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Feature Story January 22, 2003
Bleak House
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 2 of 7
The Solnyshko is in Chilchi, about five hours northeast of Tynda. It is one of the unrealized towns along the BAM that withered along with the rest of the magistrate. Some 5000 people lived in wagons during the construction of the town, but then the funding dried up and the project halted. Only three five-story apartment buildings, a school, a kindergarten, an impressive station and one street (ulitsa Lenina) were ever built. The population has dwindled to 500. Less than a mile out of Chilchi, an eerie ghost town composed of wagons long since looted for their valuable parts is slowly fading into the taiga.

Just as most people were shipping out, a smaller second wave of Slavic settlers arrived to escape rising nationalism in Central Asia. They chose Chilchi because moving to such an undesirable place was one of the few ways to insure that they would get an apartment and citizenship in Russia. Among the new arrivals were several pedagogues.

However, with the steep drop in population, there was no reason to maintain a kindergarten. Over the same period, between 1992 and 1995, the orphanage system throughout Russia was in a profound crisis. The number of children without parental care nearly doubled to 113,000 new cases annually. It has since stabilized at around that staggering number.

In 1995, the kindergarten was hastily converted into the Solnyshko, an orphanage to serve the four northeastern-most regions of the Amurskaya oblast.

There are several advantages in having an orphanage in Chilchi, the most obvious being that there's nowhere to run away to because it's in the middle of the taiga. The tight-knit community - there are only two stores - also means that the kids can't buy alcohol anywhere or get away with skipping school. And, since these kids make up nearly half the student body at the school, they are well integrated and teachers know that they often require special care. There's also a tacit understanding that without the Solnyshko and the 40 jobs it brings to Chilchi, the town would have been shuttered up long ago.

The Solnyshko is actually a priyut, which means that it functions as a stopgap to inject kids into the ridiculously overcrowded and dilapidated Russian orphanage system. Priyuts are a relatively new measure, born in the 90s. But even after their advent, the system is so strained by the influx of abandoned children in recent years that kids often have to spend several months living in the children's ward of a hospital before space in a priyut frees up. The system remains a complete mess, stranded somewhere between dated Soviet and more progressive methods. It has no cohesive ideology and barely enough funding to survive, let alone consider undertaking serious reform. What awaits a kid caught in the system depends on the management of the individual home.

In the Amurskaya oblast there are eight priyuts, each serving one or several regions. After living in a priyut for about six months to a year, depending on when a space becomes available, kids are then transferred into one of 20 detdoms, or long-term orphanages, throughout the oblast. Siblings are kept together.

According to Tishenko, priyuts tend to be more humane than other Russian orphanages, as they only started opening in the mid-90s and their directors tend to know at least a modicum of current child-rearing theories. Tishenko himself began working at the priyut in 1996 without any experience in child psychology. He is now in his third year in a correspondence program with a Moscow university for a degree in psychology (which he pays for himself). He is the Solnyshko's only trained professional.

Male pedagogues are quite rare in Russia, but Tishenko has an intensely personal reason for picking his profession. He spent four years of his childhood living in a mammoth Soviet detdom. He now often comforts the kids at the Solnyshko by telling horror stories from back then. The kids immediately pick up on his empathy, and often trust him more than any other authority figure in their lives.

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