winston diamond stud earrings. Now, in the wake of Beslan and pensioners' protests over President Putin's welfare reforms, new Russia is in sombre mood and its zolotaya molodezh (gilded youth) are embracing "wealth guilt".

Russia has no recent history of blagotvoritelnost (charity). As Aliona Muchinskaya, a trustee of the North Crown Foundation, Russia's biggest children's charity and owner of the London-based events organisers Red Square, says, giving to the poor was not possible under the Soviet system, in which the poor were not supposed to exist. "The word charity was never heard," she explains. "Charity was something rich people do and in Soviet society no one was rich." Until recently, such charities as existed in Russia were run by well-meaning foreigners.

But in a recent Vanity Fair interview, Russia's most envied woman, the 22- year-old supermodel Natalia Vodianova, spoke of her new non-profit organisation for underprivileged children, the Naked Heart Foundation. Vodianova, who grew up in provincial poverty, was working in a fruit market at the age of 14 when she was spotted by a casting agent and whisked off to Paris. Now married to the Honourable Justin Portman, a member of the 22nd richest family in Britain, and with her own wealth from multimillion-dollar contracts at Calvin Klein and L'Oreal, she wants to give something back: "I wanted to start my charity, because it keeps you in touch with reality."

The North Crown Foundation - whose president is Irina Kudrin, glamorous wife of the finance minister, Alexei Kudrin - launched a British operation at a gala evening in London last year, attended by the cream of new Russia's expats. The designer Valentin Yudashkin put on a catwalk show. The viola supremo Yuri Bashmet played a duet with his daughter.

Aliona Kukushkina, a Russian Red Cross volunteer, calls it Beslan syndrome. Appeals after the September siege raised unprecedented amounts: the Russian Red Cross got $3.5m. "We had Russians who live abroad calling us and crying down the phone," Kukushkina says.

I once met a businesswoman in her mid-thirties who ran her own recruiting company, with offices across Russia. She had come from an ordinary Soviet family. I asked if she ever felt bad about how much she had acquired in such a short time, when people from her past were still living in poverty. "Yes, of course," she said. "But no one in my generation who is successful has a social conscience. We are too busy enjoying the things we were told we would never have."

Now, as Russia's middle class emerges, things are changing. When pensioners protested in January that Putin was cutting back their free transport as well as subsidies for telephones, utility bills and medicines, the president got his worst ratings ever. In a poll, only 38 per cent agreed Russia was "on the right path", against 53 per cent a year earlier. A nation's social conscience is waking up.