About the Book

Russian Orphanages

In doing my background research for the book, I was appalled at what I learned about conditions in Russian orphanages. Below you will see some images and reports that will help you understand the life that children live in those dreadful institutions.

An Overview of the System

It is difficult to imagine a complex system of different types of institutions operating in the West to take care of hundreds of thousands of unwanted children, where emphasis is on an the individual approach and on cushioning and solving personal tragedy. But we in the west are also very lucky that the general population of most or our home countries is wealthy enough to absorb the social shock that the system receives when children are left without anyone to care for them. In Russia, this is far from being true; at the moment there is simply no alternative to institutional care for the majority of orphaned children. In the long term, ROOF's main goal is, of course, to work ourselves out of existence. Optimistically, this could take 30 or 40 years-even with an economic upturn. Some older orphanage personnel are now working with their third generation of institutionalized children -- social problems run in the family and die hard. But many teachers and directors are completely dedicated to these children who are not their own. And many orphanage directors and staff think that adoption and foster care would be far preferable to institutionalization. Negative and unhelpful attitudes among staff seem to arise more from feelings of desperation in front of an impossibly difficult situation than from a real belief that this enormous institutional child care system should continue to exist because 'it's better for the children.'

As step-mother to three adopted girls, (two Russian, one Bulgarian) I must say, this brought me to tears. Our girls are beautiful young ladies now. What would their lives have been, if left there? I can only shudder to think. I wish I could bring them ALL to America, to be loved. No child deserves to be frightened, cold, hungry or unloved. Donations get hijacked by a corrupt government official, or the "care-givers" at the orphanages. This is why the orphanage workers are fat, the children thin.

Inside Russia's orphanages

Joe Lawry

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 labeled 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.