There are good reasons for our reluctance to engage. The sheer enormity of the problem is the least creditable of them, but the West's experience has not been encouraging. It has become an article of faith that to channel aid or investment through existing institutions confirms old practices. At the other end of the scale, the attempt to help 'the people' directly, by distributing help such as food packages, has tended mostly to feed the 'mafia'.
But the present anarchy should not surprise us, nor deter us from involvement. We will have to get used to it. The failure of the Soviet regime was bound to leave the country almost ungovernable. It had no experience of how to run its economy differently, no alternative traditions of politics and government, no civil society, no rule of law.
In such an anarchic situation, we should look at what initiatives have already been effective, in what spheres of activity and why. This will help us to formulate 'aid' principles appropriate to the former Soviet Union. Four small but successful British ventures under way at the moment show how this can be done.
The first addressed the lack of appropriate post-Soviet textbooks in Russian schools. A nation-wide competition covering nine subjects was launched. After two and a half years' work, the winners are now writing their textbooks. By the end of the year they will be being published in an exercise which will also result in the creation of a new generation of Russian publishing houses. The publishing process itself is being minutely monitored, with penalties and contractual escape clauses at two-monthly intervals. This operation, funded by the Soros Foundation, is the brainchild of a professor of Russian history from Manchester University.
More unlikely still is an imaginative project to retrain discharged army officers as social workers. Simultaneously it addresses two equally grave problems. Initiated by Norfolk County Council and the Russian organisation for retraining officers, it has now been extended into a pilot project for the development of social work training throughout Russia. The very concept of social work as we know it did not exist in the Soviet Union. Even an evolved Western system of social services would be incapable of handling the social fall-out from the collapse of the centralised state system. Should we fail to address such problems, we are likely to find that Russia's casualties land on Europe's doorstep.
In St Petersburg recently I chanced to meet a group of St John ambulance men and volunteer policemen from West Mercia. This has led to a scheme being set up whereby the 35,000 employees of St Petersburg police force will eventually all receive first-aid training, once the St John men have set up a course to train the trainers.
Lastly, there is the example of Bookaid, which saw a handful of British volunteers send 1.3 million English language books to libraries, schools and universities all over the former Soviet Union. This has inspired similar projects from Germany and the United States, but this time run by governments.
There are vital lessons to be learnt from these examples. They are initiated by individuals or groups with the commitment to see projects through. They are all tailored to Russian needs as perceived by Russians. They concern education, health and social welfare and the voluntary sector.
There are already scores of people in Britain battling to make schemes such as these work - many within the framework of twin town links. Rather than thinking up new and often abortive aid ventures to meet the political needs of the moment, we would do better to see how we can make such schemes proliferate.
Yet on the European level, there is no funding for initiatives concerned with social welfare. In Britain, the Know How Fund offers a little support for health projects, but within terms narrowly defined by Whitehall. And there is no money at all for the large numbers of professionals in health and social welfare who are trying to collaborate with their Russian counterparts in areas such as nursing, where retraining is desperately needed.
Most significantly, there is no funding for the provision and maintenance of establishments and training schemes once they have been set up in Russia. Yet in many cases these would offer the prospect of skills learnt being taught and retaught right across the country.
For politicians and officials used to formulating policies and putting them into motion, it may be difficult to take seriously the idea of a major policy that is reactive and seeks to encourage a proliferation of outside initiatives, each on a modest scale. But anyone who knows Russia today also knows that aid policies formulated on a 'top down' basis will continue to waste money and increase Russian cynicism about our intentions.
'Epics of Everyday Life', by Susan Richards, is published by Penguin at pounds 4.99.Reuse content