Putin was ‘chatty and friendly’ says Irish humanitarian

Founder of Greater Chernobyl Cause charity Fiona Corcoran receives award in Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin awards the Order of Friendship to head of the Greater Chernobyl Cause charity organisation Fiona Corcoran  during the gala reception marking the National Unity Day in Kremlin. Photograph: Michael Klimentyev/RIA Novosti

Russian President Vladimir Putin awards the Order of Friendship to head of the Greater Chernobyl Cause charity organisation Fiona Corcoran during the gala reception marking the National Unity Day in Kremlin. Photograph: Michael Klimentyev/RIA Novosti

 

It’s not easy to choose a present for a president, so when Fiona Corcoran was invited to Moscow to receive an award for her humanitarian work from Vladimir Putin, she thought long and hard before eventually deciding on a pair of hand-crafted Irish bellows.

“I’d heard Putin liked spending time in the countryside so thought some bellows might come in handy,” says the founder of the Cork-based Greater Chernobyl Cause charity who became the first Irish citizen to receive the prestigious Russian Order of Friendship this month.

“Putin’s endorsement of our work is a huge boost. Let’s hope it stokes Russian interest in our projects.”

After presiding over the awards ceremony in the glittering Saint George’s Hall in the Kremlin, Putin took a seat beside Corcoran at a banquet. “He was chatty and friendly and very well informed about our charity,” she says. “The whole event was rather surreal.”

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It’s hard work. Russia’s historically strong philanthropic tradition is only now beginning to recover after seven decades of suppression in the Soviet era when charitable organisations were branded as bourgeois do-gooders. Even though Russia’s new rich understand that giving can enhance their reputations, they’re often wary of entrusting their money to charities.

Putin’s appreciation has raised the profile of the Greater Chernobyl Cause, but there’s a risk that the presidential seal of approval backfires, says Corcoran. “People might think we are rolling in it because we got the award. But it didn’t come with a donation.”

Corcoran was inspired to establish the Greater Chernobyl Cause after volunteering to work with a group of children at the Mercy hospital in Cork. They were being treated for radiation poisoning in the wake of the disastrous explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986.

Originally planned as a response to the Chernobyl tragedy, the charity has since expanded its mission and now works on projects such as rebuilding orphanages and hospices and organising food and medical programmes in Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

In Russia the Greater Chernobyl Cause works in the remote countryside of Kostroma some 200 miles northeast of Moscow, where an Irish priest alerted Corcoran to the plight of elderly people living in a dilapidated hospice at the village of Ivanskoye in 2000.

Among the often overlooked legacies of the Soviet Union’s demise was that state funding for healthcare and social services collapsed. After decades of relying on the communist nanny state, the weak and needy were left to fend for themselves.

Irish fundraising

“The place was rat-infested and stank of urine,” she says. “Identical meals were served three times a day: porridge, porridge and porridge.”

The Greater Chernobyl Cause relies almost entirely for support from fundraising activities in the towns and villages of Ireland.