On 3 May, 2015, the first ‘baby box’, a special container designed to hold an abandoned baby, was installed in Kirov thanks to the efforts of Grzegorz Zwolinski, a local Catholic priest. Four days later, the public prosecutor’s office closed it.
The ‘boxes’ are heated incubators, which sound an alarm to the police and social services a minute after a baby is placed there. The mother can reclaim the baby within six months if she changes her mind; otherwise it is put up for adoption. In Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and other Catholic countries, these ‘windows of life’ are to be found almost everywhere, and since 2012, 20 of these boxes have been opened in Russia. In four years, these boxes have saved the lives of at least 35 babies, five of whom were later reclaimed by their birth mothers.
In Kirov, though, following the attention of the regional prosecutor, the Children’s Ombudsman, and the All-Russian Parental Resistance group, Father Grzegorz has not been allowed to continue this work.
‘I wanted to create a memorial to Pope John II’
As a child in Poland, Grzegorz Zwolinski dreamed of becoming a missionary, imagining himself preaching the gospel in Africa or Latin America.
Instead, in the 1990s the young priest was dispatched to the Russian provinces—to Kirov. There was little that was exotic here: the climate was harsh; you could count the town’s Catholics on one hand.
‘Five people met me off the train,’ Father Grzegorz tells me. ‘All Poles, except for one elderly Frenchwoman who was afraid to talk to me, she thought she would be arrested for associating with a foreigner.’
Father Grzegorz's baby box. Image courtesy of the author.
Surrounded by labour camps for much of the Soviet period, Kirov was closed to foreigners until the late 1980s. Indeed, the Soviet period was far from kind to religious life in Kirov, with the authorities closing down 38 Russian Orthodox churches, the town’s synagogue, mosque and Lutheran protestant church. Miraculously, the Polish Catholic church survived, and Father Zwolinski campaigned tirelessly for it to be returned to the city’s Catholic community.
All Father Grzegorz achieved, however, was permission for Catholics to celebrate mass on Christian feast days. But then Father Grzegorz decided to do something different, to celebrate the life of Pope John Paul II, his compatriot.
‘John Paul II visited most of the countries of the world, except Russia and China,’ Father Grzegorz says. ‘They wouldn’t let him in. Churches, schools, hospitals and streets were named after him in every country, but here we had nothing. I was determined to build a memorial to him, not in stone or bronze, but through deeds.’
A place of refuge
Father Zwolinski devised a plan to house single mothers made destitute during pregnancy—schoolgirls, students or other young women whose first love and sexual experience had ended in personal tragedy.
For these women, options were limited. Boyfriends wanted nothing to do with the baby; fathers threw the ‘whore’ out, friends turned their backs on them, and people pointed at them in the street. Abandoned, they could have the baby and both might end up on the street; they could hand their child over to social services, or have an abortion, and possibly be unable to conceive again.
Many young women only realised they were pregnant when it was too late for a termination. In a terrible state, physically and emotionally, these women would give birth in an attic, a cellar or a toilet at the station and then smother, drown or just abandon the ‘fruit of their love’.
They would then be found, tried for murder and sent to prison, emerging either hardened criminals or broken women, shamed and notorious infanticides.
Father Grzegorz decided to save these women, and offer them a helping hand.
Bethlehem on the Vyatka
‘I applied for a grant twice, once to the president and once to the regional governor,’ Father Grzegorz tells me. ‘But I was turned down both times, so I decided to go public.
‘I was interviewed by a Catholic radio station in Warsaw, and Polish people started sending donations. One of our parishioners here in Kirov gave the parish a flat left to her by her grandmother, and a friend, a local official, found us a building with several rooms to rent for free. We did some repairs, and our “Bethlehem on the Vyatka” centre was in business! God had heard our prayers!’
The centre’s first beneficiary was Vlada, a 16-year-old schoolgirl. She was six months pregnant and the women’s health clinic gave her the number of the centre.
It was the usual story: first love, thoughts of marriage and family life. But Vlada’s boyfriend dumped her as soon as he heard about the baby. Vlada left school, unable to bear the thought of going there with a swollen belly, having to listen to sermons from the teachers, and suffering the sniggering and contemptuous looks of her classmates.
Vlada’s mother, also a single parent, was seriously ill and unable to work, so Vlada didn’t have enough money to feed herself, let alone her unborn child. They couldn’t even afford the rent. There was a danger that both sick mother and pregnant daughter would be thrown out on the street.
‘We bought Vlada food, and clothes and a pram for the baby, and paid off the backlog on the rent,’ says Father Grzegorz. ‘She gave birth to a healthy boy, Nikita, who’s nearly six now.’ Father Grzegorz beams with happiness, as though it were his own child, and tells me another story.
’Nastya, who was 14, started feeling unwell in maths class. She felt nauseous, her stomach hurt and the teachers thought she had food poisoning. They called an ambulance, and it turned out she was pregnant. They sent for the parents, and her father insisted on an immediate abortion. The appointment was made, but Nastya found our number online and phoned. I came for her in my car, afraid that I would be accused of kidnapping a minor. We were hauled in by the police and there was a row with the parents.’
‘Lots of girls would use a baby box if they knew it was safe, anonymous’
Tatyana, 22, is a current resident of the Bethlehem centre. Tatyana grew up in care: her mother abandoned her and her father was in prison.
Tatyana with her daughter Arina.She had been living with a foster family, studying at a technical college. She had a steady boyfriend, a policeman, and hoped they would marry, but when he found out she was pregnant he dumped her and sent her to get an abortion. Tatyana’s foster family couldn’t help: their house had burned down the day before. She found the number for the Bethlehem centre and asked for help.
‘I’d have gone to an Orthodox centre, but I didn’t know there was one. And they’re very strict: you have to go to church, fast, wear a headscarf and a long skirt. Here, nobody forces you to do anything.’
I ask Tanya about something that often worries Russian Orthodox believers: was she being forced to become a Catholic?
Tatyana smiles, stirring a pan on the stove. She’s invited girlfriends and Father Grzegorz for a meal: it’s her daughter Arina’s first birthday.
‘No, what are you talking about?’ Tatyana answers. ‘I’m Orthodox. I’ve always gone to church on Sundays and I’m still going. I’m not planning to change.’
‘How will you live when you leave here?’
‘As an orphan, I have the right to my own flat, and I hope to get one before New Year. Then I’ll get a job. I’m a qualified pastry chef and my dream is to own my own little pastry shop.’
‘And what about love?’
‘Of course, I’d like to meet a nice guy, but he’d have to love my daughter as well. Otherwise, forget it! Of course when I was pregnant and alone, all kinds of things went through my head, and I think that if there was a baby box, then I might have taken my daughter there. So would lots of other girls if they knew it was safe, anonymous, rather than throwing their baby on the roadside or in a ditch.’
‘The window of life’
Father Grzegorz’s other project has been less successful. After an opening ceremony attended by the Papal Nuncio in Russia, the regional deputy governor, senior Department of Health officials and many journalists, his baby box lasted just four days.
‘If Orthodox believers had set it up, there would be no problem,’ muses Father Grzegorz. ‘But it was opened by a Catholic and a foreigner, what they now call a “foreign agent”, so it has caused a huge row.’
‘If the Orthodox had set it up, there would be no problem. But it was opened by a Catholic and a foreigner’
The local legal authorities visited Father Grzegorz a few days after the opening ceremony, demanding the closure of the ‘unlawful and criminal’ contraption.
‘They threatened that if I didn’t close it, they would shut the church down for three months and fine us 100,000 roubles [£970]. I didn’t have much choice. I took it to court, but lost the case. Now I’ve lodged an appeal, but meanwhile the box is standing empty when it could be saving lives’.
The Children’s Ombudsman Pavel Astakhov has also demanded that the box be closed. As Astakhov told a press conference in May: ‘These baby boxes contravene seven child protection laws of the Russian Federation, as well as our Constitution and a UN Convention. In most European states it would be a criminal offence! What is a Papal Nuncio doing there blessing it?’
Astakhov threatend to phone Nikita Belykh, Kirov’s regional governor and former opposition politician, haranguing him for approving the scheme: ‘If you’re so keen, you should put one on every corner: women aren’t going to bother traipsing to the one and only baby box!’ Russia's first baby-box, opened in Sochi in 2012. (c) Mikhail Mokrushin / VisualRIAN. Belykh quickly distanced himself from the controversial initiative. ‘The presence of a senior regional official at the ceremony was nothing to do with the scheme itself,’ he insisted, ‘but the fact that the Papal Nuncio was present. The baby box was installed by the Catholic Church, and involved no public funds. Let the courts rule whether they are legal or not.’
The legality of the scheme has, however, been difficult to determine, as there is no reference to baby boxes in Russian law. So the two sides are left arguing over the interpretation of what laws there are. The opponents of the scheme cite a clause stating that only social services, and not religious organisations, can take responsibility for the ‘discovery and placement’ of children, while its supporters claim that a baby box does not constitute ‘discovery’, but rather the ‘finding’ of a baby, which anyone, even a Catholic, may do.
Unexpectedly, Russia’s Investigative Committee eventually ruled in favour of Father Grzegorz, with Vladimir Markin, the committee’s press officer, stating: ‘in this situation, our main priority is the life of the child. In the Perm region, for example, three “windows of life” have been in operation since 2011 and have saved five babies.’ Markin went on to report that, over 2011-2014, the number of reported infanticides had dropped.
Journalists and rights campaigners estimate that a newborn baby is killed in Russia every two or three days
Only the worst cases are reported
Journalists and rights campaigners estimate that a newborn baby is killed in Russia every two or three days, but only the most horrific cases are reported by the media.
For instance, in November 2012, the body of a baby girl was found with physical injuries on the solid waste dumping site in Kostino, a village in the Kirov region. The police established that her mother, 29, had given birth in the main drain of her block of flats and had thrown the baby against the concrete roof.
In June 2014, a woman gave birth on a table in the snack bar where she worked in Kirov, closing the bar during her lunch break. But a customer waiting for it to re-open heard the baby crying and called the police. The mother denied everything, but a child’s body was later found among the contents of the freezer.
In February 2015, the Investigative Committee reported an incident from the town of Omutinsk near Kirov. After giving birth to a child in a wooden public toilet, a 24-year-old threw the baby into a cess pit.
Murdered infants like these are buried alongside adults in a cemetery for unidentified bodies, without headstones or even names, in a pit for human rubbish.
In the six years since it opened, the Bethlehem centre has saved the lives of 47 babies. But now the baby box is gathering dust in a Catholic parish building, and Father Grzegorz waits for the Kirov court’s decision. He would happily hand the box over to the Orthodox Church or a hospital, but no one is yet to take him up on the offer.
Standfirst: Russia's first baby-box, opened in Sochi in 2012. (c) Mikhail Mokrushin / VisualRIAN.