Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, about 371,700 children are growing up in state institutions, according to figures that the Russian government presented to the United Nations in 2011.
Russia’s orphan population is as large as that of some of its provincial cities. And along with other former communist countries, it has one of the highest rates in the world.
Only 30 percent of these “orphans” have no parents. Many fall into the system when their parents, often fighting a losing battle with alcohol or drugs, are denied their parental rights or give up their child.
Almost half in this “orphan city” have disabilities or special needs, and their parents are encouraged to send them to an institution.
In 2006, then-President Vladimir Putin ordered officials to cut the number of children living in institutions, delivering a speech that evoked unease about population decline and foreigners adopting Russian children.
As Putin prepares to return to the presidency, the birth rate has started to creep up, but the number of children in institutions remains stubbornly high.
Critics argue that Putin’s order ran aground because special interests are stifling reform.
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“I think that [the system] is very profitable for bureaucrats,” said Maria Ostrovskaya, director of the St. Petersburg-based children’s charity Perspektivy, which supports children and adults with disabilities.
Money flows into repairing and decorating buildings, but children’s quality of life has hardly changed in the 15 years she has worked in the sector.
“If you go into an institution today, you will not see leaking ceilings, torn linoleum and broken beds,” Ostrovskaya said. “Everything will be very nice: nice bed linens, repaired accommodations.”
But children cannot play outside, and the system is not designed around their needs, she said.
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Russia’s Soviet-era orphanages may have been patched up since the crisis years of the early 1990s, but they continue to stunt children’s development.
“The physical conditions are so much better; there is no way to compare it with ’90s,” said Svyatoslav Dovbyna, a pediatric neurologist and co-founder of St. Petersburg Early Intervention Institute, which supports disabled children living at home. “Now you can see the flat-screen TVs, the carpets that the corporate donors have paid for. But the psychological environment has not really changed.”
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