Power of 10, Supporters

There is no reason not to help

Meet the hero of November’s Power of 10 anniversary feature, Vadim Levin. A former VTB Bank Deputy Chairman and now a photographer, Vadim joined the Gift of Life Board of Trustees in 2016. We spoke to Vadim about the achievements of Gift of Life and our sister charity Podari Zhizn, and the meaningful work the charities do to save lives; how the Russian community in the UK unites to help children back home and the power of joint efforts in doing good.

Vadim, Gift of Life celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. You’ve been supporting the charity for a while and then joined as a Trustee five years ago. Why is it important for you to help children in Russia?

It’s simple; even though I owe a lot to England, Russia is my motherland, and children with cancer are in bigger need of charitable support there. At the very beginning of my work with the foundation, I was surprised to learn that one of the rare but essential cancer drug is produced in the UK (Erwinase which is used to treat leukaemia in case of severe allergic reaction to standard treatment). Many other life-saving medicines are also produced and easily available only in Europe. By raising funds in the UK and other European countries, Gift of Life can effectively spend it on vital medications for children in Russian hospitals and save lives.

Children are the most vulnerable in society and helping them is completely natural to me. As a father of three I’m horrified to imagine what parents of seriously ill children must be feeling. In most Western countries, children’s oncological diseases are well treated with the help of timely diagnostics, state-of-the-art surgeries and most-effective medications. In Russia, the situation is different. Comparing to the ’90s, when paediatric oncology in the country was just starting to develop, significant improvements have been made, but still it’s not enough and Russia’s definitely behind when it comes to modern cancer treatment.

The Valaam expedition

Who of the Gift of Life supporters inspires you most?

I am greatly inspired by the humanitarian mission of Chulpan Khamatova, a co-founder of Podari Zhizn. Everything that Chulpan does for the foundation and for the development of charity in Russia helps to change the world for better.

I was also pleased to learn that an amazing actor and celebrated director Ralph Fiennes is actively involved in helping Gift of Life as a Patron. This also applies to the Principal of the Royal Ballet Natalia Osipova. I meet Natalia just occasionally as she is super-busy at the theatre, and it’s incredible how she always tries to support children in need by donating unique prizes for the charity auctions and donating her time and talent, performing at Gift of Life fundraisers for example.

Vadim Levin and Chulpan Khamatova. Gift of Life, London 2019

It’s impossible to imagine the work of the charity without the Board of Trustees. What skills should a trustee have to develop a charity project effectively and attract new supporters?

I don’t think there is anything specific to charity sector. Anyone involved in management of an organisation should possess leadership qualities to able to convince and inspire others by their own example. Talking about Gift of Life, Lyuba Galkina, fulfils this mission extremely effectively. Vladimir Nikitin as well makes a great contribution to the work of helping children in Russia both through his business ties and personal involvement. In my part I would like to do much more than I can do now.

Gift of Life has a lot to be proud of. However, I also see growth opportunities both in mass fundraising and in developing relationships with our current donors. The Russian-speaking community in the UK, and it’s not only people from Russia, but everyone we can reach out to, is quite significant.

And in this difficult time, when we cannot rely on physical fundraisers, it is crucial to develop alternative fundraising opportunities and attract new people to support our mission.

Indeed, since the beginning of pandemic Gift of Life was forced to cancel or reschedule most of its fundraisers. And in the meantime, our major donors have helped a lot. We were lucky to have the charity’s long-term friends standing by our side, donating vital funds, supported our online events. Together we continued to help, paying for expensive medicines unavailable in Russia, and since the beginning of the year we have already provided treatment for 39 children. This is the effect of our help increasing tenfold. What do you think about joining our efforts to solve fundamental problems like childhood cancer?

Even by my own example, I see how important it is to introduce people to charity and give them at least brief information about the problem of child cancer in Russia. Many people are not even aware of the fact this problem exists. Unfortunately, I haven’t got high hopes of the Russian state solving this problem in the next 10-15 years, so in the meantime the work of charities supporting children with cancer becomes extremely important.

If we look at the current results, it’s the NGOs (non-government organisations) in Russia, especially Podari Zhizn, that have largely advanced the development of the modern support programmes to treat childhood cancer. We can see the increased statistics of recoveries (for some diseases recoveries reach 90%, which is even comparable to the results in many Western countries). This means that joint, continuous efforts of our donors bring results, and there is hope that together with oncologists we can resolve the problem of childhood cancer.

Dmitry Rogachev Centre, the leading paediatric cancer clinic in Russia where thousands of children are treated every year

Before joining Gift of Life, you had an exciting career path. From a successful finance manager and former deputy chairman of one of the top Russian banks you switched to photography. How did it happen?

I went to my first photography club at the age of seven. I then continued with it as a hobby throughout school and university, being a film photography devotee for years. Whilst working in finance, I didn’t have the time to develop my passion, although I had a small private photo studio in Moscow. When I moved to the UK, I finally got an opportunity to devote more time to this. For a while I didn’t have my own equipment and although my British friends helped me with the development and printing of black-and-white photography, it wasn’t ideal. Now I do the whole process myself from start to finish (from shooting to producing final prints), and I’m not ready to do anything else.

I am glad that at this stage photography is more than a hobby for me. A true passion turned into professionalism in my case. With the help of some fellow photography specialists, I founded the Art of Foto project in St. Petersburg including a gallery, studio, and laboratory of black and white photography. To bridge the gap to the topic of charity, once a year we hold a photography auction for AdVita (one of the oldest charitable foundations in St. Petersburg), which helps us raise about $30,000 for them annually. I bought four photographs from these auctions for my private collection.

A charity auction is a great opportunity to raise tangible funds for charity programmes. Our annual Old New Year’s Eve gala always includes an auction, which over the years enabled Gift of Life to raise millions of pounds to save children’s lives. The most successful one of them, the 2020 gala raised over £720,000 thanks to the generous support of Vadim Levin. These funds enabled us to provide vital treatment for many children fighting cancer, such as Savely Elistratov, Nika Tsareva, and Azalia Nurgalina.

Many of your photography projects required travel to exotic countries, say, Papua New Guinea, where you shot indigenous peoples, or to European cities – for example, Venice, the city that you really enjoy shooting. During the lockdown none of was possible. How did you get through this?

As unexpected as it may sound, I did not suffer from the lockdown at all. Photographers such as Sasha Gusov for instance were probably desperate at the times of lockdown. Sasha is a street photographer and his specialisation required extensive travelling, and out of a sudden he could not even leave the house and do his work around London. It must have been a disaster for him. As for me, I was engaged in photo printing almost every day of the lockdown preparing four large projects. This is about 300 prints; each takes at least a day. I can say with confidence that no one in the UK printed as much as I did!

As it turns out I didn’t really have a break from work. Only the form of my work changed: I didn’t go on expeditions but printed the accumulated material in my laboratory. I managed to implement more projects than I would have shot travelling.

Photo credit: Vadim Levin

What are you working on now?

It’s the second part of the project filmed on Valaam (an archipelago in the northern portion of Lake Ladoga, lying within the Republic of Karelia, Russia). We started it in 2019, in 2020 we had to put it on hold due to the pandemic, and in 2021 we were able to continue. Now I am selecting the best shots for the exhibition and a book – a photo album that we were encouraged to make by the abbot of the Valaam Monastery. The first part of the project has already been exhibited in Moscow as part of the 30th anniversary of the revival of the Valaam Monastery.

At the same time, I am working on a project for Zima Magazine shooting famous people of the Russian community in their favourite places in London. The heroes of the project share their stories, favourite places and walking routes around the capital. Our first hero was a legendary musician Boris Grebenshchikov. Then followed the Royal Ballet principal dancer Natalia Osipova, writer Boris Akunin and novelist Zinovy Zinik and many others. I was also lucky to meet a sculptor Aidan Salakhova and photograph her workshop in Carrara during an interview with Igor Tsukanov, another a long-term supporter of Gift of Life.

The Valaam Monastery

Your children grew up in the UK. Here, charity is a common thing, children are introduced to it from early years. And if you had to explain to your children why you need to help others, what would you say?

I have repeatedly spoken about this with my older children, and my arguments are simple: they grew up in very good environment, went to excellent schools, and they should know that not everyone has such privilege. Many children on this planet are in need, and those who are seriously ill are in even greater need of help. Children who have had a good life should remember this and treat philanthropy with great respect and understanding. My eldest son and daughter are fully on board with my desire to help others. I haven’t talked about this with my youngest son yet, but he already knows about charity from school as there is a well-established charity culture here in the UK.

Gala 2020. From left: Igor and Natasha Tsukanov, Chulpan Khamatova, Vadim Levin with daughter Maria, Lyuba Galkina

Many people who left Russia and the former USSR territories for the UK are not ready to speak openly about their support of charity even after years of living here. Someone is simply embarrassed to draw attention to themselves, others are afraid that it may be perceived as a desire to look good. How can we change these stereotypes that prevent people from joining forces to save children’s lives?

Helping others secretly is a rather strange concept for me, and no one amongst my acquaintance feels the need to hide this either. I think it’s just a different culture and in Russia the charity sector is still only developing. In my understanding, any person should, depending on their capabilities, of course, support a good cause. For example, in the USA universities to a large extent depend on contributions from alumni who help as much as they can: some donate $5-10, and some donate millions.

Living in London, I haven’t met many people in the Russian-speaking community who have no means to help at all. Of course, the value of their donations may vary, and a person may not like a particular cause or foundation, maybe they believe in supporting an alternative cause, and I totally understand this argument. But there is no reason to avoid helping altogether.

If someone is uncomfortable to help a charity openly, it’s actually easier to be discrete when you help a foundation, not an individual. And to attract more new donors Gift of Life should share the impressive results of their work with the community. And everyone who helps charity should tell their acquaintances about it and convince people to help by personal example. I never hide my philanthropic effort.

What would wish to the Gift of Life supporters who, like you, give to the charity and give children chance for recovery?

I am incredibly grateful to all these people, and I want to wish them never stop supporting the charity. Carry on helping as much as possible. We all have our own budgets, but let’s focus on opportunities rather that limits.


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