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Inside Russia's orphanages
Joe Lowry

Abandoned, neglected and abused, Russia's orphans are the silent victims of the country's economic and social collapse. While humanitarian organizations try to lessen the physical hardships, the struggle to ensure the respect and dignity of these children is only just beginning.

It's the same every time. A carload of Red Cross workers coming back from a day's work, silent, immersed in private thoughts, common images whirring through their minds. Nightmare images provoked not by the horror of war, nor by violence, nor natural catastrophe. But by a day spent with children.

The stories are well known, kids tied to benches, lying immobile or tethered on urine-soaked sheets, corralled into wooden pens in the height of winter, beaten, starved, abandoned. Abandoned to the state, as Human Rights Watch said, in its chilling report Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages. But having read the report, having spent time in numerous orphanages of different categories and levels, your thoughts blur down an endless tunnel of confusion, depression, incomprehension, fear, outrage and finally numbness, a feeling of helplessness against a behemoth.

And struggling to the surface, among the Dickensian pictures, are the constant smiles on the faces of staff, the genuine love they can show, the smell of a clean ward, the echoes of the babble of excited children, dressed in their best clothes, singing happy songs for the guests, warm kitchens, the clatter of spoons on plates.

But then again the pallid faces of babies in the "lying down rooms", the stoic, clinical, outdated dismissiveness: "This child is an idiot, that one's an imbecile," remind you how grim life is here. And the bile rises in your gut when you feel those tiny fingers grip yours and see the rotten teeth grinning a real child's smile. "Why don't you paint some pictures on the wall for them? Play some music? Take them out into the sunshine?"

"They are idiots. Ineducable. What's the point?"

A system in ruins

In the Soviet Union, the state took care of you, from the womb to the tomb. Yes, there were orphans in the past, millions of war orphans. There was money to take care of everyone back then, although for the handicapped, a peculiar system of evaluation was elaborated, and is perpetuated today even though there is a) not enough money to implement it, and b) access to more enlightened approaches. 

Orphans and "social orphans" - children whose parents cannot care for them, or who have had their "parental rights" withdrawn - enter dom rebyonki or baby houses where they spend the first four years of life. At that point, an assessment is made by a board of state medical and educational reviewers and those with heavy mental or physical disabilities are given over to the care of the Ministry of Labour and Social Development. They are officially labelled as idiots and sent to closed institutions. There they remain till the age of 18 when - if they survive - they move to adult asylums for the rest of their lives.

There are 600,000 "orphans" in Russia, up to 95 per cent of them may have at least one living parent. But as conditions worsen, more and more children are being born handicapped, to parents who cannot support them, who are alcoholics, or diseased, or simply don't care. The system is cracking - lack of money means lack of food and clothes, which means poorer health, with fewer drugs to fight illness, less staff to cope, morale in a downward spiral...

And what happens to those children who leave the system at the age of 15 or 16? UNICEF estimates that one in three lives on the streets, one in five is a criminal, and one in ten commits suicide. If children are the hope for the future of a country, these grim statistics do not bode well for Russia.

"Please be my mother"

Dirty and shabby walls, scarce supplies of food, one toilet and one shower for 20 children - these are typical features of many Russian orphanages...

"Of course, it was easier in Soviet times," says Natalia Sunyeva, director of an orphanage in Petrozavodsk, north-west Russia. "Now I have to search for funds myself. The support from the Red Cross last autumn was very appropriate, especially the food and medicines. Still I have to find funds to purchase 120 beds for the kids." She's fortunate: in her school the state covers 60 per cent of needs, while in others this figure hardly reaches 30 per cent.

This year the Red Cross of Västerbotten, Sweden - twinned with Petrozavodsk - ran a campaign that raised USD 30,000 for the local Russian Red Cross committee.

Apart from food, clothes and bed linen the Red Cross funds provided TV sets, fridges, vacuum cleaners, electric heaters and also helped with the renovation of some premises and equipment.

Derevyanka is a small village 30 km south of Petrozavodsk. Here, in another orphanage, the children from the neighbouring villages come to study. Many stay here for the week. Some live here full-time. "Most of our children are social orphans, they live here and the school provides for them," says Natalia Neploko, director. "Whatever we can provide."

The school, built in 1929, is modest, heated by firewood stoves. Neat but cold classrooms. Gloomy and shabby bedrooms. Four modest beds covered with grey blankets. Everything is clean but awfully poor and depressing. Masha Kapaeva looks like a frightened kitten sitting on her bed in the room that she shares with five other girls. "She lives on this bed," says the teacher. It's the only home she has.

The teachers who start to work in such institutions do one of two things: either quit very quickly or never leave at all despite poor conditions, low salaries, unruly children. Those that stay become teachers, friends and parents to them.

"We have seven families here. Seven families of six children," says Valentina Makeeva, a teacher who the day before received a message from young Masha.
"I ask you to be my mother. Please respond. I am waiting for your answer." Valentina has no idea how to answer the question.

Margarita Plotnikova
Margarita Plotnikova is a Federation information officer in Moscow.

Relief and rights

The Russian Red Cross (RRC), with international assistance, has brought some relief. Several local chapters are renovating buildings and donating toys. Food has been distributed by the American Red Cross and the RRC to orphanages in five central Siberian regions with an additional donation from an American charity being used to buy fresh food for institutions near Moscow. The Federation's winter appeal, together with the RRC, seeks to provide bulk food and hygienic aid to orphanages in 21 regions, mainly in the most remote parts of Siberia and the north.

But the material aid is not enough. Fundamental reform of the system is urgently needed. The Red Cross must also work to change people's attitudes and develop alternative caring methods. For to help the most vulnerable means not only to relieve hunger and heat dormitories but to ensure that these children are treated with the dignity and respect that is their right.

Joe Lowry
Joe Lowry is a Federation information delegate based in Moscow.

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