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Feature Story January 22, 2003
Bleak House
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 6 of 7
By any reasonable standard, the conditions at the priyut are atrocious. The building, intended as a kindergarten, wasn't meant to be lived in and has made the transition awkwardly. The young group all sleep in one room, while the old group lives eight to a room; there is one shower each for the boys, the girls and the young group; the roof leaks in several places; it's woefully understaffed, with a single psychologist who is only halfway through his studies, for 47 extremely disturbed children; drugs that could help the children cope with their depression, anxiety and ADD are, of course, unavailable; the food, while plentiful, is devoid of any flavor or nutritional content; it's too cold to go outside much of the time, meaning the kids are confined to the overcrowded building; each kid only has three pairs of clothes, all little better than rags; they can't afford toys; for holiday presentations, the kids make their costumes out of discarded candy wrappers. The list just doesn't end.

But by local standards, the Solnyshko has entered a new stage of stability. For the two North Koreans living there, it must seem positively luxurious.

When the priyut first opened on the grounds of the kindergarten, there was virtually no money for a makeover. All the miniature furniture was only gradually phased out, replaced by donations and scavenged items. Back then, there was just enough money for salaries and food, and that only because of donations by foreign charities. While the kids' clothes now are very low quality, at least they can all dress differently. In a photo Tishenko showed me from 1998, there were only about 7 varieties of one-size-fits-all t-shirts for a group of 40 kids.

Starting in 1999, the federal government took notice of the priyut. They now receive enough money to maintain a minimum level of care that only a few years ago seemed unimaginable. Its annual budget of 5 million rubles is provided by the oblast, and that covers the costs of food and clothing, as well as the staff's salaries, which range from 2500 rubles to 4500 rubles. The federal government provides free health care and various pieces of equipment. Last year, for example, it supplied the priyut with two computers and a minibus. Each year, the government covers the cost of several weeks in a summer camp as well.

The federal government also opens a small bank account for every kid in the orphanage system (it can grow to up to 20,000 rubles, depending on how long they were in the system) to help them get on their feet when they turn 18. Theoretically, once parents lose custody of their child, they surrender the right to sell their apartment. However, since most alcoholics have long ago sold their homes in order to buy more booze, upon graduation the kids are put on a list to receive federal housing in the town in which they are registered.

Charity marginally helps fill the huge gap between what the priyut needs and what it can afford. But Chilchi is so isolated that international aid, mostly food and clothes, only trickles in via Blagaveshensk, while local companies couldn't care less about the orphans. Average people from around the region donate what they can, although their means are understandably limited. Solnyshko employees regularly make the rounds at Tynda's market asking for any handouts the stall owners can spare.

Visiting these kids is a truly sobering experience. Their condition is a far more direct and painful evidence of modern Russia's complete degradation and moral bankruptcy than the looting of the country during market reforms, the lack of fundamental rights such as health care and heat, or even the war in Chechnya. Because, while these well-publicized crimes are abstract issues for the people who perpetrate them, the problem of orphans is an intensely personal and individual one. That these kids' parents are alive and have inflicted such cruelty on their own children is mind-numbing. The consensus among the adults at the Solnyshko is that poverty is at the core of Russia's problems, and that alcoholism springs from this poverty. Like America's Indians: destroyed and drunk.

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