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Fedkovo, Pskov region
This is the first Russian village for disabled children, whom volunteers of Rostok NGO take away from orphanages trying to adapt them to normal life.
When I came to work as a volunteer to an orphanage for mentally retarded children in Pskov region, children from the senior group promised to throw me out the window. Considering that I was not much older than they were and was well aware of my physical abilities, for a while I was trying to avoid coming too close to the building. Though, after a month of my work we became good friends. Before I left, the guys gave me some homebrew.
The present was actually very appropriate: after all I have seen I had only one wish — to get drunk. Getting acquainted with people who lived in the lower social depths was one of the strongest experiences in my life, and after hanging around in Moscow, I came back to go on with my volunteering. After I more or less got used to the realities of the children’s orphanage, I faced a new shock — psychoneurogical adult facility (PAF) — the place where the children were sent after they turned 18 y.o. It looks like a big prison, and the only difference between them is not in favor of PAFs. Most of people staying in a prison have all chances to get free sooner or later, though one could only leave a PAF belly up.
Children were afraid of orphanages, were threatening to hang themselves and were running away even if they did not have any place to go. The whole sense of working within the system was lost – what was the difference if one would hang himself with no training or after being trained to count till one hundred? It became clear that the only aid that could be provided to a child in the system was helping him to leave it.
The charity I volunteered for several projects with orphanage leavers: from family accommodation to living in communities. Anyway, I got acquainted with and worked in all of them, and in one year took part in the launch of a new project.
Everything started with a camp: having agreed with a senior group teacher, we took four children away from the orphanage for summer time and settled in a country house. Our tasks included facilitating socialization of the children and learning the countryside household (by the way, I needed it just as much). The children who grew up within the system had an unusual idea of what was life without free food and a laundrywoman. In fall we decided not to take the children back to the orphanage but started to get prepared to the coming winter. Orphanage authorities were not sharing our enthusiasm and tried to wind up the project. Over six months of the holy war with social security department we brought to the village all the mass media we could get — from the Novaya Gazeta Newspaper to the First Channel. Finally, the war ended up with our victory, and a foster care agreement was signed. Now it is my second year in the village of Fedkovo.
Our home saw about 20 children: for one of them we were a holiday place, for others – the last chance to come back home.
Jenya, 18 y.o.
Jenya lived in his family before he turned seven — until his father killed his mother. His two brothers, one sister and he were all taken to four different orphanages. Jenya was the least lucky: while the elder children went to the facilities subordinated to the education department (this department is responsible for all regular and correctional orphanages), Jenya found himself in an orphanage for mentally retarded children at the social security department. Now it is clear that he should not have stayed in such facility, but in 2000 when overdiagnosis was a common place nobody really cared.
In 2000 no education whatsoever was provided in Jenya’s orphanage: the first school opened under pressure of human rights activists appeared in 2008. Before this moment cognitive activities in the orphanage were stimulated only with the Rubik’s Cube in the game room and the heroes of the Sesame Street on TV. If it had not been for classes with staff (which, by the way, were not their direct duty), the purpose of letters would have remained a puzzle for Jenya. Now it takes him efforts to bring together syllables, still it is a significant success on the background of other kids of the orphanage for mentally retarded children, and a real failure, considering his general capabilities.
When Jenya was 14 y.o., he was concerned about sexual issues more than other children. As the majority of orphanage mentors are rural women, who tend to avoid such topics when talking to children, he got all the information from older guys. The information was circulating, overgrowing with details with every person who told him new stories. So this is what we had to sort out when Jenya joined our team.
The orphanage mentors were predicting him a career of sexual maniac but according to the psychiatrist the danger is exaggerated. The source of the boy’s problems is higher than the part of his body that the nurses are afraid of, and is mainly in his tongue. Having no access to a woman’s body, Jenya focuses on women’s brain, analyzing the images appearing in his mind aloud and embarrassing young school teachers.
If Jenya has any serious problem, this problem is in his family or, more exactly, in what remained of it. He still has a warm image of his elder brothers who could protect him. This image gained more selfish tones in the orphanage, and now the boy cannot understand why being free his brothers do not rush to take him with them. Maybe they should really pay a little more attention to their brother than paying visits twice a month, but it is hard to blame them. Life in the first years after leaving an orphanage is hard and the boys have enough problems of their own.
For a long time Jenya had been angry with his father, sometimes the boy started shaking when somebody just mentioned him. At some moment his father was released on parole, and Jenya’s heart seemed to have started melting down. A couple times he even said that he was ready to go home. But it never happened anyway: after being released, the father violated parole conditions and was sent back to serve his sentence. After he heard this news, Jenya harrumphed angrily and said without raising his head from his plate:
— Dash it, that’s what he deserves.
Misha, 21 y.o.
When Misha came to Fedkovo, he was already an adult, so we had to busy ourselves a lot to take him away from the social security department. He was taken away from his family early, and was first put into a correctional orphanage, and later – to an orphanage for mentally retarded children. The boy has never been to school, and it is a secret how he learned to read, write, and count. When he was 18, he found himself in a PAF and started to get prepared to an independent life – systematically, just as the hero of the Showshank Redemption. He worked in the village, and in summer helped us in the volunteer camp and in Fedkovo.
This fall we decided to keep Misha at our place to organize a start-up called “Independent Life”. The orphanage director did not appreciate our enthusiasm and made it clear that she will advocate against his dismissal. I was listening to her and felt like I was in a theater of the absurd: a PAF is a facility providing services to a certain category of citizens. The right to waive such services is as valid as the right to use them. For Misha, who grew up in an orphanage, where self-willed escape was a reason to get treated in a mental hospital for about a month, it was hard to believe it, but one could expect that the director would be more adequate. Imagine that you give your coat to a dry cleaner’s and then get a response that you will be able to get it back only with consent of the director, and the inspection will be claiming for your coat to remain in the washing machine forever. The example may be cynical but it reflects what was happening.
Trying to figure out what the reason for the director’s stubbornness was, I came to a conclusion that the facility was interested in the number of its residents, directly associated with funding. But this theory was broken as soon as I found out that there were three people waiting to take Misha’s place. The truth was revealed in one of our evening talks when Misha prosily told us that he regularly carried bodies of the old people who passed away out the facility and dug graves more than once. PAFs are interested in young and quick-witted guys whom they can delegate part of the “household” duties. I surely do understand that there are many problems in the social security facilities, and, just as Misha, I actually do not object. But I do object to evaluating Misha as cost-effective workforce, forgetting about his own life and his future.
Honestly, I did all I could trying to get through to the director and find a proper way out, but after realizing that good manners were not appreciated here, I came to the orphanage, helped Misha to pack and tool him to Fedkovo, ignoring the director’s prohibitions.
Sergey, 17 y.o.
This is probably our most troublesome child. Moderate mental retardation, morbid tendency to stealing things, enuresis and light autism are combined with serious deformation of personality, caused by ten-year trip to the bottom of the social security system. The only Sergey’s salvation is his natural charisma, kind heart and love to small children, as I see no other explanation of why we still fussing over him.
The life of this boy is a non-stop bad trip. Sometimes it seems that he is acting like a person stoned with LSD for years until his high transforms into senile imbecility. Often it is a big trouble to get a response from Sergey to the simplest requests: for instance, to stop hiding his wetted bed sheets to the wardrobe. But when he makes his excuses for a hatch cover taken to a drop-off point, his mind builds such phantasmagoric constructions which could never be born in a man of sober mind.
When clever people argue on what educational program is needed for orphans from the point of view of social adaptation, Sergey and I go to have a smoke, as we are safe from it. The boy’s prospects are actually very limited: writing and counting make the same sense for him as quantum mechanics, and imbecility taking 7 years from the biological age, defines his real age according to which he is 10. All that Sergey may be proud of is his inner self making progress irrespective of degradation of everything else. His readiness to work and kind heart which are hidden so deep inside that even weather is not able to change them (it is actually a commonplace among our guys) make him the favorite boy of all volunteers. It is especially true for girls: they cannot stop loving him even knowing that 15 minutes ago he was stealing change from everybody’s coats.
Just as any other child, Sergey loves his mother. As for his mother, she loves to have a pull at the bottle: ten years ago trusteeship authorities made a decision that Sergey is hardly within the scope of her interests and dispensed her from her maternal duties. In many years she had never found time to pay a visit to her son, so when he entered our project, we decided to organize a small family reunion.
All the way home Sergey was squeezing my hand, asking not to leave him face-to-face with his mother. But as soon as he saw his mom, he recognized her and gave her a hug, irrespective of the fact that the years of hard drinking left their trace in the woman. Just a couple of minutes were enough for Sergey to stop squeezing my hand and join his mother. It was amazing — I was standing there and looking at the boy full of love to his mom. Not to us, who took him away from the orphanage, were tolerating his stealing and wetted sheets, but to this woman – lost in drinking, helpless, messing up the dates of birth of her five children. He was standing there and adoring her. I have seen it earlier in regular orphanages: many children go back to their mothers to straighten them out for the rest of their lives. I know that Sergey is also secretly developing this plan — and now just try to imagine how we have to fly round the boy to show him the prospects of such deed.
In today’s realities Sergey and thousands of children like him form the basis of activities of three government wheels: social security, psychiatry, and police. Orphanages from the early childhood form the ideals of stealing and betrayal, but refer all their manifestations to the issues of psychiatry. Psychiatry, in its turn, thanks to orphanage-based upbringing has a guaranteed number of beds to be taken as well as funding to be provided. And the police, brilliantly solving crimes committed by oligophrenic patients, improves its statistics, which is worsened by smarter criminals. The court determines them insane; they are sent for mandatory treatment and then come back to social security facilities.
Experience has shown, that this circle may be repeated again and again year after year: it may be stopped either by compassionate relatives, or with a piece of soap and a rope in a wardrobe.
Volodya, 21 y.o.
Volodya is a paradigmatic example of punitive psychiatry — a typical story of a healthy child thrown to a madhouse. In 1998 Volodya found himself in the street: the eight-year-old boy was left by his mother while she was moving from Pskov to Novosibirsk, in a cross walk next to three railway stations. He lived in the railway station for about a month, and then policemen caught him to send the boy to a detention center for juvenile offenders. From the center he was taken to Pskov homeless facility and from that facility – to a boarding school.
In the very first night there was a “party” to “honor” the newcomer, which ended up in two broken ribs and a visit to a hospital. That night gave a start to four years of survival in the orphanage system. The epic ended up as soon as our hero as he said got “his own penknife and his own ration of bread which nobody was taking away from him”. As for what happened next, we discussed it with Volodya in our philosophic talks; I wanted to understand why he didn’t satisfy himself with what he had and went further.
— You see, if I would have just remained in that position, sooner or later someone else would have appeared who would bully me again. So it was more reasonable to become a bully myself.
As he said, the roles in children’s community are clearly defined and closely interrelated. There are no outsiders or those who are not inside the system while physically being there. Everybody is involved into the process, including mentors, who ensure the order in their shift and protection against administration’s reprimands, buying most authoritative leaders of the orphanage with cigarettes and money. At the end, Volodya kicked everybody’s asses (including the master of his group).
But living in an orphanage, even at the top, is a questionable joy. Volodya went on the run regularly, which resulted in him being caught and “treated” against his misbehavior in a mental clinic. When the quantity of his visits to the clinic reached the lucky number of seven, he was “awarded” with a diagnosis. Depriving him of an opportunity to graduate from the 9th grade and get a certificate, the newly-qualified “oligophrenic patient” was sent to an orphanage for mentally retarded children.
That was where I found him: the local “celebrity”, deliberately working on Sudoku puzzles. He is a good example of how a certain category of children fall out the system and to the deepest bottom. And it does not matter which children we are talking about — retarded as Sergey or tetchy as Volodya.
After leaving the orphanage, Volodya settled in our house for orphanage graduates. After his diagnosis was cancelled, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he worked at a construction site. After coming back to the village this summer, he helped us in the camp. In the evening we used a voice recorder and a bottle of vodka to carry out an in-depth interview and reproduce the events of his life in details since his homeless living at the three railroad stations. The interview was published in blogs and on the BBC site, and attracted attention of people who helped him to find a job in Moscow, to ensure training as well as allowance. By the way, this is my only story which had to be approved by its character.
Petya, 15 y.o.
Petya would have been a normal child if mother did not try to abort him. This fact from his biography was told us by his grandmother, who cried while telling us in details what her daughter-in-law injected in her legs and rubbed into her stomach. But actually Petya is the lucky one — he has got a sister, whom their mother almost managed to abort. I say “almost” because the girl is currently staying at the same orphanage where we found Petya. The boy lived with his grandmother till he turned 13 — the old Gipsy was supporting him and his sister with all her might. But finally her might was over, the children’s father went to prison, and she gave up.
A homegrown child is easily recognized in an orphanage: he’s got his own habits, manners, talks, and reactions. In the beginning his individuality, which is a real luxury in an orphanage, is clearly seen. Of course, such peculiarities do not mean anything good for such child: he will have to either change, or be crabbed by others. Petya was one of those children. I think we managed to take him out the system just in time, and the social security service was not able to burn the rest of human features out him.
Petya represents the concept of Vygotsky stating that to develop a child it is more reasonable to make an emphasis on his personal strengths which will pull the other sides over time. Petya’s strong point is his physical strength: he is good in sports. Once we took him to a karate class: just in three months, Petya came back from a junior competition with a silver medal. A district newspaper published news on this event, but reaction of the orphanage was extremely negative. The head of educational activities threw tantrums as she was sure that after mastering martial art, Petya will go to a street market to steal mobile telephones. So we had to forget our idea — even recommendations of the trainer who held a karate class at the orphanage did not help. When the boy attended the class three times a week, he was joyful, focused and attentive to his own behavior. When the classes were over, he started smoking, ignoring everybody at school, became angry and irritable. We came back to the gym and agreed to have classes with certain limitations on sparring and competitions. We haven’t informed the orphanage so far — let them read about it in papers again.
Petya spends his school year in Fedkovo, and holidays – at his aunt’s place in Pskov. A funny feature of the boy is talking about himself in third person calling himself Petya-Batya (from Petya Batkovych, which is a form of address to someone without naming such person’s patronymic). He likes to talk a lot, on business and in vain. It is especially amusing considering his pronunciation problems. Just a year ago you could hardly understand more than one third of what he was saying. But today, after long battles with a speech therapist, this percent is twice bigger.
Slava Rutkovsky, 13 y.o.
Slava was the first child in whose life I took an active part up to dividing legal responsibility for his life with the orphanage. He was 10 and he was a real limb of the devil for all the orphanage workers. The sound of his family name – Rutkovsky – made directors of other orphanages wince like a lash. When he was sent to a mental clinic, his mentors could relax, and when he came back – they fell in depression. Although, he did not stay there long: the boy spent 10 month a year receiving mandatory treatment.
A standard abstract of Slava’s medical record: “Conscious, gives brief answers to questions, screams, swears, can be hardly kept in one place. Oriented well enough. Complaints: “I’m fed up... They beat me... I’ll get them”. Mood unstable, dysphoric, easily affected. No critic to the state; but referral data are partially confirmed: “I fight... will fight”. Does not show active suicide attempts, thought there is an alert of escape”.
We felt very pity for Slava: when we got acquainted, he was prescribed a doze of antipsychotic drugs which could blow down a couple of strong men. We started taking him to the house for orphanage leavers at weekends. At home Slava was behaving quite well: he was learning to cope with household duties, helped us in the garden. I wouldn’t say that everything was perfect: a couple times Volodya and I even had to whip him when he was caught smoking or stealing things, but it was all within the model of behavior of a problem child.
There was just one issue: as soon as Slava went back to the orphanage, he started terrorizing everybody and misbehaving again. Other children were adding fuel to the fire – they knew we took him home and were provoking his hysterical behavior. Mentors were crossing the line as well: e.g., one of the reports on him was written by a nurse after the boy wiped her eye. When I started to sort the matter out, it turned out that the problem was not only in Slava: the boy wanted to take his shower himself but the nurse was not listening to him and started to clean him forcefully. Without pausing to think, Slava grabbed a bowl and threw it into her head, this accident being the reason of the new report. But it is difficult to say that it was a psychosis display. After I realized that Slava should be taken out the system, I shared this idea at the orphanage. The administration started hesitating who actually had more problems with his head out of the two of us, though the commission on health care and education gave us its consent with a comment: “anyway, it is not possible to make Rutkovsky worse than he already is”.
Now you probably expect that I will tell some beautiful story of a sudden change of personality, but what happened next in fact lacks any beauty which a man from the street would understand: there was a series of hysterics, scandals, and psychological agonies. One and a half years were needed to take most of the orphanage rubbish out the boy’s head and bring him to senses. Now Slava lives in a family and comes to visit me at the weekends. He looks and behaves as an ordinary teenager but even if he tries hard he won’t be able to become nothing out of the ordinary. From time to time he can blurt something out, e.g. how they tie patients up in the mental clinic, and such remarks make adults feel shocked and his not-so-experienced peers respect him.
Slava Panov, 21 y.o.
All Slava’s conscious and part of unconscious life was spent in orphanages. Slava was beaten hard; they also did to him many things he asked me not to tell anybody. He was a regular patient of the mental clinic. When the boy turned 18, he was transferred to PAF, the toughest in the region — for 400 beds. Before leaving, he told me that he was most likely going to hang himself. Then I called him a couple times to make sure he was alive. Slava answered and sounded pretty cheerful, so I focused on my own business and he got lost in my memory.
This year in spring I happened to be at the orphanage where Panov was sent, so I asked the administration to allow me paying a visit to him. The doctor answered that he was staying in an isolation ward because of a broken door. Nevertheless, he was not only let away from the Intensive Care Unity to see us but was even allowed to go outside for a walk. While walking, we were talking about his life. I could see that the despair which he felt two years before did not go away. Three days after I came back, signed a paper and took him to Fedkovo.
Slava started living with us. It was interesting to see the contrast between him and the guys from Fedkovo. Our boys were used to living “at home” and Slava was a kid of social security system, who was just smiling, listening to them discussing their lives and future plans. I knew that Slava was telling them about his life in the PAF, maybe even the facts he kept secret from me. I was sure that our guys were quite impressed with his stories.
Slava smoothly entered our life. He regularly met psychologists, whose comments were very positive. Everything was logical and clear apart from one thing: Slava perceived everything with striking clarity. It made me feel uneasy. Our airheads always had some fantasies, dreams and ambitions, but Slava was lacking all of the above. He reminded something average between a man of faith who found enlightenment and an artificial brain living within his logical cause-effect relations.
Two months passed and Slava went back to the orphanage. It was his choice. This decision which could seem unexpected at the first sight was actually very predictable. 16 out of Slava’s 20 years were spent within the social security system. The norm of his life was a loony house, and the normal life outside the system seemed like a mad plan which most of people are involved in. In his case social adaptation reminds a try to make gold out of lead – modern technologies allow making it real but the costs are inadequate to the outcome.
Once Slava asked us: “Where have you been before with your rehabilitation, when I was smaller?” Sure, this question was not addressed to us, and in fact it was not a question – one could never find its real addressee. But this simple-hearted remark shows that Slava could see what we were doing. His leave demonstrates that Slava could feel he was redundant in our life as he was not able to come close to the ideas we were all sharing.
He understood this issue so well inside, that we could talk freely about it. The only moment that was not discussed was the understanding that his deformation was acquired. Slava was not a fool not to see that it was a gift that was given to him by the system and he had no option of saying “no”. And now this baggage turned to be a part of Slava, so in general it is easier for him to live as a piece of lead instead of trying to find his way to turn into a golden pendant.
Editor’s comments. Every holidays Rostok organizes a small camp for children from specialized orphanages (correctional, psychoneurological, and adult facilities). For many of them it is the only opportunity to escape from the system, go visit their relatives or their brothers in other orphanages. Money and people are needed to organize the camp. If you are ready to help, e-mail email@example.com or call Yulia Kurchanova in Moscow +7 916 453 1390.
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