Russian Life Magazine. September/October, 2004
Story and photos by Jennifer Cherkasov
Nina has the normal worries of most 13-year-old Russian girls: clothes, boys and friendships. She wonders about her future after secondary school and would love to see the new Harry Potter movie. There is however, a major difference between Nina and the average Russian teenager. Nina is one of Russia's 700,000 registered orphans. She lives with 106 other children aged six to 18 in a two-story brick building several hours outside of Moscow.
The spartan bedroom Nina shares with five other teenage girls is decorated with a few Jennifer Lopez posters and a small collection of worn, stuffen animals. Outside the single window. the fields roll endlessly towards Smolensk, and a smattering of tiny wooden dachas make up the local village. For nine month of the year, Nina walks daily past a row of abandoned farm equipment to the orphanage school, where she receives the equivalent of a sixth grade education by the age of 16. There are no computers, library books or class trips, and the sewing room where she is to learn her future trade has no sewing machines.
Despite the complexity of her life, Nina is motivated to study. She is enthusiastic about her school. Nina loves to paint and read and dreams of becoming a teacher someday. At 13, she has not yet grasped the fact that she is in an internat an orphanage for those labeled "learning disabled." This fact means that, once Nina leaves the internat at age 16, her only option will be to attend a vocational school to receive training as a seamstress. Her learning disabilities are defined as an "inability to focus," and appeared around the same time her family relinquished their parental rights, when Nina was eight.
Government statistics showed 500,000 registered orphans in 1994. By 2001, the number had risen to 685,000 [unofficial estimates indicate there may be as many as 2 million orphans in Russia, including street children and the homeless]. Ninety-fife percent of these children are "social orphans" - their parents are living, but deemed unfit to parent, due to neglect, alcohol or drug abuse, or financial hardships. Recent research by a team of Russian psychologists found that 70% of Russians feel the state should sort out the problem of social orphans. But, as psychologist Viktor Zaretsky concluded in his team's study, Assistance to Russian Orphans, "Solving the orphan problem via public organizations and state social defense structures will never work. It is virtually impossible to prevent social orphans through the current educational and public health systems. We will need the cooperation of community resources, state institutes, scientists and practitioner of all types."
RUSSIA'S ORPHANS HAVE LONG BEEN an issue of concern, beginning with the first wave of bezprizorniki (literally, "the unattended") after the October Revolution. The first Russian State Orphanage system was developed following Russia's Civil War (1917-1922). It was based on the ideology of Soviet educators like Anton Makarenko and advocated a collective upbringing of orphans by establishing orphan communes. Makarenko himself started a collective for juvenile delinquents called Gorky Colony. This group home emphasized the integration of labor training with education, intending to train troubled youth in skills for future success.
For the rest of the 20th century, little changed in Soviet, then Russian, care for orphans. Homeless children and social orphans were institutionalized (their numbers swelling after WWII) until the age of 16-19, at which point they were released into the "real world" with little or no social safety net. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly clear that this institution-based system is incapable of handling the complex social and emotional issues orphans face when they exit the system and go out on their own. The state is not funding educational programs to teach orphans life skills, nor is it giving them access to necessary personal relationship counseling. Although most graduates are entitled to housing form the state, they are ill-prepared to manage it, and often do not have proper job skills or education to find sustainable work.
With more than 25,000 children leaving Russian orphanages each year, it is crucial for Russia's future that these children receive support for successful integration into society. "The most basic skills like making tea or keeping bank account balanced are obstacles these young adults must overcome each day," said Alexei Svakhine, director of a Moscow educational center for orphan graduates. "Imagine never cooking anything for yourself for seventeen years and then the day arrives when you are living alone. It is often a terrifying experience."
A recent partnership between General Electric's Moscow office and the private non-profit Mira-Med seeks to address this very problem, opening a National Training Center in Moscow. The center will train orphanage staff to create programs to give orphans the skills they need to transition form institutional life to society. The program expects to directly impact over 2,500 children over the next few years, and aims to counter the sobering statistics for orphan graduates: 40-50% of orphans leaving state institutions end up in crime, prostitution, drugs or suicide.
Less-educated and short on the skills needed for economic success, orphans are also at extremely high risk of creating orphans themselves. In family outside of Moscow, a former orphan mother has had sixteen children, relinquishing her parental rights one-by-one for each child. It is a difficult cycle to break, said Pavel Ivanovich, the director of a children's orphanage outside Moscow. "If you did not grow up with commitment and family values, it is difficult to find those in yourself. Perhaps you feel love for your child, but when there is a crisis with household finances, it is easier to take the child somewhere where you know they will be fed."
"Imagine never cooking anything for yourself for seventeen years and then the day arrives when you are living alone. It is often a terrifying experience."
THE RUSSIAN ORPHANAGE SYSTEM has been highly secretive for many years. It was only in 1999 that a landmark study by Human Rights Watch disclosed the appalling conditions in some Russian orphanages. The study focused on several "psycho- neurological" institutions (orphanage for children labeled as "mentally disabled") near Moscow, where orphaned children receive no education and very little stimulation of any kind. The report, Abandoned to the State, offered this telling detail:
"Although there has been a deluge of toys donated to baby houses since international charities began to assist them in the early 1990s, the children's beds in many baby houses are still bare. In addition to eyewitness accounts by numerous people interviewed by Human Rights Watch, we observed this irony first hand during a visit to a well-supported baby house in Moscow."
"Reminiscent of the peculiar practice in Romanian orphanages to display newly acquired developmental toys in places only accessible to the staff, the staff of the Moscow baby house called our attention to their bright array of Montessori toys stacked in the glass cabinet just inside the play room. They stopped our tour briefly to demonstrate how the toys worked, and then put them back and closed the cabinet door."
This study was also important in criticizing the placement mechanisms used in Russian orphanages. When Russian parents give up an infant, the child is taken to a "baby house." These institutions house children until they are five, providing very little in the way of stimulation or education. Then, at about age four, each child is given a single exam by a board of state certified psychologists and doctors. The panel questions and tests the child to determine if he or she demonstrates "normal development."
As a result of this exam, children are placed into one of three types of orphanages, according to their determined developmental abilities. The top tier of institutions if for "normal" children; the middle tier is for the "learning disabled"; the bottom grouping consists of "psycho-neurological" orphanages. Children placed at this lowest level are not eligible for education or future integration into society. At age eighteen they are moved to nursing homes, where they live with elderly and handicapped persons who need full-time care. Despite the fact that many children slotted into this lowest tier are capable of learning at some level, there is no system for life-training or few attempts at anything beyond the most rudimentary education. Worse still, a child can be placed in these low-level orphanages based entirely on a physical handicap, deformity or bad behavior.
Needless to say, this system of early testing and tracking of orphans is highly subjective. That a child's future is entirely dependent on his or her performance in and interview at age four (when most children are suspicious and afraid of strangers), is a rather scary reality. The Human Rights Watch report pointed our how difficult it is for individuals to reverse their classifications later in life.
"In a meeting with about ten articulate girls and boys and two resident vospitateli ["upbringers"] who were unusual in their strong advocacy for the children, Human rights Watch noted the "Catch-22" that traps these orphans in several respects. The children said that they wished to apply to have their diagnosis lifted from their file, but they must have finished eight years of standard school in order to apply to the commission for a re-analysis. As light oligophrenics, however, they have only had access to the equivalent of six years of standard school. According to the vospitatel at the PTU, there are no teachers available to help them make up the extra two years."
"All my life I was told I was stupid. I was never taught to read or write. It has been difficult to begin at this age, and in the beginning I was humiliated. But with my teacher, I can begin to see that I can learn."
Recently, several non-profit organizations that specialize in rehabilitation and orphan education have begun the process of reversing labels for misdiagnosed children. Once a label of "learning disabled" is lifted, the child is entitled to education and training that provides many more choices for future jobs and knowledge.
"All my life I was told I was stupid," said Katya, 18, who is enrolled in a rehabilitation program for older orphans. "I was never taught to read or write. It has been difficult to begin at this age, and in the beginning I was humiliated. But with my teacher, I can begin to see that I can learn. Now maybe I can get a job and change my classification within the state."
According to government statistics, 1% of Russian children are given up after birth. Russian parents are routinely encouraged not to keep their child if there is any sign of a physical or mental abnormality. "We are just now beginning to make progress with encouraging parents to keep babies that are not 'normal,'" said Mary, a staff member of DownSide Up, a Moscow non-profit group working with Down's Syndrome babies. "Twenty years ago, it would have been unheard of to try and raise a child with Down Syndrome. Now with support and programs for these families, they are starting to try."
THE STATE HAS ENCOURAGED THE development of non-institutional forms of care over the years, like the patronat system (a personal mentoring program), foster care and family orphanages. But these systems take great effort to implement and maintain (to say nothing of consistent finding and commitment), so they are growing only very slowly. Private organizations, meanwhile, are stepping into the breach and offering innovative solutions for a limited number of youth.
In the Kaluga region southwest of Moscow, on a large plot of land donated by the regional government, stands the Kitezh Children's Community. Founded in 1992 by successful Moscow radio journalist Dmitry Morozov, the community is the realization of Morozov's vision to create a therapeutic village to raise orphans within families, and at the same time provide schooling, psychological support and job training.
"Dmitry is one of those people that can accomplish things that everyone else says are impossible," said Dena Fisher, a fundraiser for Kitezh. "His colleagues joked about the 'commune' he was off to create, never dreaming of the incredible difference he was to make in the lives of many children without families!"
With support form the Scottish charity Ecologica, Kitezh designed and built the village using traditional Russian architectural forms. Ten families now live at Kitezh, each with their own house and each with a mixture of orphan and biological children.
"It makes a huge difference to have a mom. Now there is someone to answer my questions and plenty of brothers and sisters to play with and take care of."
Masha is a 50-something single mom of three who has taken four orphans into her home at Kitezh. "I have washer and hot water!" she says, proudly pointing to her frontloading machine. "There is a space for everyone, we cook together, we study together and most of all we are a family!"
Masha's family was challenged several years ago with the addition of Anya, a rebellious, street-smart 13-year-old. Masha and the Kitezh community rallied to help Anya find her talents and congidence. She has since blossomed into a caring teenager with hope for her future.
"It makes a huge difference to have a mom," Anya said. "Now there is someone to answer my questions and plenty of brothers and sisters to play with and take care of."
Kitezh is rich with a spirit of cooperation and trust. To date none of the Kitezh graduates (more than over 50 over the last 10 years) has fallen prey to the well-publicized problems of adult orphans.
Meanwhile, there are plant to begin construction on a second village and local authorities are so far being cooperative. Many graduates form the "first" Kitezh plan to be leaders and parents in the second village. "I just want to be able to give back the same that was given to me," said Sergei, a 21-year-old art student. "It's really a lot of fun to crate something as a group."
Maria's Children is an arts rehabilitation program that works with orphans in the Moscow region. The director, Maria Yeliseyeva**, is a mother of four and was inspired to work with orphans at a young age. [Russian Life profiled Yeliseyeva as one of Russia's 100 Young Russians to Watch in the New Century, in its Mar/Apr 2001 issue.]
"When I was 10 years old, my parents divorced," Yeliseyeva said. "I didn't want to live any more, so I stopped eating. One day, I collapsed on the metro, and was taken to a hospital, where I recuperated for a month. Late one night, I heard a child crying and whining. An orphan with pneumonia was whimpering in pain in her bed in the hall. When I got up and investigated, I discovered the mustard plaster on her chest was burning her, as it had been there for too many hours. In those moments of caring for this child, I experienced an epiphany, a reason to live. I determined I would grow up and work with Russia's orphans to better their lives."
Her love for art became the medium through which she communicated best with the children, and she soon found herself hosting groups of orphans weekly for art classes, art therapy sessions and homemade meals. Her basement studio/center is located in the heart of Moscow's downtown and more that 300 orphans visit each week, many of them labeled "learning disabled" or "debil." Maria's programs also bring children together through her traveling clown and mural painting groups, which visit rural orphanages. She works closely with American doctor Patch Adams and his philosophy of clowning for a cure.
While researching the organizations for this article, our family charity decided to open a social rehabilitation center outside of Moscow. My husband, former Olympic cyclist Pavel Cherkasov, and I began The Magic House, modeled after the well known Russian fairy tale "Teremok," where dreams can come true.
"So many bright, talented people leave Russia to find jobs in the West," Cherkasov said. "But Russia needs inspired and motivated people to try and make positive changes. I want to make a difference here."
The Magic House's activities are based on the principles of adventure therapy-- orphans are given the chance to learn activities such as cross-country skiing, biking and snow-shoeing. Through movement and the facilitation of instructors, the children begin to establish important relationships based on trust and communication.
Research has shown that if orphans can gain the trust of one adult, their chances for future success are greatly increased. From this foundation, further steps can be taken to create vocational or educational plans for graduating orphans. The Magic House also uses art therapy, computer skills classes and HIV/AIDS prevention training to build life skills and confidence. The non-profit group works mainly with orphans in rural Russia, and particularly with those labeled "learning disabled." The Magic House makes regular visits to the orphanages as well as bringing orphans to their center outside of Moscow.
BESIDES THE EXCEPTIONAL WORK being done by private organizations to help orphans, thousands of Russian orphans exit the system through adoption--many adopted by American families. In 1992, just 324 children from Russia were adopted by U.S. residents. By 2003, that number had risen to over 5,000.
"There has long been a stereotype haunting Russian orphans in their homeland… [it] will only change through re-education and good public relations."
Meanwhile, experts commonly note that Russians need to be encouraged to adopt their society's orphans, that even the current, massive scale of foreign adoptions barely makes a dent in the rising orphan population. But for this to happen, a social stigma must be overcome. "There has long been a stereotype haunting Russian orphans in their homeland," said Magic House's Cherkasov. "It has not been socially acceptable to adopt a child that someone else has abandoned. This unfounded belief continues to permeate Russian society and will only change through re-education and good public relations."
There are undiscovered talents hidden in the corners and hallways of Russia's orphanages: brilliant artists, gifted linguists, comics, writers, philosophers and dreamers. Opening the doors for these children to find their talents will have a demonstrable effect on Russia's future.
In the 1930s, Anton Makarenko spoke with a hope relevant to today: "Our children have a very large range of choices. The deciding factor is not the material wealth of a family, but solely the ability and training of each child…"
With support and optimism, Russia's orphanage system can move ahead to family- style care, foster families and personal mentoring programs. And then teenagers like 13-years-old Nina can live out their dream of becoming contributing members of Russian society.
RNO Magic of Music
1333 N. California Blvd., Suite 190
Walnut Creek, CA 94596
Kitezh Children's Community
4321 W. Highway 13
Savage, MN 55378
The Magic House
Montpelier, VT 05601
Phone in Russia: +7-916-810-8264
Orphans Benefit from California Auction
It is a little-known fact that Russian explorers and settlers introduced some
of the first fruit and grapes to Northern Sonoma County, in California. In one
of those interesting twists in which history comes full circle, Imagine 2004, a
charity auction held in Sonoma County in July, netted $1.1 million that will go
to beneficiary organizations representing children's causes, including to the
Magic of Music, and outreach effort for Russian orphans.
The event was held at Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards and Winery and featured a
private performance by the 85-member Russian National Orchestra (RNO), which runs
the Magic of Music program in Russia. Attendees bid on everything from a private
dinner with Sophia Loren (which brought in $240,000), a two-week stay at a Tuscany
hideaway, a walk-on role in a Sydney Pallack film, and a day at the races with
racecar driver Paul Newman.
"The entire amount goes directly to children's charities," said event co-chair
Fred Furth, who is a famous San Francisco trial attorney and owner of Chalk Hill.
"There will be no overhead or anything else deducted from what we raised here,
and that's what we are most proud of."
Another winemaker highlighted the way in which this event reconnected the
northern Californis region with its Russian roots. "The history of the Russian
influence in this area is deep," said Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates.
"We are bringing back to the Russian River."
It is a little-known fact that Russian explorers and settlers introduced some of the first fruit and grapes to Northern Sonoma County, in California. In one of those interesting twists in which history comes full circle, Imagine 2004, a charity auction held in Sonoma County in July, netted $1.1 million that will go to beneficiary organizations representing children's causes, including to the Magic of Music, and outreach effort for Russian orphans.
The event was held at Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards and Winery and featured a private performance by the 85-member Russian National Orchestra (RNO), which runs the Magic of Music program in Russia. Attendees bid on everything from a private dinner with Sophia Loren (which brought in $240,000), a two-week stay at a Tuscany hideaway, a walk-on role in a Sydney Pallack film, and a day at the races with racecar driver Paul Newman.
"The entire amount goes directly to children's charities," said event co-chair Fred Furth, who is a famous San Francisco trial attorney and owner of Chalk Hill. "There will be no overhead or anything else deducted from what we raised here, and that's what we are most proud of."
Another winemaker highlighted the way in which this event reconnected the northern Californis region with its Russian roots. "The history of the Russian influence in this area is deep," said Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates. "We are bringing back to the Russian River."RL
* Jennifer Cherkasov received her M.Ed degree from St. Lawrence University in 1983. She was a public school teacher for many years, as well as a professional cyclist and sports massage therapist. She has written for the Russian magazines GO! and Passport and has published travel essays about her one-year bicycle trip through Asia. She lives with her husband Pavel and son Sasha in Martyanova, Russia and Barre, Vermont, where they run a non-profit organization for Russian orphans. RL
Russian Life Magazine. March/April, 2001
**Maria Yeliseyeva, teacher.
Maria Yeliseyeva, 36, had been working for years with children and the arts--she had an art studio attached to the local House of Pioneers, plus a puppet theater. But just over seven years ago, she happened to visit Orphanage #103 in Moscow's Lefortovo district. It is an orphanage for children with special needs. She took her three children along.
"The children at the orphanage had been diagnosed as "incapable of attending a special school,'" Yeliseyeva explained. "These children were attracted to me, to my kids, and especially to my daughter Anya, who is only 6 month old then. They marveled at the opportunity to play with 'normal' children. Back then I didn't even think of teaching them painting. I was just coming to visit these orphans. But then I thought, 'We need to be occupied with something!' So I taught them drawing and painting."
From such unexpected beginnings a dream began to grow. Soon Maria and her friends were visiting the orphanage regularly, bringing the children home with them for weekends or vacations. And then there were the art classes. Art opened up a new world for these children--a placed where there was beauty and love.
Yeliseyeva set up an art studio on Moscow's Ostozhenks street. But the site soon proved too small for the number of students she needed to accommodate--now visiting from six orphanages. So she registered a new non-profit organization, the Art Rehabilitation Center and took over a damp, dilapidated basement with a dirt floor. Together with her students and some financial help form corporate sponsors like Kodak, the basement was transformed. Roman, a student at the center, helped a great deal. "It looks cool," he said, "instead of wallpaper, we just painted all the walls with different subjects. In one room we have a lake, in another room you feel like you are up in the sky …"
Today, some 110 children attend classes at the center, including 28 with cerebral palsy. The children have created over 50 collaborative murals and patchwork tapestries and their work is exhibited annually at Moscow's Central House of Artists.
Meanwhile, Yeliseyeva's family has also grown. She now has four girls, plus three children--two girls and Roman adopted from different orphanages. She can afford to feed and clothe such a large brood because her husband, Ilya Segalovich, is himself a successful innovator: he invented Russia's most popular web search engine: "Yandex."
This is not to say life is easy or that the road has always been smooth. Indeed, Yeliseyeva reveals that the family only got a washing machine after their fourth child was born. And, up until recently, they lived in Moscow's distant Kuchino region, which regularly had three-month hot water outages in summer.
The bright, lively paintings of Maria's children belie the artist's difficult lives or the struggles Yeliseyeva and her center have had to overcome to achieve their present success. "First of all," Yeliseyeva says, "you have to try to teach them to become good people, to be friendly. And, most importantly, to not be just consumers. They must also learn how to take care of themselves, how to find their bearings in life. It is the hard part; it is our number one task, one perhaps even more important than drawings and art. Of course, painting is important, for, like any art, it frees one from stress, it gives one some support in life. But the typical problem for orphans is that they get used to living at state expense and have no idea about how things work in the real world. ... They take it for granted that society must take care of them because they are orphans. And they start thinking that, once they are out of the orphanage, this will continue ... No one is teaching them how to live further--without that guaranteed piece of daily brad. So, what we are doing is trying to get them do something for other people. For example we take them to the House of Children and they help take care of abandoned babies."
A commitment to such practical idealism has yielded fruits. There was another generous grant from Kodak, plus financial assistance form a longtime friend, the American physician Patch Adams. And, this past summer, with help from sponsors, Yeliseyeva was able to bring an exhibit (plus 10 children) to the US. The show first appeared in the rotunda of the US Senate building, then moved on to the Russian Cultural Center in Washington DC, and to sites in New York, Minneapolis and Seattle.
But, of course, the best testament to Yeliseyeva's work is the lives of the children she has taken under her wing. Roman, whose birth mother was an alcoholic, has just returned form service in the army and has joined the work of the center. When he began to visit the center as an orphan years ago, he said, "the colors of my life changed ... Now we have a merrier life, a goal to attain: to help other children." RL