Julia Reed in Moscow -
Much has been said about the miserable plight of Russian orphans, especially following the recent ban on all American adoption in Russia in retribution for Congress' so-called "Magnitsky Act", which penalizes some Russian officials on human rights grounds.
After decades of inaction, suddenly the issue has become a political tug-of-war between the state, which is largely against all foreign adoption, and the liberal opposition, which highlights cases of neglect and abuse in Russian orphanages.
Fuel was thrown on this fire in May when a video on YouTube showed a 17-year-old orphan girl whipping younger boys with a belt in an orphanage in the Amursk region in Russia's Far East. The girl (herself an orphan) is facing criminal charges and the director of the orphanage has been sacked.
However, the video only throws into relief the problems of Russia's orphanage system, which are legion. There are other videos of orphan children telling stories of routine sexual and physical abuse, and few doubt that these cases are commonplace.
It has always been a commonly held view in Russia that to be in an orphanage is as bad as being in a Russian prison. According to the General Prosecutor's Office, 40% of orphans end up becoming alcoholics and/or drug addicts, 40% commit a crime and 10% commit suicide. Only a lucky 10% emerge from the orphanage and adapt to the outside world to lead relatively normal lives.
The story of Tanya Chernyshova, 23, and her childhood friend Misha Sedov, 26, is typical and exceptional.
Chernyshova looks and talks younger than her age. She has pleasant manners, doesn't swear or drink alcohol, has slightly chipped front teeth and just a small lisp. Her friend Sedov, with whom she was in the orphanage, is so small-framed that one would hardly believe he is more than 19 years old.
Both Chernyshova and Sedov were born in Moscow. Sedov never met his parents and still doesn't know anything about them. Chernyshova once overheard that she lived with her parents until she was five and that her alcoholic mother used to hit her head against the radiator. Eventually she fell ill and was taken to hospital by her neighbours, but her parents simply didn't come to collect her after she recovered so she was sent to the orphanage. Eventually, the orphanage was turned into a cadet school and then a boarding school with a military bent, but the orphans remained.
Chernyshova felt uncomfortable in the school, given she was one of the few children who'd stay there over the weekends while the rest went home to their families. She didn't enjoy having to wear a military uniform all the time and didn't like her bunk bed in a tiny room she shared with three other girls, where the lights, music and noise never seemed to stop at night. But the school was as good as any other Moscow school and neither Chernyshova nor Sedov suffered from any stigmatization or bullying at the hands of the regular kids.
Still, the orphans stuck together and had little contact with other children. When she was 14, Chernyshova approached a Russian charity worker Irina Borisova at a function and they struck up what became a life-long friendship. "I feel a lot closer to Irina than my own biological mother. I met my own mother once by accident a couple of years ago and I know that she turned my elder sister who lives with her to prostitution. I was much better off in an orphanage and my cadet school than I would have been with her. Irina has become my second mother. I am the only one of all my orphan classmates who continued my education after high school," Chernyshova relates, who is a qualified hairdresser. "Other girls turned to drinking or prostitution. It's all because of Irina's support. I didn't want to let her down."
After finishing their cadet high school, both Chernyshova and Sedov were given one-room flats on the outskirts of Moscow by the state. They were lucky, as according to the Audit Chamber in 2012 only 22,454 Russian orphans received a flat from just under 100,000 that were eligible.
The flats only become the official property of the orphans after five years of use and their use is strictly regulated and regularly inspected by social services. Former orphans are not allowed to rent their flats out, nor to have flat-mates. They have to be up-to-date with their communal payments and must hold down a steady job.
Finding and keeping jobs is the most difficult challenge for former orphans. It is a common practice to diagnose children from dysfunctional families with mental and cognitive disorders simply because they do badly on tests. Their education is poor and when they leave the orphanage most are expected to get basic manual labour or service jobs. The social services arranged for Chernyshova to train as a hairdresser and Sedov as a carpenter. Neither of them pursued those careers. "With my constant prodding, Chernyshova went to the job centre, applied to just about every business in her neighbourhood. Chernyshova tried many jobs, including being a waitress in a bar, but is always the first one to be out the door. She is a lovely girl but can't survive on her own. I hate to think where she'd be if it wasn't for me," says Borisova.
Sedov fell in love with another former orphan, Dasha, who already had a son of three, and together they had a daughter, Vika. A few months into living together in Sedov's flat, which still belonged to the state, Dasha ran away to follow her drinking habit and left Sedov with the two small children.
Sedov worked as a courier at the time earning RUB15,000 ($500) per month. Having to look after two children single-handedly, he could hardly go to work, but Chernyshova came to the rescue. She looked after the baby, while Dasha's son would go to the kindergarten. "After three months I found that I was not able to look after two children. I rang Dasha and asked her to take her son back or I would give him up to an orphanage and to keep our daughter," says Sedov. "She took her son and left me with the daughter, but soon the neighbours called the social services because the poor boy was locked up alone in the flat while the mother was gone."
The social services took the son away and placed him in an orphanage. Dasha is now in the process of losing her maternal rights. The father is unknown. "The social services told me that the whole time Maxim, her son, is in the orphanage, she has only been to visit him once. She clearly doesn't need him."
I asked Sedov if he'd agree to take Maxim from the orphanage if he had proper financial support. "No, I wouldn't. They would not have given me Max as I am not the father, and anyway I can't look after two children alone," he says.
Having been in an institution all their childhood, both Chernyshova and Sedov don't have any skills or knowledge of how to live in the real world. When they finished school, they both had no idea of their shoe size or that one must pay their community charges monthly to avoid being hit by an unaffordable bill at the end of six months. Borisova once had to bail out Sedov as he would otherwise have lost his flat because of the unpaid bill.
Orphans can seek help and free education from the state until they reach the age of 23 or until they get ownership of their property. And Chernyshova still heavily relies on social services for all kinds of benefits, due to her poor health and inability to hold down a job.
Chernyshova and Sedov, like many other orphans, lack initiative, have low confidence and expect to be helped all the time. The Russian orphanage system produces adults not fit for adulthood who cannot survive independently. They often find themselves trapped in a cycle where they in turn give birth to new orphans, new prisoners, new alcoholics.
At the time of writing, more than five years after he got it, Sedov's flat still has concrete walls. He can't afford to do it up and he doesn't have the initiative to find a way to do it for free. Lack of initiative and helplessness are the birthmarks of Russian orphans. It is not their fault but upon leaving an orphanage - many don't even known if they prefer tea or coffee, let along how to go about simple daily tasks.
Even the lucky one-in-ten former orphans that don't go off the rails are marred as social invalids. It would be better to give the system a major overhaul rather than play political football with the fate of these poor children.
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