Tucked quietly away in an isolated corner of Russia, far from civilization, is the orphan village, Kitezh Children’s Community. The houses are shaped like castles, the sun is beaming and a dozen or so happy children are playing in the yard, just like in every good fairy tale.
But this is not your average Russian orphanage. Only a lucky few orphans from the thousands growing up in modern Russia are privileged enough to live here; volunteer parents, able to provide a home and a future, officially adopt the children.
Maria Pichugina, 25, is the director of the Kitezh center in Orion, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Moscow. She has spent most of her life in the orphanage, but not as a foster child. Pichugina’s mother moved to Kitezh ten years ago, with her two daughters to devote her life to the plight of Russian orphans.
The community was set up nearly 20 years ago by former Moscow-based radio journalist Dmitri Morozov in response to the growing number of street children in Russia and as an alternative to the state institutions.
“In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were a lot of kids who didn’t have homes, and no one cared,” Morozov told RIA Novosti in an interview. “People were too busy worrying about making money. There was an attitude by the government and by the people that this was not our problem.”
The situation has barely improved since then. According to a 2008 trial census, Russia has around 700,000 orphans. The vast system of orphanages presently in place dates back to the early Soviet period, when many orphans appeared on the streets following the Civil War, and orphanages became part of the communist education system. Since then it has grown and perpetuated itself, while alcoholism and the general destructive tendencies in society keep supplied children in need of parental care. Up to 80 percent of children in today’s orphanage system are so-called “social orphans” who have been taken by the authorities away from their problematic families.
Amid the recent outpour against the mistreatment of Russian adoptive children in the United States, media attention has focused on the pitfalls of international adoption. But several fundamental questions are being obscured: Why does Russia have so many orphans in the first place? And what is the country doing to solve this problem?
More than 1,500 Russian children were adopted in the United States in 2009, making Russia the third-largest source of adoptions to the country after China and Ethiopia. Over the years, Morozov has kept a close eye on Russia’s adoption trend, and believes international adoption is the country’s way of ignoring the actual problem.
“It seems to be the easiest way for bureaucrats, who don’t care very much about what is really happening,” said Morozov. “In the last few years, we have actually been moving in the right direction. I see that the government is trying to develop their structure; for instance, non-governmental organizations are emerging now. But Russia is a big society; we have to contain the problem.”
For years, a major hurdle in the adoption process in Russia was its bureaucracy. Deacon Alexander Volkov adopted a son three years ago. The process, he said, was the most difficult part, and for many Russians it is a commitment they are not willing to make.
“It was very hard for years to adopt a child. The system just didn’t allow for it, and people didn’t want to deal with it,” said Volkov. “Now, the government and volunteers are starting to take care of this situation. Many orphanages are even closing because people are adopting so many children.”
While negotiations on an agreement to regulate Russian-U.S. adoptions draw to a close, Russia’s domestic orphan problem lingers on. According to the Russian Children’s Welfare Society (RCWS), a non-governmental organization based in New York with an office in Moscow, the proportion of declared orphans is four to five times higher in Russia than in Europe or the United States. Some 30 percent live in orphanages. Most are children who have been either given up by their parents or removed from dysfunctional homes by the authorities. As of 2009, there were 2,176 orphanages in Russia. That statistic has increased by more than 100 percent in the last decade, according to the RCWS, whose main mission is to help Russian orphans.
Morozov believes the problem is twofold: the number of abandoned children is rising but too few Russians are willing to take them in as their own. At Kitezh, things are different, he says; adoptive parents are not only willing to look after the children, they also devote their entire lives to the cause.
Pichugina and her husband have adopted five children in the past four years. She is now expecting her first biological child.
“I don’t even think of them as anyone else’s children, but my own,” said Pichugina whose own mother has adopted 10 children in Kitezh. “Once you’ve taken them in you are inseparable from them. They are my own children.”
Anastasia and her younger sister Vera have lived with Pichugina for four years. Though at first glance they may act like your average teens, the two are wise beyond their years. They have to be, they say. Their mother and younger brother both died four years ago.
“After she died, our father was too drunk to take care of us, and he left us,” said Anastasia, who is now 14. “Sometimes I feel sorry for myself, and just say: ‘Why me?’ Life is not fair. But you have to get over it. I can’t do anything about what happened.”
The mentality towards orphans in Russia is slowly shifting. There is no overnight solution. Anastasia knows her past will not define her. But she is part of the minority. The future for most Russian orphans is still uncertain.
By Diana Markosian