At the end of November the Russian parliament ‘accepted for consideration’ amendments to the law prohibiting the adoption of Russian children by foreigners, christened 'Herod's Law' or the 'Scoundrels' Law' by the independent and liberal media. Members of the ruling 'United Russia' party are intent on extending the law to ban adoption not only by Americans, as at present, but by people from any country with which Russia does not have an adoption agreement (currently, agreements of this kind are in place only with France and Italy). The proposed amendments do not apply to former Soviet states, but if they are passed by the Russian MPs, the adoption of children in care will be closed to the rest of the world.
A year ago, when the law was passed, the Russian intelligentsia called it 'barbaric', and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper alone collected more than one hundred thousand signatures in protest. The MPs and the Kremlin justified it, however, by claiming that the government was at the same time taking steps to improve conditions for young people leaving care, so that they could have a good life without leaving Russia. So on 1 January 2013, three days after the passing of ‘Herod’s Law’, a ruling came into force providing for ‘an entitlement to public housing provision for young people without parents’.
Maria Antonchenko lives with her son Maksim in a room measuring 18 square metres. When Maria works her 12 hour shifts sixteen-year-old Ksyusha steps in to look after Maxim. Photo: Georgy Borodyansky
Having scuppered the chance of adoption for thousands of Russian ‘orphans’, (in Russia the term applies not only to children who have lost their parents, but children who for whatever reason are not being brought up by their natural parents), the Russian government apparently was at least improving their life chances in adulthood.
It was a false hope: courts and officials in the regions are refusing to recognise the new ruling.
The Outcasts’ Union
Maria Antonchenko is forty years old. Seven months ago the most important event in her life took place– her son Maksim was born. Mother and son live in a room measuring eighteen square metres in a hostel belonging to the training college where she works. The college administration had no obligation to house her or get her a residence permit; they did it out of the goodness of their hearts and also because she was a valued worker – it’s not easy to get a good washer-up, working two twelve hour days on, two off, for 5000 roubles (100GBP) a month. Maria worked this shift pattern for about six years, but obviously can’t go on doing it now. She now lives on state benefits – 2700 roubles a month in child benefit, and another 700 as a single parent – and earns some extra money doing cleaning work in a nearby building. Then Maksim gets looked after by Ksyusha, the daughter of her friend Natalya: they grew up together in a children’s home and then in a home for people with physical and learning disabilities. Natalya and Ksyusha live in a room in a shared flat, and don’t have an easy life either: Natalya has two jobs, as a cleaner and a nanny, and has no free time to help Maria out, but Ksyusha, who is sixteen and still at school, can sometimes find an hour or two.
Under Russian law, all ‘orphans’ leaving care have priority for housing, but only a few even know about this right.
Compared to many people who grew up in boarding schools for children with disabilities in Kirov, Maria Antonchenko and Natalya Istomina have been lucky. After leaving these schools, most young people are given places in similar establishments for adults, either a long term hospital for people with learning disabilities, or a mental hospital. Those who managed to run away from such schools and became homeless, as Maria did in her time, had no better luck: the boys usually took to drink and ended up in prison; the girls got involved in prostitution and some just disappeared without trace. Two were found murdered.
Under Russian law, all ‘orphans’ leaving care have priority for housing, but in the Kirov boarding school only a few even know about this right. Maria and Natalya also didn’t know until someone told them to go to the ‘Outcasts’ Union’ – the popular name for the Orphans’ Aid Committee of the Siberian Labour Federation (SLF). The committee has taken on their cases and Maria’s papers will be sent to the district court any day now. But whatever the court decides, Maria has already won: she’s living independently and, now she is a mother, her life finally has meaning.
Boarding school, or child labour
Maria never knew her own mother, who rejected her at birth. She started life in a children’s home and from there moved to a boarding school for children with special educational needs and physical disabilities (official figures show that almost 70% of children in care go to schools like this). For three years Maria was an excellent pupil, always getting high marks, and it’s unclear why she was sent to a special school in the first place: either it was a mistake or there was some kind of quota. After three years, there were no more lessons, just work – from 9 to 12 and from 4 to 5, with lunch and some free time in between. They worked all day assembling shoe boxes. When Maria was twelve she was moved to the school’s sewing workshop (‘we made overalls and chefs’ whites’). Those who refused to work there had to wash the dormitory floors. Punishments included going without lunch or supper, and for more serious offences you could be stripped in front of everyone and beaten – this happened to Maria.
Despite being officially uninhabitable, this hostel on Omsk's Krugovaya Street houses 100 people, including many ex residents of children's homes. Photo: Georgy Borodyansky
After three years were no more lessons - just work all day, assembling shoe boxes.
Maria told me how nearly every year the school received donations of pretty and fashionable children’s clothes - ‘humanitarian aid’ - from Germany, but the residents never had the chance to wear them: ’the admin staff and teachers took the lot’. Who would give such goodies to the children in care, when they had their own to clothe?
She has practically no happy memories from her childhood, and remembers just one special moment when she was eleven: some people came to check whether there were children who could be transferred to a mainstream ‘orphan’ boarding school (they must have had places to fill), and a dozen or so boys and girls were chosen, Maria amongst them. ‘We were overjoyed – we were going to school. We’d have uniforms, satchels. Then the deputy head said, “You can’t have those four – I need them here to work.” And the people didn’t even try to argue. So the four of us stayed where we were: me, Tanya Semyonova, Natasha Kargopolova and Olga Gorenvald.’
They all dreamed, of course, of good people, with almost magic powers, who would come for them and carry them off home with them. One boy with cerebral palsy was lucky: he was adopted by a German family. ‘Everybody was green with envy, even though he couldn’t walk or anything.’
When she was fifteen, Maria tried to run away – just anywhere; Russia was a big country. She got on a train at random, but there were two members of the school staff on it. As punishment they subjected her to a ‘course of treatment’: ten days of injections of the anti-psychotic Chlorpromazine, the same type of drug used to ‘treat’ Soviet dissidents in KGB ‘psychiatric’ clinics. It can cause permanent brain damage, though luckily this didn’t happen to Maria.
Treated like people at last
After the boarding school, Maria was transferred to a long-stay hospital for people with physical and learning disabilities on the outskirts of Omsk, where she worked day in, day out in the dining hall, without pay, and with no hope of anything better. Most of the residents were over 50, and she wasn’t 18 yet. She wanted a life for herself, and after six months she ran away. In Omsk she met up with a group of homeless people: in summer they slept on park benches, in winter in cellars. Then she met a sympathetic woman who registered her as living with her in her small flat, so Maria could get on a waiting list for a place of her own. But to get on the list she needed a whole sheaf of documents, including evidence of a bank account – and how could a homeless person have a bank account?
Maria’s name was put on the general waiting list for housing, and she received a letter telling her she was number 18457. Like thousands of other young people who had grown up in institutions, she had no idea about the existence of a priority housing list. She only found out about it when the ‘Outcasts’ Union’ opened a branch in Omsk. Yelena and Vasily Starostin, the couple who ran it, started helping young people in this situation to take their cases to court to demand the housing they were entitled to. The first cases were won in 2006, and during the hearings it emerged that the Omsk regional authorities had been ignoring the law for over a decade.
To get on the housing list Maria needed a whole sheaf of documents, including evidence of a bank account –how could a homeless person have a bank account?
‘At best, they managed to get a place in a hostel’, Vasily told me, ‘otherwise it was cellars or heating pipelines, and a lot found “shelter” in prison, took to the bottle or committed suicide. Everyone who came to us knew people who’d ended up like that – some of them had just disappeared without trace. And nobody, of course, was counting.’ The Siberian Labour Federation received EU funding to publish a 100 page book for young people coming out of care institutions, explaining how to exercise their rights. It was distributed it in all the hostels and, to the Starostins’ delight, many of the young people they reached were smart enough to take their own cases to court. 700 of them have won their right to decent housing.
What new law?
Some former children’s home residents have not been so fortunate. These are the slightly older ones, unaware of their rights (although by law the children’s services were obliged to inform them) and ignored by the authorities for ten years. I met some of them at a hostel on Omsk’s Krugovaya Street. The building, which is officially uninhabitable, houses about 100 people, among them the Autinov family - Aliya, her husband and their four children – who all live in one room measuring just 17 square metres.
Aliya, who left her special needs boarding school in 1995, has applied to the courts for a flat, but the inadequacy of her present housing is irrelevant to the judges examining her case. They are interested in only one thing: her age when she first declared her priority status. This is because, until the recent change in the law, people could only apply for their housing rights up to the age of 23. Since the beginning of this year, the age restriction has been removed, but Omsk officials and courts are determined to ignore this and Aliya, as well as a couple of dozen others who had applied too late under the previous regulations, have been unable to gain the right to decent housing, even with the help of the SLF.
Since the beginning of 2013 there is no age restriction on applications for housing, but Omsk’s officials and courts are determined to ignore this.
‘The central district court told us in so many words’, says Aliya,’ that they wouldn’t recognise our rights until the new regulations became standard judicial practice in Russia.’ In fact, not a single local court has made a ruling on the basis of the new amendment, and the Omsk courts aren’t keen to be the first to do so.
Aliya Autinova lives together with her husband and their four children in one room measuring just 17 square metres. Photo: Georgy Borodyansky
The regional education authority is also refusing to support the rights of the ‘outcasts’, and even an appeal to central government isn’t budging them. Twenty nine year old Yekaterina Yakushina put a straight question to Vladimir Putin during his latest live TV phone-in. Did she, she inquired, have a right to decent housing, and if so, given the change in the law, why was she being refused on the grounds that ‘she hadn’t applied before the age of 23’? Her question didn’t go on air, but it was noted and sent to the president’s office, which passed it on to the Ministry of Education and Science. She received a reply from the Ministry confirming that she should be on a priority housing list, and stating that a letter to that effect had been sent to its Omsk regional headquarters. But officials there are claiming they never received any such letter.
The regional officials also didn’t turn her down immediately, but kept her hanging on. They demanded one (unnecessary, as it turned out) bit of paper after another: from the children’s home, from her employer, from her bank (again – how was she meant to have a bank account, living in a hostel that didn’t officially exist?).
Yekaterina works as a shop assistant and earns 10,000 roubles (185GBP) a month. She’s been lucky: she’s found a room in a two-roomed flat through friends, at a rent of 4,000 a month. It took her three months to get the necessary papers together, and cost her 3,000 roubles. And even now the officials are telling her that she can’t get on the priority housing list because she didn’t apply before she was 23.
The Starostins estimate that there are about a thousand people in Yekaterina’s position in the Omsk region, and 300 of them have been in contact with the ‘Outcasts’ Union’. ‘We are putting together an open letter on their behalf to President Putin and the President of the Supreme Court’, they tell me. ‘Most of these people have children who will also, like their parents, be deprived of their housing rights. If our government has really abandoned them, let it say so. But a country that does that can hardly then ban other people from adopting them.’