Little Strangers. ‘Get me out of here!’


When twelve-year-old Lyosha tried to escape a children’s home to return to his family, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital — an abuse of psychiatry immediately reminiscent of Soviet days. Lyosha was eventually saved only by the investigative curiosity of local journalists, Aleksandr Koltsov and Ksenia Turchak. Alarmingly, they themselves are now the subject of a criminal investigation.

Alexander Koltsov Ksenia Turchak
3 August 2012

When a boy ran away from Sofinsky children’s home, the institution’s employees immediately set about searching for him. The flight of children is always a real nightmare for the management of any children’s home. The higher echelons dispatch inspectors; sometimes they even sack the director. Twelve year old Lyosha C., who was studying in year seven, had been at the children’s home for a year and a half already. He didn’t like the children’s home, however, and really wanted to live with his granny and grandfather. When he realised that he had no other option, the boy packed his things into his school rucksack and set off in an unknown direction.

The district law enforcement agencies swiftly joined the search. At Nara News (Nara Novost), the local district newspaper, we also published information about the lost boy. We always try to write about things like a child fleeing from an orphanage, since there is always hope that someone reading the notice or article will help to find him or her. 

After a while, we received a phone call from employees of the children’s home, informing us that the child had been tracked down. ‘Lyosha is safe and sound. He is within the grounds of the institution.’ 

We phoned to check some details. ‘The lad’s nature’, they said, ‘is so freedom loving. Yes, he ran away, but he’s returned.’ No cause for concern, they told us. ‘Everything is good here, and we fatten them up, and allow them out to stroll around, and the careworkers aren’t evil either.’ They reassured us doggedly and at length. But, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), they didn’t convince us. 

No smoke without fire

It seemed odd to us that children would run away from a fantastic institution where the food is good and the careworkers are kind and attentive. On the way to the children’s home in Sofino we met a few little boys who had just come out of the local school.  

‘Do you know Lyosha?’ we asked, and were completely taken aback by the frightened reaction of our interlocutors. ‘Who can tell us how to meet him?’ 

The boys’ expressions changed dramatically, and after a few seconds one of them, with downcast eyes, answered: 

‘You won’t find him. He’s in Ruza.’

That was the first time we’d heard the name ‘Ruza’. We didn’t understand what it meant then. We just noticed how scared it made the little kids.

The boys continued our conversation reluctantly, and very bit of information had to be dragged out of them. But they couldn’t hide the fact they had something to tell.   

‘They sent Lyosha to the psychiatric hospital for running away. It’s in Ruza.’

‘He’s run away a few times, to his granny.’

‘They live in Kievsky village, not far away.’

‘Our director warned him that if he ran away once more she’d send him to the psychiatric hospital.’

‘And that they’d send us all there for behaving badly…’ 

Psychiatric treatment as punishment

The children’s words about the innovative methods of ‘child raising’ used in the children’s home were so shocking that we simply couldn’t take them in. How could such a thing be possible? Yet the boys, on the other hand, paid little attention to our astonishment. Instead, they rejoiced at having found someone who wanted to listen to them; and one after another, they continued to share the details of their school days and life in the children’s home.

‘They frighten us all with Ruza.’

‘The director is forever threatening to send us to the psychiatric hospital.’

‘Those who behave badly, who break the home’s rules, or who run away, are threatened.’

‘My brother studied badly, and got bad marks, sometimes he was rude and argued with the teachers at school, they sent him to the psychiatric hospital. He came back after only eight months, and he’d already completely changed.’

‘After Ruza lads come back dazed and like strangers: they don’t laugh, they walk and talk slowly.’

‘They don’t remember much.  Many of them will never be like they were before.’

‘Do you want to meet Maxim?’ one boy finally suggested. ‘He was in there. We’ll find him now.’

We looked at the children in silence. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe them… looking at their faces, we understood that that there wasn’t a drop of falsehood in their tale. None of them had even attempted to embroider the truth. The truth was simply unbelievable. Fancy cars are driving along the streets, young people are talking on mobile phones, almost everybody knows how to use personal computers, we are living in the 21st century, but in our country, as in the Middle Ages, a child who flouts the rules and who has difficulty studying is considered psychiatrically unwell and so dangerous to those around him that he has to be isolated? Moreover, where? In a psychiatric hospital? And what will he be treated for there? 

Now Maxim stood before us, the former Ruza patient himself. He stood in silence. From his face it was clear that recalling the past was painful for him, why should he talk about it again when there was nothing to be done, there are people who can do what they want with children, the fear and threats of the psychiatric hospital were forever firmly lodged in his consciousness.

‘Even when a few boys, including me, tried not to take the tablets, to hide them, then the nurses found them and everyone suffered...They took us to our wards and injected us.’ 

When Maxim finally opened his mouth we understood that we couldn’t interrupt him with further questions, or he’d stop entirely and never speak again… 

‘Five children from our children’s home have already been there. What diagnosis they give us I don’t know, but they treat us all the same, three times a day there are ‘Aminazin’ tablets [a strong psychotropic medicine] and two or three other tablets. They switch off your brain, after them you don’t want to do anything – eat, walk, play – you just want to sleep. But you are only allowed to sleep at night or during the rest hour. I was lucky, I was there for four months all told, but there are lads who are there for half a year. The longer you’re there, the harder it is to come back to normal life.’ 

‘But you’re clever lads, you understand what they’re doing to you, what effect the tablets are having, why do you swallow this muck?’ 

Maxim looked at us in bewilderment.

‘What do you mean? Even when a few boys, including me, tried not to take the tablets, to hide them, then the nurses found them and everyone suffered...They took us to our wards and injected us. They give injections when you start to argue and show that you’re normal! You’re living together with really ill people, who are dribbling, yelling, rolling on the floor... You could go properly mad there.’ 

Maxim didn’t manage to finish speaking before a menacing security guard from the children’s home called the lads and ordered them inside (no doubt afraid that his charges were telling us unnecessary things). And the boys obediently ran inside, with no time even to say goodbye. 

To say that what we had heard shocked us doesn’t convey anything. On our way to Sofino village, musing over the possible problems that might be discovered at the children’s home, we came up with various scenarios, but it didn’t cross our minds that such horror could be happening behind the walls of a children’s institution…Where were the wisdom and sensitivity that teachers and psychologists working with ‘difficult’ children need? Where were their humanitarian principles? And most importantly, where might one seek protection for orphans who have nothing in life but the children’s home?

The director with an eye for PR 

We put these questions directly to the director of Sofinsky children’s home, Tamara Alexandrovna Suchkova. Her response was slick, neat and well-rehearsed. They were the kind of answers you might expect from a public relations professional or a cynical politician’s press officer.  

‘Lyosha is now being treated in the psychiatric hospital. He was diagnosed with ‘dromomania’ [the uncontrollable urge to travel], and it was decided that he needed treatment. This diagnosis was made by our psychiatrist, who works in Kamensky hospital. Lyosha is a difficult boy, he comes from a disadvantaged family, well, you will understand yourselves… Lyosha will spend 20 days in the hospital, and then return. I’m even intending to visit him next week.’ 

‘How many children in care have been sent to the psychiatric hospital in Ruza town?’

‘There’s only Lyosha in Ruza. There was a second boy, but he was in hospital in Khotkovo town, Moscow region. The situation with this boy is very complicated – the father was diagnosed with epilepsy, and it seems the boy has a bad genetic inheritance.’ 

‘What can you tell us about the other children? There are far more children who were treated and are being treated in the hospital. Everyone knows about it.’

‘What other children? We haven’t sent any others for medical intervention! I treat them, them all, as if they were my own! Talk to each of them, have a chat, support them…’ 

Tamara Alexandrovna is by no means unique. Our bureaucrats generally answer like this: avoid the question, change the subject. This is especially true for those who have long experience in managerial positions. 

Hospital from hell

The children’s department of the Moscow regional psycho-neurological hospital no.4 is the full name of the institution that Sofinsky’s children so dislike talking about. The hospital is located 22 km from Ruza, in the village of Nikolskoe. The building where the psychiatric hospital is currently located belonged to the Russian prince Gagarin 250 years ago, and the entire architectural ensemble, all the buildings, remain unchanged – exactly as they were when it was first designed.

Lyosha: pictures taken a month apart, before and after stay in psychiatric hospital

Lyosha: pictures taken a month apart, before and after stay in psychiatric hospital

It is a very gloomy place, surrounded by ruins and mud. There is not a single new building within a radius of several kilometres, as if life has been frozen here for the last few decades. But it gets worse. 

On the way to the main hospital corpus we met three skinny, bald little boys of around ten years old. The boys each carried two buckets of some strange mixture resembling animal feed. It turned out that what the boys were carrying was food for the psychiatric hospital’s littlest patients – the children have to carry it themselves from the dining room.

The interior décor of the institution entirely matches the conditions out of the window – peeling walls, old wooden doors which are on the point of falling apart, squalid furniture, probably also brought here back in the last century, everything is grey and gloomy, and inside – cold…

Children’s yells and cries resound along the hospital corridors: ‘Please don’t!’ ‘Let me go!’ ‘Give it back!’ ‘Don’t!’… If you had to describe it all in one word, you’d choose the word ‘hell’.

‘Children’s yells and cries resound along the hospital corridors: ‘Please don’t!’ ‘Let me go!’ ‘Give it back!’ ‘Don’t!’… If you had to describe it all in one word, you’d choose the word ‘hell’

We managed to get to meet Lyosha by talking to the medical staff and introducing ourselves as distant relatives of the boy from the children’s home. In the accommodation where we waited for the boy there was nothing but two chairs, a table and a large window covered on the outside by a steel grille.  And then, suddenly, a boy came into the room. He was ragged, stooped, with an air of hopelessness, bald-shaven, cold-eyed. You’d hardly recognise this sad and sluggish child as the smiling little lad whose photo appeared a month ago on the list of children missing in Naro-Fominsky district. 

‘Lyosha, how many days have you been here?’

‘23 days, I think. They told me I’d be here a few months.’

‘What did they send you here for?’

‘For bad behaviour. I ran away.’

‘Why did you run away, Lyosha?’ 

‘I can’t be there. I really wanted to live with my granny and uncle.’ 

‘They feed you well in the children’s home, and you’ve loads of friends – is it really so bad there?’ 

‘I wanted to live in a family, not a children’s home...’

‘And that’s why they sent you “for medical treatment”?’

‘Tamara Alexandrovna sent me. I managed to run away a few times, and she said “run away again one more time and I’ll send you to Ruza for half a year”. Only when they brought me here, I didn’t know it was a psychiatric hospital. The nurse told me that I needed to go to hospital for some sort of medicine. They put me in a car and brought me here, and another two grownup lads came with me – they were supposed to catch me if I suddenly decided to leg it. They tricked me and left me here for half a year.’

‘Are you being treated here?’

‘They give out tablets.’

‘Does it help?’ 

‘These tablets make you dazed.’

‘What does being dazed mean?’

‘I want to sleep all the time, move slowly, talk slowly, think slowly, sit and do nothing – I feel dazed now too.’

‘What do children do here?’

‘Nothing. Sit for half the day in a room and play with bricks. The careworkers give us writing and sums to do, but they are all so easy, like for kids who are little or stupid, and here most of the children are normal. It’s true there are some sick children, but hardly any. Not long ago I started to read the book The Regiment’s Son, so my brain would work. When I studied at school I liked maths, I loved doing sums and equations.’ 

‘What are the conditions like here?’

‘There are eleven people on the ward with me. Two boys once decided not to take their tablets, so that their heads would work better, but the nurses then gave them loads of injections, and then they even made fun of them. Every evening they mock…’ 

‘How do they mock you?’

‘They laugh at us and wind us up. They do exactly what the children don’t like, especially, to drive them up the wall, call them names, and some start to cry. That’s bad behaviour, and it’s punished with an injection of ‘Aminazin’. And several nurses ask some child or other to give them a massage. Everyone agrees because for that they’ll give us different food and sometimes let us watch television. And if you tidy up regularly and do exactly what the nurse says, then you can become her pet and then she might even give you chocolate.’

‘Lyosha, were any of your friends here at some point?

‘Yes, three of them have been here already. And a few school leavers, who don’t live at the children’s home any longer. They all pissed the director off by their behaviour. The director first threatened them, and then send them away.’ 

Our meeting with Lyosha ended swiftly – the nurse informed us that the children were timetabled to have lunch and the boy must not miss it. Saying goodbye, hardly able to contain his tears, Lyosha whispered, so that none of the nursing staff could hear his words, ‘get me out of here’. And then we saw how obediently he followed the woman, as if in fearful anticipation of a reprimand or punishment. 

Goodbye Lyosha. We will try to get you out of there, we will definitely try… And we will find people, teachers, doctors who are prepared to help. It must be possible to find individuals who have not yet become indifferent to utterly fundamental notions: humanity, contentiousness, mercy.

They will save you too, Lyosha. 

P.S. Such barbarian maiming of little children’s souls is a crime. And for any crime, as we know, someone must answer. The editorial board of Nara News has requested that the following organisations and authorities conduct an investigation into the illegal placement of children from Sofinsky children’s home in psychiatric hospital:

Naro-Fominsky town prosecutor
Ruza town prosecutor
Children’s Rights Commissioner for the President of the Russian Federation [http://english.rfdeti.ru/]
Russian Federation Ministry of Health and Social Development [http://www.minzdravsoc.ru/eng/ministry/]
National Foundation for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [http://www.sirotstvo.ru/eng/about/index.shtml] 

Note from the editor

Two days following the intervention of the journalists Ksenia Turchak and her colleagues, Lyosha was returned from ‘Ruza’ to the children’s home. Soon after, director Alexandra Suchkova resigned, and Pavel Astakhov, Russia's Ombudsman for Children, issued a highly critical statement about the practices. This story does not yet have a happy ending, however. Rather than launching criminal investigations against officials, Russian authorities have amazingly turned their attention to the journalists themselves, accusing them of unlawfully revealing the identity of a patient. The prospect of criminal prosecution still hangs over the authors.



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