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Feature Story January 22, 2003
Bleak House
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 4 of 7
Even that's not guaranteed, since children who live in a dom rebyonka often develop some signs of retardation due to a lack of individual attention in their early childhood. This then leads to them getting assigned to special homes for debili, homes for the mentally retarded. The debili are the most notorious of Russia's orphanages. Even the name for such institutions, psychoneurologicheskye internaty, has a sinister ring.

These dungeons, which according to Human Rights Watch sometimes imprison kids for conditions as curable as a clubfoot or innocuous as mild Down's syndrome, continue the Soviet tradition of treating disabled people like lepers. If you've heard stories of children being forced to strip in front of peers, left in unheated rooms as punishment, or forced to stand naked in front of an open window in winter, chances are they were taken from one of these debili homes.

The kids at the Solnyshko are lucky in that the staff are sincerely devoted to helping them, which is by no means a given in Russian orphanages. But the range of problems is so staggering, and the staff has only a relatively brief period in which to gain their trust and help prepare them for a hostile future, that Tishenko says that no more than 30 percent will be able to escape the vicious circle of alcoholism and live relatively normal lives. A great sense of urgency hangs over their work at the Solnyshko, because everybody knows that most of the children won't find another sanctuary like it ever again. "Often, just when we start making progress with a child, he'll be sent to a detdom," said Kravchenko.

When a kid arrives at the Solnyshko, the first thing the staff does is ask if he's hungry. According to Kravchenkothey, they almost invariably are, even when they are coming from another state institution. "It's important to establish that we are concerned about their feelings immediately," she said. "By letting them understand that we know they are hungry, we can establish some trust." The kid is then washed, clothed and given a medical check-up. Generally, new arrivals are kept in quarantine for several days before they join the main group.

At first, most kids like the priyut. They are fed as much as they want five times a day, there are kids like them to hang out with, adults pay attention to them, and they don't have to worry about basic questions of survival. Still, it is difficult for them to adjust to the strict regime. Used to the freedom that is associated with neglect, chores seem to them an unfair burden.

Gradually, most come to realize intuitively that having responsibilities implies that they are needed. The staff trusts the kids, even those who had formerly been pickpockets. It also undoubtedly helps that there really isn't much to steal. Tishenko thinks that providing expectations for a kid who has never had anyone trust him with responsibility is at least as effective as one-on-one therapy in helping him adjust to life at the priyut.

One of the most difficult aspects of life for the children is dealing with their perceived rejection by their parents. "Even in cases where their parents beat them [about a third of all the orphans], the kids still love them," Tishenko said. "Still more interesting is that the children want to save their parents, cure them of alcoholism."

Tishenko encourages this sentiment, and never advises a kid to make a break with his parents. This strategy sometimes backfires, as with Yasya, the kid who saw his mother murder a woman. In another tragedy, a 14-year-old boy ran away from the priyut to be with his mother. He found her drunk and, when she told him to fuck off, he stabbed her to death. But Tishenko believes that the hope of someday supporting and reforming their parents gives most of the kids something to cling to.

At the same time, Tishenko tries to separate the kid's sense of self-worth from his relationship with his parents. Even parents who are generally good about writing often slip into zapoi, or a Russian-style drinking binge, and completely forget about their children's very existence. It is devastating for the kids.

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