The BEARR Trust: The Beginning

1991 – 2001

From speaking to a handful of the characters who were involved in BEARR’s creation or working in healthcare in the region at the time, the organisation’s infancy seems to have been characterised by remarkable resourcefulness and adaptability, at times by slight organised chaos, but above of all by compassion for those facing hardship. The healthcare and social welfare sectors were badly affected by the economic turmoil resulting from radical but only partial reforms, including a private sector in its infancy, the absence of a tax system and so on. It was a shared sense of urgency and goodwill in the face of this turmoil that brought together BEARR’s future supporters and trustees from a diverse range of backgrounds including the charity sector, diplomacy, business, and law. Some, including current trustees Nicola Ramsden and Marcia Levy, were already based in Moscow in the early 1990s, where Marcia Levy chaired an advisory committee. Others, including current patron Ellen Dahrendorf, Valerie Solti and Theresa Tollemache, assisted from London by forming a board, organising the official launch of The BEARR Trust, and fundraising from a London-based office base donated by De Beers.

Lady Jill Braithwaite (1937 – 2008), was the central force behind BEARR’s creation. When her husband, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, became the British ambassador to Moscow in 1988, Jill responded to the suffering she witnessed, particularly among women and children. Dr Harald Lipman, who was 1st Secretary, Medical Attaché to the British Embassy in Moscow between 1983 and 1991, and who went on to set up Tushinskaya Trust notes that, “Jill was very concerned about children in particular when she arrived in Moscow. There were a huge number of Russian orphans at that time, many of them living in pretty dreadful conditions”.

Lady Jill Braithwaite (1937 – 2008)

These problems had been intensified by recent events such as the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986; the Armenian earthquake of 1988, and the collision of two trains in Russia in the summer of 1991 which left many children badly injured and burned. Following these incidents, experts from the West were officially allowed to enter hospitals, and in due course a specialist in healing cleft palates would be the first medical practitioner brought from the UK to train others to help children affected in this way by Chernobyl.

In 1991 the sudden break-up of the Soviet Union disrupted manufacturing and distribution, leading to dangerous shortages of sutures, painkillers, and other basic medical supplies. Jill Braithwaite had brought together a small group of women she knew, including Susan Richards and Maria Fairweather, all of whom had a passionate interest in Russia and the region. Together they informally set up the organisation in 1991, and The BEARR (British Emergency Action in Russia and the Republics) Trust began its existence by coordinating the delivery of lorry-loads of humanitarian supplies to those in need, especially those with babies or children. Other names had been suggested for the organisation, including ‘Bridge’ and ‘Pheonix’. But after Theresa Tollemache lent her Anthony Burgess’s ‘Honey for Bears’, Jill Braithwaite had the idea of a name that would play with the local symbolism of the bear.

BEARR’s operations were very hands-on those days”, says Theresa Tollemache.  She describes how, in the economic crisis that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse, citizens were forced to pay market prices for medicines – prices which were unaffordable to most. In the early days links were made “with whomever we had personal contacts”. Doctor friends in Chelyabinsk and Perm’ received the first aid deliveries, while a musical friend of Theresa’s helped Megan to find accommodation on Smolenskaya, in central Moscow, in an apartment block she shared with some glamorous Bolshoi theatre ballet dancers. Much time was spent working out which individuals and organisations might donate supplies and transport them to Russia by air or lorry, since there was limited funding available at this stage. Theresa recalls how one day two volunteers came back to BEARR’s London office with a taxi full of prosthetic limbs, which had been donated by the NHS. Another truck was filled with Lemsip. BEARR’s first annual report in 1992 reviews the medical and humanitarian supplies delivered to areas not reached by government aid programmes: wheelchairs and sewing equipment were sent to the Dmitrov Society of Disabled People, and medical supplies to Moscow, Tomsk, Dagestan, and Georgia. In 1994, supporters distributed camping equipment for disabled children, purchased with money raised at a chess tournament at the British Embassy, where none other than world chess champion Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short played against 30 participants who had paid for the chance to try their skills against the best.

Jill Braithwaite and Megan Bick in BEARR’s London office, 1991

Megan Bick, now a BEARR trustee, carried out the first of BEARR’s emergency aid trips in 1992 with two drivers, men she had never met. They drove their lorry from London, across Europe and all the way to Chelyabinsk: a large city surrounded by lakes on the eastern edge of the Urals. She describes their unpreparedness fondly:

Those were wild days. Somehow Rodric [Braithwaite] had got us all visas. We didn’t have a map, and we didn’t have a back-up plan for what to do if we were forced to re-route. Our lorry had been donated and didn’t lock. It was full to the brim with aid supplies, so I stayed in it every night, sleeping on the seat with a crowbar next to me, while the main driver and his friend got some sleep indoors”.

Megan Bick before setting off on BEARR’s first emergency aid trip in 1992

Once they crossed into the former Soviet Union in Brest, Belarus, they were provided with a police escort. Theresa Tollemache admits that they did not fully appreciate the price that the goods being delivered would command on the black market at the time, nor the resulting risk for Megan: organised crime in the region was soaring, and drugs and pharmaceuticals were some of the more valuable commodities. Not only was delivering goods dangerous, but “some of the things being delivered were going straight out the back door”. Indeed, BEARR was not entirely sheltered from rising levels of corruption and gang violence in this transitional period. Megan recalls that, when she set up the BEARR office in a basement in Moscow in 1994, she noticed a horrible smell that she assumed to be a dead rat. It turned out to be the body of someone shot and hidden under the stairs. 

Megan outside Chelyabinsk hospital with BEARR’s lorry driver, a doctor, and policeman, amongst others (1992)

Jill Braithwaite’s concerns would later shape BEARR’s focus as she sought to create an organisation that would continue healthcare work after her time in Moscow came to an end. The continued provision of emergency supplies was not sustainable in the long term. Even in those chaotic times local groups were already forming to distribute aid and to provide social support to the more vulnerable members of society – those with disabilities and chronic diseases, as well as to older people. BEARR soon moved its attentions to support these nascent charitable organisations. As immediate demands lessened, BEARR’s focus shifted towards facilitating the exchange of expertise between the West and the former Soviet Union and supporting a burgeoning network of health and welfare civil society organisations across the region. BEARR was formally constituted as a trust in April 1992 and a registered charity on 18 May 1992, with Sir Norman Wooding as the first Chairman.

A hurdle BEARR’s founding members faced was frequent scepticism as to the organisation’s intentions in a region where the concept of civil society was novel, and where the hardship people had endured meant that you could only really afford to help your immediate circle of friends and family:

Society had been so atomised that the idea that people could get together and solve a problem was very strange,” Megan recalls.

Harald Lipman describes the similar mistrust he faced when setting up Tushinskaya Trust:

There were no charities as such in the Soviet Union; it was a new concept in the nineties. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were lots of people who felt there was money to be made from running a charity, and this blackened many other Russians’ impression of charities as a whole. Life was very hard, so there was no real drive to help with volunteering. Locals could not understand why foreigners would come over and ostensibly want to help them.”

In the Trust’s first annual report in 1992, its declared objectives include providing “help and advice to voluntary organisations concerned with [the health and welfare sector]” and promoting “the development of these organisations by means of exchange visits, training programmes and seminars”. BEARR’s annual conferences in London, which began in 1992, were one means of exchanging expertise between the two regions. The conferences were widely attended. In BEARR’s 1995 annual report, Norman Wooding noted that, “amongst those present were the Belarus Ambassador, the Mayor of Perm, and a delegation of senior doctors from St Petersburg”. BEARR also arranged for well-established UK healthcare organisations to share their know-how and to provide training at events across the region. For instance, they organised a conference with Scope UK in Chelyabinsk to advise organisations across Russia working with children with cerebral palsy, and BEARR’s first annual report also details how they organised a seminar in Moscow on care for elderly people in conjunction with Help the Aged and the Moscow Charity House. Growing this network included the development of twin town links, such as the Oxford-Perm link, which former trustee Deborah Manley, who sadly passed away last year, helped to establish, and which continues to this day.

Sir Norman Wooding addresses those at BEARR’s first annual conference in 1992

Myra Green was the director of BEARR’s London office from 1996 until 2000. She had a background in development work and had been Overseas Director with Voluntary Service Overseas. She helped BEARR to secure funds from the British Know-How Fund, from the EU’s TACIS [Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States] programme, and from USAID, among others. The money secured from these government and international donors funded the development of training packages designed by experts in the UK, which could be sent to more rural areas and easily adapted to meet local needs. Myra describes how people were impressed by BEARR’s very practical approach:

“These tailored packages demonstrated the impact that could be made to improve many people’s lives through simple changes, without spending a fortune”.

Throughout the 1990s, BEARR continued to build networks and encourage the exchange of expertise between British and organisations in the former Soviet Union. Projects included translating and publishing practical guides, such as the ‘Hospice and Palliative Care Handbook’ and WHO’s ‘Practical Guide to the Rehabilitation of Children with Cerebral Palsy’ in 1994.  

BEARR and the other individuals involved in building civil society and the health and social care systems in the former Soviet Union acknowledge that they had to “learn as they went along” in the beginning, driven by their compassion to help. Harald Lipman notes:

Nobody expected that the Soviet Union would so rapidly disappear. Although history was happening around us, we didn’t know it would happen until it did. Things were already unfolding in satellite towns in Eastern Europe, but it all rather rapidly fell apart in 1991. You learnt as you went along because you could only appreciate the situation when you were actively involved in it. One had to be very careful to try and involve locals and not just do things because you felt yourself that it would be right. We had to look at things from the point of view of those we were trying to help, and to take a step back”.

Although BEARR’s early supporters may have been working things out as they went along, their efforts reaped real and ongoing results. Megan reflects on how they contributed to the gradual development of a social care system in Russia, which did not yet exist as a concept beyond “home helpers” delivering food to those with limited mobility:

I would think that the introduction of real social work was one of the best things we ever did. By helping some big players, such as Scope and the National Asthma Campaign, to get into Russia and the FSU, we were the catalyst in some fairly major changes in the development of social care, family planning, fostering, and hospices in the region, among other things”.


Louisa Long
BEARR’s Information Officer

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