Health Care and Russia’s New Private Sector

A Crisis in Russia

In a stunning report entitled “Dead Souls,” in the January 1999 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Murray Feshbach describes the current health crisis in Russia — a crisis much more serious than most Russians or foreigners understand. Feshbach notes that the number of HIV and AIDS cases in Russia and deaths from AIDS is “on the verge of exploding.” He quotes the former Minister of Health’s prediction that one million Russians will be infected with HIV by the year 2000.

According to Feshbach, “Bad water nationwide has led to high rates not only of bacterial dysentery but also of hepatitis and cholera,” and “thermal-power plants throughout the country are spewing forth carcinogens, owing to incomplete combustion.” Feshbach also reports that lead emissions in Russia are fifty times as great as those in all of the European Union.

Feshbach summarized his report in these words: “Analysts specialized in geopolitics, economics, or the military who ignore these issues do so at the risk of overlooking Russia’s most fundamental realities. So much of the shrinking Russian population may soon be so ill that long-term solutions to the country’s political, economic, and military problems will be inconceivable.”

Another contributor to Russia’s health crisis is the growing problem of homelessness. Five months after the latest financial crisis in Russia, which began with the collapse of the ruble on August 17, 1998, 10,000 people are living on the streets of Moscow. With city shelters only capable of holding 1,200 a night, the crisis is only going to get worse as the winter months continue. Many of the homeless are elderly pensioners who are often in need of medical care.

According to recent estimates, Russia’s homeless population numbers no fewer than 1.5 million out of a total population of 147 million, and this figure excludes the country’s several million refugees and forced migrants. Many of these homeless people have been declared “without fixed abode,” a legal stigma that means they have no right to the social services promised in Russia’s 1993 Constitution.

The Good News

The work of Christian medical missions in Russia is a story that deserves to be told. In the face of a massive health crisis, Christians have stepped up to the challenge, forming partnerships with Russians to deliver medicines and medical care. The Fall 1998 issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report documents the remarkable story of medical and humanitarian relief that is occurring throughout Russia and Eastern Europe.

Christian nonprofit organizations, such as MAP International, World Medical Relief, Interchurch Medical Assistance, and International Aid, to name just a few, receive donations of medicines and supplies from U.S. firms and then make them available to individuals and mission agencies. Worldwide Lab Improvement and Chosen Mission Project provide refurbished equipment and supplies at low cost, sometimes no cost.

The Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Medical Mission Program donates $850 worth of drugs a year to physicians traveling to Russia. World Medical Mission, the medical arm of Samaritan’s Purse, facilitates trips for physicians, dentists and other medical personnel to Russia and other needy areas of the world. These groups – and many others – have chosen not to walk away from Russia in its time of crisis. Instead, they have stepped in as an act of benevolence because of their faith. They are living out Jesus’ call to help the needy and the downtrodden.

A Key to Russia’s Future

This report of medical missions and their cooperation with Russian churches and nonprofit organizations has great importance on many different levels. Most important is that care and service is being offered to individuals who are struggling with serious diseases or who are vulnerable because of their homelessness and poverty.

But, on another level, the role of faith-based medical missions is important because it demonstrates in powerful ways that churches and their related programs have an important contribution to make to the well-being of Russian society. After seventy years of persecution, the churches in Russia were reduced to a marginal role in society. This reduction, compounded by the atomization of society by the ruling Communist elites, resulted in several generations of Russians who are accustomed to seeing no worthwhile role for churches outside of privatized, spiritual nurture of church attendees. The Soviet experience gave primacy to the role of the state and eliminated most private organizations. For many Russians today, “private” means “not important,” when compared to state-administered programs.

Medical missions, along with other private relief and development organizations from the West, are building ties with Russian nonprofit structures and are quietly demonstrating that faith-based programs are critical to meeting some of Russia’s most pressing health needs. They are also making a strong case, just by their presence, for the private sector as an important player in healthy, democratic societies. Their work is a ministry of grace, which demonstrates the power of the Gospel message. People of faith care about others and are motivated by their faith to serve those in need.

Sick and homeless Russians need help. This help is coming from people in faith-based organizations. The message should be clear to those in power: the private, nonprofit sector needs to be nurtured and encouraged in Russia, if a healthy New Russia is to emerge from these difficult years of transition out of Communism.