Dima's eyes lit up when he first saw the Solnyshko orphanage's toy collection two months ago. He had never seen anything like it. It took me a few moments of staring at the same collection last week for it to register that the pile of ratty animals with ears worn from having been sucked on by untold numbers of orphans could cause such joy. But then, I'm not a three-year-old who used to survive by rooting around trash heaps looking for something to eat. Dima is.
He was brought to the Solnyshko with his older brother and sister from a small village after neighbors alerted the militsia that the kids were being neglected. Neglected in this case meant living in an abandoned wagon without running water and scavenging for food because his parents were too always too drunk to feed him. He had never seen a toy before and suffered from severe malnutrition.
Horrible as it sounds, Dima's story doesn't raise eyebrows among his peers at the orphanage. According to Stanislav Tishenko, the Solnyshko's lone psychologist, "For these children, that's just life."
Tishenko, a large, soft spoken man in his early 30s, knows the story of every child who has passed through the Solnyshko, and told me dozens of them. While he was reciting what some of these kids have lived through, I saw a Russian man cry for the first time in more than four years living here.
Masha, who spent a year at Solnyshko, was also three when her alcoholic mother ditched her in Tynda's train station. After some time alone, a drunken couple noticed the terrified little girl and brought Masha back to their apartment. They soon lost interest in their acquisition, though, and continued their drinking binge. They finally passed out, at which point their 14-year-old son raped Masha repeatedly. By the time the parents woke up, blood was pouring down both Masha's legs and she was in critical condition. So they sneaked her out to the street and left her to die. A chance passerby rushed Masha to the hospital. Surgeons were helicoptered in from Blagaveshensk to save her life. Masha is now nine years old, infertile and believes that Baba Yaga did all those horrible things to her.
At the age of seven, Yasya was put in Solnyshko because his mother killed his father when she found out he was cheating on her. Due to the extenuating circumstances, she got a relatively light sentence. She seemed genuinely regretful and, while in prison, wrote long, loving letters to Yasya. The staff at Solnyshko encouraged the boy to think of her release as his salvation. But once she got out, she disappeared without a trace. Several months later she finally picked him up. Three days after their reunion, she murdered a woman in front of Yasya. He was placed back in Solnyshko and, as the only witness to the crime, made to testify against her. During the trial, while locked in a cage full of prisoners awaiting conviction, his mother saw him and swore she would kill him, her only son.
Four preteen siblings came to Solnyshko after having spent nearly two months living with their mother and the corpse of their father, who had been axed by mom during a drunken rampage. He didn't rot, because the apartment had no heating, and the kids were only found after the neighbors alerted the militsia that they hadn't heard from them in a long time. The youngest girl didn't talk for months afterwards.
Those are all real stories from the last few years at the Solnyshko. Tishenko has an equally tragic and revolting history for just about every one of the some 400 kids who have passed through the orphanage's doors since it opened in 1995. They arrive at the Solnyshko malnourished and sick, having recently been seized by Social Services from abusive, drunken parents who often resist giving up their children. Most have varying degrees of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Many of them have had to beg or steal to feed themselves. Some haven't been to school in months, while others never have. They show up in t-shirts in the winter, because their parents pawned their clothing and everything else of any worth for alcohol. It's up to Tishenko and the rest of the staff to try to impart enough strength and know-how to prevent them from following in their parents' footsteps.