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Out of disasters in Russia and China, a bloom of compassion

Russian volunteers rushed to the city of Krymsk after its July 7 flood, just as Chinese gave generously after a 2008 earthquake. Heartfelt, organized charity isn't easy for authoritarian regimes to tolerate.

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A man carries a food box near cartons of supplies being sent for flood victims in Krymsk, a town 750 miles south of Moscow hit by massive rain waters that left more than 170 people dead.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo

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A massive flood on July 7 in the Russian city of Krymsk killed more than 170 people. Yet the event could be remembered as more than a tragedy. It also triggered an unusual outpouring of compassion among ordinary Russians.

Thousands of young people organized quickly through the Internet and traveled 700 miles south of Moscow to volunteer in the relief and recovery efforts for the city. They not only helped the government’s response but also may have set a precedent for grass-roots giving in a country in which the government keeps a heavy hand on private groups.

The charitable response to the flood reflects a rising distrust of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin and a concern for the government’s ability to keep people safe. “It’s a new story for everyone – for society to help society to solve problems, without any contribution from the government,” Moscow activist Alyona Popova told The New York Times.

The not-so-random act of charity had a strong similarity to an outpouring of empathy in China after a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. That disaster left 87,000 dead, many of them children crushed by badly built government schools. Private donations amounted to some $1.5 billion.

Since then, a recognition has come slowly by China’s ruling Communist Party that private charities – including officially approved religious groups – may have a larger role to play in society.

“China still needs to cultivate the nation’s awareness of philanthropy and set up a more complete system to develop the cause,” said Minister of Civil Affairs Li Liguo in March.

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