In 2012, the USA passed the Magnitsky Law (named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer and whistleblower who died in detention in Moscow), which placed visa and financial sanctions on officials deemed to have been connected with his case. In retaliation, Russia passed the Dima Yakovlev Law, named after a Russian toddler adopted by an American couple, who died after being left in an overheated car. The law’s most infamous clause put an end to Americans adopting Russian children.
Mummy or no mummy
The Kirov Children’s Home is clean, comfortable and filled with the sound of children’s voices. One of the best such institutions in the entire region, it houses children from birth until the age of three.
‘The parents have usually either had their children taken from them because of their anti-social lifestyle, or else because they are in prison,’ says Yevgenia Belyakova, the home’s head doctor. ‘Sometimes the mother is a single parent who can’t support her baby, and leaves it here temporarily while she looks for work, then comes back for it. Or doesn’t. Take Prosha, for example. He was born prematurely and his mother gave him up in the maternity hospital. But never mind, we’ll look after him.’
‘The parents have either had their children taken from them because of their anti-social lifestyle, or else because they are in prison’
‘Do you look after every child you are brought,’ I ask her. ‘Most of them,’ Dr Belyakova replies proudly. ‘Some of them later go back home to their family, and the rest get adopted.’
‘Are any of the adoptive parents from abroad?’
‘Not any more. Americans aren’t allowed to, and Europeans have also stopped coming. There used to be a lot of them – Americans, Germans, Irish. And they would also adopt children with disabilities, the hardest to place. I remember little Olechka Dubrovina, who had severe congenital clubfoot. No Russian family would look at her, but she was adopted by an American family. She had three operations and there’s no trace of the clubfoot left – they sent me a photo and she’s such an elegant little lady now! I remember another American woman taking a little girl – premature, odd looking with big sticky-out ears, we were scared to even look at her. We warned the woman that the baby wasn’t normal, that she didn’t have to take her, but she hugged this little scrap of humanity to her, and whispered, with tears in her eyes, “beautiful, beautiful, my beautiful girl!” And what do you think? She took her and it all turned out all right! Now she really is a beautiful little girl!'
‘What I do know is that a child doesn’t care what language mummy speaks; they just need to have a mummy.’
‘What’s the matter, Nastenka? Why are you crying?’ Dr Belyakova turns to ask a small curly-haired child sitting at a table and smearing her buckwheat kasha all over the plate. ‘Don’t we want to eat? You have to eat, Nastenka! Our children have to follow a strict routine,’ she tells me, 'food, play, sleep, bath. Now it’s time to eat kasha, so they have to eat kasha! I don’t understand all this politics – all these Dima Yakovlev laws and so on. But what I do know is that a child doesn’t care what language mummy speaks; they just need to have a mummy. What makes us really sad is when a child isn’t adopted by anyone and we have to send them on to the state orphanage when they’re three.’
A state orphanage
I prepared myself for the worst, expecting to see scuffed paintwork, leaking roofs, stinking toilets, miserable children and bad tempered, furtive-looking staff. But I was pleasantly surprised: the Spaso-Talitsky home for pre-school children is nothing like the ‘orphanages’ of Soviet times, despite being built during World War Two – its first residents were children evacuated from Leningrad across frozen Lake Ladoga, the winter ‘road of life,’ during the Nazi blockade of the city. The people in the village of Spaso-Talitsky nursed the sickly, starving children back to health, and they still do. The home houses some 40-60 youngsters aged between four and seven, in an almost family atmosphere. They sleep six to a room in beds with brightly coloured covers, and there are toys, flowers, books and computers everywhere.
‘We have a gym, a conservatory, a music room and a computer room where they can go on the internet,’ the home’s manager Lyudmila Alekseyevna Kiselyova says proudly. ‘The government funds us, of course, but all the books, toys, computers and gym instructors are paid for by sponsorship.’ I take a photo of a bookcase with an enormous painting of a rabbit on it – I would have been happy to have had one of those as a child.
But the children here can’t be called happy, despite all the efforts of the staff and sponsors. Each of them has had a small tragedy in his or her very short life. Nearly all have suffered cold, hunger, loneliness, parental dislike and indifference, beatings – and in some cases even real torture.
The children here can’t be called happy, despite all the efforts of the staff and sponsors.
‘The most shocking case I’ve seen,’ says Lyudmila Alekseyevna, ‘was when they brought us a little three-year-old boy, and we found not just bruises and abrasions on his body, but burn marks as well – all over his body, even around his genital area. It turned out his beast of a father would burn him with a red-hot poker.’
‘Is he in prison now?’ I ask.
‘He’s in prison, but that’s nothing to him; he’s been in and out of prison all his life. It’s like home to him, not punishment. I also remember a little girl who would catch and eat insects. All kinds of insects: flies, butterflies, caterpillars, dragonflies, ants, worms ... We couldn’t understand it – did her body lack some chemicals or something? And then we discovered that her mother would leave her locked up at home alone and with nothing to eat while she went about her life. So the child adapted – started to catch the cockroaches that crawled around the flat in enormous numbers and eat them. And that’s how she survived.
Institutional life – for life
Five-year-old Liza is self-confident and talkative; it’s only when she talks about her mother that you can hear the pain and anger in her voice. ‘Auntie Katya,’ she tells me, ‘I’ve been here for a long time, and mummy still hasn’t come to fetch me. Do you know where she is? She promised to come and bring me presents! But she lied!’
‘Are you cross with her?’
‘No, I’m not cross with mummy. I mustn’t be cross with her cos then she won’t ever come ...’ Liza sighs deeply.
‘But you like it here, don’t you?’ asks Lyudmila Alekseyevna. ‘Yes, I like it here,’ says Liza obediently and goes off for lunch with the other children.
‘We try to find adoptive families for children who have been abandoned by their parents,’ Lyudmila Alekseyevna tells me. ‘The government has begun to provide payments for families who adopt a child, so more people are coming forward. Some are childless; others have grown-up children but still have enough energy. Some have tragic stories too – one woman lost her only son and decided to adopt a child from an orphanage.’
The Spanish also adopt Russian children with disabilities, the hardest to place.
‘And are foreigners still coming forward?’ I asked her. ‘These days most of them are from Spain, which we’re very pleased about, because in Spain adoption services are regulated by the government, and not private firms as in the USA. I support the Dima Yakovlev law, because there have been some terrible stories about children taken to the USA. There was one in particular I was shocked by – a little girl called Masha Allen whose paedophile adoptive father abused her. How did they come to give him a child? But in Spain they check the whole extended family of the potential adopters, five generations back, to make sure there has been no mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction or sexual crime. And the Spanish also adopt children with disabilities: recently there was a child with a squint, and another one blind in one eye and with a learning disability as well. We did ask them if they realised the child wasn’t very bright. ‘Could he work as a janitor or something?’ they asked. And when we said he could do that, they said, ‘Great, we’ll have him!’ But children like that – if foreigners don’t adopt them, they’ll have to stay in an institution all their lives. Only the name changes: first special boarding school, then adult residential care home or even psychiatric hospital.’
A family-type children’s home
Irina Onokhina’s family includes, apart from her own two children and five grandchildren, sixteen adopted children. Irina used to be a journalist; she worked for 33 years as a news photographer on ‘Komsomol Flame’ magazine. Her career was going very nicely, when she suddenly decided to change everything: both her profession and her life. ‘I always dreamed of having a large family,’ she told me, ‘but my husband wasn’t keen, and we divorced. Then, when I reached my 48th birthday, I thought: now what? I’d be retiring in a few years [Russian women receive their state pension at 55]; my children are grown up and have their own lives. I’m still in the prime of life, but nobody needs me.’ In 1990, to her colleagues’ amazement, Irina decided to organise a family-type children’s home. She applied to her local council for the necessary permission, but instead of support she met with incomprehension.
‘Communist Party officials came to my home and even my parents’ home, and tried to put me off. “Don’t have anything to do with these children!” they said. “You don’t know what you are letting yourself in for. They’re all disabled and mentally retarded; they steal, smoke, drink and swear! You’ll never cope with them!”
When Irina went to the committee meeting that would decide the matter, she took with her journalist colleagues with cameras and microphones. ‘When we arrived we switched on the tape recorders and set up the mikes, as though we were going to do an article about it. And it actually worked!’
Irina was not only given permission to open her home, but allocated a seven-room flat to house it, and even a salary as director of a family-type children’s home. The first child to join Irina’s new ‘family’ was six-year-old Natasha Maslennikova. When social workers brought her from the orphanage where she had previously lived she was desperately malnourished. Now she is thirty. She is married, with three children, and has just graduated from agricultural college with a degree in animal husbandry. She is reluctant to talk about her own childhood.
‘I don’t remember my mother, and generally don’t like thinking back to those days. The orphanage wasn’t much fun, but you can get used to anything, and you don’t have much choice. The worst thing was to avoid needing the toilet in afternoon naptime. They locked us in to keep us from running about, and the children all had learning disabilities so they would wet themselves – and worse. So at the end of naptime, they would have to stand in a line with their wet and soiled sheets above them and urine dripping on them. I still remember one care worker who, when a child was disobedient, would make them crawl underneath a chair – one of those little children’s chairs, you know the ones – so the child would be squeezed under the chair, bent in two, and this woman would then sit on the chair. And this went on for ages, until one bright spark sawed a bit off the legs of the chair, so when she plonked herself down she fell off. She was away on sick leave for two months, and we were so happy!’
Natasha laughs heartily. People talk about laughter through tears, but here it sounds more like laughter through hatred.
Over a cup of tea, Irina shows me her photo album. ‘Here we are on the Black Sea with the children, and here we are in the country. I bought a house with a bit of land attached, and we go there every summer. And that’s the music school – all my children have music and dance lessons. One girl is even studying at music college. They’ve all had a good education, all gone to university or college. And many of them have their own children now – I have ten grandchildren!’
However, Irina has lots of sad tales to tell of children she has not been able to help, who have been returned to inadequate or abusive parents or adopted by families who couldn’t cope with their needs. I asked her whether she would have done it all again if she was starting now?
‘Ok, so a few bad things happened in the USA, but it’s not like they don’t happen here as well’
‘Probably not,’ is her answer. ‘It’s not so simple these days. If you want to adopt you need to do a special course, have a medical check-up, collect lots of bits of paper to show that you’re not an alcoholic or a mental case. And then there’s our notorious juvenile justice system – it’s getting so that a parent can’t even give a child a slap or they’ll end up in court! But I think inter-country adoption is a good thing, and I don’t know why they had to ban it. The foreigners mostly used to take kids with disabilities. If our government can’t treat them, why stop other people trying? Ok, so a few bad things happened, but it’s not like they don’t happen here as well. Just take a look at that!’
Irina points to a local news bulletin on the TV. ‘The young girl gave birth in secret, wrapped her baby in a polythene bag and took it out into the cold, where it died of hypothermia,’ says the newsreader in his dispassionate voice. ‘The woman has admitted her guilt and will spend the next four years in a prison camp.’ The screen shows a weeping girl hiding her face from the camera, and the material evidence of her crime – the child’s body in its polythene wrapping –lying on a table. Its life lasted only a few minutes. According to official statistics, a hundred children perish at the hands of their own mothers every year in Russia.
501,023 orphans and children
There are 501,023 orphans and children living apart from their parents in Russia today.
There are 501,023 orphans and children living apart from their parents in Russia today, and a similar number of children under the age of 17 with special educational needs and disabilities. Only 18,354 people are meanwhile registered with the Child Protection Services as potential adoptive parents. Families receive a one-off payment of 100,000 (£1200) roubles for adopting a child with a disability, and 14,000 roubles (£165) for a non–disabled child; and then they get a monthly 7200 roubles (£85) for a child under twelve, with an additional 3000 roubles for each additional child. Adoptive families are also entitled to a 30% discount on their utility bills, free local public transport and other financial assistance.
According to the Kirov Region department of education, in 2012, Russian citizens in the region adopted 62 children; and 87 children were adopted by people from other countries. In 2013, 83 children from the Kirov Region were adopted inside Russia, and 67 went abroad for adoption. Preliminary figures for 2014 show that for the first time since the 1990s, more children have been adopted by Russian families than by foreigners. But that still leaves a lot of Russian children living in care.
Standfirst image: uploaded by Centpacrr via Wikipedia. Public Domain