The MacArthur Foundation in Russia: 1991-2015

Grantmaking in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union was an integral part of the MacArthur Foundation’s international engagement. The Foundation launched the Initiative in the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union in 1991 to “contribute to the transition to a civil and democratic society and to the integration of the society into the global community.” The Foundation opened an office in Moscow in 1992 staffed almost exclusively by Russians. Over the quarter-century of MacArthur’s presence in Russia, the Foundation continuously adapted its program priorities in response to the changing needs of Russian civil society and the Foundation’s own learning. The Foundation supported only activities that were charitable in nature and did not engage in or support political activity or lobbying to change laws.

Initial Focus

Initially, the Foundation’s engagement in Russia focused on four areas:

Energy and the Environment: In the energy field, the Foundation supported work on energy efficiency, the economic and environmental impacts of energy production and use, and safety issues associated with nuclear energy. In the area of environment and natural resources, the Foundation was concerned with both “brown” issues (pollution and associated threats to human and environmental health) and “green” issues (protected areas and natural resource management.) For example, early MacArthur funding has been credited with helping to jump-start the practice of sustainable forestry certification in Russia.

Law and Society: The Foundation supported work on strengthening institutions of civil society, assisting reforms of the judiciary and law enforcement, and developing norms of business ethics, such as those regarding conflict of interest.

Human Rights: Of particular concern to the Foundation was protection of ethnic minorities and women’s rights. Women were seen as especially vulnerable, given the collapse of social safety nets, their disproportionate level of unemployment, and lack of gender equality throughout the former Soviet Union.

Development of Independent Mass Media: The Foundation supported the strengthening of independent media and independent investigative reporting. MacArthur supported work in these areas through project grants to organizations and institutions, as well through support to individual researchers. Support to individuals was carried out through a Research and Writing grant competition, which was open to scholars, journalists, and practitioners throughout the former Soviet Union. Beginning in 1993, MacArthur ran 11 rounds of this competition, which drew on the services of a multi-national selection committee. Over 1000 grants totaling over $14 million were awarded through the competition; these diverse projects helped to fuel the careers of many analysts and incubated new policy institutes and non-governmental organizations. By far, the largest category of recipients was researchers on environmental and energy issues to whom the Foundation awarded more than $5 million in grants.

Higher Education

Later, the Foundation turned its attention to capacity building, including funding for the European University at St. Petersburg, the New Economic School, and the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. MacArthur expanded these efforts in 1997-1998 with the Foundation’s participation in a science program – Basic Research and Higher Education in Russia (BRHE). BRHE established centers of excellence in the natural and physical sciences at Russian state universities. MacArthur would become the lead donor, working in close partnership with the Russian Ministry of Education and providing over $30 million to BRHE over the next 14 years.

Recent Work

Over the last decade, MacArthur’s work in Russia was based on two pillars – Higher Education, and Human Rights. The Higher Education program enjoyed the support of the Russian academic community and was encouraged by both the Russian and U.S. governments. It achieved success in helping to integrate teaching and research in the natural and physical sciences, modernizing the practices of social science research, and helping a number of institutions and centers of excellence to achieve financial self-sustainability.

Important highlights of MacArthur’s Higher Education in Russia program included:

  • The BHRE program contributed to the development of Russia’s new system of National Research Universities.
  • MacArthur-funded independent graduate schools in the social sciences gained international recognition as leading centers of research and graduate education. These schools established independent governing boards, development offices, and alumni associations – all innovations new to the post-Soviet context.
  • Russia’s new Law on Endowments (2007) allowed for the accumulation of capital for charitable purposes for the first time. MacArthur grantees helped provide research and analysis to support this innovation, and were among the first Russian institutions to establish endowments under the new law.
  • MacArthur-funded think tanks and scholarly journals provided high-quality, independent analysis.

In Human Rights, there were three thematic areas: strengthening the regional human rights ombuds institution, combating police abuse, and facilitating access to the European Court of Human Rights. The Foundation sought to support work beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg, reaching out to civil society groups in 10 of Russia’s most populated regions. The Foundation also provided resources for grantee efforts to disseminate human rights information in the media.

Since concluding its Higher Education initiative, the Foundation continued to award grants through its Human Rights program where priorities shifted to facilitating access to Russia’s national justice system for Russian citizens and supporting freedom of expression in print and digital media. The program’s portfolio included 34 civil society organizations in eight regions of the Russian Federation.

An exploratory initiative on Russia’s Global Engagement was added to the Foundation’s grantmaking. The initiative opened the door to several new grants to further international cooperation around the Arctic region, strengthen global nuclear security, and develop collaborative ties between Russian and American researchers and policy analysts. In 2014, MacArthur disbursed $5 million to 41 Russian organizations in the last full year of the Foundation’s grantmaking in Russia prior to closure of its office.

Mounting challenges to the civic sector in Russia supported by Western foundations, culminating in the proposal by the upper chamber of the Russian parliament in July 2015 to include MacArthur in the list of so-called “undesirable organizations,” led to the decision to close the Foundation’s Moscow office. The office ceased all program work in August 2015.