A foreigner's insight into a Russian orphanage
"I'll come back later to pick up these toys and put them in my room. These are educational toys and they can only play with them under my supervision." said the orphanage director as we left the room.
"The defectologist led the foreigners along the corridors and up a flight of stone stairs with a cold, brown-painted handrail on a steel rods. At the top of the stairs was a furnished area, with a carpet, red plastic sofas and an anaemic-looking plant on a stand. No one was sitting there and there was still no sign of any children. At last they came to a heavy door marked GROUP 3. Inside, a dozen boys and girls aged four and five were milling around. They were dressed in ill-matched clothes from the communal cupboard, wearing tights of fawn or faded blue. One girl stood out:, clearly the staff favourite, she was wearing a polka-dot dress with a big white bow in her hair, and walking around clutching a doll. Sarah noticed that some of the children had rashes on their faces and the boys had bruises and scratches.
A lone carer in a white coat was sitting at a desk, her back to the children, writing in a notebook.
There was a playhouse and some moulded plastic animals scattered on the floor. More interesting toys were displayed in a glass cabinet. They were clearly just for show. One boy was hitting another with an indeterminate bit of plastic. the carer raised her eyes from the desk, twisted her head over ther shoulder and shouted to the boy, 'Stop that.' She did not say greet the visitors.
The children gathered around the foreigners, slipping their hands into the bags they were carrying, saying, 'Give me, give me.'
As the children scrambled for Louisa's biscuits, the defectologist made a sweeping gesture to include every child in the room and said: 'They are oligophrenics, all of them.'
Sarah asked her what the word meant. 'You know, mentally retarded,' she said. She pointed to a mixed-race girl in a tartan shift. 'Take that one, for example. Her mother's a drug addict and her father's gone back to Cuba. The grandmother used to visit, but not even she comes any more. She could be dead, for all we know.'
The girl's face crumpled as she heard these shocking words, but the defectologist did not appear to notice. She pointed to a boy in a purple shirt and pink shorts. 'We've had him since birth. He was found at the railway station. His mother gave birth in Moscow and then disappeared back to Latvia. And this one - his mother lives in an internat. She got pregnant by the janitor.'
In the months to come, as Sarah visited more and more baby houses, she learned that this heartless attitude towards the children was the norm. But on that December day, the defectologist's callous words made an indelible impression. 'I could not believe she was discussing the children as if they couldn't hear her or were too stupid to understand. she had such a pleasant and motherly faced, but she seemed to have lost all her maternal instincts when it came to the children in her care. The message I got was that these children were all cursed at birth and would never overcome their flawed origins.
'I picked up a little girl. she had short hair, cut in an unflattering style. I sat her on my knee and gave her a Duplo horse and rider. I expected the sweet smell of my own daughter, who was the same age. but instead there was a strong whiff of dirty child, unwashed clothes and neglect. '
Extract from The Boy from Baby Home No. 10 - How one child escaped the nightmare of a Russian orphanage by Alan Philips & John Lahutsky 2010 ISBN 978 0 297 85893 5
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