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Feature Story January 22, 2003
Bleak House
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 3 of 7
Priyuts also have the advantage of being much smaller, holding about 40 beds, compared with the 150 to 200 in most detdoms, which means that kids get more individual attention than they would in the larger institutions. 15- and 16-year-olds who enter a priyut generally can bypass detdoms entirely and enter an uchilsche, or boarding school that teaches a trade of dubious value, such as woodworking or taxidermy. Virtually all the kids are bad students; only a single girl who passed through the Solnyshko went on to graduate from a college, the lowest level of higher education in Russia.

Most kids just stay in a detdom until they turn 18. Of all the detdoms in the oblast, Tishenko only approves of the one in Konstantinov. However, even that one hardly seems ideal. In a letter from Sasha, one of his former pupils now in Konstantinov, she wrote, "They don't worry about whether or not our parents write us or whether or not they have died in this detdom. Here everyone minds his own business. I know that you worried about every kid, while here nobody needs us. Whether kids cry or not is all the same to them." It is decent, Tishenko said, because they feed and clothe the children well and the authorities are not abusive. A letter he read me from a 13-year-old boy in another detdom asked him to send socks and mittens, because the detdom doesn't distribute them to the kids.

According to Olga Kravchenko, the shoulder-padded archetypal Soviet pedagogue who directs the Solnyshko, priyuts technically serve several constituencies; they offer temporary shelter for kids who are having problems at home, and also let parents place their children there during times of financial hardship, in the event of a disaster like a house fire, or if their work prevents them from being able to take care of their kids. Solnyshko even has two North Korean brothers whose parents manage an army of forced laborers logging the taiga. However, such short-term assistance is an afterthought. About 90 percent of the kids at Solnyshko are waiting to be assigned a slot in an orphanage because their alcoholic parents abandoned them. "Our main task is to help bring these kids back into society," Kravchenko said. "Or sometimes introduce them to society for the first time."

Most Russian orphans are not orphans at all; they are victims of this country's raging problem with alcoholism. Their parents are still alive. They're just dead drunk. Kids in the bedroom

For those who have never seen it, it's difficult to comprehend what Tishenko calls the "systematic approach to drinking" of alcoholics out here. It's when people black with grime and soot don't bathe for weeks because they're too drunk to care. Their houses, little more than crooked piles of wooden clapboards, hold absolutely nothing that could fetch more than a couple of rubles. It's all been sold to buy spirit, a cheap, high-octane alcohol. Entire villages live like that, and the local kids get wasted more often than they go to school. It's kids coming from these situations, who have been abandoned by their parents, or found by Social Services, who make up the bulk of those in the orphanage system.

The kids in priyuts range from 3 to 16. If they were abandoned in the maternity ward or any time before the age of three, they spend their early childhood in a dom rebyonka. That is one of the few justifications for splitting up siblings. The Solnyshko currently has one such case. Last April, when Vova was 4 and his sister just six months, their mother left them in the Tynda train station to sell herself. She then used the money from the trick to get drunk and forgot about her children. The militsia only noticed the kids after several hours. They where taken to the local hospital, where they stayed until a place could be found for them. It took eight months before Vova was placed in Solnyshko and his sister was sent to a dom rebyonka in another town. They won't be reunited for two years.

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